Archive for January, 2012

Whoa everybody! Let’s just step back a sec and take a deep breath.

The US Department of Agriculture revised its zone hardiness map for the first time since 1990. Our area’s “promotion” into Zone 6 from Zone 5 has brought some here to the brink of hysteria.

“Welcome to the warmer zone” reads the headline today in the Kansas City Star. “Gardeners, rejoice! New planting guide map opens up more choices of plants that usually thrive farther south.”

The story gets front page treatment and is illustrated with beautiful sprigs of crepe myrtle in all their pink-hued glory.

But let’s fight off the urge to run to the nearest garden center and take a hard look at what that really means.

The facts: The USDA Zone Hardiness map is mainly a guide for figuring out what plants can survive in the ground outside through the average winter. So it focuses on the coldest average winter lows. Our former designation in Zone 5 had the coldest expected lows at  minus 10 to minus 20. The new Zone 6 raises the expected low temperatures to zero to minus 10.

That change isn’t really news to anyone who has been watching the weather. It’s been 20 below maybe two or three times since we’ve lived here. In fact, any below-zero temperature draws a lot of attention, it’s so rare.

And–news flash–people have been trying and sometimes succeeding with Southern plants here for years. We’ve all seen the crepe myrtle, rhododendrons and the odd magnolia trees. The new zone map won’t make them any less difficult to grow here. It will take years of global warming to do that. Possibly. True, local nurseries may start carrying a few more warm weather varieties, but they’ve always been available from catalogs for anyone brave (or foolish) enough to try them.

Here are a couple of reasons for caution, before you begin digging the hole for that banana tree:

1.The Hardiness Zones are a one-dimensional guide for planting. But plants have a lot of other needs. Humidity, rainfall, shade, wind protection, soil pH. The west Texas panhandle and northern Alabama are both in Zone 7, but that doesn’t mean you can grow the same things equally well in both places.

Azaleas, for instance, will not stop needing moisture in the winter, no matter what zone they’re in. So growing them here is always going to be trickier than it would be in Virginia. A new zone designation won’t really change that.

And let’s not forget summer and spring highs. Tender berries and spinach don’t much like to see 90 degrees in May, and tomatoes won’t set fruit much past 90 either, as was well proved during last summer’s oppressive heat.

2.Snow matters, too. Snow cover actually insulates root systems against the extremes of cold. A mild winter with little snow followed by a cold snap can do more damage than predictably cold and snowy winters. Mild weather also encourages budding. And the zone change doesn’t mean there won’t be freakish cold snaps that will kill flowers and fruit. It was only five or six years ago that we had several nights of below zero in April.

3. Warm winters are not such good news for some plants that have grown well here in the past. What you gain in Southern flowering shrubs on one hand, you may lose in fruit trees on the other.

Apples come to mind. There’s a reason you don’t hear of massive apple orchards in the Bahamas. That’s because apples and other fruit trees need cold winter weather to promote spring growth. If they don’t get it, budding and fruiting will be weak. (Look here for more on fruit trees.)

4.I looked, but couldn’t find a comparable map for insect winter survival. (Hint, hint, USDA). But it only stands to reason that if different plants can now survive Kansas City winters, then different bugs will be landing here soon. Insects have special affinities for certain plants, and when those plants move north, you can expect to see the bugs come with them.

Fire ants, anyone?

Ok, ok. Get excited about the new zone map if you really must. It’s a great dream, I’ll concede that much. But Kansas City will always be Kansas City, no matter what the USDA says.

Posted by: Roxie



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I was an early adopter of online shopping. When I Christmas shopped on the Internet for the first time, it was still new enough and messed up enough that I got $100 back from one toy purveyor because they were unprepared for so many Internet customers.

Same goes for garden catalogs. My first experience with seed catalog shopping on line was disastrous. The sites were hard to navigate and you couldn’t find anything easily. Then, when I had to call wondering where my order was, I was told that on-line orders actually take longer than if I’d sent it off at the post office.

That was years ago. I never touched another garden catalog web site, because I felt I just couldn’t risk it. You need your seeds and plants to get delivered on time. Nothing is so frustrating as a late order for things that need to be planted by a certain time.

Last year, though, it was my paper-and-pencil order that took forever. So this year, I decided to give on-line garden shopping another try.

And what a difference! I usually order from different catalogs each year, depending on what I need and price. This year I concentrated most of my ordering from R.H. Shumway.

This is a company whose paper catalog looks like it was mailed to you from the 1930s. It’s got gorgeous color illustrations of vegetables on the front cover suitable for decoupaging. Inside is plain paper stock that resembles newsprint, complete with old-timey font for the varieties. And line drawings of the veggies. In black and white. No photos anywhere. It practically screams Grampa!

But I’m telling you, they had the slickest, easiest to use web ordering site I’ve ever seen. Better than Amazon. Someone should get an award for it. Who would have guessed?

It’s easy and logical. Vegetable seeds are alphabetical. Then you choose what you want–beans, for example. Then you choose a sub category, bush beans for instance. And then up pops all the varieties of bush string beans.

That probably doesn’t seem like such a big deal until you try it on another catalog, like Park Seeds (where I also put in a smaller order of things Shumway didn’t have). At Park, the categories are bigger and you spend much more time just scrolling through the pictures.

Best of all, the Shumway site had a little box that totals your order as you go. It’s always visible. You don’t have to go off to another page or start the check-out process to keep track. And when you’re done, they give you a printout listing everything you ordered that’s easy to read and print.

One drawback to online ordering hasn’t changed, though. There’s still no button to click for “no substitutions.” Instead, a customer service rep advised me to write it in the box for gift messages, which I did at both Shumway and Park.

I called back the next day just to be sure they got the message. Shumway said it was noted. And Park?

“No substitutions comes up automatically on everything you order,” the customer service rep told me.

I guess all those years of frowny faces on the paper orders made an impression.

Posted by: Roxie


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Happy Martin Luther King Day. The official start of gardening season 2012!

Well, maybe it isn’t for some people. Maybe there are a few early birds out there saying Hah! I already have my garden planned and the seed and plant order sent in. To these people, I doff my straw sun hat and click the heels of my heavy-duty boots.

I just find it convenient to use holidays as a gardening deadline calendar. St. Patrick’s Day is peas, potatoes and onions, Palm Sunday is spinach and perhaps beets and carrots, Mother’s Day is corn, cukes and squash.

And Martin Luther King Day is seed ordering time. Roughly.

I’ve spent the past two days deep under the catalogs, past ordering records and grid paper because 2012 promises to be a major change year for our garden.

You can’t really start a new gardening year without looking at what went wrong last year and what you need to change. And whoa…last year had plenty that needs fixing.

For instance, last year I came to the painful decision that the strawberries have been in the same location too long. I’ve done everything possible–pulled out older plants, added new soil, added new plants. But the bed barely gave us enough for breakfast berries last year.

So this spring, we’re adding 1-2 feet across the front, short end of the garden and starting with fresh strawberry plants. That will mean more work for Mike: Digging out the sod, changing the fencing. But instead of putting the old bed back to lawn, we’ll use it for another crop. Perhaps green beans.

Last year’s extreme heat was also horrible for tomatoes, and as a result, my pantry inventory of tomato products is shockingly low. So this year I’m cutting back on the space normally used for the vegetables that aren’t as popular in our house–eggplants, zucchini, etc. And we’re dialing way up on the tomatoes. I’ve got squares drawn in for 36 paste tomatoes and 12 slicers. Because of the weird wilt we had last year, they’ll be all new seeds and on the opposite sides of the garden from last time. They’ll also be my old proven winners, Roma and Celebrity. No experiments this year.

Likewise, I’ll be planting fewer onions and potatoes to make room for all those tomatoes. And I’m going back to Packman broccoli, Waltham butternut squash, Bright Lights chard and Alibi cucumber, which haven’t disappointed yet.

It’s hard to know how to play the weather. Last year it was punishingly hot for too long, and with today’s temperature starting out 34 degrees above normal at 8 am, it’s easy to be defeatist. But then, we’ve had many, many long hot summers since I’ve lived here. And these are the varieties that have served us well. Or as well as could be expected, anyway.

So time to hunker down. We’ll need to get those seeds back soon so we can begin the basement growing flats. Forget La Nina and global warming. This is going to be the best year yet.

Posted by: Roxie

PS. I may try on-line ordering again this year, instead of sending it snail mail. The first time I tried, on-line ordering was so new that the seed companies told me it would actually take longer to get my order. When I called today, they said that has been corrected. But there’s still no easy way to tell them not to substitute those seeds you spent two days picking out. R.H. Shumway’s customer service rep told me today that you have to put your “no substitutes” message in the box meant for a gift message, then call the next day to make sure they actually read it. Feh.


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This is the time of year I just turn off the local weather stations. I just can’t stand all the political correctness.

No, it’s not a liberal vs. conservative issues, or even Democrat vs. Republican. The kind of PC speech I’m talking about in the Kansas City TV market involves snow. And cold. And winter weather.

Here it is in a nutshell: Warm weather good. Cold weather bad. Snow very bad.

Sure, you may get the occasional forecaster who grudgingly allows that there should be a little snow. At Christmas. “For the kids.” Once in a while maybe someone will say that they miss the wintertime. But then the other anchor will quickly step in and get the last word about the badness of snow, perhaps adding how dangerous and injurious winter storms can be.

It’s too bad. Because in being so politically correct, our local weather forecasters are missing an opportunity to show people why their job matters, and how the weather impacts us all, directly and indirectly.

From the Kansas City TV weather perspective, this winter has been GREAT! Only the tiniest hint of snow. Temperatures in the 50s in January, even.

And I won’t lie–I did enjoy the lower-than-average heating bill that came yesterday. But from a gardening perspective, warm winters are not such happy news. The plants and insects that live in our latitude have evolved for and expect winter. When we get spring temperatures in January, it sets the stage for a lot of heartache.

Fruit trees come to mind first. Keep the temperature high for long enough–and right now we’ve had a lot of 50s and some 60s punctuated only briefly by seasonable 30s–and you get premature buds. Unfortunately, we’ve lived here long enough to have seen some other Januaries where people wandered outside in shorts, and we know where it leads. No spring here ever starts in January. In March, when we expect it to be warmer, we’ll have a string of cold that kills all those early buds. And all hope of apples, cherries, pears, etc. for 2012 will be lost.

“A green Christmas, a white Easter,” as the saying goes.

Then, there are the bugs. Insect life cycles often include a dormant period to coincide with winter temperatures and lack of food. If we have spring all winter, that can mess things up. And if there’s one more thing I don’t need in the garden, it’s an unbalance in the harmful vs the beneficial insects. Or even an invasion from who-know-what-kind-of southern insects that usually can’t survive here.

Even a little snow cover can sometimes act as insulation against a brutal cold snap later on.

Our deck last year. Let we forget.

La Nina gets a lot of the blame for this year’s warm winter (as well as a drought in the Southwest). From the looks of it, La Nina is on its way out of here by early spring. And some colder weather is supposed to be on the way sooner, but not until Thursday. So there’s hope for all us un-PC winter lovers.

Posted by: Roxie


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