Take More Time To Watch The Gardeners

Survival in Tough Times: If Adam and Eve had only left that one tree alone, we could be sipping a cold Frosty root beer and waiting for the tomatoes to ripen! The sweat would only be on the sides of the mug. Oh, well. Maybe next year.


Take More Time To Watch The GardenersAh, Summer in the Heartland! We’re east of the 100th Meridian, so we draw moisture up out of the Gulf to mix with drier air from Canada, and that brings thunderstorms. We’re having sweltering humid days, and we’re having the warm nights that help the corn grow tall. In the mornings the dew soaks everything. That dew wets the corn, allowing water to trickle down the stem to soak the ground around the roots, even on dry days. Interesting!

It’s an old fashioned summer. It’s not as hot as I ever saw it, nor is there more rain, nor is it unusually cool, nor is it dry. It’s the climate and the weather we’ve been having here since the end of the last ice age. It’s the weather I remember growing up. In those days, of course, we didn’t have air conditioning any place we lived. Shade trees and fans did the trick. Sometimes when it was really hot the fans weren’t quite enough, so we might have an uncomfortable night. Somehow we survived. I remember about 1960 our family made a trip to see family in Kentucky. On the way back we stayed at the Seven Gables Motel in Burnside. There was no AC, but there were fans and there was ice water. It was hot. I still recall the smell of the Cashmere Bouquet soap. In spite of the heat we survived that night, too. 

Rain is fickle in the Heartland

So how much rain did you get over your way? Whether you garden or not, this is one of the first topics of conversation after a summer thundershower. Rain is fickle in the Heartland. A rain that gently soaks a wide area over the course of a day or two is relatively rare. It happens, but not often. The weather forecast often suggests that “scattered showers” are on the way. That means they think the odds of rain are pretty good, but they have no idea where it’s going to actually fall. They usually don’t have any firm idea about where it will rain until about two hours ahead of time. When the forecast is for thunderstorms, and some may be severe, then it pays to keep an eye on the weather. When a line of storms develops or approaches, it’s usually in advance of a frontal boundary. We may get nary a drop, or there may be a cloudburst, what some folks call a duck ‘drownder’. Half an inch of rain in four hours is nice. Two inches of rain in an hour is a duck drownder. Four inches of rain in 24 hours and you’ll wish you’d finished the Ark. Usually it’s something in between, but make sure you close the windows before leaving home when the barometer is falling and the wind is out of the South. 

Fickle weather is one thing that makes watching the nearby gardeners so very interesting. When gardening on loamy soil, especially sandy loam, the timing of the rain isn’t so critical. It can rain hard, but three days later it’s  possible to get back into cultivating around the tomatoes and the beans. With clay soil, however, the third day after a hard rain means it’s still ankle-deep mud out there. For those of us who gardened for decades on sandy loam, this clay soil takes some getting used to. 

In any kind of soil it won’t do to put off weeding when weeding is possible. Weeding in mud is just not a good idea. Mud sticks to your cultivating tools, to your hands, to your boots, to tires, to the walkway going up to the house, and to your face when you brushed away that deer fly. Weeds are easier to pull when the ground isn’t bone dry, but that clump of damp dirt that clings to the roots of a big ‘ol ragweed or velvet leaf can get very heavy. If you’re in the middle of the garden in the mud, where are you going to put that big weed with its woody stalk? I’ve actually used the weeds I’ve pulled for mulch to prevent new weeds from sprouting. It works, sort of. But I don’t recommend it. Timing is everything.

Bad Timing Brings Weeds

Weeding or soil prep for sowing needs to be done when the ground is pretty dry, and before the next rain comes. The problem with clay ground is that it takes longer to dry out than other soils. Dry air and sunshine dries any ground pretty fast, but we have precious little of that in the Heartland in the summer time. We have plenty of sun, but it’s hot and humid. Even on a day you’d think the top of the ground would start to get dry, it doesn’t. Everything has to be ready to go on a moment’s notice. That means hand tools, tiller, tractor, planters, string, and bug dust must be ready to go in the shed. As I watch the ground I watch the weather forecast. If it’s going to rain tonight, then it’s time to decide whether the ground is dry enough to get out there. If it’s dry enough, there’s no time to change the fuel filter on the tiller or try to find my favorite hoe. If I don’t get done before dark, it may be another week or more before I can try again. Ankle high weeds are bad. Waist high weeds are a nightmare. It’s always good to have simple non-mechanized tools ready to go. A favorite old gooseneck hoe or the grandfolks’ push plow will rarely fail if there’s enough daylight to burn. If there’s no rush, then hand tools just make garden work very satisfying. I can say that because my hand tools all have long handles. Short tool handles make for poor gardens and sore backs. 

bad timing brings weeds


Good gardeners do things on time

Watching the neighboring gardens serves as a reminder. Good gardeners do things on time. When I drive by and see that the neighbor’s cultivation has been freshly done, I’m reminded I may not have been watching my own garden closely enough. In July when I see newly planted rows, I’m reminded that my succession planting plans have been neglected. When I see a garden patch completely taken with weeds, then I know that the cattle must have gotten out that week after the big rain, or folks decided to take a vacation. Gardens do not tolerate poorly-timed vacations. To a garden, one crop is as good as another. Whether it’s beans, sweet corn, potatoes, or knotweeds, the garden doesn’t care. It’s summer, so something’s going to have to grow there. If the gardener doesn’t pick something and stick with it, Mom Nature will. You won’t appreciate what she chooses. Mom Nature only seeks to preserve the soil, not pickles.

I’ve always been a mechanical cultivator in my gardens. Other folks are mulchers. They put down layers of straw or hay or pine straw or whatever’s at hand to smother weeds and prevent them from sprouting. I admire mulchers because they have better nerves than I do.  I think about mulching sometimes, but I worry that if I don’t do it right, then I’ll have to take off all the mulch just before a thunderstorm comes through (or in the middle of one) so I can go through the garden with the push plow at impossible speeds. With a tiller, even weeds six inches tall wind around the shaft until they make a solid mass. Mulch has to be rather durable to have the effect of shading the ground so the weeds don’t sprout. Taking a tiller into a mulched row would be total folly. 

Faithful mulch gardeners June

Faithful mulch gardeners June

Weeds are creatures of opportunity. Crabgrass always uses a flank attack

I have some very nice neighbors I watch very carefully. Trust me, everybody at their place has green thumbs. They’re mulch gardeners, and you can see they’re good at it. Watching them, I see they put their mulch down soon after planting, or even before planting. Then they pull the mulch around the stems. These neighbors have a greenhouse, which means they get way ahead of me early in the season. The sunflowers you see here were started in the greenhouse, then transplanted into the mulch garden. Started plants thrive when the mulch has been pulled up around the stems. It holds moisture, suppresses weeds, and lets the started plants take full advantage of the sun and heat above.

I’m just too chicken to mulch. How much should I use? Do I have that much mulch material? How will I get it here? What if I put it on too thickly? What If I don’t put on enough? Hay has weeds seeds in it, doesn’t it? I can’t afford hay these days. Local straw has wheat in it. That’s expensive, too. If it doesn’t blow away before the first rain, then the wheat will sprout, survive through the winter, then defy me as grass in the spring. Oats would be great because they don’t survive the winter, but there isn’t any oat straw these days. There are a million reasons for those of us with weak nerves to just oil up the push plow or gas up the tiller. If it rains, then I can watch the weeds grow from the door of the garden shed. I’m glad I saved myself all the work of mulching! Maybe next year?

Weeds are creatures of opportunity. Crabgrass always uses a flank attack. It comes in from the sides. Being crabgrass and named for the way a crab travels, it advances sideways very quickly. Look out in the garden one day and it looks good. A week later, if conditions are right, there’s crabgrass creeping in everywhere. When it’s hot and dry, most weeds wait for better conditions. Purslane is an exception.

Weeds are creatures of opportunity, but we are creatures of habit

It can be dry as a bone for a month straight, but if purslane likes your garden, you’ll go out there one morning and find dozens of them scattered everywhere. Lambs’ quarters love an undisturbed place. Grass seed must last for 100 years or more in soil. If you tore up a parking lot put in about 1940, two weeks after a rain the grass will be getting tall. It’s why a “perfect” lawn doesn’t impress me. I’m always thinking about how hard it would be to establish even a little garden there. 

Weeds are creatures of opportunity, but we are creatures of habit. I think we might need to adapt some of their sneaky ways to make for more productive gardens. I saw an article on edible weeds this past week. Touring that guy’s garden must be like taking a safari in a rain forest. He must be a creature of idleness and poor timing. If he was a better gardener, he’d be eating beans and spinach instead of lambs quarters and pokeweed.

Just think. If Adam and Eve had only left that one tree alone, we could be sipping a cold Frosty root beer and waiting for the tomatoes to ripen! The sweat would only be on the sides of the mug. Oh, well. Maybe next year.

Dr. Bruce Smith — Bio and Archives

Dr. Bruce Smith (Inkwell, Hearth and Plow) is a retired professor of history and a lifelong observer of politics and world events. He holds degrees from Indiana University and the University of Notre Dame. In addition to writing, he works as a caretaker and handyman. His non-fiction book The War Comes to Plum Street, about daily life in the 1930s and during World War II,  may be ordered from Indiana University Press.

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