Rain, heat give plants a hard year

It was another year of ordinary excess in the ol’ central-Pennsylvania landscape. Am I imagining things or do we never seem to get just enough of anything? It’s always too hot, too cold, too rainy, too dry, too windy, too humid, too buggy, too something.

Sometimes it’s all of the above.

Like this growing season.

We bounced around from one extreme to the other this year, ending up with a gauntlet of woes that averaged out looking like no problem.

The first half of 2006 brought us excessive rain. It rained so much and so often for awhile that we had flooding that for once wasn’t related to snow melt or a hurricane.

The soggy soil rotted out plant roots, while the near-constant moisture on leaves fueled diseases ranging from black spot on the roses to powdery mildew on the phlox, lilacs and even lawns.

About the time we got used to summer gardening without a hose, somebody suddenly shut off the rain spigot in late July.

For six weeks, 90-degree days sucked all of the previous moisture out of the leaves and ultimately the root zone of the soil.

By Labor Day, some of the year’s newly planted trees and shrubs were dead of parched roots – an unthinkable happenstance in June.

What happened was that a lot of gardeners got lulled into “hose complacency” and forgot that rain is like a college football coach – measured only by what he’s done for us lately.

As the season wound down, the thermometer got into the extremist game — going from highs of more than 80 to below 50 in two days’ time last month. Plants don’t like this crazy stuff any more than we do.

Things that like it on the dry side struggled early while drought-wimpier fare like astilbe, big-leaf hydrangeas and dogwoods wilted and browned-out later.

Many annual flowers took forever to get growing and blooming in the cool, cloudy late spring.

Even the usually dependable tomato didn’t care much for 2006’s antics. Transplants got off to a slow start while waiting for some to arrive. Then many tomato plants came down with early blight and septoria leaf spot, encouraged by disease spores splashing up from the ground onto stems and lower leaves.

Many earlier-ripening tomatoes rotted at the bottom – a condition brought on by uneven water and lack of calcium.

Worst of all, the unrelenting August heat cooked the life out of tomato flower pollen, all but shutting down that precious second round of harvest.

The plentiful early-season rain was a blessing for weeds, though. These botanical misfits kept coming and coming in the damp soil, both in lawns and garden beds.

Garlic mustard – an up-and-coming, wide-leafed, white-blooming annual weed – was particularly horrible. Crabgrass seed outlasted the chemical controls people put down to prevent it. And mile-a-minute weed could’ve been cited for speeding.

Then there were the bugs. Mosquitoes and blackflies thrive in moisture. Without the state’s spraying program, I can’t even imagine being able to garden this year without a shroud of netting.

Japanese beetles bred to Biblical proportions, most likely a result of ideal egg-hatching conditions for the previous two late summers in a row. Eggs hatch best when the late-summer soil is damp.

Adult beetles swarmed from late June to early August and caused widespread damage to favorite foods such as roses, grapes, birch leaves, cannas, hibiscus, cherries and more. Then the “toddlers” – those fat, white, C-shaped grubs – fed on lawn roots in September and October, killing off large swaths of lawn all over the region for the second straight fall.

To add further insult, gypsy moth caterpillars made a huge comeback in some areas after nearly a decade siesta. A family of these can defoliate whole trees.

OK. So it wasn’t the greatest of growing seasons. But I’ve seen worse. As in any year, we gardeners managed a few successes along with our stunning defeats.

In my yard, for instance, the floating row covers that I draped over my cabbage patch this spring did a super job of keeping cabbageworms off my plants so the groundhogs for once didn’t have to eat worm-infested cabbage. A combination of Milorganite and urine-soaked cotton balls in pill bottles repelled the neighborhood rabbits so well that I actually grew petunias long enough to see how destructive budworms can be to flower buds.

And my long, hard, soil-improving efforts produced some of the biggest, finest hydrangea foliage ever. These beautiful leaves made a striking example of heat-induced wilting during those six straight weeks of near-100-degree heat and no rain.

Come to think of it, maybe I’m not all that heart-broken to close the books on the 2006 growing season after all.

Article is shared courtesy of The Patriot-News (Harrisburg, PA)

Column: Over the Garden Fence

Author: George Weigel is a Pennsylvania Certified Horticulturist who covers gardening for The Patriot-News. He can be reached at 737-8530 or through the Pennlive gardening blog at http://wwwgeorgeweigel.net.