January 1, 2013
The Gardening Year 2012
Once again, rain was the topic that most dominated the gardening thought and conversation, and heat, coming in second place. Each year brings challenges, some new along with the old. With nearly twice the rainfall as in 2011, the Texas Panhandle was still far below our average. Luckily, sufficient, inexpensive supplementation of water is still available to help gardens survive during dry spells in Amarillo. Because of this, it was only at the end of the year, that I felt the impact of the drought crisis that affected the United States from the Mississippi westward.
The fall of 2011 ended and winter started with enough rain to rejuvenate the grasses and spring flowers, even though the first three months of 2012 brought only an inch and a half of moisture. But spring, always hopeful as the season is, received five and a third inches, sufficient to allow oneself to think the tide had turned. Lest one got too optimistic, above average heat kept our spirits in check. Opportune showers were followed by July, hot as usual, and bone dry. August, hot still, quickly evaporated the one and a half inches of rain that fell that month.
I was hoping for a repeat of last years cooler September temperatures, and was not disappointed. With it, a veritable deluge was received, 4.85 inches, rather nicely spaced week to week. Forecasts of an El Nino breakup were issued; we would return to normal times. Apparently, weather patterns shifted so to allow a little break, and then closed up again, as the last quarter of the year brought only scant amounts of precipitation-- a little over a quarter inch.
In all, about thirteen and three quarters inches of precipitation were recorded at our home, surprisingly more than the official total. But as we observe, rain falls much as colors are scattered on a patchwork quilt. Likewise hail falls indiscriminately on xeriscape and vegetable gardens alike. As is customary, my few hostas and other large leaf plants suffered dings and tears thrice in early spring, and not again after. My frost sensitive succulents hadn't yet emerged from winter's protection and made it through the year undented for a change. However some north side growers were hammered out by hail at September's end.
We had more clouds in 2012 than 2011. I gauge this by the numerous notations in my journal where I recorded amounts of moisture that were too little to be measured: 14 notations of traces, and 6 incidents of sprinkles noted. Many days looked promising but ended without fulfillment, not even with a drop. Tell me, if a drop falls from heaven, unnoticed, before evaporating, is it rain?
But because of timeliness of the rain we did receive, it seemed to me a much better year than that horrible hot and dry year of 2011. How far have I come, in only the second year of a devastating drought, to view 14 inches as a better year, even a good year, when our expectations had demanded 20 inches every other year? Grasses and forbes returned in a limited way in the spring restoring a sense of normality. Garden blooms appeared normal in quantity, though weeks earlier than usual for nearly all flower genera, sometimes blooming as much as 6 weeks early. Month after month was pronounced the hottest average on record in many regions, thankfully for us, again, not as severe as 2011. It wasn't just the warmer daytime highs that affect plants blooming, but the nighttime highs, which exceeded norms much of the year.
Surprisingly, the early blooms didn't appear to hurt longevity of flower displays. With no damaging spring freezes, once we passed our last freeze on March 20th (low of 25°), the closest we came to a frost was April 4th coming in at 35°, not cold enough to matter to anything but sub-tropicals set out too early. Even mid summer flowers took the initiative to bloom a month or more before schedule.
Because of September's abundant rainfall, once again Amarillo experienced an exceptional autumnal display in both leaf and flower. There is no better time to live in the Texas Panhandle than the fall, nor better place on the globe. The fall season after spring's high winds, followed by summer's high temperatures on the High Plains is ideal. Fall's temperatures, though still warmer on the average, managed to interrupt the bloom cycle only slightly by falling briefly to 32° on October 8th, then freezing more definitely at the end of October – a little frost on the Halloween pumpkin this year. Frost blankets thrown over tender plants could prolong the harvest. By Thanksgiving, I thought the weather normalized for year's end, wishing it were warmer throughout December once again.
One problem I wrestled with was seasonality. My timing for planting seeds and plants was out of sync with our unseasonable conditions. The warmer spring wreaked havoc with cool season crops unless one guessed right on early planting. Spring's volatility teaches a gardener patience. But if one waited, the early soil warming caused early bolting as well. Many annual and perennial plants died again in late spring planting, and probably most if planted in summer (not a good idea in the best of years, but still possible). Walking the tightrope to seek an optimal planting timeline is risky at best.
Fall brought some ups and downs of temperatures, early cooling around Labor Day, then hot again. I, at least, had trouble with fall vegetable germination of spinach, carrots and mache. Was the soil to hot the first few times I tried? I still don't know. We can't always blame failure on the seeds themselves. Sadly, there will be no mache in our salads this winter.
Lettuce quickly germinated and grew fast, so fast that by winter it was overgrown. Timing is everything. A rabbit would have helped to check its growth. My small raised winter vegetables beds allowed for only a few successive sowings.
But the real blow conditions wrought was realized upon learning of the closing of one of our most esteemed nurseries and mail order supplier. High Country Gardens and Santa Fe Greenhouses closed their business at the end of November. A perfect storm of drought, wild fires, economic recession and big box home improvement competition came together causing reduced sales that couldn't be overcome. Not a day goes by that I am not saddened to know that I will not receive another High Country Gardens catalog in the mail. Their closing creates a void in supply for the variety and new plant introductions they are known for. There has been no greater influence on my gardening and horticulture knowledge of plants for our southwest gardens then David Salman's High Country Gardens catalog and Santa Fe Greenhouse retail store, an influence felt by many throughout the west. They will be sorely missed.
On the bright side, we are not adrift on our own. Our own local grower and nurseryman, Neal Hinders at Canyon's Edge Plants, is already busy preparing for the 2013 gardening season. I am looking forward to the many plant delights he'll have ready for us to nurture and enjoy. Our support for it's continuance is crucial lest similar circumstances prevail.
2012 brought ups and downs, highs and lows just as any year. More than a few days brought to mind images of the dust bowl era, as we were so well reminded this November on PBS. With the experience of the past two years, and the knowledge of our climate's centuries of semi-arid history, what is a High Plains Gardener to do? To start the new year, I'll offer a few suggestions, or resolutions, to meet the demands our changing climate makes on gardening.
Happy New Gardening Year!