Dirt Nerd: A Hot Mess

Published  July 2016

06 ANTIGRAVITY- Dirt Nerd Illustration by Melissa Guion-JULY2016-WEB_Page_11_Image_0001

I never saw an oft-transplanted tree,
Nor yet an oft-removed family,
That throve so well as those that settled be.
—Benjamin Franklin

In the New Orleans of the present and foreseeable future, we can expect to continue to be inundated with the likes of me: transplants from a lesser heated region of the country who are unaware exactly what a subtropical summer in a land pinned between slow moving waters is all about, and just how foreign this new reality is to their more temperate past climes. It is not my place just now to speak to all the adjustments one must make as they trudge through the blinding days of summer proper in New Orleans, and there are always adjustments, whether you’ve always called this city home or this is your first time facing our special little seasonal hell. But I can help a bit with how to approach growing food here in the desperate heat and humidity of July.

Newcomers to the region who are fans of growing their own food, or love supporting locally grown food, or love talking about what a great idea it  would be to support locally grown food, are often enticed by the notion that we can grow food here all year without exception. It’s true; and it’s a beautiful thing on the face of it. However, once that face is ripped off and the shiny chrome horrific humanity-destroying robot skull that lurks behind it is revealed, fantasies of year-long bountiful kale harvests and deep summer lemonade on the front porch quickly melt like so many T-101 models in pools of molten lava.

We can grow things here all year long, but we can only grow certain things at certain times of year, and those times are completely different from pretty much anywhere else in the United States. What most places plant in spring, we plant in fall. What they plant in summer, we plant in spring; what they plant in fall, we plant in winter; and they don’t plant anything in the winter at all, but we can plant whatever we didn’t get around to planting in the fall throughout the winter.

But now it is summer. What we do in summer is something nobody else does, and we cannot do what anybody else does in the summer. Just as someone is likely to regret moving to New Orleans in the  summer and might not set out roots, so is it a similarly bad idea to plant new seeds in the soil just now. Most will not germinate. Though temperatures vary widely among plants in regards to ideal germination rates, it is a rare plant whose seed will germinate at temperatures above 90 degrees. Planting seedlings is scarcely better than planting seeds. The root bases of most herbs and veggies, even of larger trees and ornamentals, are only so big when in pots, and as such may not be able to reach the water they desperately need in the summer heat. Just as with the human transplant, it is best to have your plants’ root systems well established in the soil by the time serious heat comes on. And by the time you are reading this, serious heat will have come on.

Similarly, plants that have not established their roots effectively by May or June must compete against the inevitable multitude of root systems belonging to weeds  that were born to thrive in these hot summer conditions. If your plants aren’t established, they will be in for one hell of a nutrient fight below ground, while simultaneously fighting a treacherous air battle above for access to sunlight against the same weeds that are extremely capable of growing tall and shading out the plants you want around. Young plants also have weaker immune systems than their mature and battle-worn counterparts. In summer, the bugs reign supreme in the garden, as do the many diseases that these bugs carry and transmit to your plants. Younger plants will be targeted and destroyed much faster by such things.

I am trying very hard to scare you away from planting anything in July. Growing in July is a perfectly reasonable endeavor; but whatever you’re growing damn well better be in the ground already.

If you are completely resistant to everything I am trying to tell you right now and will hear none of it, there are still some foodstuffs you can plant and maybe find some success with. As far as I’m concerned, the list is as follows and nothing more belongs on it: okra, cucurbits (melon, squash, cucumber), Chinese yard long beans, amaranth. That’s it. I’m not encouraging it and I’m not condoning it, but you can do it anyway and it will probably work out. Also, feel free to prove me wrong about all the rest.

For all the reasons already mentioned, it’s not a great idea to plant larger food-making things such as blueberries, citrus trees, or artichokes this time of year. They will last longer because they are bigger, but if you don’t water them eternally, they will die a slow death all the same, and those things cost a lot more than tomato starts.

Let me speak now to what is already alive in your garden and what you can do to keep it thriving. Regarding tomatoes and peppers, yours will.probably stop producing about now. The leaves will probably be growing rapidly, but fruit production will begin tapering off. This is a direct result of our miserable humidity. The wet air basically makes it difficult for pollen to stick to bees, or flowers, or anything else, and fruit yields will suffer. Do not fret, though. There is a future for your nightshade babies. Once things cool off a bit and the humidity abates in September, you will get another round of delicious fruits from your tomatoes. You will get multitudinous fruits from your peppers, and ought not pull them out of the ground until November. It can be hard to leave old plants in the ground as the fall planting season comes around, because we all have beautiful plans for the new Eden we will terraform upon the scorched earth of our summer garden. But seriously, hold onto your peppers. Utopia won’t be the same without them.

You can expect your cucurbits to thrive in the deep summer, but not without their troubles. Flower pollination is a mild issue with all these plants, though not so much as it is with tomatoes and peppers. You can overcome this obstacle by hand-pollinating your fruits. It’s far less scientific and sexual than it sounds. Simply get yourself a cheap paintbrush, brush lightly into one of the many male flowers of your plant to collect pollen, then ever so gently brush once inside each female flower with the brush. Female flowers will have tiny fruits between the plant and the flower, male flowers will have simple stalks. Your cucurbits will almost certainly be infested with vine borers and powdery mildew fungus. Fear not, most of your plants will live through it and keep providing you with the goods—they’ll just look nasty doing it. If you must combat these villainous obstacles, vine borers can actually be found inside the plant’s root system and you can just pull the maggoty-looking bastards out with your hands and kill them. And if the powdery mildew is just too unseemly, you can buy liquid copper, a moderately effective organic fungicide: elemental, simple, elegant, and bright turquoise.

As for everything else in your garden, just water your plants constantly and do your best to kill all the other nuisance plants before they go to seed and take over every square millimeter of the garden soil your vegetables used to call home. We can grow things year round in New Orleans, and it is our blessing and curse that this is so. Summer here is like winter in so many other places: we slow down because we must, we stay indoors when we can, and we nap constantly. It’s very hot, and while our gardens continue to grow through the deep summer, our capacity to maintain them diminishes, though they need our presence now more than ever.

Questions or news about gardening? Email southboundgardens@gmail.com

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