The Drought (Heat Wave, June 2021)

Well, I don’t know about the rest of you, but here in the upper Midwest we’ve been experiencing some crazy heat. This, following an exceedingly dry spring (and now summer), has put us in a drought. And my plants are not happy.

We’ve been experiencing at least 90F highs since June 5. I had about four days between having to shelter my pepper plants in the house overnight due to frost warnings before the high temperatures kicking in. Spring? What Spring??

After a week of these high temps, I kind of gave up. I’d been watering my garden every night and checking each and every plant several times a day, every day, and even so I lost a bunch of them. I lost 4 out of 5 of my expensive Joan J thornless raspberries. All of their new growth had started to go brown, for some reason, right before the heat wave anyway, and when the heat wave hit, they went down like a house of cards. Even the largest one finally gave up the ghost today, apparently. Also, half of my strawberries have died–for the most part these are the ones from disreputable sellers that I would have been surprised if they had survived and produced fruit anyway, but still. And my sweet peas–out of season at this point, true, but still–need constant watering or they turn into prematurely dried sweet peas. At this point, my attitude is: If you’re not strong enough to survive this, then I don’t need you in my garden, no matter how valuable of a plant you are. Suck it up, buttercup.

My plants are also getting heavily hit by some kind of black speck that just looks like dirt got splashed up on the plant’s leaves, but is in fact some kind of nasty bug that is killing many of my plants. It appears to like my dahlias and poppies best, for some reason. And my cabbages! I expected the cabbages to be attacked by the cabbage worms, sure, but these tiny black bugs are even worse. An entire beautiful Napa cabbage plant turned to lace overnight. Cabbage worms, even at their worst, can’t do that. So I’m spraying BT and dusting with diatomaceous earth pretty much every day. My understanding is that this hot dry weather is perfect for these bugs, so until we get out of this drought, this is the situation we’re in. If nothing else, cabbage grows really quickly and I can try again in the fall.

Some good news?

As long as I keep on top of the watering, my potatoes are extremely happy. I’ve never grown potatoes, but they are big and lush and energetic despite the heat. My tomatoes are also coming along quite happily, and my squash seeds are germinating and sprouting really fast. Also, when they are not getting eaten alive, my dahlias are also loving this hot weather. And the rest of the strawberries–those strong enough to survive–are thriving and putting out a ton of fruit. I have my first home-grown strawberry (Albion, from Johnny’s) a week ago! It was tasty, but not mind-blowing. What was mind-blowing was tasting my first home-grown snap pea about two weeks ago (Magnolia Blossom Sugar Snap, Baker Creek); the flavor was amazingly sweet and complex.

Surprisingly, my snap peas and my lettuces are still growing apace. No issues there. I think it helps that I’m primarily growing Salanova lettuce varieties from Johnny’s, which have some kind of heat resistance. My peas in the Greenstalk are producing steadily and have huge vines. The ones in raised beds and containers (planted about a month or so later) are growing and starting to produce, but the vines maybe a bit shorter than they should be. As this is the first year that I’ve ever had any success with peas, I have no idea.

Also thriving are the old raspberry bushes in the yard. I had dug out most of them because they were old and worn out, and the bed was infested with a ton of large elm and maple saplings. (We have a huge problem with random tree saplings popping in our garden and lawn–anybody else have this issue?) But some raspberry canes on the far end of the bed did survive, and they are producing heavily this year. Also, my next-door neighbor’s out-of-control raspberry bushes jut through our fence and, this year, all of those errant canes are heavily laden with raspberries 🙂

I’ve had other setbacks– my mini butternut squash (Honey Nut, Botanical Interests) took 11 days to germinate; it was so slow that I ended up going online and bought a different type from a different seed store and started again (Butterscotch, bred by Johnny’s). Of course by the time the new seeds arrived, the old ones had finally sprouted. I also found out that the type of tulsi basil I had been attempting to grow (just called “tulsi basil”) was not the type I was looking for–the type I was growing turned out to be almost scentless, whereas the type I’m looking for should have a really strong spicy smell to it. So I had to track that variety down (called “Kapoor Tulsi” from Johnny’s; MI Gardener also apparently has it but they were sold out), buy the seeds, and start over my tulsi basil from scratch this month. I also accidentally topped off my only Dad’s Sunset tomato plant the day after I finally tossed the rest of my back-up tomato seedlings. Sigh. Maybe I’ll try it again next year.

And finally , if you’ve read recent posts, I also had to toss a bunch of my dahlias for crown gall (or suspicion of having crow gall). I ended up digging out every single one of my dahlias just to make sure they didn’t have gall. A few I gave only cursory inspections of–if they had come from a small, independent grower who hand-picked each tuber, for example–but the rest were given a through examination. From that, I ended up throwing out another five tubers, and if they had arrived in bunches of 2 or three , those tubers as well. And, due to the heat, even the ones that didn’t have gall didn’t have a chance to regrow their roots before the heat kicked in, so… probably ⅔ of my dahlias, gone. I(Later that same day, though, that I got an email for a last chance sale on dahlias at Swan Island dahlias, so I ended up picking up a few more. Though their tubers are expensive, at least I know Swan Island rigorously inspects each their tubers. (the tuber’s name is stamped on the bulb itself).

But, man. This heat can stop ANY TIME now.

Dahlia Problems: Crown Gall

So this is my first year trying to grow dahlias. (Before this season, I’m not sure I had ever even heard of a dahlia, to be honest.) But I jumped in with both feet this year and have 19 different varieties growing from tuber, with another four varieties from seed. But while was recovering form knee surgery this spring I had a lot of time to research all things dahlias.

One of the things I came across was crown gall. One of my favorite YouTubers, Nicole from Flower Hill Farm, had an absolutely horrible season this past year with her dahlias–they were really short (around a foot tall, when they should have been 3′ at least) and produced few blooms. It turned out when she dug them up that a lot of them had crown gall.

What is crown gall? Well, it’s a pretty gross-looking disease that affects not just dahlia tubers, but fruit trees, roses, and poplar trees, as well as many others. Essentially it’s a cancer–it causes a tumor to grow on the roots or trunk of plants and causes the plant cells to replicate endlessly. This is both ugly and can be dangerous to the health of the plant.

Crown gall on an apple tree trunk

If the plant is big and old enough, this is just an annoyance, but if the plant is small or young, it can kill the plant. It’s caused by a bacteria that is highly contagious and can live in the soil for years. Apparently the only cure is a biological control bacteria called “Agrobacterium radiobacter K-84″; which, for whatever reason, isn’t available at your local garden center. So if you find a plant that has it, you’re pretty much stuck.

And the problem with growing things from tubers is that the tubers can often arrive already infected, and you’d never know.

I’ve come across three instances of it in the past few weeks. My first experience with it was a tuber I received maybe two weeks ago, from Breck’s. It was the “Emperor” dahlia, a pretty dark-puple velvety dahlias. When the order arrived, I found two tuber clumps–one of which had normal-looking eyes on it, and one of which didn’t. I wish I had thought to take a picture of it, but I was paranoid and threw it out immediately. (Update: I did take pictures!)

Crown gall on my Emperor dahlia tuber clump

Nicole from FHF says that it looks like cauliflower, and I can see why. See all those light-colored bumps at the top of the tuber clump? These, if there were only, say, one or two of them present, would be considered “eyes” and be a thing of happiness, as it would indicate that the tuber was viable. In this case, however, the presence of five or more “eyes” in pretty much the exact same spot means that the tuber is infected with crown gall and needs to be tossed.

So with the Breck’s dahlia, I could tell from the get-go that the tuber had gall. The second tuber clump, packed in the same bag with dry peat moss as the first tuber, did not show any signs of gall. I’ve since potted it up, and the two viable eyes from that clump are now sprouting–but there are only two eyes sprouting, not ten. I’m assuming that it also has gall, but I’m potting it up in a separate container just in case. If it has gall, the growth of the flower should be slow and stunted, so we’ll see.

The second tuber I found that had gall was “Pacific Time”, one of my Walmart purchases. (Walmart’s dahlias are supplied by Van Zyverden.) This tuber passed muster when I inspected it initially, and when I sprouted it it only had one or two sprouts, as per many of my dahlias. However, when I went to go plant it into the garden bed, I accidentally broke off the sprout while I was getting it out of the temporary pot. Which was weird, because sprouts tend to be pretty hardy, from what I can tell. So when I went to go inspect the damage, I found the sprout that had popped off had five other mini-sprouts connected to it, just under the soil line. The tuber itself also had several more mini-sprouts trying to grow, right from that same spot. Thus, my diagnosis of crown gall. So out went all of the Pacific Time tubers as well. (It’s kind of an ugly dahlia, really; I’m not too beaten up about it.)

The third instance was tonight–again while I was trying to plant dahlias into my garden bed. The culprit this time was “Great Silence”, from Longfield Gardens. (As I ordered most of my dahlias from Longfield, this freaked me out a bit and now I’m tempted to go dig up all of my tubers because clearly this disease could be anywhere.)

Crown gall on my Great Silence tuber

Again, the sprout itself had at least four other sprouts attempting to shoot from that same exact spot on the tuber–and this tuber was just the eye/neck/body, rather than a whole clump of tubers. The only sprout I saw on the potted dahlia was one large one; I had no idea there were four more just under the surface.

I’m so glad I decided to pre-sprout all of my tubers! Apparently the disease doesn’t necessarily show on the dormant tuber. Luckily, I wasn’t too hung up on the Great Silence variety, either, so I’m not too sad to have to toss it. But I have to say, now I’m freaked out. Every dahlia I plant for the rest of this year will be checked, just in case. Yay for being a first time flower gardener 😛