April 2011 broke the record as The Warmest April Ever on the global scale! This record global warmth has, with little doubt, contributed to a particularly active and violent beginning to the tornado season.
In the classic pattern, warmer than normal gulf air colliding with cold frontal boundaries along a fluctuating jet stream, has resulted in wave after wave of severe storm outbreaks. These storm systems have caused widespread flooding spawned killer tornadoes in their wakes. Tuscaloosa, Alabama; Joplin, Missouri and far too many other communities are in need of assistance.
Here in Chicagoland, we have been spared the worst of these storms which, for the most part, has kept us in a perpetual state of March-like cold and gloom until the end of the first week of May. In fact we have a new record of our own. This year has been Chicago's Darkest April on record.
When I last wrote my gardening log for April 18, 2011 I was waiting for seasonable warmth necessary to start growing potatoes. I waited and waited with nothing to do but watch the cold weather crops sit in the soil without any sunlight to make any real growth.
I was especially eager to see some asparagus, as my beds are now three years old this year and should produce a heavy harvest for the first time. Not a spear, my friends and neighbors, not a spear.
My father remarked that he has never seen the leaves on the trees leaf so late. The first of May rolled around and most of the tallest trees remained dormant and skeletal against the perpetually grey sky.
Mom was at least pleased that "for once" her fruit trees would not be "foolish" and bloom to early only to get nipped by a late frost.
Finally in the middle of the first week of May, the long term forecast called for warmer weather for the weekend.
I stopped by Klein's farm market and bought two zucchini plants, two yellow summer squash, two Early Girl tomatoes, two Better Boy tomatoes, two Roma tomatoes and two Sunsugar tomatoes.
Once home, I brought out some mason jars to germinate seeds in: Red Burgundy Okra, Kandy Korn Sweet Corn, Quickie Sweet Corn, Fortex Pole Beans, Big Mama Lima Pole Beans, Marketmore cucumbers, and Savor Melons. I soaked the seeds in water for 24 hours and then twice a day thereafter, I rinsed and drained the jars with clean water. By the weekend, I had good germination and the seeds were ready to go into the garden. The exception was the lima beans which seemed to ferment instead of germinate and I tossed them out when they got smelly.
That Friday I received another surprise. For more than a month I had been looking for a new tiller. Not a "new" new tiller but specifically, a good used Troy-Bilt pony (which you may read all about here). Just in time too as the weekend warm-up turned into a two day heat wave!
To my delight, the asparagus grew up about a foot overnight. I harvested well over three servings over the weekend. I tilled the soil with my new tiller and, boy-I-tell-you-what, having a rear tined tiller means all the difference. The soil was so fine and fluffy when I was done you could sleep on it. I sowed all of my seed and planted all of my plants. Then the storms came in the night and I was lucky that everything in the garden was spared the hail that fell to the north and to the east.
Most of the seeds that I planted had sprouted quickly in the heat due to my careful pre-germination. The corn was up within a few days followed by the pole beans the cucumbers and the okra. The melons did not come up that week and the lima beans did not come up all.
Everything in the garden really thrived in the sun and heat that week. Including the weeds. Hundreds of little unwanted seedlings. As I keep a mulchless garden so as not to overwinter nasty pests. The drawback is I have to really be on top of my weeding.
My favorite tool for weeding is a scuffle hoe, also known as a stirrup hoe because the blade is shaped like a crude stirrup. The advantage of the scuffle hoe is that the action of its stirrup like blade is roughly parallel with the soil rather that perpendicular to the soil as with a common wedge hoe. The latter merely scrapes the surface of the soil and the user is likely to take up carelessly hacking away at the earth which can damage the roots of row crops. The scuffle hoe actually skims just underneath the soil as you weed with a pushing and pulling motion which does a fine job at breaking up the new roots of young weeds without damaging roots the adjacent row crops.
I keep both edges of my scuffle hoe nice and sharp with a sanding drum bit for my Dremel drill. This makes the action nice and easy and makes the hoe just as effective for bigger weeds as well. I can cut through a thick dandelion root with one whack. The scuffle hoe works best when the soil is on the dry side. I usually have to go over the whole garden at least once every other week from May to July. If I don't I will quickly have a jungle that will steal all the sunlight and soil nutrients.
The weekend's heat was short lived. The cold returned with the usual passing of the thunderstorms and by the following weekend frost was threatening. This was especially annoying because that weekend was the average date for the last frost. That weekend was blustery and cold. My cucumber seedlings were damaged by the frost. Everything else seemed to survive.
It remained on the cool side for a bit. Good healthy potato plants had emerged from their beds. I replaced the cucumber seedlings with some very nice looking plants I found at The Red Barn farmstand outside of Woodstock, IL. When the next heat wave came through I received another burst of growth from the asparagus beds. I am very pleased with the asparagus and I hope to have a healthy bed for years to come. To my annoyance, however, the unusually Summer-like heat caused much of the Zamboni Broccoli Raab, which was barely a foot high, to begin to bolt.
Cold weather crops are called as such because they grow nice and big and leafy when the air temperature is cool (so long as there is sunlight for such growth). But as soon as the heat hits, the plant makes a transformation and will grow as stalky and tall as possible in anticipation of producing a flower head.
This is the whole point for all annual plants: germinate, get big, get tall, make flowers, make seed, die. We plant eaters strive to make the cool weather, big and leafy stage as long as possible and our horticulturalists attempt to breed plants with slow-bolting attributes. When the plant begins to bolt, the leaves turn bitter tasting. Cutting off the emerging flower head can slow or even stop bolting but usually not for long.
Broccoli Raab is a cabbage green in that is good sautéed or prepared like turnip greens, kale or collard greens. When it bolts it makes a flower head very similar to a loose broccoli head. It is best harvested just before this head is about to flower. At only a foot high, I just harvested the entire plant of those that were in this state. In the kitchen, I blanched them momentarily and then sautéed them with some garlic and white wine and served it with sautéed jumbo shrimp as dinner for two. The Musclun mix salad greens also bolted when they were barely 8 inches tall and ware only fit for compost. The Harmony Hybrid Spinach also bolted some. They were made into salads and sautéed for spinach pizza.
Well, I guess that is all for now. It has been continued cool this past week. Up north in Wisconsin they had a freeze warning last night. It has warmed up today and, once again, we are going to get up into the 90's again this Memorial Day weekend.
I hope everyone has a good weekend.
Everyone out on the road, drive safe and sane.
And, please, do not forget to do something to honor our veterans.