Weekly Gardening Tip: Statistics


By Bob Beyfuss

For Capital Region Independent Media

Statistics are useful ways to analyze data, but they can also be misleading. This summer is a classic example of how numbers do not tell the true story.

We went for weeks without any significant rain, coupled with extreme heat, which has caused fairly extensive mortality on trees and shrubs. Even trees that have not died outright may have been permanently damaged by the hot, dry conditions. It will take years for some sensitive forest tree species, such as hemlocks, to recover.

Yet, when the drought finally ended, as it has for most of the region, with as much as 6 or 7 inches of rain falling in just a few days, the total rainfall will probably make this an “average” season, in terms of total precipitation. In terms of temperature, it only takes a few cold nights to “average” out the 20-plus days over 90 degrees. 

We all know this has been a far from average growing season. Soils are capable of retaining only a certain amount of moisture. This is called “field capacity.” Once the soil is at field capacity, any additional rainfall either runs off, washing away some of the soil, or it puddles, creating a low oxygen condition that may suffocate roots.

Soils that have a lot of clay are capable of storing much more water than sandy soils. In a dry summer, such as this, plants growing on clay soils have fared far better than plants growing in sandy soils. Just as one cannot “catch up” on sleep by sleeping for 12 hours, after several days of four hours of sleep, our soils cannot “catch up” from a moisture deficit when we get several inches of rain in a hurry.  

The best we can do is to store the excess water in rain barrels and other containers for future use. Two weeks of no rain will negate any value from the previous downpours. You still need to water newly planted trees and shrubs weekly, in the absence of at least an inch of rain.

A few weeks ago I wrote about the steps needed for renovating a lawn or planting a new one. I neglected to mention that there are alternatives to planting grass seed. I was contacted by a company that sells “mini clover,” which is purported to provide a short growing ground cover that never needs to be mowed.

Both red and white clover are legumes that may be seeded now and both need no supplemental nitrogen fertilizer once established. Red clover grows too tall for most lawn lovers’ tastes, but white clover is shorter. The company is sending me some of their “mini clover” that I will test in a few places on my property. Stay tuned for the results! I personally would welcome a “no-mow” lawn!

By now you may have empty space in your vegetable garden where the beans have puttered out, or the cucumbers and summer squash are spent. Nature abhors a vacuum and weeds will soon colonize the bare soil unless you either mulch it heavily or plant a cover crop. Planting a quick-growing cover crop, such as oats, will prevent weeds from growing and will provide organic matter once the oats are killed by frost. Other cover crops, such as winter rye, will do the same, but they will survive the winter and you will need equipment to till them in next spring.

Fall wildflowers are appearing now, boosted by the recent rainfall. Beautiful wild purple and white asters are joining the many species of goldenrod we see in hayfields and pastures. Roadsides are showing an overabundance of purple loosestrife, as this imported weed is spreading at a rapid pace. Resist the temptation to transplant this weed to your property and if only a few plants are appearing along your road, you would be doing your neighbors a favor by removing them.

The highly invasive “knotweed” is also flowering now, with cascading white clusters of blossoms. It is also called “bamboo” since the very tall canes resemble species of bamboo. In many places it has created a monoculture that prohibits almost anything else from growing, as well as preventing access to the stream itself. As with purple loosestrife, early intervention is needed to prevent these weeds from becoming established, since both are almost impossible to eradicate once they get a foothold.

Some people hate both of these plants because of their habit of occupying space we would prefer to have occupied by other species of plants, but both are prized by beekeepers as sources of fall honey. Loosestrife honey is almost crystal clear whereas knotweed honey is dark, almost brown. Please remember that no plant, despite its origin or growth habit,a is inherently “evil.”  

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