Don't let plants develop a thirst

I was reminded, following the first big rain in our recent series of storms, of the importance of watering fruit and vegetables evenly throughout their growing period. That surge of precipitation hit just after small berries appeared on one of our cherry trees and produced a growth spurt powerful enough to split the skins on all the fruit on that tree.

This tree happened to be near the front of our house, so we had the aroma of fermenting cherries wafting through the open windows for several days. The rotting fruit also attracted an amazing assortment of moths and butterflies, who lingered around the tree for the duration and seemed to fly a bit lazily and erratically after taking a nibble.

Tomatoes are especially susceptible to splitting from irregular watering, but so are melons and root crops such as beets and carrots. For that reason, the soil around any of these vegetables should never be allowed to dry completely. At the same time, the soil should not be constantly soggy.

During long periods without rain, the proper soil moisture can be maintained by a thorough watering that soaks the garden each week � as long as your garden is sufficiently mulched.

It may seem strange that I'm raising this issue when we are heading into the summer 3.5 inches ahead of normal year-to-date precipitation. This past weekend, my garden had dried just enough to allow me to walk around in it without leaving footprints, but the soil was still damp two knuckles down.

(This is the foolproof method I have developed to take shallow soil measurements. As science, the knuckle method is highly suspect because it's calibrated to my index finger and will not produce identical results in independent testing. I like it, however, because the necessary tool is always right there with me and not hundreds of yards away in the shed. In layman's terms, two knuckles is about an inch and a half.)

A couple of cloudless and breezy 90-degree days will dry unmulched soil further down than my finger can reach. A week of such weather will bake the soil under mulch as well. The trick is to monitor the dirt so you can time your waterings to do the most good. Now that most of my tomato plants are showing green fruit, the next four to six weeks will be particularly important.

The reason that tomatoes and melons head the list of crops susceptible to splitting is because of their high water content. Think of the fruit as balloons hooked up to a hose. When the soil is evenly moist, the plants slowly siphon water into the fruit, allowing their skins to expand gradually.

However, when the fruit and its plant are allowed to become thirsty, they behave very predictably. The sudden availability of a lot of water is an opportunity for a good, long drink. The plant pumps water into the fruit rapidly and the fruit swells quickly. The skins don't have time to adjust to their enlarged girth, and split.

All fruit and vegetables have water content, of course, but splitting is less an issue with some than others. Cucumber and squash, for example, rarely split but can develop irregular shapes from sudden water surges. For example, you might wind up with light-bulb-shaped cukes or zucchini. Peppers also don't split but they do develop stretch marks on their skins in the form of raised, brown veins.

In other vegetables, alternating extremes of wet and dry soil can affect flavor. Onions are notorious in this regard. Those that have gone through long spells without watering tend to be sharper or hotter in flavor. Most garden sweet corn is more tolerant of drought, but I have been told that kernels deprived of water will turn starchy quicker.

The trick to gardening in northeast Kansas is to be aware that the weather is marked by extremes that quickly erase each other. The cool, wet weather we have had for the past month could be negated by another month of rainless heat. It's important to remember that few of the fruit and vegetables we grow in our gardens are even remotely native to this climate.

Although seed breeding and selection have given us varieties that feel more at home here, these plants still need help adapting.

� When she's not writing about foods and gardening, Gwyn Mellinger is teaching journalism at Baker University. Her phone number is (785) 594-4554.


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