Gardeners should plan for dry spell

As inconvenient as the recent snowfall may have been, heavy snow in winter is the best thing that can happen to an early-spring vegetable garden.

Most of us in northeast Kansas received 6 to 8 inches of snow earlier this month. Those to the west and south got more, but even our half a foot of snow will go a long way toward compensating for lagging precipitation totals during the past year, particularly because the snow stayed on the ground awhile.

We're getting extra benefit from the snowfall because the temperatures have warmed slowly. This means that we've had little, if any, runoff and the snowmelt has been gradually absorbed into the soil. While we didn't get enough precipitation to help us out during the coming summer, the ground will be moist enough to give early-season vegetables a good start.

In a gardener's perfect world, we'd get another snowstorm next week, just like the last one, it would take a week to melt, and temperatures would warm into the 60s, under sunny skies, and stay there through St. Patrick's Day. This would dry the ground out enough to till, and the sunshine would elevate the soil temperatures into the 60s. March plantings of potatoes, onions, carrots, peas and greens would thrive and we'd all garden happily ever after.

Such is the state of my middle-aged fantasy life.

Lack of moisture in forecast

As a practical matter, however, the second snowstorm is unlikely and spring showers probably will be hard to come by. Forecast maps on the National Weather Service Web site suggest that we're in for another dry spring. In fact, I could find no indication that the meteorologists expect us to get any significant rain through May. Moreover, the subsoil moisture maps for northeast Kansas show us continuing to run negative numbers.

The obvious result of a lack of rainfall in the spring is that we will have to water more than we'd like and we probably will have to begin watering earlier. If these spring rainfall predictions are correct, and if we also have a hot, dry summer, it is likely that gardeners will have to water through the entire season in order to harvest crops. After all, vegetables are nothing more than a little fiber and a lot of water.

What to do now

We can do certain things now to improve our odds.

The most obvious is to plant varieties of vegetables that can produce on less water. In reading catalog descriptions or the verbiage on the back of seed packets, look for such terms as "drought-resistant" and "heat-tolerant."

You'll also want to make sure that you grow varieties that are disease-resistant because plants that are stressed from low moisture are more susceptible to illness.

The second important step is to lay out a garden that leaves less space between rows and individual plants so you will waste less water when you turn on the tap. Obviously, you will need to space plants far enough apart that they aren't crowding each other, but you can double them up.

Take bush beans, for example. They easily can be seeded in double rows, in furrows about 18 inches apart. Between the seed rows, create a third furrow to run water into -- or better yet, to hold a soaker hose. Then when you mulch and water, your resources will go twice as far.

The third step to be taking now is to be planning for mulch. Start stockpiling it now -- leaves, grass and straw. If your mulching program is going to involve straw, break the bales apart and water them. You'll want them to rot enough to kill the seed they contain.

Unfortunately, when your vegetables struggle in a drought, the weeds will thrive.

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