Drought only delays growth, blooms

Posted Oct. 29, 2010, at 9:10 p.m.
Janine Pineo Photo  A rhododendron blossoms in October in the author's front yard.
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Janine Pineo Photo A rhododendron blossoms in October in the author's front yard.

Drought does funny things to plants.

Consider my two rows of potatoes, planted in mid-June, just as the weather was ramping up into its nearly water-free period.

The spuds sprouted in short order, and I hoed the rows as usual, starting to pile up the beginnings of a mound for the next round of hoeing.

Never happened.

The plants sat there in some sort of drought-induced stasis while I waited for the rain to fall.

And waited and waited.

The plants microgrew, if that. Even the potato bugs gave up on them.

In late August, I decided to have potato for supper and ventured into the patch to dig a hill.

Sure, there were potatoes, but they were puny.

Gourmet size, some would call them.

Pig-potato size, my grandfather would call them.

I figured that was that.

Then a lot of rain came.

And guess what happened?

The potatoes grew.

And grew.

We ended up with a decent crop along with a few whoppers.

Then there were the carrots. To get them to sprout, I kept watering the topsoil after I planted the seeds. Then I hoped for the best.

Itsy little tops rose above the soil — and stayed just above the soil — for most of the summer.

Rain came to that section of the garden, too, and just last weekend I yanked three substantial carrots out of the ground, the largest about 6 inches long and perfectly straight.

The taste? Exquisite.

Hard to tell since they are underground, but I have high hopes for the rest of the carrot bed.

Same scenario with the celeriac. The tops looked good, but the bulbous root was nonexistent. Then we got loads of rain, and the plants are now sporting a solid root. They may not be as large as I’ve grown in the past, but given the alternative, I’m pleased.

It wasn’t only root crops that got happy with the rain.

Some of my celery plants went from spindly to splendid. I broke off a stalk a couple of weekends ago, expecting a woody, desiccated shell, but it snapped off with a crack and I stood there eating it, dirt and all.

This past weekend, I harvested three bunches, and we cooked them for dinner.

The annual flowers had interesting drought responses, too.

Most of them grew smaller than normal, but all bets were off once the rain came. Nasturtiums, clarkia, sunflowers and nigella all came into their own late in the season. The plants were small, but the flowers were abundant.

I never expected the gladiolus bulbs to do anything at all, yet the combination of rain and the lack of a killing frost — along with a hefty row cover on the colder nights — meant I was picking spikes of glads in October. There are still a half-dozen or so plants just starting to open flower spikes for one last hurrah, if only I can keep them from freezing.

The craziest thing I’ve seen this fall, though, made me doubt my sanity.

Early this month as the dog and I headed out for our walking trail, I pulled the car out onto the road, moving just a score of feet when a flash of color caught my eye.

It wasn’t the usual warm bursts of fall’s red, gold and orange.

No, this was purple.

Rhododendron purple.

Yup, the largest rhododendron was spotted all over with flowers.

I told myself I hadn’t seen what I had seen. But when I got back from our walk, I moseyed out to the front yard.

Delighted, but heartsick, I marveled at the sight of my Rhododendron ‘P.J.M.’ in bloom in October.

I wondered what set it off. And I feared what this meant for spring. Would it do anything at all come May?

I did a search on the Internet and found an article from Purdue University’s Extension from 2005, when there seemed to be a rash of rogue blooming in Purdue’s vicinity.

Horticulturist B. Rosie Lerner wrote, “Spring-blooming woody plants … rely on chilling to stimulate maturation of the flower buds.” Enough cool nights, she wrote, can provide enough chill “to result in plants blooming out of their ‘normal’ sequence.”

A 1981 article from The American Rhododendron Society raised the possibility that a period of drought followed by “a thorough soaking of the soil, then warm weather” could stimulate the plants to bloom. The author, Dr. Sandra McDonald, also mentions some cold treatment, a lot of detail about breaking dormancy with the use of something called gibberellic acid, and a discussion on starch to sugar conversions.

Those are just a few of her observations.

Mine’s a wee bit less scientific.

We had a drought. Then we had a lot of rain. It was warm, then cold, then warm, then cold, otherwise known as fall in Maine.

Then my rhododendrons bloomed.

Seems simple to me. Weird, but simple.

jpineo@bangordailynews.com

www.janinepineo.com

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