Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Fast growing plants


You’ve no doubt heard the old folktales about fast growing plants back in the early days when our virgin soils were supposedly so bountifully fertile. In one of them, a farm wife notices that a squash has formed on a vine in her new garden. Before she can pick it, a sudden rain falls, sending her inside for awhile. Later she goes back out to get the squash only to find that the vine, nourished by the rain, has already snaked out of the garden and is headed down the lane. She chases after it but can’t catch up. She grabs an ax and severs the vine thereby stopping the runaway squash. The storyteller usually concludes by saying, with all due solemnity, that this is how farmers in the good old days learned to put little sleds under their watermelons so that fast moving vines would not ruin the fruit while dragging it over the ground.

Sometimes in June when there is plenty of rain, warm temperatures and sunlight hours, I half-believe those tall tales even though we all know that no matter how fast the vines might grow, the melons or squashes stay where they first appear. A few days ago, I put up the electric fence around the corn to stop the dratted deer. The fence runs next to the grape arbor on one side and I made sure the wire was at least two feet from any vines. Two mornings later, I kid you not, a couple of vines had grown out over the wire.

I got to wondering. Just how fast can a plant grow in the long hot days of June and July when soil moisture is optimum. I am going to bet on bittersweet. One day I drove up the lane passed the bittersweet on the fence without incident. The next day a bittersweet vine had stretched out far enough to reach into the pickup window and jabbed me in the ear.

But corn might be faster, especially when growing on soil rich in organic matter. When it reaches about knee high, it can grow six inches on a warm, moist night in late June or early July. You can actually hear it growing at such a time if you stand out in the middle of a cornfield. And that’s not folklore. All those thousands upon thousands of leaves stretching out and reaching skyward make a very slight rustling sound. No, not from wind. You hear it best when there is no wind to make a rustle.

This is a good year to observe fast growth here in our neighborhood. It has been very rainy with many warm days since the middle of April. The potatoes grew a foot in the first three weeks. Our lawn mower went on the blink right at the time the grass took off (you might know) and in just five days, the turf had grown up nearly a foot tall. Some weed (Carol says it is a kind of ragwort) grew up even taller and blossomed a sprightly yellow, making me wonder once again if we are not all a little crazy for mowing our lawns so often.

But it is the fast growth of the pastures that has been most awesome to watch. Those of us who have developed permanent, managed pastures of grass and clover undisturbed by cultivation and enriched with manure from the grazing animals for a decade or more now, saw our pasture plants just erupt in the hot, moist weather. I could be grazing three times the number of sheep I have. The clover is so lush it could be making prime steaks as tasty as corn-fed. When the sheep lay down, they disappear from sight. My old tractor rotary mower will barely cut through the grass even after the sheep have been grazing a plot for ten days. While growers of annual crops struggle to get the corn and soybeans in the ground (some soybean fields still have not been planted in the first week of June) we are literally rolling in the clover. I’ve made hay out of some of the excess and some I just let molder away into the sod as green manure when the weather was too wet for making hay.

If I could keep this up for another fifty years, my goodness, I would not dare grow any squash or melons in these pasture soils. The vines might race off to the road before I could stop them and cause an accident.

Problems spotted in economic revivalThe U.S. Exports More Corn Ethanol

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