Out in my vegetable garden, the late-morning sun scalds my neck as I clip off yesterday’s “potato chip leaves” from my butternut squash plants. In my 40 years of raising vegetables, I’ve never had this problem of leaves air-frying on the vine, crisp and brown like potato chips. My husband comes over with his make-shift shade cover, a contraption of 40% shade cloth stretched over a frame of PVC piping, supported by four bamboo poles. We work together to angle the frame so it protects against the blistering sun. We’ll do the same for the next raised bed…and the next.

In recent years, I’ve focused on growing food we can eat during the winter, so this spring, I over-planted butternut squash. Twelve little seedlings emerged. I transplanted three to another bed, leaving nine healthy seedlings to fill the raised bed. They were doing just fine; the 2:00 AM drip watering and layer of mulch kept the ground moist. And then on July 7th we were hit with a mega-heat wave.

110 degrees Fahrenheit!

I took a photo of the outside temperature reading and sent it to our daughters. “Look at this: 105 degrees! No, wait, it’s now 106.” Every half hour I documented the rising temperature until it peaked at 110 degrees. These were Death Valley temperatures – not our mountain homestead’s. I was so absorbed with the thermometer, that I didn’t think about my veggies until my evening stroll out in the garden.

I’m aware that some leaves naturally wilt on hot days – it’s the plant’s natural response to preserving moisture, especially the cucurbit family: squash, cucumbers, melons. They’ll usually perk up again when it cools if the soil is moist.

But this was different. The sun was hot, but even in the shade, the air itself was pizza-oven hot. About half of my butternut squash and cucumber leaves were dried crisp as potato chips. Young tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants were so shocked and set back, that this will probably be the first year I won’t have enough tomatoes to can.

We’re like the proverbial frog who’s merrily swimming in a pot of cold water, hardly noticing the slowly increasing temperature until it’s too late and he’s boiled to death – which is probably how the extreme heat of 2021 snuck up on me.  Climate patterns have shifted slowly over several decades, but now, they’re ramping up. In the late 1970s when we first settled into the western slope of the Northern California Sierra, it was common to get 2-3 feet of snow at a time. Today we’re lucky to get 2-3 inches at a time. Same with rain. Whereas we used to count on rain starting November, now we’re lucky to start getting substantial rainfall in January or February. We worry that our well might run dry.

The end of gardening as I’ve known it and time for a whole new gardening strategy

The extreme heat wave of July 7, 2021 and subsequent hotter-than-usual days will forever change the way I garden. I’m already thinking of new strategies for next year’s vegetable garden and I’m hoping you might have ideas to add to the list.

Please send your suggestions to me at: heartwoodnovel@gmail.com, and I’ll share them in a future blog.

Here’s my start:

  1. Focus on seeds that are drought and heat tolerant. I’ve a feeling we’ll be seeing more of these in the 2022 seed catalogues.
  2. Create moveable shade covers for my raised beds that can also serve as early/late frost protection. You can do a lot with PVC pipes and shade cloth.
  3. Study how indigenous peoples and desert dwellers grow food in hot, arid climates,  such as the “Three Sisters” approach where corn, squash, and climbing beans create a supportive environment for each other.
  4. Focus on plants that grow well in the shoulder seasons of spring and fall when it’s not so hot.
  5. Let the shade of tall or vertical crops shade plants below. I might plant corn as a wall of shade in each bed.
  6. Continue automatic drip watering between 1-4 am, and mulch, mulch, mulch to preserve moisture. Mist plant leaves by hand in the cool of the evening.
  7. Research the “50 Future Foods” project that I wrote about in Heart Wood.

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I’ll end with a new plant in my garden that is growing well in this year’s heat: the North Georgia Candy Roaster Pumpkin. Originally cultivated by the Cherokee peoples in Southeastern part of our country, it’s like a cross between a butternut squash and pumpkin and stores well. I can’t wait to try it this winter!


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Contact the author at: heartwoodnovel@gmail.com

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