Bring on the heat and humidity. Let it rain in sheets for a week and then dry our clay soil into concrete. Watch the marauding insects chew through the crops. Gardening season has arrived in Delaware and for all its vagaries, there’s nowhere else I’d rather sink a shovel.
Despite our constant grumblings – “Can you BELIEVE how hot/cold/wet/dry it’s been?!”- we live in an epicenter of great growing conditions. The mid-Atlantic overlaps two USDA hardiness zones which allows us to grow plants that won’t survive for our neighbors. Nestled into Zone 7a, we recently moved up from a 6b designation that had endured for decades and left us squarely in the realm of “northern” gardeners. Not anymore. Northern gardeners hate us because we can grow crape myrtles and camellias and leave our cannas in the ground with impunity. Tropical plants like New Zealand flax and eucalyptus grow back and even our tomatoes reseed. Try telling that to a Connecticut gardener without being impaled.
Southern gardeners hate us because we can grow tulips, daffodils, and all manner of flowering bulbs. They seethe at our endless varieties of trees and shrubs from a monotonous backdrop of palms and live oaks. Pretty trees, but give me dogwoods, flowering cherries, and buckeyes any day.
All these fabulous plant choices wouldn’t mean a thing without good soil. Delaware runs the gamut from Sussex’s sand to Kent and New Castle’s clay. As a source of frustration, the ubiquitous hard-pan clay wins every time. It stops a shovel like a brick and presents a similar challenge to root systems. The good news? Because of its dense structure, clay soil is actually loaded with nutrients vital to plants. The trick is not to till it to powder, but to aerate it naturally with plants with penetrating roots. Dogwoods, maples, lilacs, hydrangeas, grasses, sedums, and mint are just a sampling of plants that thrive in heavy clay.
Most soils in Delaware, mine included, reap the benefits of our state’s agricultural heritage and many a housing development sits atop a former crop field or orchard. The loam under our feet – if not cleared by modern construction practices (another article, another time) – is rich beyond measure, the result of years of added organic matter. For this reason, there are probably more back-yard vegetable gardeners per square inch in Delaware than in any other state. And we do it despite the critters.
Already this year the birds have sampled my strawberries, groundhogs have mown down some lettuce, deer have eviscerated a newly planted perennial border, and aphids destroyed my honeysuckle vine. And having just unloaded that, I feel better already. The crazy truth is, disaster stories are essential to a gardener’s well being. Without critters, we can’t get on our high horse and lord it over non-gardeners what an impossibly steep price we’re willing to pay just to brag loudly at the next pot-luck that the lettuce in the salad is home grown, the strawberries were picked that morning, and the asparagus isn’t quite as good as last year’s but still FAR superior to any of the store bought crap already on this table. Really, it’s that sick. Delaware might not have epic floods and tornadoes (yet), but it’s still fertile ground for disaster stories. Stinkbugs, anyone?
My sister from Connecticut (the impaling one) called recently to say none of her tulips had come back and she couldn’t even think about getting into her garden to plant her tomatoes and peppers. I told her to move to Delaware.