Healthy Beginnings

And They Call the Wind “the Dryer”

hollyhock_gardening300“A Rough Patch”

These late spring days, my sister Beth and I often have coffee on the side porch by my flower garden. It usually smells fresh this time of year.

“It’s always windy around your place,” Beth commented. “You should do something about it. It’s not good for the plants.”

“I don’t like to take antacids. Besides, it’s a natural process, and it’s simply hyperbole that it can kill plants or strip paint or any of that other stuff.”

Beth looked puzzled. “It must be blowing twenty miles an hour. See those branches whipping? You know that’s not good for your garden.”

Oh.

She’s right about the wind at my house. She lives in town, where buildings and fences shield plants from the brunt of the wind. But I live out in sagebrush suburbia, where houses are separated by several hundred feet, and the neighbors’ fences and trees aren’t close enough to do much but funnel the wind my direction.

That wind can do considerable damage. A study at the Panhandle Agricultural Experiment Station in Oklahoma found average decrease in yield of grain crops exposed to strong winds to be almost fifteen percent. The study noted that the damage wasn’t caused by a lack of water (although wind does cause considerable moisture loss), but probably from leaf destruction and energy going to tissue repair rather than production.

The same study suggests that wind can cause deformed plants, and can delay crop maturity. This last is no small factor in the short growing season here in the high desert.

In our dry conditions, the wind-whipped sand that strips paint off your house won’t do your cucumbers any favors either. It abrades the skin of plants, allowing even more moisture to evaporate. If the wind does stop blowing, dust on the plants interferes with respiration and photosynthesis.

Beth is right. My plants need protection.

A first line of defense is proper choice of garden location. My worst winds come from the south, so the north sides of buildings get some protection. Unfortunately, most of my sensitive plants are on the south side of the house.

As a more permanent solution, I’ve planted some shrubs and trees on the south and west sides of my garden. I like a more natural look, so I staggered them in a seemingly random pattern, being careful to locate trees with thirsty roots further back. They won’t be large enough to be of much use for a few years, and in the interim, other options are available, depending upon budget and aesthetics.

The cheapest solution is to use one plant to shelter another. Last year, I planted corn in a wide arc around the garden. Once it was high enough, it was a creditable windbreak. The year before, I used sunflowers. However, the need to rotate crops limits those options. Garden design is a bit like the logic puzzle where you have a fox, a chicken, and a bag of grain to row across a river, and you can only take one at a time.

The budget vs. aesthetics battle heats up when it comes to a fence. I’d love a dry-stacked stone wall around my garden. There are more than plenty of rocks in the country, but my back won’t take the DIY route, and my budget won’t take the contractor route.

A screen made of bamboo or willow would be quite a bit less expensive, and still attractive. Or I could build a rail fence, and cover it with grapevines.

Out here in sagebrush suburbia, I can get away with going very low budget, with a resulting dip in snob appeal. I can use snow fence, or even anchor a few wooden pallets with steel posts.

Tacky? Maybe. But in any case, it will protect my garden. And if I’m lucky, it will leave just enough of a breeze to waft away any unintentional odors.

References:

1. http://digital.library.okstate.edu/oas/oas_pdf/v09/p24_27.pdf

2. http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/vegetable/vpm/vpmjan97.pdf

3. http://www.wfpn.net/leaflet_02_planning.html

When Teresa Howell isn’t being windy, she teaches English at Great Basin College in Winnemucca, NV.