Friday, June 5, 2009

Big Light in Night Sky Scares California Gardeners!

Fridays we delve into the e-mail bag...Ask the Snarky Farmer!
Brenda writes:
"I'm sure you are getting a lot of e-mails about the weather we had last night: rain, thunder and lightning! The onions and garlic we had growing all winter are now water-logged and a lot of the dirt has been rained away. The tomato plants lost a lot of their flowers and the limbs have been split. We are growing in raised beds and wine barrels. Do we need to start over or will all be better? This is our second summer growing a garden."

For you folks reading this blog outside of California: yes, we are weather weenies. However, in our defense, "weather" this time of year is highly unusual. A typical forecast for May through September here: "Sunny. Highs in the 80's and 90's; Lows in the 50's and 60's. Light winds." As a result, most TV meteorologists here take a vacation for five months, replaced either by video of newborn zoo animals or Sham-Wow! commercials.
A sampling of Twitter reactions by Golden Staters to the recent thunder, rain and lightning storms that hit most of California in early June:
"We're getting wet! Run!!!" 
"I'm crawling under the house with the cats!"

The headline in the newspaper the next day: "Sales of Depends Soar After T-Storms"

But, I digress, Brenda. Thoughts of adults walking around in wet pants amuses me.
Plants have amazing healing powers. You can help by removing any dangling, broken branches on your tomatoes. Flowers on tomatoes will reappear soon. Your garden soil is swamped? Onions and garlic benefit when grown in raised beds; there's improved drainage that way. And better "raised beds" include sides to hold the soil in place. The sides can be made of anything solid: wood, brick, rocks, plastic, etc. As you may have discovered, heavy rains can wash soil away if it just in mounds. And those wine barrels should be long as you have sizable drainage holes in the bottom: perhaps three or four holes about one inch in diameter. It helps to slightly raise those wine barrels; sometimes those drainage holes get clogged if the bottom is flush with the existing soil outside the barrel.

However, as any pro golfer (especially Lee Trevino) can tell you, getting hit by lightning is no fun. And that applies to our garden plants, especially tall trees. According to the University of Hawaii, here are the symptoms of lightning-induced plant damage: 
• There is rapid wilting or collapse of plants or stems, in combination with structural damage or carbonization (burning or black scorching) of the internal stem tissues, and/or browning or blackening of leaves, fruits, or stems.
• Symptoms develop rapidly; they appear in days rather than weeks.
• Symptom onset coincides with recent thunderstorms.
• A circular area of plants in a field or orchard are affected, or there are other areas of the farm with similar symptoms and time of symptom onset.
• There is premature mass dropping of green fruit.
• There are burns or strange scars on plants or organs.
• Roots may be blackened or cooked.
• Interior plant tissues such as stem pith, xylem and phloem are blown out of the stem.
• For crops such as sugar beets, potatoes or sweet potatoes, underground tubers or roots are cooked.
• There is lighting damage to nearby telephone poles or transformers.

"Damage occurs in circular pattern with most severely affected plants in center; branches, stems and petioles show shrinkage due to collapse of pith; ladder-like internal stem damage."

There are those, however, who believe that a dramatic sky show can be beneficial to your garden soil. The electricity emitted by lightning might have contributed to your plants' growth, according to research underway at Imperial College in England.
    Dr. Andrew Goldsworthy, of that school's Department of Biological Sciences, has been studying the effects of electric currents on cell growth in plants.
    "The basic observation is that when plant cells are exposed to weak electric currents, they allow in tiny amounts of calcium ions, which stimulate metabolism and growth," explains Dr. Goldsworthy. "This is part of a natural mechanism by which plant cells coordinate their growth, since weak electric currents generated by individual cells are normally used to control the growth of neighboring cells. All that happens in a thunderstorm is that the natural electric currents flowing from the atmosphere (even before the lightning starts to flash) may have the same effect."
    And if that kindles your curiosity, consider this: Goldsworthy's studies indicate that passing your garden water supply through a magnetic field may achieve above normal rates of growth, as well.
    "I have looked at the effects of 'magnetic water' (also known as physically conditioned water) on cells," says Goldsworthy. "It appears to make cells more permeable, probably by removing some of the calcium ions which help to hold their membranes together (in much the same way as it can remove lime scale from pipes). This, too, could allow in calcium ions from the outside and stimulate metabolism and growth. The effect of irrigating with conditioned water is therefore rather similar to exposing the plants to high voltages, but obviously cheaper and much safer !"

     There are, of course, those who take a different view, including Kathy Miles of the website: "Another idea about lightning I sometimes hear is that it makes grass and other plants greener because it is good for them, writes Miles. "Lightning does help produce a form of nitrogen that is useful for growing plants. What happens is that lightning causes oxygen and nitrogen to combine and form nitrogen oxide, a key ingredient in many fertilizers. However, it doesn't produce enough to make a difference. Any nitrogen oxide formed would be blown thousands of kilometers away, and would take days to actually wash down to the ground. Whatever help the nitrogen oxides is, (it) happens much farther away, and after a storm. If your grass is greener after a thunderstorm, we're told it may be due to the extra rain and quick return of sunshine."

     One company attempted to put Goldsworthy's ideas into a product line: a one gallon watering can with an electrical element on the bottom. The premise: fill the container with water and plug it in, let it work for awhile, then pour the water around your plants. The result: healthier plants because of the oxygenated water. Their literature states: "When tested at the University of Minnesota, petunias created 28 percent more flowers, geraniums had 76 percent more flower weight, pepper plants had a 58 percent better pepper yield, and tomato plants yielded 22 percent more tomatoes, on average."
     I tried it last year. Didn't see any difference in the growth habits of the test plants. And, it was only a one gallon container, so it didn't treat very many plants. Plus, the idea of mixing water and electricity? Mmmm, no thanks. Lightning is scary enough to us Californians.

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