To grow big stuff, go north

Friday, March 21, 2003

When we lived in northern Idaho -- gee, that seems like a couple of lifetimes ago -- we were guaranteed that the winters were no harsher there than those we grew up with in southern and central Missouri.

If you look at any of those climate-zone maps in gardening magazines, there is a band of moderate growing weather that extends from the bottom half of Missouri all the way to Idaho.

We also were told not to worry about snow during the Idaho winters. So we moved there in January.

Here's what we learned from that experience:

Do not believe what anyone says about the weather if you're being enticed to move to a strange land.

As it turns out, there wasn't much snow for the remainder of our first Idaho winter. We were beginning to think our new friends could be trusted with weather facts.

So when the end of October rolled around, we were feeling pretty good about getting older son into his duck costume to go trick-or-treating for the first time. As my wife and son left to knock on neighbors' doors, we noticed a few snow flurries.

I'm guessing they were gone a full 20 to 25 minutes. By the time they returned, there was nearly a foot of snow of the ground. The snow did not stop -- I'm not making this up -- until Easter the next year. You can look it up for yourself.

Our house was at the bottom of a hill. The snow drifted over the garage behind the house and up to the roof on the living-room end of the house. Snowmobiles coming down the hill behind our house would take side trips over our garage.

I'm telling you all of this to set the stage for summer in Idaho, which, we all recall, was delightful. No one had central air that I can remember, except for the publisher of the newspaper where I worked. He had built a new home smack-dab in the middle of a wheat field despite his family's severe allergies. So they had central air to produce breathable air. I believed most of that story.

Being the products of Missouri gardeners, my wife and I couldn't wait for the first warm days of April. We had just moved from New York where my wife grew planters of nasturtiums on the fire escape.

When the sun had melted the Idaho snow and thawed the yard a bit, I dug up a garden patch that was bordered on the back by native spruce trees. My wife planted nasturtiums, of course. I planted pumpkins. Don't ask me why, because I honestly don't know.

I've heard stories about the oversized vegetables and gigantic flowers that grow in Alaska, but I didn't believe them until my wife and I saw them two or three years ago. We were stunned that anything could grow so profusely and so quickly after such harsh winters.

This year, I've been comparing what we saw in Alaska to our own yard, where everything seems to have popped out as soon as we stopped shoveling snow from the driveway.

In just over a week, daffodils not only sprouted green foliage, but also burst into yellow blossoms. The boxwood hedge looks like it overdosed on steroids. The day lily leaves are growing several inches a day.

As usual, a construction-challenged squirrel is, once again, attempting to build a nest in the big oak in the front yard. And, as usual, he or she is failing miserably. The squirrel breaks off a lot of little limbs and begins to assemble them into something resembling a nest. With one misstep, the whole project comes crashing to the ground, leaving a mess of sticks to clean up.

I've suggested more than a couple of times that this squirrel might prefer Idaho, where nasturtiums and pumpkins clamber up spruce-tree trellises. And I tell the squirrel with a straight face that winters there are pretty nice too.

R. Joe Sullivan is the editor of the Southeast Missourian.

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