Oh Hail!

hail_home_plh-1It was the house-shaking boom of thunder that first caught my attention. As my ears recovered, I heard a drumming on the roof, a steady beat that rapidly got louder and louder. More flashes of lightning. More thunder. I stopped chopping up celery for the stir-fry I was making, and looked outside. Sure enough, that wasn’t just rain I was hearing. It was hail.

Vicious icy balls almost an inch in diameter were pelting the house, bouncing on the driveway, burying the flower borders. I switched windows so I could see my veggie plot. That was a mistake. It’s such a helpless feeling to watch a lovingly tended garden, the beds I had so carefully weeded just hours ago, turn into lime sherbet.

The storm lasted fifteen agonizing minutes. Then the pelting ice was replaced by a torrential rain—as if to say, “There, there. I killed you. Now let me give you a drink—with a fire hose.” Mother Nature often seems pretty malicious.

Numb. Discouraged. Angry. I couldn’t go look. Not then.

This morning I ventured out with my camera, both to assess the damage and to record it. If I couldn’t harvest veggies, perhaps I could at least get some decent photos. As I worked my way up and down my four-by-twelve-foot beds, I began to see a pattern. Some plants were totally demolished. Others appeared mostly unscathed. What was the difference? What lessons could I learn?

hail-damage-on-lettuce_home_lah_5122As I expected, the lettuce looked more like coleslaw. But not every variety suffered equally. The ready-to-pick butter lettuce, with its broad, tender leaves, fared the worst. All that remained were pale green mounds of crushed and broken leaves. Loose leaf varieties were almost as bad. But the Batavian heads were actually in good shape. Sure, there were some holes and bruises, but the sturdier leaves had repelled the worst of the hail.

Not many people are aware of Batavian lettuce. It has characteristics of both iceberg and green leaf lettuce. The inner leaves form a rounded head that’s thick, succulent, and very crunchy, but the plants are darker green, have a lot more flavor, and hopefully more nutrition as well. My preferred variety is ‘Nevada,” but it’s getting harder and harder to find. I was relieved the plants survived; I intend to let some bloom and collect my own seeds this year.

hail-damage-on-bush-beans_home_lah_5088I moved on to the beans. The bush varieties I’d planted in single rows (in front of the row of peas, for example) were decimated—there were more leaves on the ground than there were on the plants. Those plants growing in a four by four foot patch did better. They must have supported one another. The pole beans, growing vertically, looked perfectly healthy—no damage at all. Hmm…

I was afraid to check the summer squash. All those huge leaves would surely look like lacework. And sure enough, some of the plants did. But the plants in my biggest “hill,” the ones with the most flowers and baby zucchini, had nary a hole. When I set out the seedlings last May, I had stuck a peony ring (also used to cage small tomato plants) over the seedlings and laid a two-foot square of quarter-inch hardware cloth over the top. At the time, I had draped a frost-protecting plastic sheet over the whole structure, but I’d taken that off ages ago. For some reason, I left the ring and hardware cloth. It had deflected every hailstone. Aha! This morning I’m heading to the home improvement store for more hardware cloth.

tarragon_home_lah_5125The rest of the garden was pretty much what I expected. Fine-leaved plants such as parsley, carrots, and most herbs, were barely nicked. My one hundred onion plants only lost two leaves among them. Even the beets did okay. The chard was full of holes, but it should recover. As new leaves grow, I’ll pull off the damaged ones and feed them to the hens.

pole-peans_home_lah_5113nefAnyone who gardens along the Front Range eventually learns to deal with hail. It’s inevitable. The trick is to protect our plants without smothering them. I’ll remember to plant fairly densely, in beds rather than rows. I’ll make judicious use of row covers, hardware cloth, old window screens, and the like. I’ll focus on herbs, onions, carrots, and other vertical or small-leaved crops.

A small greenhouse provides the ultimate in hail protection.  Years ago we constructed one out of used building materials, and it shelters my heat-loving crops–tomatoes, eggplant, cucumbers, basil–all planted directly in the ground. I realize that’s not a possibility for everyone, but building your own may cost less than you think.

In the end, I won’t let a hail storm stop me for long. Hopefully the plants in my garden will have that same attitude!

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