Home & Design December 08, 2008
Gardening Lore

The day is gorgeous. Warm sun is melting the last of the snow on the ground, and leaves are just beginning to bud on the trees . . . proving, once again, that April in the Wood River Valley can be deceptively inspiring.

A woman bursts through the doors at Webb Garden Center, where I work, and says, “Point me to the annuals.” I smile and explain that they haven’t arrived yet. “What?” she exclaims. “Then point me to the perennials.” Again, I explain that they haven’t arrived yet. “Well then,” she says as she heads out the door, “I guess I’ll just have to go to Twin Falls!” About three minutes later, she bursts in again. “Point me to the roses, I’m planting something today!”

And so it goes in this high mountain desert we call home. Local gardeners itch to get their hands in the soil and dirt under their nails. Some are recent arrivals from warmer climates and can’t believe they have to wait almost two months longer to hit their knees and let the smell of the good earth waft its way to their nostrils. “But, back home …” they say, and we at the garden centers just keep trying to convince them to be patient.

When the leaves of the lilacs are squirrel-ear size, plant your cool-season crops; when they are full-grown, plant your warm season crops.
– Carol Blackburn

Over many years of gardening, old-timers have passed along some apt wisdom about what it takes to garden up and down this valley. My first recollection (from back in the 1970s) of local gardening lore was the advice to never plant anything before the Papoose Club Plant Sale, which usually took place in early June. I didn’t understand why back then, but I do know now why most gardeners here waited for that magic date. We can have a frost, even snow, all the way into July, but our killing frost date is usually sometime in early June. We range from Agricultural Zone 4 at the southern end, around Carey, Picabo and Bellevue, to Zone 3 from about mid-Valley to Ketchum—and possibly even Zone 2 farther north, where the growing season can be as short as two months.

I work with—or have had the opportunity to pick the brains of—several of these great, local, longtime gardeners. Some of their lore and bits of advice are whimsical and fun; others just plain make sense, when you think about it.

I do my taxes, I plant my peas;taxes in the mail, peas in the ground.
– Helen Stone

A number of my advisers commented on the forsythia blooming: Its many flowers won’t open until the ground thaws, marking the time you can plant cool-season crops like broccoli, radishes, rhubarb, and peas. Helen Stone of Hailey says, “I do my taxes, I plant my peas: taxes in the mail, peas in the ground.” Hardy, cool-season crops can be planted six to eight weeks before the last killing frost.

Mark Palmer at Webb Nursery says to apply pre-emergents (weed seed control) between the forsythia and the lilac bloom. >>>



Carol Blackburn suggests, “When the leaves of the lilacs are squirrel-ear size, plant your cool-season crops; when they are full-grown, plant your warm-season crops.” This bit of lore was even tested by the United States Weather Service, and the results held true. Blackburn also said that the Fredrickson and Brown families from Timmerman, “way back when,” would wait until the last snow patch on Kelly Mountain looked like a horse’s head before they would plant their vegetables. (Kelly Mountain is between Croy and Deer Creek canyons.)

Trudi McGonigal of Bellevue offers, “Don’t plant your veggies until the snow is off Della Mountain.” She has good luck with all types of plants, from apples to zinnias, and gardeners come from all over the Valley to seek her sage advice.

Plant things that bear fruit above ground with seeds on the outside (broccoli, dill, spinach) on the new moon.

And about the frost? “Oh, the frost!” exclaims Vicky Riedel of Picabo, who fills milk jugs with water and sets them next to each plant. The sun heats the water, which then radiates warmth back to keep the tender plants from freezing through the night.

The Street sisters, Penelope and Pam, learned their gardening and weather lore from their dad. Pam says he had a glass hot house in Ketchum some forty years ago, and their family reaped great tomatoes—a special treat because, as most local gardeners have learned, tomatoes don’t grow readily in Ketchum.

Penelope does her gardening by the moon and suggests this Web site for anyone else who’d like to try: www.biodynamics.com. Gardening by the moon, also called lunar planting, is an ancient practice that has to do with taking advantage of the phases of the moon and its gravitational pull, which influences tides and also pulls sap up into plants or, vice versa, down into their roots.

According to this technique, plant things that bear fruit above ground with seeds on the outside (broccoli, dill, spinach) on the new moon. This is also a good time to plant annuals. On the waxing moon, plant things that bear fruit above ground, especially those with seeds on the inside (peas, squash, cukes). On the full moon, plant things that bear fruit below ground (potatoes, beets, carrots). Harvest aboveground crops and plant perennials on the full moon, too. When the moon is waning, it’s a good time to pull weeds and clean up the garden.

Penelope also shares the sage advice of an old-timer, Lucy Loken, who gardened on Trail Creek. Lucy never planted her sweet peas before Good Friday, and warned that our hardest freeze in both spring and fall was always right before the full moon.

Most everyone notes that at the end of the season—when we really know gardening season is over—we can easily be fooled by our beautiful Indian summer. (Penelope reminds us to be sure to plant asters to enjoy at this time of year. The purple, burgundy, and pink flowers blend beautifully with the fall colors on a warm September evening—an extra gift for us gardeners to enjoy.) Then fall arrives in earnest, the birds are gone, the frost is on the punkin … and where did the time go?!

Have you ever wondered what, exactly, is meant by “the frost is on the punkin”? It means that harvest is done, the apple cider is made, the hay is in the barn and, as the poem by that name says, “They’s something kindo’ harty-like about the atmusfere/ When the heat of summer’s over and the coolin’ fall is here.”

Intrepid gardener, writer, and illustrator Poo Wright-Pulliam has dirt under her nails throughout the gardening season. Many years of experience with the Wood River Valley’s fickle weather patterns have taught her to rely heavily on Mother Nature’s signals.