You know people ask me about the weather: I’m a farmer. This “winter” has been an interesting time to talk about the weather. Consistent warm weather this past winter made last week’s seasonable cold seem out of place in March. I remember an April Easter freeze in 2007 that was later and colder than the recent cold snap.
Apparently blueberry growers in Georgia are facing a crop loss that is on par with 2007. Fatal crop damage happens at a certain stage of growth-open blooms through fruit stages. Putting those facts together, it looks like the blueberries are three weeks ahead of where they were in 2007. That is, they bloomed and fruited early this year due to the warm winter.
Floral timing is a seasonal indicator that integrates the important factors for plants to break dormancy. Before flowering each season, plants take in factors like chill time, hours of light, air temperatures and, most importantly, soil temperature. That’s what makes blueberries bloom early in the season and crepe myrtles bloom in the summer, for example.
One thing I noticed about floral/leaf bud timing this year is that native species like the redbud and dogwood were closer to normal timing than were the non-native species. For example, our azalea bloomed very early and crepe myrtles had started to unfurl their leaves.
Most people I talk to wait until Easter to plant their garden. They are surprised to hear we are planting this week and already feel behind! Two factors are at play here: one is that we are planting cold-hardy vegetables and the other is that Easter is not a fixed holiday.
Easter can fall on a range of Sundays in spring, so it’s not a fixed point to judge your garden planning. Scientists take weather data each year to predict last frosts, but they also can’t tell you when the last frost of spring will come.
According to UGA, on April 10 we still have a 10% probability of getting another frost. That means by April 1 the 15-day forecast can give you all the information you need to schedule your garden planting.
Let me turn briefly to the subject of psychology. Have you ever tried to NOT do something? It’s much easier to replace that something with another activity. If you have a candy bar every day at 3pm, try having an apple instead… The same is true for gardening.
Don’t focus on those tomatoes, squash, and beans that you shouldn’t plant because it might frost. Instead, shift your focus to cool-season crops you can plant now and harvest while you wait for the first ripe tomato of the season.
Cold-hardy vegetables are great for planting in early spring and fall. The spring season is shorter, so fall crops like Brussels sprouts and cauliflower aren’t great choices to repeat in the spring. Short-season crops like arugula, lettuce, and radish are excellent early-season choices.
We plant lots of these quick-producing crops in sequence every week or two for continuous harvest. In a home garden, I recommend crops that can be harvested as “cut and come again.” That way you will maximize space and minimize time between harvests. Arugula can be cut to a couple inches and will come back as a new plant. Crops like kale, collards, and even lettuce can be harvested leaf-by-leaf and will be ready to pick again within a week or two. Just wait until the largest leaves on the plant are the size you want to harvest and pick them at the base with a sharp knife. Be sure to leave the center of the plant intact because that’s where the growing point is.
Water is important for these cool-season crops, especially as the weather heats up in May and June. Plants don’t sweat like us when they get hot, but they do use water to cool down. They move water from their roots to their leaves where it evaporates, cooling the leaf surface. Eventually when it gets too hot, this process shuts down and the plant will wilt to protect itself. Making sure your spring plants have enough water makes a big difference in keeping them cool. Plan early for watering as the best way to water is using drip or soaker hose, which is easier to place when the plants are small.
There is one more reason you shouldn’t obsess about getting your garden in as early as possible. In spring the warmest days with the most light are still ahead of us. Every day you wait to plant right now means better days of growth are ahead. I have seen tomatoes sit and not grow for weeks in cool soil. If you bide your time and wait for warmer weather, they will take off like a rocket!
If you don’t have a garden yourself, consider signing up for a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program with a local farm. Now is the time to join and get fresh produce each week of the season.
Daniel Parson is the farmer/educator at Oxford College of Emory University.