When the weather doesn’t cooperate

For much of the southern US, it’s been a wild, unpredictable spring.  Warm weather is a good month late, we had a late frost and just when you think it’s safe to put out the tender crops, here comes another cold snap.

It’s a perennial pastime to complain about the weather forecast.  In truth, though, the weather forecast is pretty accurate.  Getting hung up over 2 degrees difference or misunderstanding what a 30% change of rain means only shows how dependent we’ve become on the reliability of the forecast overall.

When you are growing food, 2 degrees can mean the difference between a killing frost and a cold night, so when the weather is abnormal you look at that long term forecast and make plans.  Unfortunately, the farther out in time, the less accurate that forecast is.  So what’s a gardener to do?

First, you be patient, however hard that is.  (And it is.)  Getting tomatoes or peppers or squash out in the garden when the soil is too cold or the air temperatures are going to drop below 50F or so at night only stunts and damages the plants.  You don’t get tomatoes any sooner, and you will probably get fewer and smaller of them.  Here it is May, and my tomatoes and peppers are still in pots.  It was 84F yesterday, but it’s going to be in the 40’s this weekend.

Second, when in doubt, wait the weather out.  No matter what else you do, nature always bats last and summer will come in it’s own good time and not a day before.  Unless you live somewhere with a very short growing season, you have plenty of warm enough weather ahead of you.  Enjoy the extended season for lettuce and other cool weather greens while you can.

Lastly, when you make a mistake and there’s a sudden dip in the temperature, protect your plants.  Floating rowcover, depending on the thickness, can protect about 1-5F degrees.  Old sheets and towels will do fine, too, just be sure you don’t squish your plants but providing hoops or something else to support the heavier material.  Stake or tie it down good — cold nights are often windy nights and protection blown away is a painful sight in the morning.  Avoid plastic unless you are 100% sure you are going to be able to take it off before the sun warms up the plastic too much in the morning.

These protection methods work by trapping a bit of the earth’s heat underneath them, so don’t bundle up plants like you would yourself.  When you dress yourself warmly, you are trapping heat you generate yourself, plants need the heat from the earth.  So be sure your protection covers an area wider than the plant(s) and goes all the way down to the ground.  The same applies to trees; gathering the material around the trunk is no protection at all.  Think of a tent, not a jacket.

When all else fails and you lose plants, or you feel your plants have been seriously stressed, plant some more seeds.  Plants get lost sometimes to weather or bugs or disease; it’s just a fact of gardening.

Now I need to go back to reminding myself not to plant those tomatoes yet!

(By Nicole Castle)

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