Weathering a winterless wonderland

On the first of this month, I received an e-mail from a fellow gardener (my brother) with the subject line, “March in like a lamb,” and it’s true that the month launched on a balmy note. As far as that goes, aside from a widely scattered couple of days, winter was a nonstarter this year in western North Carolina. While shirt-sleeve days are pleasant, the ramifications for growers may be less so.

A mosquito had landed on my forehead the previous evening, drawing a gentle swat and comment from my companion about its early arrival. Chances are that other biting bugs will come on early and in mass, their overwintering numbers less beaten down by frost. Plant pests are apt to benefit from the warmth as well, getting a jump start on the seedlings we soon will provide for their amusement and delight.

If flea beetles were a problem in your garden last spring, it’ll be Katie-bar-the-door for eggplant this time around. The beetles probably will strip the leaves while you stand in the garden, cell pack in hand, considering where to plant. The same goes for squash-vine borers who already may have scouts scoping out the seed packets on your kitchen counter.

Soil is apt to dry out earlier absent the slow soak provided by snow melt, and rivers and branches will start the season lower than normal. Whether or not this leads to drought conditions come summer will depend on our notoriously variable rainfall, but the early conditions will set the stage for parching. On the other hand, this kind of winter can deliver devastating repercussions for gardeners who are drawn to plant too early. It’s easy to believe we can move planting dates forward a month or at least a couple of weeks, given the springlike weather. As the thermometer tops 70 this afternoon, for example, the Easter blizzard that inundated Asheville in 1993 seems long ago and far away.

Despite the general warming that underlies our planet’s increasingly extreme weather, instability rather than predictable frost patterns are likely to be the new norm. This year’s snow in Bombay, India, for example, is as much a harbinger as this month’s T-shirt weather in New England. Scanning Asheville data for the past 23 years on weatherbase.com, one notes that record low temperatures for March and April are 5 and 24 respectively. May, our traditional planting time, is the first month of the year that hasn’t bottomed out below freezing. Viewed another way, the numbers show that we’ve averaged 13 subfreezing March nights and two in April over that span. As climate change gathers its horses, we may easily experience more late freezes, even while average daily temperatures climb.

The icing on the data cake is that March has enjoyed an average of three inches of snow and April almost an inch over the past two decades. They don’t call March the cruelest month for nuthin’. I’m not a meteorologist and don’t even play one on television, but my money remains on Earth Day, April 22, as the earliest safe planting date for tender crops. That said, mountain climate is extremely local so experience remains your best guide. Those with up-slope, southern exposures may warm a full month earlier than their friends in north-facing coves who come out of their caves on a morning in June and gawk at the hot orb peeking over a mountain. “Sunshine? Here?”

So what kind of advice can an experienced gardener offer beyond such dire musing? “Worry” is not a strategy. Home gardeners have an advantage over commercial growers when it comes to gaming the weather in that we can more easily spread our bets. As soon as you finish reading this column, you can stick some peas in the ground and do it again every 10 days until mid-April. Lettuce, cauliflower and other early season transplantable plants can be seeded in containers now as well. (It’s probably too late to start broccoli from seed unless you live above 3,000 feet, but it’s not too early to start some tomatoes.) Like peas, lettuce plantings can be repeated weekly for a while.

In the exuberance of spring, it’s easy to rev up and start lots of each variety all in one fell swoop. But seasoned home gardeners often stagger their starts by setting some plants out at the earliest possible reasonably safe date and holding others back in case of catastrophe. This nearly winterless season offers a great reason to adhere to that tactic because earlier or bigger insect hatches may create a whole new game of dodgeball. Companion planting (grouping species deemed chummy for one reason or another) or simply interplanting (mixing it up instead of sowing all the beets in one bed and all the okra in another) also is an excellent approach for exceptionally buggy times. If you can’t completely avoid pests, you can at least take some cruel pleasure in confusing them.

Many garden books offer suggestions about companionships made in heaven, but evidence is scant for direct benefits in terms of specific species warding off specific pestilence. Confusion, on the other hand, has strong backing in ecology. Natural systems are mixed whereas human-engineered mono-crops create unbroken feedlots for boll weevils, pine-bark beetles, squash-vine borers, tomato hornworms and all the other enemies of agronomy. If you think like a mountain meadow, your garden will be prettier and suffer less. Besides, planting marigolds and foxgloves between tomatoes really pretties up the place.

As for eggplant, my bet this year is on container planting. I’ll pot them up when I would normally set them out in May, and perhaps put a couple in the ground as a ritual sacrifice to the flea beetles in June. (Plants do grow more quickly and bigger and require less care if they have their feet in the ground.) With luck, the older plant leaves will be tougher by then, and some number of my hated foe will have starved to death or perished by drought.

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About Cecil Bothwell
A writer for Mountain Xpress since three years before there WAS an MX--back in the days of GreenLine. Former managing editor of the paper, founding editor of the Warren Wilson College environmental journal, Heartstone, member of the national editorial board of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, publisher of Brave Ulysses Books, radio host of "Blows Against the Empire" on WPVM-LP 103.5 FM, co-author of the best selling guide Finding your way in Asheville. Lives with three cats, macs and cacti. His other car is a canoe. Paints, plays music and for the past five years has been researching and soon to publish a critical biography--Billy Graham: Prince of War:

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