It happened today. After several days of favorable weather, the cold moved back in, and the snow level was pretty low on the Oquirrhs. The birds went for cover. The dogs were a bit less enthusiastic about going outside. Welcome to sucker weather.
I’m not original with that term. I got it from Wade Bitner. Yep, that Wade Bitner, who holds the position of chairman of the Tooele County Commission. You may know that Wade was a USU Extension Agent, both in Tooele County and over in Salt Lake, for several years. He knows a thing or two about agriculture, and about unpredictable end-of-winter weather.
But, it’s not unpredictable. The fits and starts of weather change, as winter gives way and spring comes on, is as predictable as it comes. Yet, many of us fall prey to our own persistent optimism when it comes to warmth and sunshine. Wade’s shortcut term for all of this says it particularly well. We can indeed be easily “suckered in” to thinking it’s time to rush to the nursery and buy flats of plants and get them in the ground.
My use of King James-style English for titling this article is meant to lend weight and authority (and a dash of humor) to this annual ritual. We tend to gauge reality and take action based on how we want it to be, and not so much as it is. Yes, I’m talking about me — but I’m also talking about you, my fellow horticulturists! I heard that one of my crazy gardening friends (whose initials are Danielle Nelson) was outside brushing snow off her flowers to deadhead them last weekend. We get a day or two of calm sunny days, coupled with the sun coming up a bit earlier (Daylight Saving Time on March 13 will address that!) and we can easily believe we have optimum conditions for our edible and ornamental annual plant friends.
Sorry to say, it just ain’t so! Remember, the air temperature is only one component — it’s the soil temperature that’s really critical. Try living with feet planted in cold soil and you’ll get the picture really quickly. Soil temperature change always lags behind air temps. Cold soil in the spring will take a while to warm up, and warm soil in the fall will resist cooling off for a time. Add to this that shade and sunshine changes through the day. Then, to really complicate things, the sun goes down and nighttime temperatures, especially on clear nights, plummet.
Wow. That’s cheery. You may think, “I don’t really like Jay this week. He’s such a downer.” Hear me out. I’m not here to dampen your green-thumb enthusiasm. Quite the contrary. It’s my goal to inform you of spring’s realities, and then equip you with the know-how to maximize favorable weather, as well as minimize conditions that are adverse to our green friends.
Last week, we covered seed starting. At first blush, you could get the impression that I’ve fallen prey to “sucker weather” as well, in a hurry to get plants started and out right away. Not at all. Seed starting is based on timing the growth/size of the plant to when the soil will likely be the right temperature for that variety to be ready for their life outdoors (after conditioning/hardening off). Plants are started several weeks in advance, allowing them to get a “jump start” on the season, and for you to be able to harvest earlier.
So, whether you start your own seeds and grow them to seedlings, or go and buy them at the garden center, you have to take the capricious weather of this time of year into account.
The best approach is to place your seedlings/small plants out in the open during sunny days that are warm and fairly calm. When weather is chilly, windy, or daylight is gone, the plants are then brought in, or protected outdoors. Let’s focus on what you can do to take full advantage of warmth and minimize chilliness that could be detrimental to your plants. Remember that there are cool-weather and warm-weather crops. Items such as lettuce, cabbage, Brussel sprouts, chard, bok choy, kale, peas, and spinach will all tend to do well in cooler conditions and will be the most forgiving of the cold bouts that will occur until the warmth finally settles in. Tomatoes, peppers, melons, squash, and okra strongly prefer warmer weather and need to be started later, or given an extra measure of protection until the cold is chased away.
The set of disciplines, of being able to plant earlier in the spring, and grow longer in the fall, is called season extension. It’s based on “banking” the sun’s warmth and keeping nighttime temperatures around plants above freezing.
For us micro-scale farmers, there are some great season extension options available to us. To begin with, unplanted seedlings can be protected outside by using a cold frame. There are many ways to quickly and cheaply build one. Some can be temporary and some are more permanent. A quick search on the Internet will reveal all sorts of plans and ideas.
I like using items that I already have, or that are inexpensive but sturdy, have good capacity, looks reasonably nice, and goes together and comes apart quickly. We use straw bales ($5 each), arranged in a “U” shape, to create our warm space for seedlings. The open side of the frame faces south to optimize both light and capture warmth. The bales provide good insulation and resist wind quite nicely. A couple of heavy boards and a sheet of plastic, large enough to cover the opening, can create a flexible cover that is easily opened or closed. Remember to consider wind and assure that the cover can be held down to keep your plants safe. You can accomplish by making the plastic long enough to roll around the boards a couple of times before laying them on the straw.
A word of warning! A cold frame is not a “set it and forget it” type of approach. The cover needs to be adjusted ongoing to assure it’s open when it’s very warm and sunny, and closed when the day is done or weather turns cold. If it’s cold outside, the cover stays on, and captures the warmth of the sun’s rays passing through the cover. Warmth that is captured during the day in the walls and floor of the cold frame is released back overnight, moderating temperature swings.
If you prefer to plant seedlings directly in your garden plot early in the season, “HotKaps” are a readily available and inexpensive solution. These waxed paper cones are placed over a plant, and the edges are covered with soil. A venting slit is cut in the top and the plant later grows through the slit. This allows planting to occur two to three weeks earlier than in the open.
“Walls of Water” and other similar flexible, plastic devices work remarkably well in our area. At first glance, it would seem that placing a wall of water around a plant would create a chilling effect. But that’s not what happens. Instead, the vertical cells of water surrounding the seedling capture light, reduce air movement and retain warmth. The water in the device freezes first before the plant or soil under the device. This effectively “uses up” the cold and protects the plant. I’ve had times when the water was solidly frozen but the plant was flourishing.
Or, you could create a mini hoop house over a garden bed. This can be done with hoops of wire, or, as we have done, bent tubes of metal electrical conduit. You can cover the whole bed with secured plastic and vent it on warm days. Later, the plastic can be removed, and growing fabric (Agribon is a common brand) placed to allow light in, but keep wind and insects out. As the season progresses, the fabric is removed all together.
So, it’s not really sucker weather if you recognize it and adapt accordingly. Who knows? Using these approaches may give you bragging rights for the earliest tomato on your block!
Jay Cooper can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can visit his web channel at youtube.com/dirtfarmerjay for videos on gardening, shop skills, culinary arts and landscaping.