I wish I could take credit for that apt name for this weather. Credit for the term goes to Wade Bitner. Yep, THAT Wade Bitner, one of our newest County Commissioners. Wade possesses a strong background in commercial agriculture and was a USU Extension Agent for many years.
A couple of years back, when we had a burst of warmth in early spring, there was quite a rush to the nursery centers to get potted vegetable plants. Wade and I were talking about conducting fruit tree-pruning demonstrations, and I mentioned how the current pleasant conditions were perfect to do an outdoor event, and how many people I had already seen planting their gardens. He made the brief observation that they were being taken in by the “sucker weather.” He wasn’t being mean, he’d just seen this weather behavior for many seasons.
As it turned out, he was right. Shortly after our conversation, a “snap” of cold weather returned, prematurely ending the lives of many a young tomato or pepper plant that had been placed in a garden without adequate protection.
While I’m not a weather expert, I’m going to make the forecast that we are not going to continue having this very warm weather consistently right through into usual planting season. No, I’m not being pessimistic. You may think that talking about this could jinx the beautiful conditions we are enjoying right now. I assure you that is not the case.
I am basing my prediction on a couple of things. First, there is a large body of weather and temperature data, captured over many years, that indicate we are not done with winter. Second, the top half of the earth has not basked in a sufficient amount of sunlight yet this year to maintain these temps.
Let me expand that last point a bit. I promise not to get overly geeky. As you probably know, the axis of the earth is on a 23.5 degree angle. It’s this tilt that gives us the seasons of the earth. The tilt is enough that, depending on where the earth is, in its annual orbit around the sun, that the duration of daylight and the associated warmth is most greatly affected at the poles. At the equator and as far north as the Tropic of Cancer, and as far south as the Tropic of Capricorn, the temperature and amount of sunlight over each year is much more consistent.
However, we live much further north, so we are in the time of the year that we get less sunshine than we will later in the year. Tooele is situated at about 41 degrees north latitude. To envision this, the Equator is zero degrees (neither north or south) and the North Pole is 90 degrees. We are roughly halfway north between the Equator and the North Pole, with the actual halfway point being 45 degrees.
What does all this have to do with sucker weather? Simply put, the portion of the earth that we live in, the Northern Hemisphere, hasn’t had sufficient exposure to the warming rays of the sun to naturally maintain these temperatures. We are getting this warm weather because of the jet stream pattern, which typically consists of westerly (coming from the west and heading to the east) high-velocity winds that are about six to nine miles above the earth’s surface and are several hundred miles in length. They average about 100 mph, but do reach above 250 mph. These air streams act as a barrier between frigid artic and warm sub-tropical air masses. They are usually only a couple of hundred miles wide and do not follow a predictable pattern. Because they are constantly changing, they’ve been the cause of chagrin to many a weather forecaster.
This year, the jet stream pattern has kept cold air well north of us, but the same cannot be said for much of the eastern U.S., where low temps and snowstorms are breaking records. Other years, it will be our turn, just like it has been in the past! While I contend that much cooler weather will return, it’s possible I could be wrong. Let me put it this way. If my chances of winning at the tables in Wendover were anywhere nearly as good as the likelihood of cold weather’s return, I’d be on I-80 heading west about now. That’s saying something for a gambling teetotaler.
Whether I’m right or wrong, there are some very productive things you can do with this present weather, as well as hedging your bets when you do start seedlings, start setting out stock and begin direct sowing in your garden plot.
First, why not work on the infrastructure of your yardscape right now? If you need to trench something for a control wire or water line, now is an excellent time to do it! It’s still relatively cool, so it’s easier on you than when it’s a lot hotter. Better yet, the soil is still moist enough that it’s pretty low effort to dig. If you will be planting trees this year, now is the time to dig the holes. Don’t waste this opportunity!
It’s also a great time to do early weeding, without having to worry about sinking in the usual late-winter mud, or tracking half of your soil into the house! In most years, the weeds get a sizable head-start. By the time I can get into the yard, the weeding work is almost overwhelming. Not this year! A bit of weeding daily (using a stirrup or “hula” type hoe to minimize soil disruption) is making a big difference around our place and is giving our chickens something green to eat in the process. If possible, avoid deeply cultivating or compacting the soil as this will further compound weed problems. Deep cultivation brings weed seed into the top layer of the soil. That layer is called the cultivation zone and you don’t want weed seed there. Compaction makes it difficult for cultivated plants and crops to flourish because the space between soil particles is reduced, making it hard for crop roots to grow rapidly, as well as reducing available water in the soil. Unfortunately, many weeds are better equipped for such conditions.
This time of year can indeed be a productive time for starting plants, but only if you give them the protection they need during the unstable weather and temperature conditions of late winter and early spring. This security can be provided by using a variety of methods to extend the season. The aim is pretty straightforward; to get the soil and air around your plants to warm up earlier in the day, warmth to be retained for a significant amount of time after the sun goes down, and to keep both wind and frost off your young plants.
In next week’s column, I’ll go into more detail on economical and effective season extension methods that are good to use during this unusually warm spell, or any other year when winter is giving away to spring. That way, whether I’m right or wrong about this being “sucker weather,” you’ll have what you need to dependably get your nursery potted plant or indoor starts safely transitioned from their beginning of life indoors to their long-term home in your garden space.
By the way, do old men gardeners wear briefs or boxers? Wait for it… wait for it… “Depends.”
Jay Cooper can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can visit his website at dirtfarmerjay.com for videos and articles on gardening, shop skills, culinary arts and landscaping.