Slowly Easing Into Spring

When your entire life revolves around growing plants, what happens when there's a cool and slow spring?

I hear lots of grumblings about a cool spring. Complaints that flower beds don't look as nice. Impatience over trees and shrubs that aren't showing any sign of life. Even a loss of incentive to garden sometimes.

But what about all those people who rely on the weather and their crops to make their living? Growing corn, beans, fruit, strawberries, and flowers? If we're grumbling over a slow start, just imagine the stress and hardship on farmers. There's a real risk that crops won't have time to mature and be harvested.

In many years, we see the first land being worked in Ottawa in April. In a good year, crops are even planted in April. And yet we've hit June with very few crops in the ground. Some fields still haven't dried up and the ones that are, farmers are working late into the night to get as many crops into the ground as possible. The later your crop gets planted, the less likely it will mature and deliver a decent yield. It's a race against the clock.

For a plant to mature, you need the right amount of "growing degree days". That's how us farm-freaks look at weather and days of the year to get an idea of when our plants will flower or mature. The more growing degree days, the more the plant grows. As of May 27, 2019, we had less than 10 growing degree days. 2017 and 2018 both produced 50-125 growing degree days, while 2015 and 2016 were between 125 and 250. The average temperature this may was only 16.5C - the coldest average I since 2012 where environment Canada's online historic weather ends.

For the greenhouse, it's difficult as well. Plants are timed to be ready for planting at a certain time. Plants can't sit indefinitely in a small pot and continue to grow. Plants can stretch and get weak. Fungus can set it. I know some greenhouses that simply threw out full crops of plants without even planting them because there was no space left since early crops were never shipped out. Plants aren't things you can stack up like boxes in a warehouse and eventually get them out the door.

Without sunlight, plants are also reluctant to flower. What would be full pots of flowers are often just green masses of plants with occasional blooms. Now that's not necessarily a bad thing since plants are preparing themselves for strong flower later, but it doesn't give us much incentive to colourize our garden. Remember, apples and lilacs are only flowering now, in June, when they normally flower mid-May. That's at least two weeks behind.

Cold nights don't help things much, either. We always think of frost affecting our plants in the garden, but some plants have far less cold-tolerance than that. Take basil for example. Basil takes cold damage at anything below 10C, as do pepper plants. All spring we've been bringing out crops of basil only to replace them every day or two because of the cold nights. Many annuals show leaf damage lower than 5C, though they grow out of it. That makes some plants that are outside a little less appealing, but with space at a premium, that's just what happens.

Anybody who knows me knows I also try and look a the silver lining. Firstly, I like cool-growing plants since it shapes the plants well and hardens them off so they take transplanting better. There may be some leaf blemishes from the cool weather, but those roots are just itching to go. Second, there's been some research shown that some plants act like a battery storing energy during periods of cool weather only to spring to life with extra vigour once the sun comes out and the weather warms. My harvesting strawberry plants looks lush and green and healthy. My melons are in good shape started early in the greenhouse, and my pumpkin crop is made up of short-season varieties so they still have time to grow. Garlic is growing strong. We're rushing to plant our strawberries so they have enough time to establish through the year (and in the process pulling garden centre staff to help plant faster).

When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. Nothing is more true of that when your livelihood is based on the whims of Mother Nature. So before you complain about a lack service in a farm operation since everybody is planting, the devoid of flowers in your garden, or some spots on the leaves of your plants, just remember those lemons will probably turn into some tasty lemonade (or somebody behind the scenes is doing their best to churn out that lemonade). Oh, and try and remember all lemons farmers get dealt with in a spring like this and imagine walking a mile in their shoes.

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