It’s May! Tempted to Start Planting Your Garden? Best Check Your Zone First!

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Every year, as soon as the temperatures begin to warm up in the spring, I start to get excited about getting to dig in the dirt and plant my kitchen garden. Just because the spring equinox has come and gone, however, and, the days have begun to lengthen, doesn’t mean that it’s safe to plant anything!

This photo was taken in my front yard two weeks ago. I don’t know if you can see it very clearly in this photo, but, if you look closely at the bottom half of the picture, you will see the snow that’s starting to fall and accumulate on the ground — in late April!

Having lived in the mountains for several decades, I’ve learned the hard way not to plant too early for my area, even if there are several warm, sunny days in a row and it starts to look as though winter is finally over.

How’s the weather in your area? Do you think it’s safe to start your garden?

Check Your Zone Before Planting!

If you don’t want to waste seed and lose plants to a late frost, your best bet is to check your zip code against the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map. Many seeds that are sold commercially will give you planting directions for several zones on the back of the seed packet. The map will help you find the correct zone for your location.

Of course, not even the map is always accurate. According to it, I should have been able to start peas and a few cold weather plants, such as spinach, back in March.

Don’t Forget to Take Your Local Weather History into Account

While knowing your zone can certainly increase the odds that you will plant your seeds at the right time, it’s not foolproof. There are always “outlier” years, where unexpected weather events occur.

My grandfather, who was born before the start of the Great War, use to tell stories of a freak snowstorm that occurred in our area on the 4th of July when he was a young boy. I’ve always wondered if such a thing was possible, and recently conducted an online search trying to rule it in or out.

While I couldn’t find any weather records for my local area during that time, I did find a 2012 article about unusual, historic weather events that mentioned snowfall in Pennsylvania occurring on July 2, 1918. That’s really not that far away, geographically, so it is certainly possible that my local area experienced similar weather 100 years ago on that Independence Day!

My grandfather always stressed that snowfall in July was not typical for this area, and blamed it on a period of general cooling that lasted for several years after a large volcanic eruption in Alaska a few years before. After conducting another online search, I found that there was indeed a large eruption matching his description; Novarupta, in 1912.  According to a 2006 Nasa article, there wasn’t much impact on global weather from the event.

Searching historical records, I did find studies made at the time that seem to counter this current belief. A scientist at Yale University, Charles F. Brooks, wrote an article about the unusual, bitter winter of 1917-1918. It was published in Vol. 5, No. 5 (May, 1918), pp. 405-414 of the Geographical Review. 

In it, Brooks blamed the bitter cold, late frosts, and early snowfall that occurred over most of the country that season on cycles of sunspot activity along with the residual ash that remained in the atmosphere from the original Novarupta eruption that occurred years before. A post over at Weather.gov, also confirms the weather of 1917-18 as being the coldest, and snowiest on record for most of the country and mentions snowfall in July for many states that are typically much warmer!

Interestingly enough, when Mount Tambora in the Pacific blew its top almost 100 years prior to the Novarupta event, in 1815, the subsequent years became known as “The Year Without a Summer.” Frosts and snowfall as far east as Virginia caused the widespread failure of crops. The damage was so great from this unusual weather that even President Thomas Jefferson wrote about it extensively in his journals.

So, based on these events, if I want to be absolutely safe, I would wait until after the 4th of July to plant. The only trouble with that plan is that the growing season wouldn’t be long enough for the plants to mature and produce. So, while it’s possible that such an event could occur this year, it’s unlikely.

My grandfather always stressed that our weather was extremely unpredictable, and said that even in “normal” years it was best to wait until after May 10th to plant anything to be “mostly” safe from losing plants to a late frost. So, that is the date that I usually wait to plant anything. I’ve tried to plant a few times before when it seemed like spring had arrived early, but, have always had disastrous results when I’ve done so.

Based on the temperature extremes I’ve seen in March and April, this is looking like another year where I will be glad that I heeded Pap-Paw’s advice.

So far, the only thing that I’ve planted outside this year was some organic garlic cloves that had sprouted in my cabinet over the winter. Don’t worry, so far it looks as though they’ve come through this cold snap okay.

Use the Warm Days of Early Spring to Prepare

Just because it’s not safe to plant anything yet, doesn’t mean that I’ve not been busy in my garden. On days that have been clear, cool and dry, I’ve been tilling and amending the soil so that it’s ready for planting next week!

What about you? Have you been preparing your garden space? Gardening really is a great way to get in some gentle, low-impact exercise each day, while growing nutritious food that will help shrink both your waistline and your grocery bill!

If gardening is a subject that interests you, be certain to check back in over the next several months, as I plan on sharing photos and stories about my adventures digging in the dirt this year!

 

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