Posts Tagged ‘wheel of the year’

Happy Spring everyone, and for the first time that I can remember, we are indeed having spring this week! The crocuses are up, the birds are singing, the chickens are laying, and maple syrup season (such as it was) is over. I even saw a ploughed field when I was walking the dog yesterday. Usually at this time of year, there’s still a fair amount of snow on the ground out here, and greetings of “Happy First Day of Spring” are greeted with a sarcastic “Yeah, right.” Being the realist (some would say pessimist) that I am, I’m not expecting our unseasonably warm weather to last. I think we’ll get walloped at least once more at the beginning of April. As I over-heard one old farmer saying to another this past weekend, “Remember that year we had snow on Mother’s Day?”

Unseasonable weather or not, I’m thinking about this year’s vegetable garden. Every year I agonize over when to start the seeds indoors, and when to plant them out. This year I started the peppers (bell and hot) an extra two weeks early, because last year they didn’t start setting fruit until September, and then the frost got the golf-ball sized still-green peppers. That may have had something to do with the drought we had for the entire month of July, of course.

I started the peppers on March 4th, and they are just starting to come up today. I’ll be starting the tomatoes this week, and crossing my fingers that I’ve guessed right. Start them too early and they get leggy in their pots, which makes the stems prone to snapping when you’re planting them out or when a breath of wind hits them. Start them too late and you don’t get them into the garden until June, and then you don’t get any tomatoes until August.

The seed packets, gardening books, and websites helpfully give you the following information, “Start seeds indoors 6 to 8 weeks before last frost,” which seems simple enough, right? Find out when the average “Last Frost” date is in your area, count back 6 (or 7 or 8) weeks, and that’s when you start your seeds.

Problem #1: “Last frost” dates are listed for major cities, not small villages in the middle of nowhere. The weather is so variable in this part of the country that using the “Last Frost” date for Ottawa or Montreal would be about as accurate as throwing a dart at a calendar page.

Problem #2: The most recent and up-to-date “Last Frost” data available for Ontario is based on average temperatures calculated from 1976 to 2005. The climate is a-changin’, as seen by the fact that I’ll be walking the dog in shorts and a t-shirt this afternoon, when there is usually still a foot of snow on the ground this time of year. Tomorrow’s forecast high is 28°C – the normal high for this time of year is 4°C. Historical averages are becoming less useful. The best data available from Ontario, however, is here: Climate Zones and Planting Dates for Vegetables in Ontario (Note that most books and websites are using much older data, typically the American USDA maps which are based on a 1953-1980 data set).

Problem #3: (And this one is the “gotcha” that prompted this post) “Last Frost” is a fox terrier.

Ok, that obviously needs some explanation: a “fox terrier” in this context is a “canonical” phrase or idea that gets repeated by authors in texts without being examined or re-examined. The phrase was coined by the wonderful natural science author Stephen J. Gould. Gould was writing an essay on the evolution of the horse, and he found himself typing a description of “Hyracotherium” as being the size of a fox terrier. Then he stopped and thought to himself, “Why am I typing that, when I don’t even know what a fox terrier looks like?” His subsequent research on the topic found descriptions of this particular ancestor of the modern horse being compared in size to a fox terrier, in an unbroken line of textbooks dating back over 100 years. He asked around his department, and none of his colleagues knew what a fox terrier looked like, or in fact exactly what size it was, though they had taught out of those same textbooks for years. He then wrote a further essay on the topic, “The Case of the Creeping Fox Terrier Clone.” 1

Here’s the thing I realised that changed the way I think about planning to plant the garden: The idea that you “should” be able to prepare your soil for planting well before the average “last frost” date comes from gardeners writing gardening books in England, where it doesn’t snow, and hardly ever freezes! Like Gould’s dinosaur descriptions, authors of gardening books have simply repeated, “6 to 8 weeks before last frost” whenever they talk about starting tomato seeds indoors. “Aha,” I thought to myself one day, as the cartoon lightbulb lit up over my head, “‘Last Frost’ is a fox terrier!” If you are gardening under perfect conditions, in an “average” (whatever that means these days) year, then the Last Frost data is probably all you need. Spring comes, the snow melts, the ground dries out, you turn it over and prepare your seed bed, and you plant according to the information on the backs of the seed packets. No problem.

But in my experience out here, about half the time, the veg patch is still under water on our putative “last frost” date. We don’t have particularly bad drainage, but some years it rains for all of April, and there’s just no way we can get the rototiller (or a person with a fork) into the garden by May 11th (our official “last frost” date). So the seeds whose packets say “plant out as soon as the soil can be worked” (which in Oxford, England, where the gardening books were originally written, is sometime in mid-to-late February) get planted in late May, at the same time as the tomatoes and the potatoes and everything else, because that’s when I can plant!

Now I’m not faulting the books, websites, or seed packets for using “last frost” date as an instruction for when to start seeds. Of course you want to set our your young plants after the last frost, whenever that should be. And of course you want to give new gardeners some sort of guidelines other than “in spring” (though I’ve seen that on the back of a seed packet, too!) But I’ve come to realize that “in spring” is really the best we can do, most of the time. 8 weeks before May 11th, I have no way of knowing if it’s going to be cold or warm, wet or dry for the next two months. I don’t know if I’ll be planting out my tomatoes on May 6th or June 6th.

So I’ve changed my thinking from “I have to have the garden ready to plant the tomatoes out on May 11th,” and feeling like a failure every year that I can’t, to “It’s probably not wise to plant the tomatoes out before the second week of May or so, most years.” I’m hoping it’s going to make me a much more relaxed gardener.

Happy Spring!

1 Stephen J. Gould Bully for the Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural History. 1991.

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