Gardeners rightly in a tizzy over season’s irregular weather patterns

Wednesday, June 6, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 12:54 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

The old saying “nipped in the bud” has rarely seemed more real than what we experienced this spring when two weeks of unusual heat for the season were followed by two weeks of intense cold. The four week period marked the greatest short-term weather variance in our area over the past 118 years — as I have been repeatedly told by gardener upon gardener. Their tone is always one of resignation rather than defeat as they speak their litany of losses.

But we recognize we are all amateurs and what we have lost is nothing compared to those who depend on productive crops on a large scale, such as our embryonic wine industry.

It has continued to be an unusual season. Overall the NOAA National Weather Service reports twice the normal amount of cooling degrees days to this point in time, which means that our season has been on average notably warmer than would be usual through May. And that’s despite the middle European summer weather we have been having these last few weeks of day upon cloudy, rainy day, with temperatures rarely above 80.

It has thereby been a very good season for leeks, thus far, and mine are flourishing.

But I have had consistent disappointments with sprouting a variety of seeds, all fresh, over the past several months, and under a variety of conditions.

After four years of success sprouting parsnips, not a single seed germinated this March. Seedling tomatoes in the cold frame did not have even a 50 percent success rate. The cool wet weather of May dampened both the sprouting of beans and of melons, as one would expect. What really surprised me is that not one of the nasturtiums have sprouted.

Other gardeners, although not all, report similar experiences.

On the other side of the garden, the above normal total heat may explain why arugula, lettuce, spinach and other leafy greens began bolting in late April, well ahead of the norm, some barely behind their first set of leaves. The spinach bolted even as its lower leaves, all there when we hit 19 degrees, were yellowing and dying weeks after the frost that initially appeared to leave them undamaged. We all know that this or that year is bad or good for this or that plant, but all told, this seems a season like no other.

And now comes vacation time away from the garden and perhaps the resumption of drying or drought. Mulch is your garden’s best friend if you are to be away for some time, and at least 6 inches of straw mulch has gotten mine through many an absence. Other mulches, such as perforated black plastic or paper, also serve well though even these I like to cover with bright straw. Sawdust, mulched bark or fall leaves are not recommended as their decay either robs the soil of nutrients, or, in the case of leaves, tend to layer in and prevent rainwater from getting down to the soil.

For extended absence an automatic irrigation system, monitored by an electronic and programmed water faucet — there are many kinds available — that runs a drip irrigation system may be your best strategy. With a drip system you can install drippers wherever you want them, and you can install them at varying drip rates, such as half a gallon per hour for plants that need an inch of rain per week and one gallon per hour for those that need two inches per week.

Lastly, you may now want to trim off those tree branches that have not sprouted a second set of leaves and show no green in the bark and cambium layer, as these have surely been lost to the frost. I think too that I will now sadly dig up each tree I lost this spring rather than see it standing there like a saguaro cactus in the summer’s heat to come.

Dennis Sentilles, MU professor emeritus of mathematics, is a Missouri Master Gardener and a member of Katy Trail Slow Food International with a love for working outdoors and eating simply and well every day. He can be reached at

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