“April is the cruelest month,” T.S. Eliott wrote in the first line of his epic poem, The Waste Land.
And so it has been, first bringing forth hope, an early spring warmth that seemed to say ‘YES’ in no uncertain terms and sent me out too early to the wonderfully workable soil to plant Oregon Giant edible pod peas, onion sets, a row of well-sprouted potatoes, and beets. All hardy or semi-hardy, early crops that need not wait ‘til all risk of frost has passed; but, even so, they have their limits: weeks of cold, wet weather do not make for happily germinating peas, I fear.
April beguiled me, in collusion with the reality of a jet stream no longer predictable, but weakened and disrupted by climate change, with the Arctic warming much more so far than the tropics. As a result, after the warm spell, a huge jet stream nodule of cold air dropped down below The Great Lakes, well into the U.S. Midwest. And there it has stayed, day after day after day.
Some there are who say, this is the new reality: spring comes, but don’t count on it for the old assumptions gardeners relied on; they no longer apply.
The temperature hit a balmy 26 Celsius here in Hope Ness on the Saugeen (Bruce) Peninsula one day a couple of weeks ago. I was out planting that afternoon in a T-shirt, the annual, seasonally-new, straw hat tried on for the first time; surely, this could not be wrong, I thought: the soil had worked up so nicely. If anything, it seemed late to be sowing peas, more like mid-May or early summer, than mid-April.
Raise your hand if you thought so too.
And now, April 29, the forecast for next week as May arrives is continuous overnight, single-digit temperatures and flurries mixed in with cold rain. It leaves me wondering how well the peas and onion sets will produce, or even if they will.
Meanwhile, the flats of seedings I put out in the cold frame are back inside the house and struggling to recover under grow lights.
I’ve often said gardening is a never-ending ‘learning experience.’ And that certainly has been true this April of 2023.
With the growing popularity of home gardening there must be a lot of people on a steep learning curve trying to come to grips with the apparent uncertainty of the weather.
After all, spring seemed to have arrived early in the Canada-U.S., Great Lakes area with temperatures in the first week of April that were seemingly warm enough to allow for the planting of early hardy, veggie crops like peas, beets, carrots, onion sets, and potatoes.
After years of gardening that should have made me know better, I again found it hard to resist the temptation of eagerness to get started. But I compromised, planting only a couple of rows of early edible pod peas; after all they are called ‘snow peas’ for a reason, I pseudo-rationalized. I also planted a row of onion sets, and two rows of Chieftain red potatoes. The date was April 6. I’ve never planted potatoes that early. Meanwhile, I held off on planting beets, swiss chard, carrots and radishes.
I should have held off entirely, especially the peas. That’s also considering I plant untreated seed; that is, seed not coated with fungicide to keep it from rotting in the ground if the soil temperature is not warm enough for germination. A few more days of warm weather, and the pea seeds and I might have got away with it. There was evidence of germination just getting started. But now, April 18, there’s no sign of little, green pea-plants emerging. I few might survive, but the rows will likely have to be replanted. With temperatures now forecast over the next few days to be below freezing at night here on Ontario’s Bruce Peninsula, the two rows of seed potatoes buried several inches in their rows should be okay; but just to be sure I’ve covered them with a generous layer of straw. The same goes for the onion sets.
Meanwhile, in the back garden, the numerous fall-planted rows of garlic are looking good. They will be okay without the straw blanket I covered them with for the winter and raked away a couple of weeks ago to give them sun. Garlic, fast becoming a popular crop in southern Ontario, is hardy enough.
I’m not a newcomer on this planet, having lived my ‘three-score years and ten’ and more, but in memory it seems to me the advent of spring, once arrived, was much more reliable than now.
It’s well known that the location of the jet streams, the high altitude winds that circle the globe in temperature regions, is a major determining factor in weather. In the northern hemisphere, the generally west-blowing jet stream keeps colder temperatures north of us, and warmer, south. As the seasons change with the sun, the jet stream used to move south and north in a fairly stable way. But recent years have seen a growing school of thought that climate change is weakening the jet stream, as the Arctic warms relatively faster than tropical regions. As a result, The jet stream’s pattern has become more erratic with deep dips to the south that sometimes appear to get stuck, or ‘blocked’ over certain areas. I keep a close watch on jet stream maps, and have observed, anecdotally, that often in recent years it has dipped down in large tongues or nodes and lingered for long periods of time south of the Great Lakes. Sometimes, it appears to even fragment and get scattered. Depending on the seasons, all that has resulted in long periods of extreme cold weather in winter, and prolonged cool weather in spring. The spring of 2020 at this time, was similar to what’s happening now: an unusual warm spell in early spring, followed by much colder weather, and then a serious snow event in April. I note snow is in the forecast for this week.
Now, snow in April is not unusual. I well remember driving to work one morning years ago in June with snow coming down. But it’s the sudden, dramatic changes and extremes that now seem new and unusual.
The experts admit evidence of the impact climate change is having on the Jet Stream, and therefore weather, is still inconclusive. They do, after all, have a duty to be precise in reaching their conclusions. Meanwhile, the skeptics can find all kinds of supposed reasons why it’s not happening. I choose to believe climate change is having a destabilizing effect on the jet stream that needs to be taken seriously.
From the point of view of gardening, and farming, I would say you are best advised to keep in mind there is a new norm happening: the weather is becoming more erratic. If it seems too good to be true that warm spring weather has come too early, it more than likely has. And you should take a wait-and-see attitude to planting until the weather warms up to stay. Late April, early May is still a good time to plant cool-weather crops. They won’t do much growing until then anyway.
Above all, keep your eye on the jet stream: where it is, and where it’s expected to go. I recommend a new, interactive ‘global’ jet stream map put online by U.K.-based netweather.tv.
A well-mulched, healthy garlic crop in Hope Ness after a difficult winter and cold spring. A good crop in Ontario, Canada for challenging times. Two rows of peas on the left are coming along slowly in the ‘unseasonably’ cool weather. But they are also hardy.
This spring a lot of people decided for various reasons related to Covid 19 to plant a garden and grow their own food. They may have had some past experience, or not, in which case they likely did a certain amount of preparatory research and planning in hopes of a bountiful outcome.
But I suspect no amount of homework prepared them for the realities of this growing season. So far it has, and continues to be a shock, even for this old gardener. It depends where you are to a large extent. That comment reflects my experience here in southern Ontario near the 45th Parallel halfway between the Equator and the North Pole. By this date, nearing the end of the second week of June, seeds and transplants would normally be safely in the ground and growing nicely. Continue reading →
I’m Canadian, eh. And a modest market gardener, living and working in a sparsely populated rural area. So, I guess I’m more culturally obsessed with the weather than a lot of people in Canada who now mostly live in big cities. It wasn’t always so; but more about that later.
I have been reminded yet again that keeping tabs on the now-frequent wanderings of the Jet Stream is key to understanding Canadian weather; and in particular, here on the Saugeen/Bruce Peninsula, and elsewhere in southern Ontario. This comes in the midst of winter’s virtual return, several days of freezing cold weather, a month into the spring season of the Northern Hemisphere. It’s supposed to be a lot warmer than this. Gardeners are supposed to be busy planting hardy, early crops like snow peas, even potatoes by now; and rejoicing that a healthy-looking crop of new garlic has emerged, not worrying about even it, surprisingly tough as it is, being damaged by one hard frost after another. Continue reading →