We’re currently having the longest stretch of dry weather since December, and we are taking advantage of it! In the past week, we’ve planted Potatoes, Tomatoes, Sweet Corn, Peas, and Salad Greens.  Our first Peppers will go in the ground tomorrow.

Weather conditions during and immediately after planting can have a dramatic impact on the success of our crops. Believe it or not, just a decade or so ago, few people other than farmers themselves paid much attention to the issue.  But with the increased focus on climate change, that has been shifting.  Just in the past few years, heatwaves, unseasonal freezes, and excessive rainfall have caused the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of crops.  Governments, universities and crop insurance companies are now are focusing resources on the problem.

Like most living creatures, crop plants are extremely vulnerable when they are “babies” — sprouting seeds or recently transplanted plugs.  They are highly sensitive to drying out in heat or strong wind, and their tiny roots aren’t very deep so they can’t access much moisture.  On the flip side, they are also easily damaged not just by hail but even by excessively heavy rain. They are also less tolerant of even shallow flooding, which essentially drowns them.

Spring is the season when the vast majority of crops are planted, but spring is also a time of potentially extreme weather shifts.  Like many places in the U.S., here at Terra Firma in March we can have freezing nights followed by very warm days,  heavy rain accompanied as well as followed by very strong wind.  And then back to rain.  We can’t plant in the rain, so sometimes our only choice is to plant on windy days.  The results are often bad:  seeds planted into soil that is cloddy on the surface but muddy an inch down and tiny transplants buffeted by strong, dry gusts that dehydrate them.  Irrigation is ineffective in those conditions.

We’ve also learned not to plant on hot days, either in the spring or the fall.  On days when the temperature is going to be 95 or higher, the plants start to wilt immediately and significant numbers die within a day or two.  Rather than welcoming them, the soil itself is a hostile environment on those days, pulling moisture from the small plants and cooking them.

Childhood Trauma can cause bad outcomes for plants just as it does for humans and other mammals.  Crops that go through extreme weather in the first week or two of their lives often end up unhealthy.  They are more susceptible to insects, diseases and bad weather as they grow.  There are years when we plant spring crops under very marginal conditions because we have no other choice, but it almost always ends up coming back to haunt us at harvest time.

Last year was a perfect example.  We planted our first tomatoes in March into a field that was barely dry enough to walk in.  With a storm coming the next day, it was the “driest” day we were going to get.  But before the rain arrived, the temperature overnight fell into the 20s, which meant we had to turn on sprinklers in the field to keep the plants from freezing.  As a result, the field  was already partially flooded when the rain started at noon.  The plants in the lowest parts of the field died within a week.  The rest of the field struggled all season and began to die a month into harvest.  It was not a mystery why.

This year the situation was once again far from ideal, but with a few very important differences.  We had three straight days of gusty wind last week, but with no wet weather on the immediate horizon, we were able to wait for the wind to end before planting.  When we put the tomatoes in on Saturday, the soil was still too wet to use our mechanical transplanter but fine for the plants.  And the weather was absolutely perfect:  no wind, plenty of sunshine and warm both day and night.  Those mild conditions have continued all week, and when the next storm arrives on Friday,  the plants should be well-adjusted to their new homes and ready for a good soaking.

With winter now squarely in the rear-view mirror  — at last on the calendar — and the Tomatoes getting an auspicious start, we’re optimistic about this year’s crop and will continue to keep you posted on its progress.

Happy Equinox!