Ruled by Weather

Any serious, long-time gardener pays close attention to weather — not just the forecast for the current day. We watch the long-range forecasts, noting temperature and precipitation trends, so that we can coordinate our activities with optimal weather conditions.

In the Piedmont region of North Carolina where I garden, the last few weeks have been astonishingly temperate. We’ve actually had a bona fide spring this year — the first one in decades.  Wonder Spouse and I had yet another wonderful spring salad from the garden last night: fresh lettuces, mesclun, spinach, Sugar Ann snap peas, and even some delicate chive leaves from my recently transplanted bumper crop of seedlings.

The carrots, beets, and onions are progressing nicely, but are not ready to eat yet. That’s OK. I planted them in the part of the vegetable garden that gets afternoon shade. As long as the rains keep coming, the root crops will achieve tasty maturity.

But after gardening 40+ years in this climate, I know this prolonged spring cannot last much longer. In fact, the weather seers are calling for mid to upper 80s and summertime humidity levels by this weekend. And that’s why I’ve been wearing my old joints to nubs trying to get the summer garden planted and mulched while the cool weather lasts, and before this next round of rain drives me indoors. Besides beating the weather, I had good reason to hurry.

This was the state of my tomato plants in the greenhouse a week ago:

Tomatoes hitting the greenhouse ceiling

Two weekends ago, Wonder Spouse (with help from his lovely assistant, moi) constructed the tallest tomato trellises he has ever built for me. He used 7-foot tall plastic deer fencing material attached to tall metal poles. Maybe, just maybe this year my tomatoes won’t grow taller than my trellis. As it is, I think I’m going to need some kind of ladder to tie the plants as they near the top — and to harvest fruits too.

Here’s what one of the trellises looked like just after I transplanted the tomatoes:

Just-transplanted tomatoes

I dig holes about 8 inches deep and wide for each plant, add organic fertilizer especially formulated for tomatoes, then bury the plants, covering at least the seed-leaf node, and often the next node up as well. Roots will sprout from these newly buried nodes, increasing the anchoring and nutrient-intake systems of the plants.  See the depressions around each plant? Those are little catchment basins that I build to hold water, directing it down to the roots.  Those white markers are ID labels, so I can distinguish between the seven varieties I planted.

This year, the soil was perfectly moist — not wet, but not dry either. In dry years, I add water to the holes after I add fertilizer but before I plant, just to pre-moisten the root zone. Then I bury the plant and add more water.

The final step of this initial phase is mulch. Mulch is essential to the success of a southeast Piedmont vegetable garden. I know old-school farmer/gardeners believe in keeping the soil bare; they use hoes (constantly, all summer long) to hack down the weeds that sprout. Not only is this time-consuming, exhausting work, it’s also much harder on the plants. Root zones become overheated by summer sun, soil dries out faster, and when thunderstorms pound the bare dirt, mud splashes on the plants, creating opportunities for soil pathogens to bounce onto leaves and cause trouble.

Mulching a vegetable garden adds nutrients as the material slowly breaks down. It provides habitat for beneficial organisms like earthworms, toads, and garden spiders. It keeps roots cool, suppresses weeds, and protects soil from eroding during summer downpours.

We use wood chips that have decomposed for two or more years to mulch our veggie beds. I never have enough leaves to use those, although that is my preference. Commercial mulches tend to be treated in ways that make me nervous; I don’t know what has been added or subtracted. I tried hay bales once and only once — summer rains made them sprout into a giant weed patch.

A mulched garden also looks better. Check out my tomatoes with their newly added layer of mulch:

Mulched Tomatoes

Those catchment basin depressions I made are still there, but now they’re filled with mulch. The mulch swells with water, keeping the root zone beautifully cool and moist. I alternate plants on either side of the trellis and tie the branches to the trellis as the plants grow. I find it much easier to keep track of the fruits this way. Tomato cages inevitably become dark green caverns hiding lost fruits.

My method also has the advantage of exposing the work of caterpillars like Tomato Hornworms. Usually the birds spot them before I do, eliminating any need on my part to remove them. Trellises make great perching spots for birds. My bluebirds routinely sit on posts to look for tasty insects.

The tomatoes were just the beginning. I’ve done a lot more in the last two weeks. I’ll show you in another installment, since this one’s running long — much like the increasing daylight as we rush toward another summer solstice.

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