“Don’t plant tender plants until the blackberries bloom in your yard,” said a local market farmer. We were standing in the post office lobby, where I’d been discussing the weather with someone else.
Last-frost dates are always a matter of controversy. That’s mainly because the weather has never learned how to read a calendar. Probably isn’t even interested in trying. Leaving us humans arguing. “It’s May 15th.” “No it’s not, it warms up by the end of April.” “Well, I remember one year when it snowed in the beginning of June.” And so forth. These conversations can go on for a very long time.
While I’ve always held to the May 15th theory, myself, I immediately recognized that “when the blackberries are blooming in your yard” is a much more accurate measure. I mean, I’m not silly enough to think that summer actually starts on June 21st–in my area it starts much earlier. Natural signals–the peeper frogs are peeping, the blackbirds are back, the snow has melted, the mosquitoes are out, the oaks are leafing–are a much better guide to the seasons. The real seasons, not the ones humans make up.
And “blooming in your yard” is even better. (We won’t go into how a lot of people here would rather blackberries didn’t bloom in the yard, because they are a spreading pestiferous impenetrable nuisance.) Every area has microclimates: small climates-within-climates that are formed by being by the cool creek or on the hot south-facing slope or any number of things that make your place cooler or warmer than another place just down the street. In cities, the amount of heat-holding cement around you can make the temperature higher by 10 degrees F (about 12 degrees C).
We need specific signals to the seasons, because it’s just too easy for humans to go off on a fantasy that we’ve really got it all under control. If we want to plant right now, it will work, we figure – because we want to do it right now. It’s a pretty thought that disguises our own troubled relationship with the the rest of nature.
So we may know, in our heads, that tomatoes, squash, and other plants can’t tolerate frost. But when it warms up in early spring, it’s hard to restrain ourselves from putting out all our plants and seeds. It’s so warm. Surely it will never freeze again. That devil blend of hope and hubris that’s led so many of us to disaster.
I think some of this comes from a feeling that our gardens are our own private universes, where (of course) we hold sway. In a way, our gardens are are private universe. But they are also a part of the world around us. Maybe because I came to gardening from hanging out outside, I have always included the rest of nature in my garden notebook: the cranes flew over, the willows are leafing, the moon’s in the last quarter. But I still miss a lot.
Our local farmer said he learned about the blackberry-flower method from the old-timers thirty-seven years ago. If I had used my eyes, I could have worked it out at least a couple of decades ago. You could be quicker than I was: what are some natural signals for your own planting times?