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Planting Times


“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?

{ 11 comments… add one }

  • tina April 18, 2009, 11:34 am

    I think it is best to go on what is blooming too-but wouldn’t it be great if weather could learn to read our calendars?:)

  • jodi (bloomingwriter) April 18, 2009, 12:24 pm

    I LOVE this, Pomona! What wise words; I don’t know if they work here, but now I’m intrigued and will start watching. (blackberries are later here in flowering and fruiting.).

    The coltsfoot (Tussilago) is in bloom in my yard, the first of the wild flowers here. Once the red maples flower, then the amelanchier, I’ll start to believe spring is here for realz. The redwings and grackles arrived several weeks back; the peepers are shy but coming, and the green glunkers are greenly glunking in our pond. I love trackingthe season via the natural world.

  • Karen - An Artist's Garden April 18, 2009, 4:02 pm

    A lovely post Pomona –
    When the flower beds are covered with weeds – I know the soil is warm enough for me to plant my veg.

  • Sue April 18, 2009, 6:34 pm

    I was thinking about how to tell how each spring compares to others, and wondering about this very subject the other day. I’m not sure what is happening when it’s probably not going to freeze again, but there are things here that come up later than others. Maybe when the hibiscus is coming up is a good way to tell. When it gets close to May 15, I plan to look at the weather forecast for the next couple of weeks, and then decide how soon to plant the tomatoes, etc.

    Thanks for the well thought out and written post.

  • Daffodil Planter April 18, 2009, 8:07 pm

    I’m in your county, Pomona, so I’ll stick with the blackberry bloom signal (yes, some are back in a perennial bed). A charming post!

  • eurica April 18, 2009, 11:29 pm

    You have a lovely writing style. We do not get frost (I have to brag a little) but to make up for that advantage, we have very dry summers. What is important here is when will the rain start. I am trying to think but it is dificult. The March flowers are bulbs (Amaryllis belladona) and they always bloom in March. If you see them then our rain season is around the corner. But they store water in their bulbs so I would not count on them forecasting the rain season. Our rain is late this year. I will try to find out what natural signals we. have.

  • cyd April 19, 2009, 5:02 am

    You have captured the feeling exactly. Mothers Day is the rule for us. A woman that grew up here said to wait ’til snow melted off the top of Mt. Spokane. I will really think about this and look this year. Thank you for your thought provoking blogs.

  • michelle April 19, 2009, 6:55 am

    The old timers always know best. We always have those little saying too although i can’t think of what ours is in MI right now. Something to do with Lilacs I think. geesh!

  • Pomona Belvedere April 19, 2009, 9:23 am

    I’ve been interested to see all your thoughts on seasonal indicators, it paints a little picture for me of where you garden and what it’s like to be there.

  • Sylvia (England) April 20, 2009, 1:47 am

    Pomona, an interesting post, I will watch for the blackberry flowers this year. Hawthorn or May flower is supposed to be our indicator but the flowers must be finished. Even if we don’t get another frost the nights are still cold and don’t really warm up until mid to late May. We have had one of our coldest winters for a long time, more frosts and colder yet our spring flowers are slightly earlier than the last few years. The Weather will always confuse and surprise us.

    Best wishes Sylvia (England)

  • Pomona Belvedere April 21, 2009, 12:53 pm

    Sylvia, I love your last sentence especially. Should be a gardener’s motto.

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