Editor's note: cold weather gardening organically.

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by Mort Mather

OK. I've had it. It takes a lot to make me angry but all of us have our limits. Enough already with the weather. I feel badly about the floods in the upper Midwest and the floods last year and the hurricanes and the tornadoes but you are messing with my garden now. It is my birthday and every year since planting asparagus crowns I have received a birthday treat of the first asparagus spears. This year there isn't a sign of them yet. If the first spear breaks ground tomorrow, it will be at least a week before it is ready to eat. What gives?

Peas, spinach and lettuce like this kind of weather and the radishes that are up seem to be tolerating it. The garlic Barbara planted last fall is eight inches high and looks great. This time last year I had transplanted cabbage, cauliflower and lettuce and planted broccoli and kohlrabi. Even if the plants could survive and the seeds germinate at these temperatures, I bloody well would not have enjoyed planting them. Several times I have stuck my hand in the soil and it is just too cold to be comfortable.

Consider that the monthly minimum average temperature for asparagus is 30 degrees. Since the asparagus isn't up yet I conclude that the average for the past month hasn't been much above 30 degrees. The optimum monthly average for the crops I would like to plant is between 60 and 70 degrees. They will germinate at about 40 degrees. I haven't put a thermometer in the soil but I don't think it has reached much above 40 degrees for more than a day at a time yet.

Fortunately soil temperature changes fairly rapidly unlike water temperature which is much slower. But this kind of weather may really raise hell on the crops we want to plant in a week or two. I planted corn May 21 last year and I have planted it even earlier. The rule for planting corn is that it is comfortable to walk in the garden in bare feet. Corn is critical for gardeners who do not like to use chemicals. If the corn seed doesn't germinate quickly, soil microorganisms will eat it. We say the seed rotted. I think that is something we all need to be aware of this year unless the temperatures get dramatically warmer and don't drop back into a sustained state of cold and clamminess again. The optimum range for corn to germinate is 60 to 95 degrees but it will germinate at 50 degrees.

It will take corn twenty two days to germinate at 50 degrees which leaves it open to a lot of problems for quite a while. The time is halved at 60 degrees halved again at 68 degrees. At a soil temperature of 95 degrees you better stand back after planting. It germinates in three days. If you make several plantings of corn, you should think keep these differences in mind. A second planting of the same variety planted two weeks behind the first may be less than a week later at maturity extending the season less than anticipated.

Then there are the vine crops, cucumbers, squash, pumpkins and melons. These need a minimum of 60 degrees to germinate. At that temperature it will take thirteen days whereas at 68 degrees germination will occur in six days.

Should we put a thermometer in the soil? I did some of my first years of gardening. Then I came to rely on the calendar and my instinct. This year I may go back to the thermometer. The calendar is not going to be very helpful.

May 10, 1997

Mort is a husband and father. He authored a book, Gardening For Independence and was named Environmentalist of the Year by Down East Magazine in 1987. He is a consultant for organizations. You can eat his organic produce at his son's southern Maine restaurant. His address is 802 Bald Hill Road, Wells, ME 04090.

Mort retains all rights to his columns. Anyone interested in using them can get the rights at a very reasonable rate.



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