Seed Starting for a Crazy Climate

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Lag-Behind-BorgheseMother’s Day was the traditional tomato planting day when I was growing up. “In the cold, late springs of Kentucky and the mountains of Tennessee…old-time gardeners reverentially plant their cold-tolerant Irish potatoes on Good Friday,” but for tomatoes, beans, and squash, you had to wait until Mother’s Day. Over 3,000 miles and quite a few years from those rolling hills of Kentucky, this makes no sense, even in a “normal” planting year–if there still were such a thing. Now, I am watching for two things; soil temperature and perennials. My hope is that the Runner beans, fruit trees, vines, and bushes in the garden know better than I do what the weather will be like.

This year the bean planting “OK” signal arrived at the beginning of March when my ‘Scarlet’ Runner beans, which never had died down to the ground during the winter as expected, started putting out tiny new leaves. As soon as I saw that I popped ‘Rattlesnake’ and ‘Contender’ beans into the soil. I did the same thing with some small tomato plants as soon as my neighbor noticed he had volunteer tomatoes coming up. Why the rush? The push-pull of growing your own food in Northern California right now is taking advantage of the warming temperatures while there is still ground moisture. Sure, it will be warm enough to plant beans in June, July, and August, but there will be no water to grow those beans. I’ll be hauling grey water from the house outside to keep the ollas filled. If I put in as much of the garden as I can now, while the soil still has a moisture reserve from the cooler weather and the little rain we did get, I can get most crops finished in time for the driest, hottest part of the year and start again as soon as it starts to cool, or, please, please, please, rains again in the fall.

Rattler BloomsThis is why I am planting my potatoes and my tomatoes closer to St. Patrick’s Day than Good Friday or Mother’s Day. This is a good strategy for anyone gardening in an uncertain climate. I will have something to eat no matter which way the weather goes. If it is a cooler than usual spring, as my husband predicts, the potatoes, lettuces, and spinach will love that. If it is warmer than usual, as my Runner beans, and the National Weather Service are calling for, the lettuce will bolt and the potatoes might be small, but the tomatoes, beans, squash, and melons should come on nicely.

I’m also choosing varieties that I know have done well in this spot in different kinds of weather. ‘Rose Gold’ potatoes have produced good crops for me in cool years and in warmer ones. The ‘Principe Borghese’ tomato is nearly indestructible even in the driest years and I’ve seen it flower and set fruit between April and November. The ‘Rattlesnake’ beans were extremely productive last year during a harsh, dry and windy summer. They can only do better this time.

We are also testing four varieties of melon hoping for one that will like whatever it is the weather brings this year. ‘Amish,’ ‘Hopi Yellow,’ ‘Crimson Sweet,’ and something I think is called ‘Mickylee Ice Box’ melon.

What’s your strategy for growing in an uncertain climate? What works well in your garden? I hope you’ll share tips and tricks with us in the comments.

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