I recently discovered that the reason some ginkgo trees failed to produce their nauseating fruit in 2016 was the same reason apple production was way down: Two nights of successive frost in early April damaged the flowers at a critical moment.
In Washington, as winters became generally milder in the past two decades, we grew used to the last frost date occurring in early March, so the return to damaging April frosts seemed like a throwback for longtime gardeners. But the rest of the growing season was so bizarre you were hard-pressed to find a precedent for it.
May was cold and exceedingly wet. June was about on par rain-wise, but then a pattern of heat set in that didn’t really abate until December. The average temperature every month from July until November was significantly above normal.
July and August turned and remained extremely hot, and the stubborn heat persisted into the autumn months (the warmest fall on record nationwide). The heat coincided with a precipitous drop, so to speak, in precipitation. As gardeners in the Mid-Atlantic know too well, it started getting dry in July and stayed that way until a couple of storms in December (before turning abnormally cold).
We cannot predict one growing season by the previous one, but it would be equally foolish not to recognize that the weather is generally hotter and more volatile than it used to be. For me, that means rethinking what to plant and when, and January seems the time to devise a broad plan for the season ahead.
I am coming to reject the primacy of the tomato in the summer vegetable garden. Unless you spray against early blight, keeping a plant clean and healthy becomes a constant battle of grooming, root-watering and bed-mulching. I can cope with that, in part by planting blight-resistant varieties such as that winning mini-Roma, Juliet.
But one thing the home tomato grower can’t get around is the weather. A tomato (and many other garden veggies, herbs and flowers) can take the odd spike in temperature, but when the heat is unrelenting, your plants go into a survival mode in which the blooms and fruit take a hit.
Researchers have discovered that when temperatures climb above 90 degrees, tomato pollen loses its viability and the blossoms drop. What may be more surprising, however, is that blooms are similarly affected when nighttime temperatures don’t cool to below 70 degrees.
In that 62-day period, only 16 days experienced a high temperature below 90 degrees. Just two days in July had nighttime lows below 70 degrees. In August, only five nights were below 70.
Because I was away for much of August (yes, in a cooler clime), I pulled almost all the tomato vines before I left, straw-mulched the empty beds to keep the weeds in check and decided to plant for the fall in late August. This worked out pretty well, with some success from September to late November with salad greens, lettuce, turnips and spinach.
I’ve decided that henceforth, tomato season will end by mid-August, whether again I do my dog-day decamp to Ireland or not. As I did in 2016, I will keep a handful of vines going through the season, but most will be gone. Cherokee Purple has always been a vigorous and fruitful heirloom variety for me, and worth its keep.
But abruptly closing the tomato season in its supposed prime means bringing the growing cycle forward a bit. Because tomatoes also loathe the cold — night temperatures below 50 degrees will set them back — you can’t advance the season too much. Gardeners I know north of the Mason-Dixon line who must run the gantlet of early May will place plastic barriers around tomato plants, containing walls of water. These radiate stored solar heat at night and protect against the chill.
This might be the year to get tomato plants in a bit early and choose fast-maturing, early-season hybrids and cherry tomatoes, which start to ripen quickly. You can’t miss with Black Cherry, Sun Gold or Supersweet 100. This approach leaves out the long-season, lumbering beefsteak tomatoes.
The new seed catalogues are full of such varieties. Southern Exposure Seed Exchange offers Abraham Lincoln among its blight-resistant red indeterminate tomatoes, a selection that matures in a rapid 70 days. Another one that may fit the bill is Atkinson, said to be vigorous, prolific, heat-tolerant and medium-size. That sounds perfect, though the proof of the pudding is in the eating.
With the tomato beds cleared, you can make way for autumn fare, which might include sowings of kale and mustard greens, and transplants of broccoli.
To keep the cauldron of August interesting, you might grow such heat lovers as sweet potatoes, okra, lima beans, amaranth and Malabar spinach. I think winter squash vines are always a great summer-long crop, especially with a bit of care to ward off the squash vine borer; aluminum foil wrapped around the base seems to work well. I might go a bit mad with these vines in 2017. In January, when the gardener’s cabin is carpeted with catalogues, anything and everything seems possible.