Chance: Take faraway weather into account for spring planting

March 6, 2013 

People used to ask me what the weather would be. I do not usually check the weather before leaving home, so I was not much help. In fact, if it rained I was usually the one without an umbrella.

Predicting weather is difficult. If I were the weather forecaster, the chance of rain would never be 100 percent unless it was currently raining. Otherwise, the chance of rain would be no higher than 99 percent, leaving at least a 1 percent chance of no rain -- just in case. And what does it mean if we have a 30 percent chance of rain? Will it rain 30 percent of the day or rain all day at 30 percent of capacity?

Compared with weather prediction, it is much more difficult to predict climate. Climate predictions tell us of trends of temperature and rainfall during an extended period. Strangely enough, climate prediction for Georgia usually begins with temperatures of the sea surface in the eastern Pacific Ocean.

Climatologists have found that the sea surface temperatures in this area are often related to weather patterns in the Southeastern U.S. Climatologists watch the temperature to see if it is hotter or cooler than usual or just average. Then they assign the phenomenon a label: La Niña (cooler than usual), El Niño (warmer than usual) or Neutral (average). Each of these has a predicted weather pattern associated with it. This is called the El Niño Southern Oscillation or ENSO.

The relationship is not 100 percent, but it is somewhat helpful in predicting trends. The ENSO is probably more predictive of weather in central and south Georgia than in north Georgia. Even with its imperfections, it is one of the better tools we have.

Right now, we are in a neutral phase. Pam Knox, University of Georgia climatologist, said this leaves climatologists guessing. When ENSO temperatures are near normal, like they have been for months, winter temperatures tend to vary widely.

This is what we have been seeing with temperatures and rainfall -- wide variations. Earlier this winter, rain was adequate in north Georgia, but conditions were dry here. Recently, rainfall has moved to south and central Georgia, which has helped fill ponds and recharge underground aquifers in areas affected by drought during the past year. Farmers and gardeners appreciate the rains, but wet soils are delaying soil preparation and planting. What do we expect in the future?

The neutral phase ENSO we are seeing now forecasts a greater chance of killing frosts late in the spring and wide swings in temperature. As we move into the summer, we expect higher than average temperatures and a higher chance of tropical storms and rainfall from June to November. Rainfall may vary widely between regions. As we move into the late summer, a change in ENSO may lead to different climate predictions.

ENSO is not a perfect predictor of our climate, but it is fun to watch and see whether it works. However, with these climate predictions, let’s plan for the spring garden.

Late frosts can damage cold-tender vegetables such as tomato, pepper, cucumber and squash and flowers. You may want to delay planting slightly this year. The average date of last frost is mid-March, but it could be two weeks earlier or later. Early April is a safer planting time for cold tender vegetables. Plants that really like warm soils (peppers, sweet potatoes, annual periwinkle and salvia) are better planted in late April. If you plant in March, make plans to cover the plants in case of late frost.

When transplanting this spring, water plants with a dilute liquid fertilizer with lots of phosphorus. This helps plants get a faster start in cool soils. If we get lots of rain on wet soils, fertilizers will also leach more quickly and need re-applying.

Plant into raised beds where possible. Add soil and organic matter to raise the soil 6 to 8 inches higher than surrounding soil. Raised beds drain more quickly and warm faster in the spring.

Remember to visit the Master Gardeners of Central Georgia Spring Plant Sale at the Macon Farmers Market on March 15 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and March 16 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Willie Chance works with the University of Georgia Center for Urban Agriculture and helps to train the turf and landscape industry.

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