The Daily: 18 May 2023

I know I was just complaining about the weather, but I think I’m allowed another gritch-piece.

Friends, while we in Vermont may not have an official frost-free date until the first week of June, it has not snowed in May in Vermont since 1996, and the next most recent May snowfall was in 1966. But here we are…

Snow fell for much of the middle of the day on Wednesday. I say ‘fell’, but a more accurate term is ‘blew’. It was horizontal snow. It may have landed somewhere far southeast of here or, I suppose, it may have just sublimated back into the atmosphere without ever touching the ground. There was no measurable accumulation anywhere, nor did my rain gauge pick up any liquid. Worse than that, there was no indication that any soil was moistened at all. My garden was still bone dry and by evening the wind was again churning up dust devils. So it snowed, but there was no precipitation.

There hasn’t been talk of a drought yet, though there was substantial grumbling about the cold, dry maple sugar season — which was not much of a season, more like a weekend or two. Vermont had a wet February to keep the year close to, but still below normal, and there were a few weeks in March and April with snow or rain, though both months finished out below normal precipitation. But May is scary. Officially, Vermont has had less than 1/2″ of moisture for the month and no measurable rainfall since May 8th. My weather journal has recorded a couple days of drizzling rain and one good storm that measured about 1/4″ in my rain gauge — for all of May. Drought is a shortfall of human water needs, so when the growing season hasn’t started, we don’t see figures for drought. But as dry as the soil is right now, we’re not going to have a growing season. Nothing is going to germinate in this dust. And the lack of sap is certainly indication that the more-than-human world is feeling parched.

I think ‘no rain in May’ qualifies as drought no matter the unmet human demands. And that would be bad enough by itself, but the weather has also been colder than normal and much windier. We’ve had 15-20mph winds every day since May 5th. With this wind desiccating new plant tissues and turning trees into enormous straws, whatever moisture there was in the ground is being sucked up through leaf and stem and right out into the air. The cold temperatures theoretically might allow for increased condensation since cold air can’t hold very much moisture, but there is no time for dew or fog. The wind kicks up before the sun is properly over the mountains and keeps going until well into the night. Last night, I was awake at 2am and the wind chimes were still clanging. When I recorded the weather at 6am, the brief morning calm had already ended and small trees were swaying in the breeze.

I am trying hard to keep the seed beds moist in my garden. I think my batting average is about 0.500 right now. Some things like lettuce and radishes seem to be germinating and surviving the seedling stage. The beets and turnips are spotty, but I planted so many that I think I’ll get enough for the summer harvest — and there will be fall rounds of all of the cool season veg to make up any spring shortfalls. But there have been no carrots so far. I don’t know if this is down to the cold or dry or both. But after three sowings, zero carrots have shown up. The peas are all sprouted, but they seem stuck at about 3″ tall, so that’s not looking like a harvest before late June — which will probably be too warm for peas. The sweet pea flowers have not germinated at all. Those can’t be suffering from the cold — they love cold soil — but they must stay moist, even if you soak them before planting day. So that’s one plant that is a fairly good indicator of drought, and it’s unequivocally saying that there isn’t enough water in the soil right now.

I haven’t been able to plant out much more veg yet. The soil needs to be substantially warmer than it is in order for any of the melons, cucumber, beans, and squash to germinate. I’m fairly certain they also all need more moisture than I can provide with my daily watering can hauls. So even though we’re approaching the end of May, when I am normally done with seed sowing for summer harvest, I have planted almost nothing of the summer veg. And with the short growing season this far north, if I can’t get that stuff in the ground and sprouted well before Midsummer, there won’t be a summer veg harvest. It won’t mature before the frost hits in late September. So I am getting the garden willies.

But there’s nothing that can be done. The ground isn’t warm enough. In fact, there may be a hard freeze again tomorrow morning. There have been a couple light frosts in May. But the forecasted low tonight is 28°F, which is cold enough to freeze the top layers of exposed soil. So I’ve covered what I can with fabric row cover and mulch. Unfortunately, in a moment of unfounded optimism, I planted out my basil on Mother’s Day. (The boys were here to help me garden, so we gardened…) I was rather in a bind on the basil anyway. In late March, I started six plants in a tray of small paper pots and set them in the guest room bathtub which gets plenty of warm sunshine. By May Day the plants were starting to get leggy. By Mother’s Day they were just done with the tiny root space and were showing their displeasure. So I planted them out in the herb bed. Italian basil is reliably hardy only to about 45°F, so this cold snap is going to be a test of my row cover fabric. I have the entire herb bed covered in two layers of fabric. I also watered it all very well before putting on the covers, hoping that maybe the moisture will further moderate the temperature under the covers. But there’s a good chance that I’ll be buying basil plants.

That’s my own bad planning though. As I said before, our official last frost date is in early June. Just because we haven’t had May frost in a few years doesn’t mean it can’t happen. One should always be ready for the worst that is likely to happen… and pleasantly surprised when it doesn’t. One should never plan on the best possibility, no matter how probable. So, around these parts, planting basil in March is unwise. In fact, it’s not just Vermont. There are many traditions in the Northern Hemisphere from as far south as Greece that predict a cold snap in May. Cold Sophie comes to visit around May 15th. The Ice Saints claim three days in the middle of May. St Dunstan is known to bring cold weather on the 19th. All these traditions show that May is decidedly not basil weather.

But a hard freeze is still somewhat unusual, even in Vermont, and it will affect more than just my imprudent basil planting. My strawberries are covered in blooms. I gather than most local growers have fields that are similarly laden in blossom right now. These flowers might withstand a light frost, but a hard freeze? I’ve talked to many people who are worried. I can cover my strawberry beds. It’s just not feasible to cover a field. I only lose out on the earliest berries for my belly and my freezer. The farmers are losing their income. So that’s scary. Another scary is all the orchards in bloom right now. Apples are a main revenue stream all across New England. Last year’s drought meant a poor harvest for 2022 throughout the region. A late freeze piled on in 2023 will be difficult to overcome for some orchardists.

So there is trepidation. Bad sugar season. Dry soil. A nasty brush with May cold. I suppose we should plan on the locusts and grasshoppers this year also…

And on pestilent insects, let me just say, the cold and dry does not seem to be affecting the tick population. Maybe a hard freeze after they’ve come out of their winter hiding will kill them, but so far it’s a scary tick season. I suppose it’s lucky it’s too cold for bare skin, because I’ve pulled a couple off of my pants and, except for my jungle, I don’t even go wading into the weeds. I had a customer come in today, saying that she’d found them inside her shirt and pulled several off her dog after a very short hike on a well-groomed trail. There have already been articles in the newspaper talking about a ‘bad tick season’ — which in my book means ‘don’t go outside’. I’ve had Lyme disease once. I will never do that again.

It’s odd to note that, despite squally snow and Ice Saints and the never-ending furnace season and so on, my part of the world is well into solar summer already. The rapid change in day length around the vernal equinox has slowed substantially. Now, each day adds less than two minutes of sunshine. In a couple weeks, we’ll hit that midsummer plateau, adding mere seconds on to each day until the solstice. By the end of the first week of June, we’ll start seeing the earliest sunrises for the year. So summer is here, in spite of all evidence to the contrary.

Meanwhile, in the May 18th Currently newsletter, Eric Holthaus has this to say:

On top of that, an exceptionally warm start to the year and the growing odds for El Niño mean that, according to Berkeley Earth, 2023 is now more likely than not to become the hottest year in human history.

It makes one wonder, if this is May weather, then what’s November likely to bring?

Probably record heat.

Might at least get some carrots out of that, I guess.

©Elizabeth Anker 2023

2 thoughts on “The Daily: 18 May 2023”

  1. Oh no! I am sorry for all the wind and dry and now cold. I hope your row cover fabric works to keep the plants warm. I also hope your weather takes a turn for the better soon!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I read this with great empathy. We have endured a six-year drought and savour every small bit of rain that falls. As the daughter of a farmer, I am aware that one rain – even a good one – doesn’t break the drought. Just managing my garden becomes a hopeless task with no water and high summer temperatures. All we can do is tackle each day as it comes.

    Liked by 1 person

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