SPRING'S LITTLE WINTERS
As I sit here in the shop writing this blog, outside the snow is swirling around like a little blizzard! Its March 12th with spring just a week away, but just yesterday it was 65F and earlier this week it was almost 80F. Since I moved to NE Tennessee in 2010 I have found you can never under estimate Mother Nature, especially when you get garden fever and you want to get started growing.
One of the first lessons I learned as a "City Gal Gone Country" is you need to know the weather. Appalachian spring offers early excitement as the mountains start to wake up, but don't trust it, there is still a lot of winter to go. In the days before the National Weather Service’s precise predictions in the latter half of the 20th century, most Tennesseans still worked on the farm and reading weather behavior from the signs the mountains offered was a survival skill. Farmers depended on folk wisdom to tell them when to plant their crops and gardens.
Centuries of observing nature’s phenomenon – noting when certain plants leafed out and bloomed, when migratory birds appeared, when temperatures cooled or warmed – taught important lessons about the otherwise unpredictable weather of spring, when some days from March into May are summer-like and others threaten frost. Today’s scientists would call this “phenology” — the study of cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena, especially in relation to climate, plant and animal life.
Farmers kept journals noting the weather and other phenomena, allowing them to increase their harvest and their income. The small blips they observed in the shift from winter cold to summer heat revealed noticeable fluctuations that happened year after year. Through such observations year after year, farmers knew to wait before planting cold sensitive crops such as corn, tobacco, and cotton. The knowledge could save them from disastrous losses and increase the yields from their labor. Here are the little winters they established.
Redbud Winter – Mid-March to early April, when the redbud trees bloom.
Dogwood Winter – Mid- to late April, when the dogwood trees bloom. Often a heavy frost falls in dogwood winter.
Locust Winter – Some connect this little winter to when leaves start to appear on locust trees in early April, and others to when the trees bloom in May.
Blackberry Winter – Early to mid-May, when blackberries are in full bloom. In the Tennessee mountains, this often coincides with the last frost of spring, which can kill new plantings on the farm.
Whippoorwill Winter –Mid- to late May, when the whippoorwills can first be heard in the twilight of evenings and before dawn.
Cotton Britches Winter – Late May or early June, when the linsey-woolsey (linen and wool) pants worn in cold weather were put away and farmers changed to the light cotton pants of summer.
As climate change has brought warmer temperatures, the little winters of Tennessee now occur two to three weeks earlier in the season than observed in the 19th and 20th century.
As mentioned above, farmers used nature as a way to keep track of the weather — they waited until after the dogwoods bloomed to plant many of their crops. Now, we can just consult a calendar or look at the Farmers’ Almanac for when the last frost will likely happen. In Kingsport, they all say our last frost date is April 30th, they lie! From my experience as a professional grower and garden center owner, count on the last spring frost Mother's Day weekend. Hold off on planting those favorite tomatoes until then. Happy Gardening!