We have been through eleven winters along the Crystal Coast and ten of them have involved some gardening. Three years ago I wrote about Gardening in December. In those three years, I have worked hard at refining our winter gardening techniques. One of our most successful ventures has been our Wagon Train Tomatoes. The plants were put into planters on wagons around the third week in August. We hauled them in and out of the garage depending on the weather. This year we have enjoyed tasty, ripe tomatoes in December, January, and February. We will likely get a few in March just as we are putting our first 2017 plants in the ground. Our late tomato crop has been amazing with more than enough to eat and plenty to share a few. I picked another eight tomatoes on February 21. Aside from our traveling tomatoes that go in and out of the garage as the weather changes, we have also managed to enjoy lettuce, kale, and rutabaga this winter.
Aside from some very cold weather on January 7-10, the winter of 2016-17 has been a mild one and since the first of the year, it has also been dry. We got over six inches of rain in December but only slightly over three inches of rain in January. February has been even drier with only one and one half inches with one week left to go in the month. We could actually use some rain which is not something we have said a lot in the last couple of years.
I got all of our beds ready for bad weather before the end of December. The bad weather never came. We did pull some of our rutabagas with the approaching cold weather in early January and I put buckets over three over-wintering heads of lettuce and our Swiss Chard. The 15F temperature was cold enough to melt our Swiss Chard and to damage some leaves on our kale. I picked the damaged kale leaves off and we should enjoy some fresh kale before the beginning of March. This last week of February has been so nice that I transplanted broccoli and Romain lettuce plants into our raised bed on February 20. Some radish seeds also went into the ground on the same day and I planted onion sets the next day.
My tomato seedlings are from two to four inches high so they are on track to go into the ground around the end of March unless this exceptional weather continues. As much as I love this weather, you cannot fall in love with warm days in February because the cold winds of March will likely break your heart. I have seen far too many late snow storms ruin an early spring than I care to remember.
The plants that I have put in the ground are a gamble, but I already have backup plants growing. It is always challenging when you are trying to out guess mother nature. If you wait too long, the weather can be too hot for lettuce, broccoli, and other cool weather plants. If you plant too early, your plants will go into suspended animation. One year it was so wet that over half of my onion sets rotted. I am only going to plant half of the bag onion sets that I have. If they do well, great. If not I will plant some new ones and hope for better luck.
It would be rare to have an early spring warm-up without some shots of cold March air. It also takes longer than most people imagine for our waters to get warm. Slowly warming water and cool spring winds protect us from early heat waves but keep our soils cool.
Once our tomato plants are in the ground around the end of March/early April, we will start thinking about planting our green beans, squash, and peppers. Our second crop of green beans this year was severely damaged by Hurricane Matthew so we are hoping this early crop does well.
If you want to enjoy vegetable gardening, find yourself a home on the Crystal Coast. Just make certain that it has a south-facing garage like our home so you can try some wagon train tomatoes.