Memorial Day marks start of gardening season in New England

Published on May 30, 2011 by

While some gardeners and farmers have been planting various crops for a month, the gardening season traditionally gets under way in New England on Memorial Day weekend.

Gardeners living in Bridgeport and other communities along Long Island believe they can get away with planting a few weeks earlier because their climate is somewhat warmer than Northern Fairfield County where the threat of a late frost lingers into late May.

But, now is the time for everyone in Fairfield County to safely plant everything and anything their gardening heart desires.

An early garden start, even in Bridgeport, might not be beneficial even if the threat of a frost has past. Planting in cold wet ground does not allow heat-loving plants to prosper.

When nighttime temperatures are still in the 40s and 50s and rain predominates, such as occurred this May, tomatoes, peppers and other warm weather plants, tend to turn yellow and fail to grow. Some seed, such as corn, which should be planted in warm soil, tends to rot and not sprout.

When daytime temperatures reach into the 70s and near 80, as happened in the past several days, plants put in the ground early will respond by becoming greener and developing new leaves.

When it is consistently warm, they will eventually turn green. The soil will also become warm and allow seeds, such as corn, squash, cucumbers, beets and carrots, to germinate more easily.

Potatoes, peas. onions and lettuce may be planted a couple weeks before the typical date of the last frost. Even so, a frost can kill the shoots of potatoes, planted too early, after they have emerged from the soil. A late frost can also freeze and kill bean plants.

The secret to being a successful gardener is to think in terms of a plant. Ask yourself: “What weather would I prefer, if I were to be an eggplant, tomato, bean or pepper?”

The fact is that most of the vegetables we grow, as well as many flowers including dahlias, have tropical origins, while we live in the temperate zone. As such, we have to wait until tropical weather arrives, while the sun heads in late May toward its height at the solstice in June, to begin our gardening.

When the early colonists arrived in South and Central America and the Caribbean in the 1500s and in North America in the 1600s, the American Indians introduced them to a delectable range of food plants, not known in Europe.

For all the silver and gold the Spanish conquistadors found, the greatest wealth they discovered were tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, squash, beans, peanuts and corn. They spread round the planet seeds from these plants, which became major foods for billions of people.

These plants do not flourish naturally in the temperate zone, whose summer weather is bounded by frosts in May and October. They come from tropical and semitropical areas of Mexico, Peru and other areas of Central and Northern South America, where summer and spring conditions prevail year round. After they were grown for many years around the planet, new varieties of them arose, which have come back to the Americas as “heirlooms” from Italy, Spain, Poland, Germany, Russia, Thailand and other countries.

To round out the American diet, eggplant eventually arrived here from India, the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East, along with melons and cucumbers from Iran and the Tigris Euphrates Valley, as well as okra from Africa, all very hot regions.

When growing these plants, it is necessary to think in terms of where they originally grew to understand what kind of weather will help them produce food in our gardens.

Fortunately, New England actually experiences a partial midnight sun-type effect which extends its day from 12 hours at the first of spring in March to about 16 hours at the beginning of summer in June.

Tragically for gardeners, just as summer begins it starts to end.

As of the first day of summer, June 21, only two more months remain to grow anything effectively, because the sun declines in the sky in July and August and heads toward the 12 hour day in September when fall begins.

After the sun’s decline in the heavens, there is no longer sufficient light or heat to sustain and support crops, such as corn, tomatoes, summer squash, peppers and cucumbers, which require tropical conditions, hot, sunny weather.

But, the fall will still support winter squash, pumpkins, turnips, carrots, beets, lettuce, cabbage, kale, Swiss chard, spinach and other crops which tolerate cool nights.

As much as anyone who loves vegetables would want to begin gardening earlier and extend their season later, they will not escape the inevitable truth experienced for hundreds of years in this part of the world – real gardening begins during Memorial Day weekend, followed by the beginning of the major harvest period on Labor Day weekend, considered the end of the summer season.

Of course, the harvest begins gradually with the picking of the first radishes and lettuce in June and beans and summer squash by early or mid-July, followed by the initial tomatoes and corn by late July and eggplant and peppers in mid-August.

But, despite all the preparation and hard work of gardeners and farmers, the main harvest tends to come to a great crescendo during the first couple weeks of September, followed by the first frost in late September or early October.

If you want to garden year round and not worry so much about the frost and the coming and going of the seasons, try moving to Guatemala, known as the land of perpetual spring.