This has been a mild winter. We haven’t had any snow or at least none that has stuck to the ground. We also haven’t had a night below 20 that I recall. That’s a far cry from last winter.
Trees and shrubs are flowering almost a month before they normally do. Peaches are blooming. Ornamental pears have already started. Many red maples have already finished blooming and daffodils are in full bloom. Mosquitoes have made their appearance in significant numbers.
There is one similarity to last winter though. The last several months have been very wet. Last winter was one of the wettest I have ever experienced here. It was so wet I lost a 20-year-old white pine tree.
Northeastern North Carolina escaped the hurricanes of last fall, so our soils weren’t saturated for long periods like those from Little Washington southward. Recently we have been making up for it. Ditches are full. My yard looks like an impoundment.
A week ago, folks were discussing the spring planting season. Their reasoning that it was near was based on the mild winter. Water plays a big role in any type of agriculture at any time of the year.
Water is a unique substance. It has a high heat capacity. That means it takes a lot of energy to change its temperature. We can have warm days, but soil temperatures will remain cold for a long time if they’re wet.
Furthermore, soils can’t be worked if they are wet. Our flat terrain causes our soils to collect water even if they are sandy. Naturally, clay soils have greater water problems.
Long-term forecasts continue to predict a wet spring. Regardless of air temperatures, this will signal later planting times. We shouldn’t rush things. If soils are too wet and soil temperatures are too cold, we shouldn’t plant flowers, vegetable gardens or anything else.
Planting in wet soils compacts the ground and destroys soil structure. This will hamper drainage and if weather becomes dry it will hinder water uptake as well. Roots won’t develop properly if they can’t obtain oxygen either. The bottom line is that plants will suffer whenever people try to stretch the season on the front end.
Soil is a collection of different sized particles. Clay soils have tiny particles. Therefore, spaces between particles are small. Small spaces hold water. Larger spaces, like those on sandy soils, will hold air. The sandier the soil the less likely its structure will be destroyed by tilling it when it is wet.
That said, plants still will not thrive when roots can’t obtain oxygen. Roots won’t get any if the soil is saturated with water. Furthermore, wet soil is cold soil. Phosphorus uptake is important for seedling growth, and it is limited in cold soils.
There is an old saying that patience is a virtue. It certainly is. I’m as sick of all this rain as anyone. However, it’s only the end of February. I might be a little nervous if we were facing this situation in mid to late May. It’s too early to panic.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School (firstname.lastname@example.org).