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Cool, Late Spring — Plus Frost — Confounds Organic Growers

“In plain language, Mother Nature is a b**ch this year.”


If backyard gardeners are scratching their heads and wondering whether it’s safe to transplant tomatoes or plant corn yet, how are the professionals faring?

Not much better, it turns out.

Lori Ann Regnier, along with her husband, son, and a handful of international guest workers operates Blue Lagoon Florascape, an over 2,000 square feet of four-season and seasonal greenhouse space and a 27-acre certified organic market garden near St. Francois Xavier.

“This is a really, really challenging year,” said Regnier. “We haven’t planted a whole lot yet.”

She had hoped her high-value crops would get an early start inside the greenhouse, but even that has proven a struggle.

“But it’s all been held back in there too long and it’s humid and cold at night, so we’ve had fusarium in the greenhouse. It’s not good inside or outside.”

Regnier’s peas are up, along with the spinach, lettuce and radishes, but the warm-season stuff isn’t out yet.

That’s because the weather forecast last week was predicting an overnight temperature of 1C on Saturday – too close to the frost level for her liking.

In the meantime, she’s planting huge quantities of melons in the greenhouse to prepare them for transplanting through a black plastic, soil-covering “mulch.” But it may all end up being in vain without a hot, dry summer, or if a dreaded early frost comes in August.

“We’re hoping to have a long summer, with no early frost in the fall,” she said.

Frost or no frost, tomato plants are going to go out the door and into the ground in stages in the coming weeks, some of them clad in 300 water-filled, insulating cloches known as Kozy Coats.

To make matters worse, in the heavy clay of her fields, the rain has come often enough to leave the soil a gummy, lumpy mess and hard to work up. In desperation, she has even had to build raised beds for the lettuce in a space out of the wind in between the greenhouses.

“In plain language, Mother Nature is a b**ch this year,” she joked. “But we’re a strange breed – eternal optimists. As soon as January comes, we’re itching to get out there. There’s a lot of money spent, so none of us can afford to throw in the towel.”

Regnier wonders if Manitoba’s climate is reverting back to the bad old days, when nobody dared put out tomatoes before June 10.

Dale Marciski, a meteorologist with Environment Canada, said that the Brandon area tends to get hit harder with frost than the provincial capital or Red River Valley.

According to the normal 30-year average data collected at Winnipeg’s International Airport prior to 2000, the latest frost typically comes on May 23 and the earliest frost Sept. 22, normally giving local growers a 121-day frost-free season.

The records dating back to 1872 showed some stellar years, with April 26 being the date of last frost in 1922, and the latest-ever first frost Oct. 27, 1963.

On the other hand, tomato growers should still be wary even this late in the season – in 1940, 1969 and 1972, the last spring frost came on June 20.

How ugly can it get? In 1940, there were only 82 frost-free days. But don’t lose hope, in 1963, there were a whopping 157 frost-free days.

Many gardeners still remember the shock of 2004, when after a long, cool, wet season, Aug. 20 saw temperatures dip to 0C overnight.

Fran DeRuyck, who along with her husband Dan grows organic market garden vegetables such as carrots, pumpkins, broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage near Treherne, uses the weeds as an indicator of when to plant.

“Being organic, we wait to get a flush of weeds. When the weeds don’t grow, we don’t plant,” she said, adding that it’s the “old school” gardening strategy.

Theresa Claeys, of Action Organics near Cypress River, hasn’t taken any chances with vulnerable market garden vegetables in the uncertain weather this spring.

“The only thing I’ve got in so far is the corn and potatoes, and I’m really glad because we had frost here last night,” she said, adding that at the end of last week she would start planting more vegetables.

In the past couple of years, the latest she has finished planting was June 1.

Claeys is counting on the unique growing system that she has developed to help her plants catch up. It combines the use of a homemade, “top secret” organic foliar nutrient spray and a sound system set at a special frequency out in her fields.

It sounds weird, she admitted, but added that it has been known since the 1920s that certain sound frequencies can be used to speed up plant growth, yield and boost frost resistance.

“I’m going to be planting everything for sure after Sunday,” she said last Wednesday. “I don’t have to worry about a -2C because I can play my sound system at night. It helps the plants produce more sugar, which is like alcohol, so it doesn’t freeze. I could even get away with -5 or -6C with it.” [email protected]

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