Daniel Gill, Merrill, Thomas A. | 3/4/2006 4:48:10 AM
By Dan Gill
LSU AgCenter Horticulturist
A common question around here this time of year is whether it’s spring yet.
In some Louisiana gardeners’ minds, the possibility that temperatures may dip into the 30s at night means it’s still winter. They may wait until April before they feel spring has arrived, and then they’ll talk about how short spring is.
On the other hand, if you look around now, it’s obvious the seasons are changing.
It can be legitimately argued that spring begins in Louisiana in early February – when deciduous trees like red maples, Japanese magnolias and flowering cherries began to bloom and grow. The lingering possibility of a late freeze does not mean spring has not arrived. So how do we know when spring begins?
Spring, summer, fall and winter, according to the calendar, begin and end at the same time everywhere in the United States. Common sense tells us, however, that the dates for spring gardening activities must be very different between Maine and Louisiana. By the time spring officially begins on the calendar, those of us in Louisiana already have enjoyed several weeks of spring flowers and watched trees and shrubs send out new growth, while in Maine it could be snowing.
Calendar Seasons vs. Gardening Seasons
Obviously, the calendar seasons do not relate precisely to our true gardening seasons. We Louisiana gardeners need to divide the year in a way that makes more sense based on our climate and how we garden here.
Part of the problem is the preconceived notions we have about what kind of weather spring, summer, fall and winter should have. I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard someone comment on how extraordinary it is to have 70 degree weather in December, January and February. Some of them are people who have lived in Louisiana all their lives, but they still find it remarkable. Why? Because it’s winter, and the concept of winter in our minds (those preconceived notions) tells us that winter should be blustery and cold.
Well, y’all, I have to point out we are lucky enough to live where winter weather typically is mild and pleasant – and is only occasionally punctuated with spells of colder weather and sub-freezing temperatures. Days reaching the 70s during what we call winter are not exceptional, and we should not find them remarkable.
The Gardening Year
To do away with preconceived notions, it is helpful to think of the seasons with names that more accurately reflect the weather we actually have at that time. Rather than spring, summer, fall and winter, we can divide the gardening year into the first warm season, the hot season, the second warm season and the cool season.
Currently, we are transitioning out of the cool season into the first warm season of the year. Running from about mid-March through mid-May, this first warm season is characterized by mild-to-warm daytime weather – with daytime high temperatures in the 70s and 80s and cool nighttime temperatures in the 50s and 60s. Late light freezes may occur in late March or even through mid-April in northern Louisiana. But, overall, it is a lovely time of the year, and for gardeners it’s one of the most active times of the year.
The first warm season includes the peak display of cool-season bedding plants (pansies, dianthus, petunias and snapdragons) planted last fall, but it’s really time to focus more on planting summer bedding plants. Tender vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers, squash and snap beans also are planted this time of year. In addition, landscape plants may be fertilized to help encourage the vigorous growth that takes place during this season.
The middle of May is when we transition into the hot season. It’s characterized by brutally hot days (upper 80s and 90s), warm nights (mid- to upper 70s) and high humidity. Heavy rains are common. If there is a down time in our gardens, this is it. In July and August it is so hot that many gardeners retreat to the air-conditioned indoors and spend less time in the garden than they do during any other season. This is our longest season – stretching until September.
In late September to early October we transition into the second warm season, which lasts until mid- to late November. The weather this time of the year is similar to the first warm season – generally mild and pleasant, although it can still be hot. This is not the ending of the gardening season as it is in colder climates where they anticipate frigid, harsh winters. In fact, this season certainly is not fall as our northern gardening friends experience it. For us, the second warm season celebrates the flowers still lingering from the hot season and looks toward a mild cool season with lots of planting to do.
Late November and early December see the arrival of the cool season. The defining characteristic of the cool season is the possibility of freezing temperatures, although much of the time the weather is mild and pleasant. This is the prime planting season for cool-season bedding plants and vegetables, as well as hardy trees, shrubs, ground covers, vines and perennials.
These designations of seasons, rather than traditional spring, summer, fall and winter, actually do a much better job of following the real gardening year here in Louisiana. They make sense for us, and they do a better job of guiding us in what to do in the garden and what we should expect weather wise from one time of the year to the next.
Get It Growing is a weekly feature on home lawn and garden topics prepared by experts in the LSU AgCenter. For more information on such topics, contact your parish LSU AgCenter Extension office or visit our Web site at www.lsuagcenter.com. A wide range of publications and a variety of other resources are available.