Earth Journal:

Earth's Clock Keeps Steady Time, Even in Warpy Spring

by Sandra Martin

A few minutes this side of sleep with Startrek Voyager the other night set me reflecting on the warped world we live in. Especially in spring.

Redbud in April is out of the order of things.

"Not even when I lived in Tennessee did redbud bloom in April," Jon Traunfeld told me as we talked about the compost story he'd write for this week's New Bay Times. Traunfeld, of the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service, keeps a close eye on nature so he could confirm with certainty my suspicion that we didn't yet deserve those branches beaded with red-purple buds.

Lilacs are lingering, provoking memories thick as the crabapple pedals carpeting my neighbor's lawn, while forsythia seemed to fly by. But that was back in the summer days of March, about the same time speeding gardeners visited Betty Knapp's Loch Less Farms in Owings, hungry for tomatoes.

Betty sent them to Hechinger's, where time is warped so severely that March, April, May, June, July and August bloom side by side.

Nature's time may be quirky, but it's not so wacky as that, both gardeners assured me. To keep my feet safely planted in earth-time, they turned me on to the one clock that keeps true time.

Go out and feel the earth, they advised.

Air temperature rises and falls with spring's warpy ways, but earth temperature goes slow, true and steady. Only when you feel Mother Earth warming is it time to plant such heat-loving plants as tomatoes and basil.

"You have to be at least 60 years old before you learn the lesson that it doesn't pay to put tomatoes out early," Traunfeld acknowledged.

"Human nature says 'no, we've got to get out there in late April and put out tomatoes,'" continued Traunfeld, who's not yet 60. So he knows the temptation of which he speaks.

If you yield, he advises, "you'll suffer the consequences."

Terrible consequence, at that. If the ground temperature is below 55 or 60 degrees, roots of such plants won't be able to pick up nutrients and water. They simply won't grow now.

Worse yet, Traunfeld warns, if you buy forced plants and their tender blooms have to endure temperatures in the 40s, when harvest season comes, "you'll end up with a lot of cat-faced tomatoes."

So unless you want warped tomatoes, you'd better wait until the first week in May to put out your plants. Basil too. By then Betty Knapp will be glad to sell you dozens of varieties of each, all hardened off and ready to enter Mother Earth's nice, warm womb.

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VolumeVI Number 16
April 23-29, 1997
New Bay Times

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