By Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal
It’s hard to find anyone who remembers a spring as warm as this one.
“I’m 59 years old and have been involved with farming all my life,” said Stanley Wise, a produce farmer and Mississippi State University Extension Service director for Union County. “I never remember a warm spell this long in February and March.”
Statistics agree with these observations. The earliest last freeze on record in Tupelo happened in 1945, when the temperature stayed above 32 degrees full time after March 1. If no more freezes occur this year, the new record will be Feb. 26, when the mercury hit 30 degrees.
By comparison, Tupelo’s average last freeze date is April 3, and the latest occurred May 4, 1976.
A freeze is still possible but unlikely, said Danny Gant, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Memphis. He said most of the winter was kept warmer than usual by high pressure that allowed for extra sunshine and a jetstream that’s kept Arctic systems far to the north.
“If we get any systems from here on out, they’re not going to have the same cold impact that they would have earlier,” he said. “If it’s something like an ‘Alberta Clipper,’ it might knock the temperatures back for a day or two, but you’ve got to get into the mid- to lower 30s for frost.”
Lack of frost is only one of several recent or current weather anomalies. The month of March thus far has been 9.4 degrees warmer than average, resulting in accelerated blossoming and leafing in most plant species.
Soils are warmer than usual, too, which is stirring a world of interest in gardening.
“Last year I bought a 50-pound bag of seed potatoes and threw away 30 pounds, and this year I’ve gone through seven 50-pound bags,” said Amy Thomas, co-owner of Dash for Cash, an Oxford pawnshop and farm supply store. “And I have sold tomatoes earlier than ever.”
Wise admits he’s planted a few tomatoes where they could be covered if frost threatens, but he’s recommending patience about planting most of one’s warm-weather crops.
“My recommendations for planting summer vegetables is normally April 20. However, if you’re a risk-taker, the ground is warm enough for peas, beans and other summer seeds to germinate,” he said.
Bernita Booker of Oxford was buying some of Thomas’ tomato plants on Tuesday. Although this is her first year to garden, she’s bucking the tradition of waiting until Good Friday to plant summer vegetables.
“I’m willing to plant again if I have to,” she said.
While the early spring is a boon for some, the possibility that the region might yet see another freeze is daunting for some growers.
“A frost would be very dangerous now because wheat is most vulnerable when it is at the heading stage,” Erick Larson, an agronomist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, said late last week. “Because of the warm weather beginning in January, the crop is about three weeks ahead of schedule.”
Wise added that fruit crops are also at risk.
“We have got peaches and nectarines and plums in this area, lots of them,” he said. “If we get temperatures below 30 degrees for very long, it’ll wipe out a crop.”
Gardeners still debating frost risk versus early harvests probably wonder whether Gant, the Memphis meteorologist, has risked planting his own tomato vines yet.
His answer is singularly disappointing to growers on both ends of the caution spectrum.
“I don’t like tomatoes,” he said.