The Free Press, Mankato, MN

February 12, 2012

For growers, warm and dry winter is not all bad

By Edie Schmierbach
Free Press Staff Writer

— A bit of advice for crop and garden growers fretting about this winter’s unusual weather: Take hope.

Thomas Hoverstad’s prediction about the upcoming planting season is downright optimistic.

Hoverstad, a scientist with the University of Minnesota’s Southern Research and Outreach Center in Waseca, recorded an extremely dry period between August and December for most of the state — about 4 inches under average rainfall. Throughout this winter, sunlight warmed the bare soil, usually kept chilly in snow cover.

Some farmers and gardeners may have begun to worry about drought. Hoverstad has not.

“This situation is not bad news,” he said. “Soil moisture is very low; we won’t have to wait for the soil to dry out to get in the fields.”

Typically, Minnesota is more wet in the spring than the fall, Hoverstad said. Rains in the fall serve to recharge the moisture level in the soil.

“We didn’t get that last fall, but hopefully in March and April we can replace that,” he said.

Along with precipitation, the outreach station tracks average air temperatures and growing degree units for its weather data charts.

It was one of the warmest Januarys on record, but not in the Top 10,” Hoverstad said.

U of M climatologist Mark Seeley in recent commentary on MPR referred to a warm weather spell, similar to this year, when Minnesotans began planting in February. But today’s farmers aren’t ready to go out and plant right now.

“A hundred years ago, they grew more small grain,” Hoverstad said. Now, fewer farmers grow cold-weather crops and opt for corn and soybeans, which need warm soil temperatures to germinate.

There’s still some disappointed landscapers and gardeners in the state. Minnesota will be lacking shades of purple this spring. When temperatures warmed this winter, lilac branches began to bud out, only to be frozen off when the mercury dropped to zero.

Green Thumb’s Roger Engelson advises lilac lovers that, despite a lack of showy flowers this spring, they should not be in a hurry to prune the bushes. Leave them alone and chances are their branches will be filled with blossoms in 2013.

Some home gardeners watched their crocuses and daffodils come out of dormancy in December, only to freeze back down. Pete Koberoski of Kobers Nursery on Madison Avenue said there was a way to curb plants from waking up too soon.

“It’s not so much the degree of temperature, it’s the variance. If you covered your plants well with mulch last fall, they should be OK,” Koberoski said.

Engelson agreed. Gardeners who didn’t use mulch last fall can protect plants by covering them now, he said. Bags of mulch can be used, but if a favorite garden center is closed, use leaves.

Flower beds will have spotty shows of crocuses and daffodils, but they should come back next year. For now, protect them by covering them up. “Freezing and thawing takes a lot out of plants,” Engelson said.