When poet T.S. Elliot wrote that April is “the cruelest month,” it wasn’t because of the dreaded tax-filing deadline.
While romanticized as the month of renewal, April is also known as the great fooler. On Monday morning this week, people in Moscow-Pullman, Coeur d’ Alene and Colfax awoke to as much as an inch of snow and icy driving conditions. Temperatures across much of the Inland Northwest, including Spokane, ran 10 degrees below normal.
April’s weather patterns can change dramatically, delivering a balmy tease here, a wintry swipe there. That’s why it’s good to resist the urge to run out and plant your vegetable garden. Though cool-weather veggies such as carrots, beets, onions and peas may grow just fine in open soil, the full growing season comes after the last freeze, the last frost.
The final brush with frost typically isn’t for another five or so weeks in our region. Freezing temperatures and frost can damage or kill warm-weather vegetables such as tomatoes, beans and squash.
So yes, April can be cruel.
The month’s coldest temperature on record is – no joke – 14 degrees, occurring April 1, 1936. Flash forward to April 10, 2010, when the low dipped to 24 degrees. A year later in April, we endured more days of cool, damp weather than not. On top of a temperatures running below normal, it rained a lot. “Crummy” is how a Spokesman-Review headline put it.
And one more thing. As this past Monday demonstrated, it’s not unusual to see snow in April, which many of us view as a four-letter word during the second meteorological month of spring. Snow in February? Fine. March? Whatever. April? Get lost.
On April 20, 2008, 1.3 inches fell in Spokane, followed by an additional 0.7 of an inch the following day. A year later, 2.4 inches of snowfall challenged morning commuters on April 2. In 2015, snow flurries fell on April 6 and again on April 18.
Unless they’re growing in green houses or hoop houses, warm-season vegetables won’t survive that kind of weather.
So when is it safe to plant them? May 15 marks the beginning of the frost-free season that runs through Sept. 15, according to the Spokane County Master Gardeners website. If a span of nice April weather inspires you to get outside and plant most vegetables sooner than that, “be prepared to protect plants with covers, hot caps or row cover,” the website advises.
So far, the upcoming growing season is shaping up to be warmer and drier than normal. With proper care, your tomatoes should thrive.
Unless, of course, you plant them in April.
Nic Loyd is a meteorologist with Washington State University’s AgWeatherNet. Linda Weiford is a WSU news writer and weather geek. Contact: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.