“Is this normal?”

As a newcomer to gardening in Maine, somewhat frustrated with unexpected conditions, I asked this of a long-time resident many years ago. She replied with a laugh, and told me there is no “normal” when it comes to Maine weather. Over the decades I’ve been here I have learned that to be an absolute fact.

I remember a summer in which I counted a grand total of 17 days in which the sun shined, and the rest of those days were either cloudy or raining. Complete frustration engulfed my vegetable garden that year as things failed to thrive and eventually withered away or rotted from all the moisture and lack of sunshine.

The No. 1 garden crop here and everywhere, home-grown, vine-ripened tomatoes are definitely worth the wait. This summer’s long-range weather forecast tells me I should concentrate on cherry tomatoes that ripen earlier. Photo by Lynette Walther.

Other summers we struggled in the heat and drought to keep our little crops alive. One year it was so dry, we even resorted to loading the empty rain barrels into the pickup and took them to Lake Megunticook to fill with water in order to water the garden. As I recall, tomatoes did remarkably well that summer. But lettuce and sweet peas were complete failures.

I have learned gardens in Maine actually “grow” rocks. Yes, they do. I’m not talking about those little plastic baggies of pebbles that they sell to tourists that are labelled “Maine boulders.” No, there is a layer of rocks — both big and small — deep down in many locations and the winter freezes and thaws heave them up. Sometimes they reach the surface. Each spring as we turn the soil and work in compost and manure we keep several construction buckets handy in which to toss the scores of rocks that miraculously “grew” over the winter.

There is a boulder in our back yard that I estimate is the size of a Volkswagen Beetle that has slowly, but surely, risen up every winter and now protrudes prominently. I swear that thing is growing back there.

So as I contemplate what to plant each spring, I first consult the long-range weather forecast for the area. Well sure, I realize it is not going to be exact — but it is going to give me some idea of what to expect. Knowing I can decide whether or not to bother with tomatoes if it is going to be cooler and more rainy than usual, or if I should forget about lettuce because the sun will shine down like fire all summer.

It just helps to prevent wasted time and effort and frustration too. Knowing what to expect can also save money, since I won’t be wasting it on some varieties and will need to concentrate on others that will thrive in those predicted conditions. Weather forecasts have come a long way in recent years as meteorologists can track broad patterns influenced by seawater temperatures and other factors.

So here’s the prediction: April and May will be a bit warmer and drier than “normal;” June a little cooler with normal precipitation; July will be somewhat warmer and a good deal wetter than usual; August wetter and cooler; September very wet and cooler; and October is predicted to be warmer and wetter. This is according to the “Almanac,” and can be found online.

This prediction bodes well for early season greens, lettuce and beans giving those short-time crops a good start with warm weather. A cold spring can really slow things down in the garden. I can expect to be watering them of course, and not count on rainfall. On the other hand, this forecast might prove to be iffy for tomatoes that usually ripen in August here.

But now knowing what to expect, I think I’ll concentrate on cherry tomatoes this summer, which are ready to harvest earlier than the full-size tomato varieties. I am liking that October forecast of considerably warmer and wetter conditions which could be a boost for planting second crops of salad greens this year.

Of course it’s all a gamble. I am reminded of the joke about the farmer who won the lottery. When asked what they would do with all that money, the farmer replied: “We’ll keep on farming until the money runs out!” Let’s hope our own gardens are more successful this coming season than that farmer’s crops.