Farmers predict a growing season in full bloom this spring

The combination of a record wet 2018, a wetter than average winter and a dry patch in March lead many to believe South Jersey will sprout strongly when growing season arrives.

“The good news is that we’ve had multiple months with above average precipitation. For any soils that can hold the water for a while, we’re in good shape, the groundwater is in good shape,” said Dave Robinson, the New Jersey state climatologist and distinguished professor at Rutgers University.

The state averaged 64.79 inches of precipitation in 2018, the highest since records were first kept in 1895. Rain and snow slopped the soil after the growing season ended. November was the wettest on record at Atlantic City International Airport. The period from December through February was the ninth wettest meteorological winter at the airport.

While this could have set up too wet of a start, March saw slightly lower than average precipitation, the perfect balance needed to get a garden going.

Growing season begins with the last frost and freeze, typically late March to mid-April in South Jersey, and ends with the first frost or freeze, typically late October to early November.

“The rain last year was terrible for yields, and attempting to plant and harvest in wet conditions can be very detrimental to fields,” said Alex Sheppard, production manager of Sheppard Farms in Lawrence Township, Cumberland County. “The conditions in December through February held us back a little, but the recent dry weather has more than made up for it. The conditions have made for good planting.”

“We’re all pretty optimistic for this year. The temperatures weren’t crazy. We didn’t have blueberry bushes growing early. All of the buds held tight,” said Marc Carpenter of Joseph J. White Farm in Browns Mills, Burlington County.

Drought has not stricken South Jersey since April 2017, according to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Drought Monitor. No further drought is expected in the near future.

“The water’s not been in excess where you can’t get by on hand to start planting. Most of the spots you can still work a small area by hand, especially if they’re using raised bed gardens,” said Richard VanVranken, Atlantic County agent for the Rutgers Cooperative Extension.

Cool-season plants, such as lettuce, cabbage and broccoli, are good to plant now, according to the extension, which provides agricultural support.

Free resources are available from the extension to New Jersey residents, whether they are a first-time home gardener or a seasoned veteran of the hoe and shovel.

“There are 21 county offices across the state. Each has agricultural support,” VanVranken said.

Master gardners are trained for 20 weeks in Atlantic County through the extension. Once the session is complete, they can be at the service of anyone.

VanVranken said anyone can create their own mini greenhouse by cutting open a plastic water jug or juice container and putting it over a plant in the soil. For nights where temperatures are expected to dip near freezing, leave the cap on the plant. This allows outgoing heat, or radiation, from the ground to stay inside the container, preventing the plant from being exposed to the cold air.

During the day, take the cap off, especially on sunny days, when the strong sun can heat the surface of the ground quickly. This will allow the air to mix and vent around the plant.

Other tips include keeping plants from dying during the transition month of April. The last 32-degree freeze, on average, ranges from late March to early April for much of Cape May County and lands east of the Garden State Parkway to late April for the rest of the region.

However, plants such as cabbage and broccoli can still be grown. At the cooperative extension, they’re grown until the end of May or early June.

“They’re run until the end of May or early June,” said Belinda Chester, Rutgers Master Gardener Program coordinator of the Cooperative Extension.

“They work the helpline and events across the county. … You can call our office (609-625-0056), and a Master Gardener will be there to answer,” Chester said.

More advanced tips, such as for growing baby lettuce, are offered as well.

“We can take it (the potted lettuce) apart and plant multiple plants, as long as we don’t rip the fruit off of each one. … Or you can plant multiple ones together and then, in a few weeks, come back to eat as baby lettuces,” VanVranken said.