I can never tell if my clients are serious or just pulling my leg when it comes to old wives’ tales and folklore related to farming, gardening, and predicting the weather.  I’m a big fan of the classic movie Groundhog Day with Bill Murray. This movie underscores the absurdity of the whole Groundhog Day tradition.  Case in point—we have two groundhogs that never seem to agree on the weather prediction. Our local General Beauregard Lee forecasted an early spring this year while his famous cousin, Punxsutawney Phil, predicted six more weeks of winter.    

By the way, if you don’t agree with Beau or Phil, there are several other groundhogs you can watch for a second opinion: Buckeye Chuck in Ohio, Dunkirk Dave in New York, and Sir Walter Wally in Raleigh to name a few.  One of these guys is bound to be correct in their predictions.  According to the Farmers’ Almanac, Phil’s predictions are only accurate about 39% of the time.  The Farmers’ Almanac also claims that their own weather forecasts are accurate about 80% of the time. 

After several years of college education in the field of agricultural and environmental sciences, I still can’t wrap by brain around the Farmers’ Almanac.  Supposedly, the Farmers’ Almanac uses a mathematical and astronomical formula to make long-range weather predictions based on sunspot activity, tidal action of the moon, positions of the planets, and other factors.  The way I see it, we have spring, summer, fall, and winter based on the tilt of the earth—which tends to be fairly consistent and predictable. Depending on what latitude you live, these seasons may be slightly more or less extreme.  

If modern farmers only planted according to the phases of the moon, we would probably all starve to death.  Most farmers with common sense will plant when the soil temperatures are warm enough for seeds to germinate and when the soil moisture is not too wet to get your tractor stuck in a mud hole. That ideal window is typically only a few days each spring and farmers have to be sitting on ready-to-go plant, not waiting for the next phase of the moon.

So, exactly how do we know when is the best time to plant?  There’s this really old technology called a thermometer that is still used today to track soil temperatures.  For most of our summer crops, the ideal soil temperature is around 60F to 65F degrees for seed germination.  We can track this soil temperature using local weather stations that UGA Extension has scattered across 89 locations around the state of Georgia. Anyone can access this weather data online for free at www.georgiaweather.net.  No magazine subscription required. 

Predicting the last frost date is not that important of a decision tool for farmers and gardeners.  Historically, the last frost in Bartow County has been as early as March 23 or as late as April 25.  The average last frost date is somewhere in the middle of those two dates.  More importantly, the ideal soil temperature typically doesn’t hold a steady 65F degrees and rising until the last week of April, which is safely beyond the threat of frost most years.  Even if you wait until the last week of April, check the local five-day weather forecast to make sure there’s no chance of a late frost. 

Of course, if you want to plant your garden in March or early April, there’s always a chance that you might get lucky—perhaps the moon is even in the right phase.  Your chances of success are about as good as the groundhog’s forecast.  If we do end up with a late frost, the local garden centers will gladly sell you more seeds and transplants for your garden.  My favorite quote from the Farmers’ Almanac is “for best results, talk with your local agricultural extension office for the optimal window of time within which to use these dates.”

Paul Pugliese is the Extension Coordinator and Agricultural & Natural Resources Agent for Bartow County Cooperative Extension, a partnership of The University of Georgia, The U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Bartow County.  For more information and free farm, lawn, or garden publications, call (770) 387-5142 or visit our local website at extension.uga.edu/bartow.