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Have we passed the spring frost? You sure?

Peter Emau grows much of his family’s produce in his greenhouse. The 10-year island resident grew up on a farm in Uganda.  - Julie Busch photo
Peter Emau grows much of his family’s produce in his greenhouse. The 10-year island resident grew up on a farm in Uganda.
— image credit: Julie Busch photo

Your spring planting could hinge on Peter Emau’s data.

Every morning, while most people’s sleepy eyes are scanning the newspaper, Peter Emau’s are fixed on his thermometer.

For the past four years, Emau has been compiling weather statistics at his Bainbridge Island home in an effort to improve his garden’s potential.

For him, gardening is more than just a hobby; it’s a link to the earth and his childhood in Uganda, which is why he takes great pride in the health of his crops.

“I’ve been gardening for as long as I can remember,” said Emau, who moved to Bainbridge Island with his family 10 years ago.

“People in Uganda grow whatever they can for sustenance. I spent my childhood plowing fields.”

There he learned how to tend to a variety of crops, including millet, beans, peas and sweet potatoes.

In the time since, he and his wife Margo, who has family in Port Orchard, have lived and gardened all over the United States. Some of those places, like Madison, Wis. and Atlanta, had less hospitable climates for growing than Bainbridge Island.

“I think Bainbridge is a wonderful place to garden,” he said. “I’ve had the best results here. The seasons allow you to grow a variety of crops. The soil needs to be improved some, but there’s plenty of helpful resources on the island.”

The idea for the weather study sprung from the soil of uncertainty.

Wanting to maximize the growing season, Emau sought to know when the last frost on the island usually occurred.

He consulted books and talked with friends and merchants from the farmers market.

Opinions varied: Some people said March, others said the end of May. After getting no definitive answer, Emau decided to find out for himself.

He began recording temperature and sunrise data in May 2002. He pools the results into 15 day intervals to determine the likely temperature range at certain periods throughout the year.

Emau cross-checks his data with figures recorded at the University of Washington and other weather services and says the results are extremely accurate.

According to his most current statistics, the last frost usually occurs during the first two weeks of April, meaning it should now be safe to plant seeds for the summer reaping.

Still, knowing there’s no such thing as a guarantee, Emau said an unseasonable frost would just add to his data.

“It would be more surprising than disappointing,” he said. “Unexpected results make me want to ask more questions to try and determine what’s happening. That’s what’s so exciting to me about gardening.”

The types of plants he grows vary from year to year, but Emau typically tends to several different plots during a given season.

As a research scientist at the University of Washington, his time is limited, so gardening is reserved for evenings and weekends.

Because he has high blood pressure, Emau said he and Margo view their garden as an extension of their kitchen and a vital component of their health.

Some of the Emaus’ best-growing plants are kale, cabbage, beets, peas, spinach, onion and garlic. They also grow more exotic plants like hibiscus, something they couldn’t do in other climates.

Currently, Emau said he’s growing millet in his greenhouse that he hopes will eventually adapt enough to grow outdoors.

In the meantime, the study continues. Emau says he’ll update his data to reflect changing weather patterns. He knows each year will be unique and warns of climate niches on different parts of the island that could vary results.

For Emau, though, uncertainty is just a natural part of the activity that binds him to his birthplace.

“I look at gardening like an experiment,” he said. “It’s a way to stay in touch with nature. That’s the beauty of it. It’s part of a healthy lifestyle, and it’s the lifestyle of the people in Uganda.

“This is something I can still share with them.”

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Growing season

Peter Emau compiled weather data over the past four years at his High School Road home.

Information was pooled into 15 day intervals to determine the average temperature range during different periods throughout the year. Emau looked at temperatures between 6 and 8 a.m. and grouped results into three ranges (32°F or less, between 32°F and 44°F and greater than 44°F). Here are a few highlights:

Bainbridge Island’s spring growing season typically begins during the first two weeks of April; summer begins during the first two weeks of June; autumn begins during the first two weeks of September.

The last frost is likely to occur during the first two weeks of April; the first frost usually occurs during the last two weeks of October.

The greatest probability of temperatures above 44°F occurs during the first half of June. The greatest probability of temperatures below 32°F occurs during the first half of February.

Climate niches, including factors like altitude, forest cover, distance from the water and impact of human activity will likely cause slight variations.

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