Penny Jordan doesn’t need statistics to tell her what kind of weather Maine experienced this spring.

All she needs to do is look at her family’s pick-your-own strawberry field in Cape Elizabeth, normally filled in late June with families crouching down to pluck the juicy red berries.

This year, the fields are devoid of people. Jordan said she hopes to open them to the pick-your-own crowd late next week, but for now, the plants have some fruit that are in desperate need of a few warm, sunny days to plump up and turn a vivid red.

“This spring hasn’t been kind to them,” Jordan said. “They’re more green than ripe right now. I don’t anticipate that the pick-your-own season will be too long.”

The spring was cooler and wetter than average, according to figures from the National Weather Service. June’s high temperatures have been running about 2 degrees below normal in Portland, while rainfall is 1.75 inches above normal so far this month, for example.

Cool and wet may not be a good combination for berries, but mosquitoes and ticks – the bane of  spring and summer in Maine – appear to be thriving. Experts say both kinds of pests are out in force, and that brings more risk of diseases such as Lyme, which is carried by deer ticks.

Not all crops are suffering. Jordan said snap peas are flourishing and she’s optimistic for a pick-your-own peas effort that her farm will launch this summer. But other plants clearly need a healthy dose of warm summer weather to get going.

“I do anticipate it’s not going to be a good year for tomatoes,” said Kathleen McNerney, the home horticulture coordinator for the University of Maine’s Cooperative Extension Service in Falmouth. The staple of many backyard gardens, tomatoes thrive in hotter weather that Maine lacks even in more typical growing seasons.

McNerney said home gardeners are sending her samples of fungi they’ve found growing on their plants because of the steady rainfall and damp conditions. That’s a big departure from last summer, when much of southern Maine experienced a drought.

She’s getting about a dozen calls and another dozen emails daily from worried gardeners, McNerney said. That’s a volume she typically sees in late July and August, when home gardeners are anxious for tips to get their plants across the harvest finish line.

This year, the callers have questions about how to jump-start the growing process, she said. Her best suggestion is mesh floating row covers, McNerney said, which help keep the pests off and reduce the amount of water splashing back on plants from drops hitting the soil.

Residents are also sending along insect samples, such as flea beetles, which are responsible for the small holes in plant leaves, and ticks, which carry diseases harmful to humans.

The beetles are largely harmless, McNerney said, but ticks she forwards to Griffin Dill, who runs the new Tick Lab at the University of Maine in Orono.

The lab has gotten about 1,100 ticks, tucked inside envelopes in plastic bags, since opening April 1, said Dill, an integrated pest management professional. Tick identification is free and it’s helpful to know the identity because some species are more of an irritant than health risk, while others carry Lyme disease or two related diseases, anaplasmosis and babesiosis.

All three cause flu-like symptoms – fevers, headaches, chills and joint pain – but anaplasmosis and babesiosis respond better to treatment, he said, while Lyme disease can cause longer-lasting problems, even if treated.

This spring’s cool, wet weather has been ideal for ticks and mosquitoes.

Dill’s lab charges $15 to test to see if the ticks are carrying diseases and about half of the samples it receives have been tested. Of those, Dill said, about half test positive for a disease.

Dill said the spring weather has been ideal for ticks and mosquitoes, which can dry out in warmer conditions. For mosquitoes, the weather affects breeding most because they lay their eggs in standing water and that, of course, leads to more biting bugs to bother people.

“Anyone who’s spent more than a few minutes outside has probably experienced a high-level of annoyance” from mosquitoes this year, he said.

For ticks, wetter and cooler weather makes them more active but doesn’t necessarily lead to a growing population in a single summer, he said. However, the pests’ range is expanding north due to climate change and warmer winters that are easier for ticks to survive, he said.

Derek Schroeter, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said the cool, wet weather is largely the result of a persistent low-pressure trough on the East Coast that has repeatedly drawn storm systems into New England.

Although the rainfall and cool weather are far from record-setting, Schroeter said, they have been persistent. Stretches of warm, dry weather lasting more than a couple of days were rare this spring, although the agency does not track the frequency of sunshine.

Schroeter said the trough is expected to dislodge soon and longer-range forecasts for the next month or so say the odds are good for weather that is both warmer than normal and drier than normal.

“There is some kind of hope that we can get some nice stretches of normal summer weather,” he said.

It can’t come soon enough for Jordan. The pick-your-own strawberry season will be late enough this year to miss some towns’ strawberry festivals. Cape Elizabeth’s festival is this weekend and Jordan said local farms are scrambling to harvest enough berries for strawberry shortcake and other favorites.

“It’s not going to be what you call a banner season,” Jordan said, and she encouraged Mainers to patronize local farmers to buy fresh produce this summer, even if strawberries aren’t abundant.

The berries provide a nice cash boost at the beginning of the season, she said, and farmers will need to make it up.

“To come out of the chute and not have that cash flow that you anticipate” makes for a difficult start to the season, she said.

The berries also will likely be a little pricier because of the conditions and limited supplies. Jordan has strawberries for sale at $7.25 a quart, while prices were below $7 a quart last year.


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