OPINION: Gardening In A Globally Warmed World

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by Karen O’Leary

While skeptics can go on denying climate change, gardeners know better. In our little patch of this globally warmed world, a century or more of accumulated growing wisdom is being thrown out the greenhouse door with bathwater and baby.

Last year, for example, the sweet peppers did poorly because a favorite gardening maxim let me down: “six months from the first thunderstorm, expect the first frost.” That old adage failed spectacularly when the peppers planted after a warm Mother’s Day drencher were subjected to frost two days – not six months – later. Stunned and stunted, they never recovered.

Another favorite: “Plant peas before the last snow melts” worked well until 2011, when the dog days of August arrived in April. The sugar snaps bolted, then broke under the weight of a freak snowstorm, just as delicate flowers formed the promise of sweet pods. That was followed by more spring heat, ruining a second crop.

2012 has been as crazy: the U.S. experienced the warmest spring on record, a jaw dropping 5.2 degrees above the long time average! But mixed with the heat was some real whiplash weather. In New England, for example, 80 degree temps were followed a day later by a plunge to 20 degrees. Apples, plums and pears, fooled into blossoming early by the heat, were damaged by frost and will produce lower yields this year.

Obviously, you can’t “plant corn when oak leaves are the size of a mouse’s ear” when oaks now delay flowering and leaf out in response to drastically warmer winters. Studies out of the University of California show that wild plants are adapting to survive climate change. So must we.

This summer we can expect hotter than normal growing temperatures across the U.S. We can expect drought too: it’s already abnormally dry in 35 states. Strangely, we can also predict that drought will be punctuated with deluge, like the 27-inch soaker that just hammered the drought-stressed Florida panhandle. (See your state’s long term forecast at: www.cpc.ncep.noaa.gov/index.php).

I’m adjusting my gardening methods to stay in step. The best way to adapt to the hot and dry is to introduce low or no-tillage techniques that retain soil moisture and subsoil ecosystem health. Also get ready for drought and town watering bans by installing a rain barrel or cistern connected to a passive drip hose system for the garden.

Learn to use shade. Natural and created sun barriers lessen solar drying of soils and protect cool weather crops from afternoon heat. My Pacman Broccoli produced until July in its shady, mulched spot. Hang shade cloth over June-bearing strawberries and cabbages to reduce water demands and blanching of tender fruits. Short hedges of raspberries or elderberries protect heat-sensitive lettuces, carrots and spinach in adjoining rows.

Recyclable mulches, raised beds and ditching will help control and better utilize run-off from sporadic, but much, much heavier rains – the new norm. Mulch does double duty, protecting from both drought and deluge.

Change your gardening game further by testing warm-weather plant varieties new to your region. Check the 2012 USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map (www.usna.usda.gov/Hardzone). It’s the first update since 1990 and reflects significant global warming over most of the nation. Now cantaloupes, which barely stood a chance before, are growing in places like Santa Fe, New Mexico, while heat-loving Merlot grapes have become the second most popular variety in Virginia says Scientific American.

Finally, prepare as best you can for “whiplash” weather – extremes of hot and cold, dry and wet. Keep cold frames and row covers handy. Watch the weather forecast and the sky.

I can’t stop climate change. But I can adjust to and perhaps even learn to enjoy the fruits of a warmer, if less predictable, growing zone where Merlot may one day replace maple syrup as Vermont’s signature crop.

Karen O’Leary is a writer, amateur naturalist, and former farmer. A Boston, MA native, she lives in Montpelier, VT. ©2012 Blue Ridge Press.


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