The Call, Column 94 – A Gardener’s Worst Nightmare

16 04 2018

(April 15, 2018)

The Urban Farmer

A Gardener’s Worst Nightmare

Gardening is going to get a whole lot more difficult in the years to come. Nope, not because there’ll necessarily be more woodchucks. I don’t foresee a shortage of seeds or plant starts, or any particularly nasty new plant virus. And if every garden supply center is planning to stop selling shovels and rakes, no one told me.

No, probably the biggest overall threat that we, urban farmers, will face to effective garden-growing is (drum-roll please) climate change.

It’s real, it’s our fault, it’s an overall threat to our well-being, and we need to do something about it…but we aren’t doing that fast enough.

And at this point, all action that we take on climate change will be to reverse the changes that have already taken place, and avoid more catastrophic atmospheric warming and related events in the coming decades and centuries. We are already seeing the effects of climate change around the globe – the ice caps are receding, ancient and new pathogens are spreading in territorial coverage, species are becoming threatened and extinct, and…the seasons are no longer dependable.

And that’s our kicking-off point for this column. There are many effects of climate change that are very relevant to urban farmers (not to mention full-scale farmers), and may threaten our ability to grow effectively. I want to discuss these impacts, and give some idea of how we might adapt to them while still in the process of transitioning away from climate-change-causing fossil fuels and towards the inevitable sustainable future.

The most prominent threat, of course, is the changing of weather patterns. I’m sure that you, like I, have noticed that the real beginning of winter – frozen mornings, consistently cold temperatures, regular snow – is creeping later and later in the year…as is the real beginning of spring. This has left us (in New England) with warm Novembers and cold Aprils, and wildly unpredictable Decembers and Mays.

Gone are the days when we could reliably assume that the first frost would happen within a week of October 15th, and the last around May 20th (in Southern New England). The agricultural zones are even shifting, as the frost line moves northward…who knows how long we will even be in Zone 6b?

This all makes it very hard to plan our gardens. When do we start our seeds indoors, if we don’t even know the appropriate month for their plant-out date? And when can we even be sure that we’ve had the last frost, since that May 20th approximation is not nearly as accurate as it was 30 years ago?

And, though the first and last frost dates are changing, the amount of sunlight we receive isn’t. We already have a short-ish growing season in Southern New England, which means we rely heavily on that growing season coinciding with the longest days and highest amounts of sunlight in the year. Well, May is typically a lot sunnier than November…if we lose growing time at the beginning to gain it at the end, our gardens will suffer no matter what we do.

This is a huge problem. I’m not sure I can confidently recommend a solution to adapt your gardening strategies, other than being as attentive as possible and selecting varieties that are able to mature in a shorter time, or with less sunlight. Also (and this one doesn’t come naturally to me at all), we may have to be more risky in our initial plant-out and final harvest. We will have to have more plants than needed, plant them out in late May, and pray there isn’t another frost lest we have to replace whatever dies…and come October, leave some of the less-than-optimally-ripe stuff on the vine later than normal, in hopes that it can mature before we get a hard frost.

Unfortunately, this is not foolproof. Three or four years ago, basically every farm in the state of Rhode Island lost its peach crop for the year because of this seasonal shifting. A short period of warm weather in early February of that year “tricked” the peach trees into budding out early, and a subsequent deep freeze in late February killed it all. Many trees died, and those that didn’t bore little to no fruit that year.

One of the other effects of climate change, that I’m sure you have noticed, is an increasing incidence of precipitation in high-precipitation areas. This translates to more snow in our area during the winter, which (despite uneducated claims of this nature), absolutely doesn’t mean climate change isn’t happening.

As the atmospheric temperature warms, water is more easily evaporated from the oceans and other bodies of water, resulting in more frequent and substantial precipitation. The atmospheric temperature has increased by a couple of degrees, and is set to increase by a couple more in the coming decades, which means our winters still do, and always will dip into freezing temperatures…and presto-chang-o, we get lots more snow as a result! This has meant that it’s harder to plant early-season crops like spinach, since the snow covers the soil later, and threatens the health of tender seedlings. This weekend’s nice weather aside, this fact has delayed me from doing much early-season stuff in my garden this year…and I really don’t have a good solution to offer.

Despite having more snow, the progression of climate change has meant that the soil freezes a lot less – and for a much shorter time – during the winter. Our winters now consist of alternating days of frigid temperatures, with less-cold or even above-freezing temperatures, which means the soil doesn’t freeze for a few months, and to the same depth, that it used to. This has meant that topsoil-borne diseases are more able to survive the winter, resulting in a more pathogenic start to the growing season.

Your best bet to prevent this from being much of a problem is to mulch, mulch, and mulch again! If soil doesn’t get splashed up onto the leaves of your plants, it significantly reduces the risk of them catching many soil-borne diseases. This doesn’t prevent every effect of the above problem, but it’s a start. I spread a thick layer of straw on my garden last weekend, which I’m hoping will be enough.

Finally, the variability in the weather in early-to-mid spring results in less native plant growth, less early-season berries, and less worms and soil insects. That is a HUGE problem since, well, nature relies on biodiversity.

But for gardeners in specific, that means that birds, woodchucks, and other “pests” do not have a reliable food supply early in the season. Well, no reliable supply…except whatever you’ve taken care to grow in your garden. I don’t even have a solution to this for a world without climate change. It’s a problem we just have to live with, I guess.

I hope you may be able to use some of this information. But even more, I hope it has helped you to internalize the pressing issue of global, human-caused climate change. Our gardens are in trouble. Our world is in trouble. We are in trouble. We have to adapt to what’s already happened, but also take action to stop further change, and ultimately reverse what has happened altogether. And we have to do it now. Shoot me an email if you want to find out how.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.

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