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Gardening for a Changing Climate

Updated on November 20, 2017
Fredrickvanek profile image

Fredrick Vanek is a former Market Gardener with over 40 years of experience in Organic food production and sustainable living.

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Ironically enough, farmers, who generally speaking are the stereotypical ideal in people’s minds of the Reactionary Right, are about the first group to really notice the changes and take concrete advantage of the positive aspects of this change, all the while denying any human causes.

They have not however been as quick or perceptive in dealing with other aspects of this changing climate: Changing precipitation patterns of alternating drought periods and deluges, the increase in damaging storms and winds, lack of snow cover, and the spread of invasive species. The changes needed here to adapt are not as simple as changing a planting time or harvest schedule.

For instance: The real lack of humus in the soil and the lack of contour plowing, never mind terracing, leads to terrible erosion during the deluges, and drought damage during the arid periods because the soil cannot retain moisture without adequate humus. The use of spray fertilizer, without which corn fields are pathetic, anemic, dwarves, is subject to being washed away by these frequent storms. The hybrid seed rots quickly if there is a wet cold spell, necessitating expensive re-planting.

And the weeds, increasingly seen now by even the farmers as laughing at “Round-Up”, are not so delicate. They thrive; taking over cornfields, hayfields, and vegetable farms.

The critical need for hay in traditional dairying is put at risk by the increasingly poor haying weather: Either too hot and dry for good grass growing, or too wet for extended periods resulting in being unable to cut the hay until past prime, or unable to cure it at all.

The classic pattern of weather farmers have come to rely on for the past century is becoming a memory, wistfully recalled, (except for the extended periods of 20 below days and nights: Nobody misses those.) This is a time where a new stability has not yet become fully established, it is a period of vacillation as large shifts in the jet stream oscillate, seeking homeostasis.

All this is in contrast to the traditional pattern of the last century of a steady, smooth progression of the seasons from a killing frost by Labor Day, then a progressively colder fall until the hard freeze of the earth and the first major snowstorm by Thanksgiving, followed by a cold, snowy December, then a frigid, blizzard-likely January with weeks below zero, then a week of thaw above freezing, then more deep cold and blizzards in February, followed by a wintery March until mid-month, then gradual warming. Spring came late then, with snow still likely in April. The Last frost was around Memorial Day, and the summer grew predictably, steadily, hotter and more humid with weekly rains.

All this was easily predicted because the weather then came straight across the nation from California to New York in a week. Now the Jet Stream over the country whips like a jump rope, plunging deep into the south to the gulf in mid-winter, leading to the stunning reality of Northern New York being often warmer in January than Florida or Texas.

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This is a quick summary of the changes now either manifesting or predicted and the steps needed for gardeners and market gardeners to accommodate to it:

Changing rainfall patterns:

There are more frequent heavy rains, and yet also longer periods of no rain. The best strategy is to move from row crops to beds and to level your beds to catch and hold as much rain as possible, and create dikes for flood control.

Increasing the humus content of your soil allows it to act more like a sponge and hold more water for longer.

Mulching with straw/hay will also act in the same way but has the downsides of cooling the soil, creating an environment for slugs and a haven for meadow mice.

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High winds in damaging storms

High winds and violent storms mean needing to grow lower, or more sturdy-growing, plants. All trellised plants will need reinforcing. Corn and other grains should be selected for strong tillering habits

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Milder, dryer winters

Maple Syrup harvest here in the Northeast will be off, sometimes dramatically. In the long term the Maple Syrup industry may very well vanish here, except in the most northern areas.

Storing some crops in Root-Cellars becomes more difficult with warmer falls and winters. Weeds continue to grow during the winter. More insect pests over-winter.

On the other hand, cool-weather crops can stay in the field longer with some protection. Less snow pack means less damage by voles to young fruit trees.

The decreased snow-pack will contribute to longer term droughts.

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Hotter springs

Once again, a double-edged sword. The early heat means cool weather crops can be started and set out earlier.

However, one must be on guard against being lulled into thinking the winter is over. Warm weather plants may do well at first, if the soil itself is not too cold, but the inevitable cold snaps will stunt, set them back, or kill them 9 out of 10 years.

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Cooler, wetter summers

Means it actually will be harder to grow warm weather crops here despite the over-all warming (e.g.: tomatoes, peppers, melons, etc.).

Tomatoes may be more susceptible to Late Blight if a cool wet spell strikes in July or August, making it imperative to find the best Blight Resistant varieties one can. These unfortunately do not taste as good as the heirloom. So, the choice is take a risk for delicious tomatoes or play it safer with “blah” tomatoes. (Take a chance. “Blah” tomatoes are an abomination.)

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Warm, dry autumns

Obviously, this is a boon in most ways. Cool weather crops like Brassica family members (Cabbages, Broccolis, Brussel Sprouts, Kale, Collards, Chinese Cabbages, etc.), Lettuces, Spinach, peas, Chinese vegetables can be kept right in the field, where they stay in the best condition.

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Later fall frosts, earlier last frosts

Earlier planting and later harvests into the hall becomes possible. Unpredictable weather also means doubling up on planting and expecting unexpected short swings in temperatures.

In upstate New York, this warming has added almost 2 full months of a growing season in the past four decades. That is a MAJOR boon. Farmers are able to get their crops in sooner than before, and harvest can be delayed with less worry of freeze damages. Vegetable growers in particular have been quick to jump on this, willing to take a chance for the edge it gives them in getting produce to market earlier than competitors.

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Changing directions of Weather Patterns crossing the country

With weather systems coming from non-traditional directions, weather forecasting is chasing the learning curve. Which means more than usually unreliable forecasts, even short-term, which translates into lack of reliable cloud cover for transplanting or haying.

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Increased imported or migrating pests

Means straying alert for their arrival and research into attempting control of their damage, if possible. Some tree species, (Ash and Hemlock for examples) are in dire danger right now due to imported pests. The Brown Marmorated Stink Bug, and the Red Asian Lily Beetle are just two recent invasive pests. The actual list is growing yearly.

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    • Fredrickvanek profile image
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      Fredrick Vanek 5 months ago from New York

      Thank you, Jorge. Much appreciated. And I believe you're right about the farming community. When it is to their immediate economic gain farmers are quick to adapt short-term. Long-term, I fear most will not make sufficient adaptations in time to avoid problems because their world-view remains untouched. Hope I'm wrong.

    • Jorge Cruz99 profile image

      Jorge 5 months ago from Canada

      Great article; unfortunately, farmers might not read it from your hub. They, however, are reading it from nature.

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