Greetings from aboard the weather roller coaster that is early springtime in the mountains! This month’s reader questions were mostly about temperatures and timing, which has inspired a short discussion of climate change and gardening, along with, of course, answers to the questions. I love hearing from you and addressing your juicy gardening quandaries, so please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks!
Climate change and growing food
Have you noticed that our region is getting warmer, drier, windier and generally more erratic in temperature and weather? These are the real-world impacts of human society’s wholehearted embrace of material comfort and convenience at all costs. We’re well on our way in a headlong sprint toward the cliff of destabilized ecological systems. My guess is you’ve probably been noticing this right in your backyard. Gardeners and farmers are some of the first folks to be impacted by climate change. We pay attention to the temperature, sun, wind, rain and rhythms of the living world. And when things like weather become more erratic or unpredictable, our crops feel it. Wild weather is becoming more and more the norm, so it will behoove us to learn to adapt (along with all of the essential work to halt and reverse the root causes of climate chaos, of course).
But how do we adapt to things we cannot predict? Diversity is crucial. When we plant lots of different varieties of things, the chances of some of them doing well, even if others fail, is greater. This means trying new crops, new varieties and paying attention to how each one behaves. Also, flexibility: It may be that certain crops that we’re familiar with, or that have done well in the past are no longer going to be viable. Instead of digging in our heels, let’s try new things. Infrastructure is another key element to adapting to climate change.
When I first moved here, I didn’t even think about setting up an irrigation system. It just rained enough to water crops in the summertime. Now I’m considering it since the periods of dry weather seem to be growing with each year. A farmer friend of mine has been investing in more high tunnels to protect crops from strong winds, along with shade cloth to protect the high tunnels from rising temperatures. I certainly am not a proponent of buying lots of gear and gizmos for your garden. At the same time, some new tools and materials may be the key to continuing to grow food as the Earth tries to shake off this fever brought on by the sadly myopic human animal.
I have several fruit trees that flowered way early (nectarine, peach, apricot) and now see freezing weather in the forecast. These trees have almost finished flowering. Will the freeze damage the fruit buds?
The phenomenon of late winter warming followed by hard freezes is one of the more challenging impacts of climate change that we’ve been noticing in our area. Here in the mountains, spring and fall weather have always been somewhat erratic, but the changeability and unpredictability is increasing. During this time of year, fruit trees that have been dormant over the winter begin to wake up, and one of the first things they do is flower. The “stone fruits” that you mentioned tend to flower earlier, with “pome fruits” (apples, pears, quinces, etc.) bursting forth a little later.
One reason trees become dormant in the winter months is because in the dormant state their tissues are not likely to be damaged by cold temperatures. Tender new growth waits for temperature signals to begin because it is easily damaged by freezing. Flower and fruitlets (newly fertilized flowers that are beginning the incredible transformation into the fruits we’ll sink our teeth into in the summer or fall) are some of the most frost-sensitive parts of fruit trees.
Fortunately, a light frost won’t harm most fruit tree flowers. However, when temperatures go down into the 20s, damage can occur that may lead to crop loss; little flowers and fruitlets can die. The more open a flower bud is, the more susceptible it is to frost. If your trees are small enough, just throw a blanket or sheet over them and secure it with a rope. Some people even construct cages around large trees and wrap them in blankets or row cover cloth. This is only practical if you have a small number of trees.
Another way to protect your trees is to put on a sprinkler so that they’re watered as the temperature drops. You’ll need to get this going before air temperatures freeze, so the water can freely flow. This moisture will coat the flowers and fruitlets, and as long as it doesn’t get extremely cold for long, it will hold their temperature right around freezing.
Finally, there is an interesting organic spray that can impart frost hardiness to fruit tree flowers. I have never tried this but was intrigued enough by this article I came across while researching the answer to this question that I think it’s worth mentioning: avl.mx/ci9
I have some kale plants that are still going from last year. Will they keep growing as the spring warms up, or should I plant new ones?
Isn’t it wonderful when your greens last all the way through winter? As our winters are getting milder, this will probably be more common. In my experience, overwintered kale plants will have a burst of new growth as temperatures and day length increase. The leaves they put out will generally be smaller than they were at the beginning of the season.
This is because kale and many other greens are biennials; they grow vegetatively the first year, then shift gears into making flowers and seeds the second year. The new growth you’ll see (and can totally eat!) on your old kale plants will do the job of powering photosynthesis to grow a flower stalk. This process is also known as bolting. Once flowering starts, you can still eat the kale, though sometimes it begins to taste bitter, and the new leaves that come will be even smaller. For these reasons, I like to leave a few overwintered plants in the garden and sow a round of new kale for spring planting. Now is a great time to sow spring kale indoors, if you haven’t already. The soil outside is still not warm enough for reliable germination, so I don’t recommend direct-sowing kale.
If you’ve already sown spring kale or purchased transplants, it could be just about time to plant them. Spring gardening is a big gamble here, since we tend to swing quickly from cold into hot, without a lot of cool transition time. And that cool transition time is the kind of weather kale likes best. If you do transplant kale out soon, be sure to have some row-cover at the ready to protect those babies from hard freezes that are still likely to grace us for at least another few weeks, if not into early May.