Gardening Essentials – To Prepare or Not to Prepare

Spring Gardening in Uncertain Climes

I must confess, about two dozen years ago, when I began to hear about global warming, I naively assumed it meant that New England’s winters would get shorter over time. Freezing temperatures would end by mid-March. In the fall, the first frost might not arrive until late November. I would like that.

Then scientists began using the term climate change more than global warming. I began to understand that changes in the climate would not necessarily occur gradually, with the weather behaving rationally as warmer temperatures were maintained for longer periods of time and moved north at a predictable rate.

Instead, climate change is likely to bring us more extremes, with little predictability about weather patterns from year to year. The last two years have certainly born that out.

Recently, I looked back at my garden photos from 2015. After a winter with three heavy snowstorms, there was still a substantial amount of snow on the ground on April 3. Though spring arrived a bit later than usual that year, I think the spring flower display I had in my garden was one of the best in the last 20 years.

The spring of 2016 was quite different. March was unusually mild. For the first time in 30 years, I had daffodils almost blossom in March. Then, during the first week of April, a cold front came in and the temperature dipped into the low 20s on several nights.

If the weather in March had been normal for New England last year, with a few days of temperatures in the 50s and most nights still below freezing, the daffodils would have begun poking out of the ground in early April, and the freezing temperatures at night would not have been a problem.

Instead, this unusual weather produced the worst show of spring flowers in the 30 years I’ve been gardening in this area. Rather than having portions of my yard almost carpeted in daffodils, there were few blossoms to be seen. The cold in early April had weakened the stems of the almost-ready-to-blossom flowers to the point that they could not “hold their heads up.”

Opposite page: Spring flower display, following a more ‘normal’ winter, one of the author’s favorite times of year in her garden. This page, left: Daffodil display on April 27, 2015, following a winter where snow was not completely melted until early April. The daffodils were not even poking out of the ground in early April, so were not damaged by a late cold snap. Right: April 13, 2016. After an unusually warm March, followed by a week of NOT unusual cold weather in early April, the daffodils were alive (all the green foliage) but could not hold their heads up. The flower stems had been damaged by the cold. Photos courtesy Susan Mitchell.

The daffodil plants themselves did not die. Their foliage didn’t seem to be seriously harmed and it continued to grow as it has for many years. Now we await the spring of 2017. Will we have normal March weather, or will it be a repeat of a year ago?

Last fall, for the first time in 30 years, I did not buy or plant any spring flowering bulbs in my garden. I’ll wait and see what happens this spring. If the weather pattern is more normal and the daffodils are able to hold their heads up, I may consider planting more spring bulbs this fall.

My concern about unpredictable weather patterns pales in comparison with that of the farmers who are growing fruit trees in New England. Early in 2016, almost the entire peach crop from Maine to Rhode Island was wiped out following sub-zero temperatures.

Last summer was one of the driest seasons in New England in many years. By the end of September, almost the entire state of Massachusetts was officially listed as suffering from extreme drought. Farmers lost many crops as their irrigation ponds or wells dried up. Many golf courses, depending on their water source, had to give up watering their greens, and the grass on some fairways was brown.

As of late January, the United States Drought Monitor still showed all of Massachusetts experiencing at least moderate drought. About a third of the state, from the southwest corner up through the northern part of Worcester County, was still classified as experiencing at least severe drought conditions. The southern portion of Hampden County was still under an extreme drought warning.

So far, our winter has produced only moderate amounts of rain and snow. Will most of the state slip back into an extreme drought this summer? No one knows, of course. But farmers, gardeners, golf course managers and others are waiting for spring and summer with fingers crossed.

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