Gardening adaptation to volatile weather

Rob P
By Rob P on Wed, Jul 24, 2013 - 12:33pm

I've never done this before, so I hope this is the way to do it.  I also don't know if there is some sort of protocol.  Wendy, if you're the moderator, please excuse if I'm suppose to inform you first.

I thought I'd share some of my recent experiences of trying to adapt my gardening to weather volatility. I'm making decisions right now that may help others in how they approach this.

Maybe to just give a bit of background: I have been gardening for about 9 years. I have about 2,000 square foot of raised beds and 4 large cold frames, in which we grow about one half of our food (by volume). We eat out of the yard every day, 12 months out of the year. It's four season gardening.

 

We are in the “Missouri Bootheel”; this refers to the far southeast corner where Missouri hangs down into Arkansas and Tennessee. We're about half way between Memphis and St. Louis, at the upper edge of the Mississippi Delta. Historically we have been barely inside of gardening “zone 6”, however, I think we're now turning into zone 7 (i. e. lowest winter temps at 10 degrees f).

 

The real challenge has been the volatility of the weather. Really, it would be easy enough to adapt to a general increase in temps and a shift in frost dates. What is hard – really hard – is adapting to the range of weather that is now occurring. One recent spring saw rain all through March, April and into May. The sun literally did not come out sufficiently to grow lettuce or other spring crops. Many seeds either rotted or the seedlings were stunted. A late, second planting was successful with many spring plants; summer was generally OK.

 

Last year: Second week in March temps went to 90 f and higher and stayed there for over two weeks. This was very hot for March. Things settled down a little in April, but the heat returned, with drought in May. I did get some crops in May, like a great cabbage crop, but I had to use a lot of irrigation. In June – last week of June – temps went to 106 f and held over 100 f for almost three weeks straight. The rest of the summer was variations on this theme. This was a severe drought with many crops stunted or dying, not just from lack of water, but from the heat. Most tomatoes, for instance, will not produce pollen when the temps go into the upper 90s, so we lost a lot of production. Highly heat adaptable crops included: Okra (we love it, but I understand that strangely not everyone does); Cow peas (black eyed peas), which will germinate and grow – direct seeded – in 100+ temps; and sweet potatoes. So, get ready to eat like southerners I guess. We still ate out of the yard, but in general, last year was really really hard.

 

Ok, naïve as I am, I devised a strategy for adaptation this last spring (this year), assuming that, like last year, we would have early heat, and probably more drought. See how stupid I am?

 

Normally, I would have started Cabbage and Broccoli etc. - early stuff cold loving stuff - inside around January 15. I'd then put them in the cold frame around March 1, and planted them out around March 15; then monitor and cover with five gallon buckets if there's any significant cold weather. Last frost here is typically April 12 or so. This worked for years.

 

Tomatoes, peppers, eggplants: Normally, the same sort of thing but start with planting seedlings around March 15 or so, and the plant out around May 1 or so.

 

The plan: Move the date for starting cabbage (brassica) seedlings up to January 1, two full weeks early, assuming early warm weather and an early last frost date.

 

This was a disaster, but I learned a lot.

 

The problem was that it just stayed so cold for so long. I could have handled the wet, but the cold was really bad. I finally got the cabbages (etc) out around March 20 (late) – but the plants were starting to mature more than I like. Then we got slammed over and over again with freezing nights, all the way into the first half of MAY. This was really unusual weather. Anyway, I learned, for the first time, that Brassica seedlings will stunt if exposed to too much cold weather for too long. I did not know that. In previous years, they may have frozen a few nights, but would then do fine. So, there's a limit to how much they can take.

 

I did the same thing this last spring with Tomatoes, peppers etc (solanaceae), but I tried what is now becoming “the strategy”, that I thought I'd share with everyone. I started one round of these guys inside around March 1, which was a little early; again thinking we'd have early hot weather and drought. I then started another round in the last week in March. OK, 1st round made it out around April 25, and the heirlooms got knocked down and stunted (in spite of covering them up like crazy on freezing nights) by the weird May cold. But, the second, later round, is working out just fine. They were late, but they escaped the cold, and are now producing a lot of food.

 

It is also, I think, very important to pay attention to which varieties within species are the most adaptable. It's important to work with several in the beginning and try others every year. I'm also a seed saver who likes to work with developing genetic crosses for adaptability. I recommend Deppe's book, and seed savers exchange to anyone who might want to get into all of this. But “the strategy” is not particularly dependent on any of that.

 

Anyway, OK, so the plan going into this fall and especially next spring is to keep planting rounds (cohorts) of cabbage seedlings (or what ever is up) every 2 or maybe 3 weeks. This will be 3 or possibly 4 rounds. I will start earlier than usual and also, later than usual with the last rounds. If the first round is knocked down by weather, on to the second and so forth. We'll see which round makes it.

 

I'm now retired so I have time to do this.

 

Right now I'm going to start about 30 cabbage, Broc, Bruss sprout seedlings out on the porch. It's important to control their exposure to light and heat in the summer.

 

I'll start another round in about 2 weeks and then another perhaps as late as the end of August, which would typically be too late.

 

In fall, spring and especially winter, it really helps to have a greenhouse or, in my case, cold frames. This allows you to control for weather a lot. But, once the little ones are out in the beds it gets really tough. Then you have to cover with row covers or buckets, but this only works to a point.

 

So, this is one gardener's ongoing attempt at adaptation.

 

We shall see.

10 Comments

Grover's picture
Grover
Status: Platinum Member (Offline)
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Posts: 840
Early and Often

Rob,

I like your strategy to deal with the uncertainty. It is like voting - plant early and plant often. I generally start seedlings in the greenhouse and then transplant after all risk of frost has past. With the climate changes, this isn't always possible. For a light frost, covering with a lightweight plastic cover seems to work. This works on both ends of the season. Heavier frosts need special attention. A lightweight visqueen sheet works wonders (for a few cold nights.) At some point, it is best to give up the summer season.

I have my outdoor garden and I also plant in specially modified 5 gallon plastic buckets. Here's a post that shows the modified buckets. http://www.peakprosperity.com/comment/147458#comment-147458. The buckets are portable and can be moved into a garage or greenhouse when exceptionally cold temperatures are expected. Once the cold crisis has past, the buckets can be relocated to capture the radiant sun so they can produce a while longer. At some point, it is best to give up the summer season.

Grover

Rob P's picture
Rob P
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Joined: Oct 8 2008
Posts: 85
hey - that's interesting

Grover, that's very interesting with the buckets.  It just happens that I have a whole lot of 5 gallon buckets.  I'll try it.  I generally use them for covers on cold nights in fall and spring, but I'll try your suggestion.  Yes, it probably wouldn't work with plants having deep root structure.

Yeh, I use row covers and everything else to extend the season..  I just don't have a greenhouse.  But we had cold and heat here in the last two years that was like nothing I've seen before, thus the multiple rounds of seedlings approah.  Also, its a matter of the crazy timing of the extreme weather.

Being new to this group, you've probably discussed a lot of things that I may bring up, so please excuse if it is old stuff.

But I don't give up the summer season.  We have lots of kale, spinach, mache and claytonia growing right into winter, in the cold frames - although it doesn't actually grow much in Jan and Feb, we still get lots of fresh stuff.  I also overwinter carrots, beets, and a few other things outside.

Wendy S. Delmater's picture
Wendy S. Delmater
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Posts: 1988
Nice post RobP

Any member of this group can post here, no worries. And that was very useful. In your climate a greenhouse makes sense. We have not invested in a greenhouse since we're in the Columbia, South Carolina area--in the dead center of a Deep South state--but even we had trouble with cold snaps and freezes this spring. We are so far south that we start seeds indoors at Christmas and plant the first batch our seedlings on Jan 15, I kid you not. This year we had to go out there and pitch some pine straw mulch over the seedlings on freezing nights. And then uncover the plants during the day. It was labor-intensive but if that's what it takes when our gadens become even more important, we are ready.  We expect a dead season in August where only the okra, jalapenos, figs, peanuts and limas grow. This year we are experimenting with vine-type limas, to increase our yields per square foot. For some reason lima beans are ignored by the squash bugs, but they decimate our black-eyed peas. All the local farmers tell me that they have to spray black-eyed peas for bugs, so we learned to work with limas.

Understand that our main problem with climate change is insects. We (as Grover put it) plant early and plant often to try and get things established before the insects show up. Our annual plague of grasshoppers seems to go for young, tender plants, so the more established things are the less the grasshoppers eat, and the damned things are big enough bid netting may come in handy. We also have very vigorous insects that go after fruit; plum curlito got our peaches this year. We learned that you have to spray BT after evey rain storm since rain washes the BT off.

Sustainable gardening means you need to learn what works for the microclimate that is your yard on a small scale, and then expand it. Any and all strategies are welcome as they might help someone else. Going into the hot, dry season here in North America I had been considering bringins some plants indoors. I like your idea, Grover, but we have no garage. Last year we brought in lettuce but this year we are doing a second batch of seed starting in mid-summer, because the grasshoppers just decimated our broccoli and califlower, and all the lettuce bolted. We will see how that works.

jgritter's picture
jgritter
Status: Gold Member (Offline)
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Posts: 273
Ditto

Rob,

Thank you for you post, I also found it useful and interesting.  I am about 400 miles north of you in southwestern Michigan.  It was interesting to read and identical discription of the last two years weather from someone so far south, we had essentially the same experience except 10 degrees colder.  Apparently we are experiencing the same jet stream meanders.  The volitility does seem to add a new element to the equation.  Two weeks ago we were having highs in the 90's with lows in the 80's, stunning humidity ( from a place that knows about humidity), with a heavy dew fall dispite the high temps.  Today we're having highs in the 70's, lows in the 50's and little dew fall.  I feels like September or October.  I find myself making the transition from what is familiar to what I can practically grow, if the brassicas are stunted and the pigweed is exploding out of the ground, perhaps it's time to start growing amaranth. smiley

John G

 

Rob P's picture
Rob P
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Joined: Oct 8 2008
Posts: 85
thanks

Wendy, I'm trying pole limas for the first time this year too  - "King of the Garden" from Baker Creek (they're close to us here and I buy a lot from them). So far, so good. They're just starting to put on pods right now, so we'll see.  I have grown small bush limas successfully.  Seems like they just can't take any cold at all - at least at certain points in their development.

In regard to peas (purple hull and another heirloom): I've had a really great crop this year, though not always in previous years.  But this year, I have trouble with aphids getting on the green pods. This is getting pretty bad.  But it seems like if I'm just patient the pods dry and the aphids leave and then the peas are OK. 

Now, those figs:  I'm really getting concerned. Usually, we have a first crop (not so good) in June and then they get better and better, but this year, like so many things they aren't ripening correctly.  That's the old brown turkey fig.  There are a million of them, but they still, even now, aren't ripening.  Same sort of thing with our blueberries, although the blackberries were OK.  I attribute the problems to all that late cold weather. 

We're probably going to be moving to our land in central IL in a while here, so I'll have to figure it all out again up there, BUT, good news: there will be enough room for a green house and hoop houses too, so I won't have to be limited to my cold frames.

Generally, though it's pretty productive at the moment - getting Cukes, Rampicante squash, zucks, Okra, peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, carrots - even during these dog days.   Winter squash and sweet potatoes seem to be coming along OK too. So, I'm not complaining, but I am very concerned about adapting to the volatility. 

John: yeh, I agree, we've got to be very flexible about what we grow. I may have to give up cabbages. Really, they're just mariginal in terms of growing them here in the past.  Basically, you have to squeeze in some early vaireties between the too cold of winter and the too hot of summer.  In the past I've been able to manage this in the spring and the fall, but I'm not so sure any more, even with my plan.  I hate to give up cabbage though, They really produce some bulk and nutrition for the bed space - and you can turn them into kraut, so I won't go down without a fight here.

Thanks you all.

 

 

Rob P's picture
Rob P
Status: Bronze Member (Offline)
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Posts: 85
insects

Do you all think the insect populations ("good" and "bad" types) are off this year?  We're doing backyard permaculture and I try to get as many insects in to this yard as possible.  Things seem really off this year.  This is also very concerning to me. I've got the richest environment I've ever had in terms of habitat, but it's not attracting the bugs it used to.

Wendy S. Delmater's picture
Wendy S. Delmater
Status: Diamond Member (Offline)
Joined: Dec 13 2009
Posts: 1988
Biota controling insects

I suppose you are asking if climate change has changed our garden. If it does, we just have to roll with the punches. My experience? As our garden matures, we have more and more helpful predators and insects protecting us from other insects. And as long as we keep the garden chemical-free, we all should expect more and more help.

We provide habitats for predators, including nectararies for predatory wasps. We have plans to add a pond and water plants to increase the chances of toads assisting us, but just this week I saw golden orb spiders, tree frogs, toads, scores of geckos, praying mantises, dragonflies, and the sorts of wasps that kill catepillars. Not to mention insect-eating birds, and I've seen skinks and nonpoisonous snakes in our garden that eat things like voles. The number of grasshoppers are greatly reduced from last year and I am quite certain these predators are why. To a healthy garden ecosystem, the grasshoppers were just an influx of food. They soon took care of them. The broccoli the grasshoppers chewed up will grow back.

And then there are companion plantings and other techniques to reduce garden pests. I hear borage works well under tomatoes and we've had good experiences with nasturtiums, particularly under Roma tomato plants. This year we are trying Assylum flowers under the okra to control aphids (coffee grounds in the soil did not make all that much difference.) I've only gardened in zone 8 for four years so I cannot make any long-range climate shift comparisons, but I have been told that fire ants moved into this area decades ago, perhaps 30-40 years back. We have caterpillar and bermuda grass (hay) in our lawn, and that's crack cocaine for fire ants, so as we diversify the plantings and add edible groundcovers fire ants shoudd be less of an issue. For now, they are controling the termites in some of our pine-lumber rasied beds, until we switch them all out to cedar planks - so even fire ants have their uses.

Rob P's picture
Rob P
Status: Bronze Member (Offline)
Joined: Oct 8 2008
Posts: 85
Yeh, that's good

Wendy, yes, to me what you described sounds really good.  Sounds pretty rich in terms of species.  

I think that things are really changing. Six years ago we just had huge numbers of insects of all sorts, but that's changed in the last 3 years and especially this year.  We have a lot of perennials and self seeding annuals all around; all sorts of things for insect and bird habitat.  It was fairly well thought out permaculture design, though in retrospect I would have done some things differently in the overall design.  Anyway, yeh, I don't know if it's climate change or what - I tend to think climate with all this strange weather - but things have really really changed.  We used to have so many more insects in numbers and in species.

We did a lot of companion planting in the beginning, early on.  But then we just moved to more perennials, like comfry and many others -  and a very rich mix of annuals, many self seeding. The food beds are totally surrounded by alll sorts of other plants.   The general idea here is that if you can create a great deal of diversity - you know - the bugs will take care of themselves and hold various populatons down to a minimial level - the exact opposite of mono cropping or other sterile environments.  Well, I totally know that this can and does work because I've seen it, but I'm really concerned about what I'm seeing now.  We are getting more of the large butterflys now - today.  I just saw 7 at once where before I was only seeing 1 or 2.  Previously we would have had 20 ro 25 in June.  Hummingbirds and certain other bird species  seem to be way down too.

Yes, I put in a little pond this spring in order to provide a dependable water source.  I totally recommend that.

One thing in terms of the process here: in the first years we saw many types of "bad" insects get out of control.  Like those squash bugs - actually, it was the harlequin bugs that were really bad; also japanese beatles one early year;.  Well that all really settled down after about three or four years.  I attribute this to the environment maturing and the numbers of vairous species taking up residence.  So, then (now), we might see say a few squash bugs - but they never achieve the numbers needed to really do damage.  The only bugs I have any problems with in the last 4 or 5 years are vine borers, some aphids on those peas (this year only), and imported cabbage worms - seriously, nothing else at all.  But now I'm getting a little concerned about all of it.

Oh, hey I just saw your post on your career change from a while back.  That's great. I really hope it's going well for you.  I'm very involved with permaculture too; I thought about it at one point, but then I decided to not try to make money at it.  But I know people who do - I hope that's happening for you.

We're hoping to do a full blown permaculture design on our 22 acres in Illinois, but we're still a couple of years out on that.  I totally think permaculture is the answer to most of our problems.  

Doug's picture
Doug
Status: Diamond Member (Offline)
Joined: Oct 1 2008
Posts: 3159
The last couple years

Like most other people in temperate regions of the US, March '12 was bizarrely warm.  We had few tree fruits because they blossomed in March and the blossoms were killed in a pretty normal April with lots of freezing nights.

On the way home today my wife commented on how lush everything is this year.  Spring was pretty normal, but June and July have been hot and wet.  We have had bumper crops of raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, thimbleberries, cherries, peas and strawberries.  Beans are coming on strong now and there are more apples on the trees than I've seen in years.  Our two year peach trees are producing nicely as are our two year quinces and pears.  Even our old butternut trees are producing prolifically.  A lot of tomatoes are setting.  I look forward to that with eager anticipation, particularly my experiments with straw bales and a mystery variety that a guy in southern PA gifted the seeds for.  He told me they produce purple fruits and I must perpetuate the variety for a few years until he can again have a garden, and then return the favor.

As far as bugs, our big problem has been Japanese beetles that normally attack the raspberries.  This year, however, they have found our relatively new fruit trees that they seem to like better.  It's satisfying to kill them, but they just keep coming.  Squash and cucumber beetles don't seem to be making much of an appearance this year.  I wonder if the bizarre spring we had last year may have disrupted the life cycles of some species of bugs, resulting in fewer bugs this year.  Mosquitoes seem to be doing very well this year. #$%&*@

Doug

North__America's picture
North__America
Status: Member (Offline)
Joined: Jul 27 2013
Posts: 2
Biochar

I recommend biochar!

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