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Weird Weather Gardening

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My husband and I tend a garden in the western Catskills. The late springs and early falls common to our mountain valley have meant typically short but productive growing seasons, but the new norm seems to be longer by a good month or more. These changes to the growing season have been gradual over the 30 years we've been gardening. until this past year when we experienced weather weirdness like never before -- intense rains last summer, floods in the fall, a winter-less winter and a summer-like spring with temperatures 25 to 30 degrees higher than usual for late March.

Gardening is already a risky venture. Late spring frost, droughts, plant diseases, insect pest... the list goes on for what can and often does go wrong. But what now? Weather seems ever more extreme, more erratic. Worse droughts are predicted. There could be bigger storms and more fluctuations in temperature.

Climate change is "messing with growing seasons," writes Leah Zerbe on Rodale.com, my go-to resource for all things gardening. She points to early blooms, such as we have experienced this spring, as a serious concern that could hit food production whether you are a backyard gardener or manage a 1000-acre farm. Earlier blooms, Zerbe explains, "may mean some bees arrive too late, which could adversely affect pollination of flowers and vegetables." As scientists have found that pollinators contribute billions to the agriculture sector, the impact on our food economy could be massive.

What's a gardener to do? Can our gardens thrive in spite of climate change? I'm certainly hopeful for our Catskill garden this year, and so as we prepare the beds and before buying the seeds, I checked out a few good sources for some basic tips and advice. Here are a few for starters culled from Rodale.com and other good sources:

• Check out the new hardiness zone maps. NOAA has released updated climate-related planting zone maps based on the new normals. This means that in certain areas, certain crops could be planted earlier or planted later without the danger of frost.

* Plant for resilience. In a world of extreme weather events, all the buzz is about "resilience." As temperatures rise, plants need more water. For more resilient crops, Alan Detwiler, a small farmer, suggests choosing "drought-resistant plants," such as black-eyed peas, tepary beans, asparagus, okra, and tomato. Vegetables that are somewhat tolerant of drought are squash, cabbage, New Zealand spinach, and asparagus bean.

Planting fast-growing vegetables that can be sewn early so they mature before the dryness of summer is another strategy. That is true of peas, spinach, and short season corn. Other vegetables do well in the coolness of fall, including beets, carrots, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, lettuce, and broccoli. And don't worry: A late spring frost will not harm peas or spinach, and an early fall frost causes little or no damage to kale, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, and rutabaga.

• Save water, save water, save water. To help "climate-change-proof your garden," advises Ethne Clarke, editor in chief of Organic Gardening magazine, use high-quality compost. Good compost allows the soil to "slurp up the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide and store it in the ground, where it helps mitigate climate change." Compost also makes the soil healthier, and healthy soil is better at soaking up and retaining water. This is especially critical during times of drought. Research at the Rodale Institute has found that organically grown crops produce higher yields in years of drought, mainly due to the healthier soil.

Also, you can reduce water usage by using drip irrigation instead of sprinklers. And applying water very early in the day reduces evaporation while adding straw mulch keeps the soil moist longer after watering.

* Grow a variety of vegetables. There are countless challenges to be overcome in a garden, and the seasoned gardener's secret is simple: "if you can't beat 'em," outnumber them, meaning plant lots of different vegetables. "In a cool, wet year," Detwiler has found, "tepary beans may die in clay soil but rutabaga will flourish." Similarly, he has found that unusually hot weather will cause fava beans in flower to abort but will not bother tomatoes.

* Visit Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, PA. Through an interesting new partnership between NOAA and the American Public Gardens Association, gardeners will get help identifying climate change on the local level and learn ways to protect crops in the face of climate destabilization. Longwood Gardens is the site of the partners' first exhibit, featuring signs illustrating changes in hardiness zones. Visitors can also pull out a cellphone and dial a specific number to hear scientists go into more detail regarding climate change and gardens. (The number is 610-717-5599, ext. 380# and 381#. FYI, it's not toll-free.) Even if you don't live in the Philadelphia area, an exhibit may be coming to your area soon; the American Public Gardens Association plans to install similar climate change displays in public gardens throughout the United States.

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