Gardening with climate change and an aging body

Wilder weather patterns

I don’t care whether you believe global warming is being accelerated by human behavior or not. I think all but the most stubborn of Flat-Earthers can agree that our polar regions are melting alarmingly fast, sea levels are rising, and dramatic swings in weather patterns are becoming more common.  I’ve seen the models of predicted changes to my beloved NC coastline, and even when you plug in the most conservative rates of sea level rise, I can tell you that if you love the Outer Banks of NC, or you’ve ever wanted to see them, you should visit them in the next 20 years.

I live in the piedmont of NC, and even the most aggressive models of sea level rise don’t bring the ocean to my doorstep, but I’ve certainly noticed some weather pattern shifts during my 40+ years of gardening here. Our summers are, without question, hotter, and they get hot much earlier now. It used to be that if I got my spring garden planted by early March, I could count on good harvests through at least mid-May. Not anymore. We’re hitting the mid-80s consistently by then. Even the most heat-resistant lettuces can’t resist bolting, and they aren’t helped by spring droughts. Remember that old saying about April showers? We haven’t had a wet spring in my area in so long that I can’t remember the last one we did have.

In fact, the drought monitor released for my region by the National Weather Service has my county and surrounding counties in a moderate drought. In January. We ended 2010 in a six-inch rainfall deficit, and we’ve already added another inch to that. Winter has traditionally been the time in my yard when the water table gets a chance to recharge. While the trees are dormant, they pull much less water, and with all the other vegetation mostly asleep, significant rainfall events (for me, that’s at least an inch of rain), go straight into raising water levels in the perennial creek that borders our property, to local reservoir levels, and to the water table. Winter rain is especially important in the face of our increasingly torrid, prolonged summers.

At least those summers used to produce frequent, drenching thunderstorms. But that’s changed too. Now, it’s not uncommon to hear piedmont gardeners wishing for hurricane rains along about the dog days of late August. We don’t like hurricanes. You can still see the damage Fran did to my region a decade ago. But at least they bring blessed moisture. Fran dumped over 5 inches on my yard in less than 24 hours. My floodplain was overflowing, but that’s what it’s there for.

Beat the heat: Do your heavier chores in winter … if you can

I’ve adapted to the heat and drought of summer by doing a lot of work during our winter months. Winter has traditionally been a great time for gardening here for several reasons. First, the insects, ticks, and poisonous reptiles are all asleep. I can walk in my yard without dousing my pants in Deet to keep the ticks away, and I can walk anywhere without scrupulously examining the path in front of me for dozing copperheads.  And it has traditionally been the ideal time to plant woody trees and shrubs. The rule is if the ground isn’t frozen, you can plant. Planting when the woodies are dormant allows the newbies to put all their energy into establishing healthy root systems before they are challenged by summer heat and drought. It’s a system that’s worked great for me — until the last two winters.

I had read about, but never seen, frost heave until last year. Last year our winter was so cold for so long that the ground actually froze to a depth of about six inches. That has never happened here before. This winter so far, the freezing isn’t as deep, but it’s deep enough to prevent planting. Or weeding. Or bed preparation in the vegetable garden. Time was I spent late January getting the veggie beds prepped for spring planting. All the winter weeds were pulled, fresh compost was added, mulch piles were moved nearby. But i can’t do that when freezing rain glues vegetation and soil together into an icy impenetrable mass.  So far this winter, spouse and I have used the rare thaws to catch up on our pruning, but that’s all we can do.

Adapting to an aging body

This puts me behind when the thaw finally sets in for good. At the same time I’m tending all the veggie, herb, and flower seedlings in the greenhouse, I must also go into a frenzy of winter weed pulling, compost hauling, trellis relocation, etc. If I weren’t closing in on age 60, that wouldn’t be so bad. But I am, and I’ve been forced to face a few realities about my aging gardener’s body.

Strategies for gardening over the long haul

I can’t put in a full eight-hour day of weeding and compost hauling anymore without being useless the following day. I must force myself to quit after no more than four hours if I want to be able to move the next day. Second, the size of my vegetable garden gets smaller every year. I used to grow enough to share with family, friends, and food pantries. And I used to grow extras of some crops to put up in the freezer, dry, or make into jams, etc. Not so much anymore.

I’m also finally getting serious about what folks call permaculture. I think of this as perennializing my food garden. I’m putting in asparagus and rhubarb beds this year, adding ever-bearing strawberries, and more fruit trees and bushes.  I want crops that will not require me to re-prepare beds annually, but will reward me with increasing food supplies.

Climate change affects long-term strategies

What does my aging body have to do with adapting the garden to climate change? I have to be very smart about where I site these new beds and plants. Asparagus and rhubarb don’t like hot, dry summers. But the western edge of my veggie area is bordered by tall mature loblolly pines that block the hot afternoon sun. We’re going to dig deep beds (when the thaw comes), fill them with compost, and mulch the new plants deeply in the hopes that this will keep them cool and moist enough to thrive.

Mulch is my friend

We live out in what was once the country and I still count as somewhat rural, because we live on a little road that is not part of a subdivision. We use well water, and more wells around us go dry every summer now. That’s why mulch is my friend in the garden. I put my veggies in compost-enriched raised beds and thickly mulch them with shredded leaves from the many mature hardwoods that inhabit much of my yard. By eliminating competition from weeds and holding in the moisture in the soil, I get by with spot watering through much of the summer. Tomatoes get the lion’s share of my water. We love them, and they just don’t plump up if they don’t get enough water. Mulch is also the friend of my aging body. It doesn’t like pulling weeds all the time, and mulch eliminates the weeds.

Planting well-adapted, disease-resistant vegetables improves productivity

I’m also doing a lot more research on plant varieties. The veggies I plant must not only taste good, they must be as disease-resistant as possible. Our hot, humid (but not rainy) summers are heaven for every fungus and veggie-eating insect in the region. Heirloom varieties, which generally have no disease resistance, just don’t do well in my garden. I’ve given up trying them, no matter how tempting their descriptions in the seed catalogs.

Protecting vegetables from varmints prevents crop loss

I am also enclosing the veggie garden (an area 60 feet x 60 feet) in deer fencing this year. The wire along the bottom will be small enough to prevent entry by rabbits and groundhogs and will extend outside the fencing to slow any attempts at digging their way in. Deer and other animals never used to be a problem here. But climate change and deforestation in my region have changed that. Not only has much of the habitat of these animals been removed, droughts, heat waves, and frozen winters have radically reduced their food supplies in the forested areas that remain.  The animals are moving into my yard in desperation. I must protect every plant in our five acres as best I can. The veggie garden — a concentrated site full of nutrient-high food — is, of course, a magnet to these starving creatures. I feel their pain, and I’ve planted many food and shelter plants for wildlife in other parts of our yard. But the vegetables and fruits are off limits.

Facing the inevitable

As summer temperatures continue to rise over the coming decades, and if the droughts become as widespread and prolonged as many scientists fear, my Zone7B garden will become a Zone8 garden — parts may even become Zone9. I will watch old forest giants decline and die, and I will be forced to find replacements adapted to the new climate regime. I’m not looking forward to it. I love my giant oaks and hickories, the elegant trunks of tulip poplars, and the blinding white boles of sycamores in winter sunrises. I must have faith that I will be able to see the beauty in the new climate-change-induced ecosystems that replace the ones I grew up with.

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