In Michigan, last spring (2012) was one of the warmest on record. By early April, I had beautiful spinach and lettuce crops; the crops were bolting by mid-May. The warm weather took its serious toll on our fruit crops—most berry bushes and fruit trees bloomed and then had their blooms killed by an early April hard frost; this meant that most of South East Michigan had very little fruit or limited berries last year. Maple sugar/syrup production also was at a standstill in 2012 because the sap didn’t run long—the trees budded out very quickly after the warm weather hit. Farmers, especially those in orcharding or syrup production, had an incredibly difficult year. Our local cider mills had to import nearly all of their apples (luckily, they could do so from the western side of the state, which didn’t get hit with frost as badly).
This year, 2013, was very much the opposite. The jet stream shift caused by the melting Arctic ice brought cold air to us for most of February, March, and April (and there are likely a host of factors causing this, but this seems to be one that most agree upon). In fact, we had three snowstorms in April and several nights of 25 and below–and a hard frost in May (tonight, actually). We’ve had very severe winds (which ripped apart my hoop houses and dropped my greenhouse with seedlings inside!) In the 2nd week of may, we are only now beginning to see buds on our trees. This means we had a most excellent maple syrup harvest (which I’ve blogged about earlier this year) and we should have excellent fruit and berries. But this also means that our greens are barely growing and many cold-weather crops that can be started in April aren’t yet larger than an inch or two out of the ground in mid-May. Farmers in the area complain about how they are now 3 weeks or more behind where they need to be in their planting because the ground remained frozen for so long.
The national data supports my local observations – the following graphic is a description of March temperatures for 2012 vs. 2013 put out by Climate Central.
When I look at these last two years, I see quite a few lessons in terms of resiliency. Resiliency is a concept used within the permaculture and sustainability movements that describes one’s ability to endure. In the case of our spring weather, a diversity of crops, from greens to fruit to herbs and so on, is critical to provide a good harvest. This year, I’ve been attempting to grow greens nearly in futility, starting things like lettuce and chard indoors rather than try to grow them outside. But more importantly, I’m staying away from monocropping and from depending too much upon any one crop, because that crop may or may not be here and doing well in the coming years. So rather than planting six cherry trees (or having a dozen different fruit trees) which are susceptible to frost and weather shifts, I’m planting hazelnuts, gooseberries, cranberries, blueberries, beach plums, and currants, all of which bud at slightly different times and which have different cold and drought tolerance.
Even within a single crop, I am also testing out the limits. I did an experiment with some of my tomato seedlings to see which ones are more resilient to drought conditions (which we also experienced in the summer 2012). I pulled a number of different tomatoes that I was planing this year — Yellow Pear, Black Krim, Amish Paste, Cherry Roma, and Green Zebra–and purposely didn’t water a set of seedlings very much at all, stimulating drought conditions. And the results were quick and obvious–the Yellow pear tomatoes are by far the least drought tolerant, and the Black Krim and Amish paste are more so. We’ll see how these tomatoes fare when I plant them in the garden next week! This also supports Greer’s earlier argument that druids need to take up science, learn how to conduct science, and engage in citizen-research (more on this soon!)
So in this way, I’m seeking to build diversity within my own crops, which builds resilience. I don’t think we can expect “normal” weather patterns from here on out–we have to deal with abnormal weather conditions, be it too much rain or too little, too much heat or too little, and find crops and plants that can function well under a variety of unknown and unforeseen conditions.
I’ve noticed the weather pattern you sketched out down here in Cincinnati as well. I’ve got a lot of shade in our yard, so that adds another challenge. But a lot the seeds my wife and I planted this year direct outside haven’t come up and I suspect its because the ground is still cold. I’m still wearing a jacket to work in the morning!
Are you familiar with the works of Carol Deppe? She’s written two books that I think would be of interest to you: Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties and The Resilient Gardener. The latter may be more relevant to the subject of this post, but the former is also helpful because you can learn how to breed new varieties of plants that are tailor-made to survive in your own garden. You’ve already made the first step doing a trial of which tomato varieties are most drought-tolerant.
Carol Deppe is one of those people I look at and think, “If you’re not a pagan already, you sure would make a good one.” I think she and John Michael Greer would see eye to eye on a lot of things.
Amanda, thanks for the comment! I own the Reilient Gardener :). Its a great book! I haven’t read Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties yet though. I have found a lot of writers in sustainability/permaculture and the fringes of organic gardening are really quite spiritual. Even if they aren’t overt about it, its still there in the undercurrent of everything they do.
The cherries that were supposed to be ready in early May still are green today. It is likely July when UK cherries will be ripe to eat.