Dinosaurs and tomatoes: How climate change growls at Alaska gardeners
The first hard frost of the winter sparked a beehive of activity in my hometown of Kodiak, Alaska. Time to change tires, harvest carrots, can salmon, and well, booking vacations to Mexico.
Our daylength is dwindling to a low of 6.5 hours. Cottonwood branches become more visible with each falling leaf. On the bright side, orange and yellow calendulas are still blooming in my garden.
I love calendulas.
But dang, this is the third week of November.
I’ve been a garden columnist for nearly 25 years. So I’m used to seasonal questions. In late fall, for example, people politely corner me at the grocery store to ask, “Is it too late to plant spring-flowering bulbs?”
Thing is, I’m not sure how to answer those questions anymore. In years past, the ground would be hard as a rock by now and the choices were:
- Pot them up for forcing indoors
- Use a pickax to chisel out holes, and then plant and pray, or
- Throw the bulbs away
Last summer was oddly warm (HOT!) and dry here at 58 degrees north latitude. I grew zucchini outside for the first time (don’t laugh, Missouri gardeners), without protective plastic. Who knew?
One person who does think about such things is Jeff Lowenfels, Anchorage, Alaska garden columnist. “Who would have ever imagined that you could still plant bulbs on the third weekend of November? Or that you could probably even get away with waiting an additional week after that?”
Have you ever seen those drawings in National Geographic of what Alaska looked like in the days of the dinosaurs? Far from a frozen wasteland. We’re talking a lush, tropical smorgasbord for dinosaurs. Could it be that we’re headed that way?
Palm trees, humidity, and tar pits, oh my!
This month, temperatures in Anchorage are almost 15 degrees above normal, with Fairbanks temperatures 7.5 degrees higher. Parts of Alaska are approaching two years, (YEARS!) of record-breaking temperatures, with no let-up in sight.
That’s a little unsettling for this Alaskan. How about you?
Help! My cherry tree is budding out!
Last week, local gardeners, concerned for their beloved plants, saddled up to me as if in confession: “My cherry tree is budding out, what should I do?” And then, “I have buds all over my rhododendron. Is that normal?”
I also received an email with the subject line of “Oh, no!” It went something like this:
One of the elderberries in my yard is beginning to bud. I treasure them. I remember when a severe cold spell killed them (was it March or April 2017?). Since then they’ve become abundant and are thriving. Do you think they will bud again the spring when the winter causes these buds to die?”
As I write this, my stepson in Vermont is wearing his down jacket against single-digit temperatures while I harvest beets in a t-shirt. A primrose by our woodpile is blooming for the second time since June. Will raspberries be budding out next?
No challenge poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change.
— President Obama
“Climate change is affecting places in the world in different ways,” says Jeff. “Water levels are rising. Glaciers are melting. Fires are burning. In the Arctic, however, a key characteristic is that warming is happening faster than in other places on Earth. In fact, it is two to three times faster.”
Climate change according to NOAA weather forecasters:
Experiencing a summer heatwave with temperatures in the nineties is probably pretty normal for most people. But now imagine you live in Alaska. Not so normal anymore, is it? Alaska has just come to the end of a period of warmth that re-wrote the record books for multiple cities and communities across the state. And crazy enough, it was one of several jaw-dropping climate events taking place across our largest state.
— Tom Di Liberto
What is Climate Change trying to tell us?
What does this huge change mean to gardeners and farmers up North? I don’t know. I do know we have new, non-native plant species showing up every year because warming makes for “invasions of invasives” as Jeff calls them.
In recent years I’ve encouraged gardeners to plant seedlings out early and sow seeds of hardy plants like Hakurei turnips and mustard greens in early February — outside, but under cover of hoops or in high tunnels. But I’m considering leaning into more it by urging gardeners to start second crops of broccoli and cauliflower in mid-summer, anticipating the longer season will allow for a second harvest.
I will be rethinking when we should be clearing outdoor greenhouses later in the season. Because as I write this (remember, this is the third week of November), I’m still harvesting tomatoes from my greenhouse. The plants may look tired and wilted, but the fruits are still ripening, albeit slowly. I bring them in the house for the final splash of color.
And what about weeds?
I used to think that winter’s cold would level the playing field by killing many weeds, root maggots, aphids, and slugs. But now I shrug my shoulders. I’m not so sure anymore.
Nothing is for sure when it comes to nature or Alaska. But Jeff Lowenfels will be the first one to say that he believes the weather experts when it comes to warming trends.
A must-see video: School strike for climate–Save the world by changing the rules
Speaker: Greta Thunberg (TEDxStockholm)
Time: 11 minutes
Greta Thunberg realized at a young age the lapse in what several climate experts were saying and in the actions that were being taken in society. The difference was so drastic in her opinion that she decided to take matters into her own hands. Greta is a 15-year-old Stockholm native who lives at home with her parents and sister Beata. She’s a 9th grader in Stockholm who enjoys spending her spare time riding Icelandic horses, spending time with her families two dogs, Moses and Roxy. She loves animals and has a passion for books and science. At a young age, she became interested in the environment and convinced her family to adopt a sustainable lifestyle.
Twenty-five years ago people could be excused for not knowing much, or doing much, about climate change. Today we have no excuse.
— Desmond Tutu
“And even if it is certain that we are in a warming era, there may well be a transition where one year we get really warmer weather like this year’s and the next year we get a killing frost by October and snow by November.”
In a recent garden column, I told my readers that, I certainly don’t have a crystal ball filled with clear answers. But that I sensed we need to be flexible and resilient. We can’t just lean on our shovels, wondering what to do.
I asked for help, “If you see anything weird or unusual going on in the yard that you think is a result of the warmer weather,” I said, “please let me know. Experience-based information is power, and we are going to have to work this out together.
“Because no one is left from those tar pit days to let us know what to expect,” says Jeff, “so we have to figure it out on our own.”
Thanks for stopping by. If you find yourself in Kodiak, give me a ring.
P.S. You might also enjoy these articles I wrote…
Organic Gardening Tips for Cool Climate Gardening: A general guide and helpful links
Cranberry sauce recipe and 8 curious facts about cranberries: Yummy recipes, helpful tips, and lovely photos (If I say so myself!)
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