Gardeners must 'figure it out on our own' amid changing weather

The recent frost sparked a beehive of activity: changing tires, pulling

carrots, draining outside hoses, and booking vacations to Mexico.

And while branches of alders and cottonwoods are more visible with each

passing day, you can’t help but notice splashes of bright orange calendulas

in containers and window boxes. Impressive, right?

I love calendulas, but this is the third week of November.

In late fall, I often get a few questions along the lines of “Is it too late to

plant garlic? Spring-flowering bulbs?”

To be honest, 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:

throw them away, chisel holes in the ground with a pickax, and then plant

and pray, or pot them up for forcing indoors.

I grew zucchini outside this year for the first time, without protective

plastic. Who knew?

“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?” ponders Jeff Lowenfels, garden

columnist for the Anchorage Daily News.

Have you ever seen those pictures in National Geographic of what Alaska

looked like in the days of the dinosaurs? A lush, tropical paradise for them.

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.

How does this settle for you? Let me share something: In a 3-day period I’ve

had people, concerned for their beloved plants, pull me aside as if in

confession: “My cherry tree is budding out, what should I do?” And, “I have

buds all over my rhododendron. Is that normal?”

And then I received an email with the subject line of “Oh, no!” that went

something like this: “One of the elderberries in my yard is beginning to bud. I

treasure them…A cold spell (was it March-April 2017?) killed them and they

were becoming abundant again these last two years. 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 harvested beets in a t-shirt. A primrose by

our woodpile is blooming for the second time since June. Will raspberries

be budding out next?

“Climate change is affecting places in the world in different ways,” says

Jeff. “Water levels are raising. 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.”

What does this huge change mean to gardening and farming up North? I

don’t know. I know we have new, non-native plant species showing up

every year because warming makes for “invasions of invasives” as Jeff calls


In recent years I’ve encouraged gardeners to plant seedlings out early and

sow seeds of hardy plants like Hakurei turnips and mustard greens outside

(under cover of hoops or in high tunnels) as early as February. But I’m

considering leaning more into 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 (Again, this is the third week of

November!), I’m still harvesting tomatoes from my greenhouse. The plants

look tired and wilted, but the tomatoes are still ripening, albeit slowly. I

bring them in the house for the final splash of color.

And what about weeds? And pests? I used to think that the cold would kill

many weeds, root maggots, aphids, and slugs. But I’m not so sure anymore.

Aphids eggs can survive the winter, by the way.

Nothing is for sure when it comes to nature or Alaska.

But Jeff will be the first one to say that he believes the experts when it comes to warming trends.

“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.”

Dear gardeners, I certainly don’t have a crystal ball filled with clear

answers, but I sense that we need to be flexible and resilient. We can’t just

lean on our shovels, wondering what to do.

I could use some help here. If you see anything weird or unusual going on

in the yard that you think is a result of the warmer weather, please let me

know. Experience-based information is power, and we are going to have to

work this out together.

Because, as Jeff says, “No one is left from those tar pit days to let us know

what to expect, so we have to figure it out on our own.”

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