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KINZLER: Is a changing climate affecting our yards and gardens?

Social media reveals many differing views. Have you glanced at my Facebook page and noticed all my controversial posts? I didn't mince words as I came out strongly in favor of fall division of overgrown peonies.

Vivid autumn colors are becoming more widespread as climate changes. David Samson / The Forum
Weeds like thistle and quackgrass could become even more invasive as longer seasons give them more time to spread.David Samson / The Forum

Social media reveals many differing views. Have you glanced at my Facebook page and noticed all my controversial posts? I didn’t mince words as I came out strongly in favor of fall division of overgrown peonies.

I’ve publicly taken an ardent stand on spring pruning versus fall cutback. And don’t even get me started on the best times to transplant rhubarb.

Maybe these aren’t the most publicly divisive topics. Yard and garden information tends to unite us as we seek successful growing methods. But one topic that does make for interesting discussion is climate change. Are we noticing anything different in the gardening world?

I’ve grown accustomed to the ups and downs of weather since I was a 5-year-old gardener in 1962, when annuals needed covering from August frosts. I remember the area’s latest spring frost on record, June 20, 1969. In early July 1975, torrential rains flooded and killed many regional gardens.

The next year, we struggled to grow an unwatered garden during the severe drought of 1976. The late 1980s were so dry our grass died. The next 20 years were often too wet. Through it all, we found ways to make gardens grow and flowers bloom.

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I’m not a climate scientist, and controversy isn’t my cup of mint tea. I’m a small-town boy who usually has dirt under his fingernails, but I believe something more dramatic is changing beyond the fluctuations of the past. Something larger is happening.

Some observations I’ve noticed:

  • For most of my gardening years, our region was classified as Hardiness Zone 3. A few years ago, we were all officially moved one zone warmer. This should increase our selection of trees, shrubs and perennial flowers that can be expected to survive winter.

  • Our regional growing season averages at least a week or 10 days longer than it once was.

  • The longer growing season has yielded increased success with some crops that were considered Southern. Once a rare novelty, sweet potatoes and peanuts are actually producing usable results as gardeners experiment. Heirloom tomatoes are popular with some gardeners, even though they require a longer season than many newer types.

  • Annual bedding plants and plants in containers aren’t freezing as early in the fall as they once did. Covering against the first fall frost often allows them to bloom well into late October.

  • Garden cleanup comes later than it used to, as many vegetables keep growing longer.

  • Fall color is more vibrant in our region, often rivaling typically famous autumn destinations like New England. A longer growing season with later fall frosts has given tree and shrub species longer time to develop color.

Are others talking about the effects of changing climate on the yard and garden? Cornell University Department of Horticulture’s David Wolfe has long studied the situation. He notes, “We are in the unfortunate situation of being the first generation of gardeners, ever, who cannot rely on historical weather records to tell us what to expect in the future.”
Evidence of changing patterns in the Northeast include grapes and apples that are blooming consistently one week earlier than previous decades. Lilacs are flowering four or more days earlier. The growing season has been extended at both ends.

Wolfe says many gardeners are noticing earlier bloom times on trees, shrubs and perennials. While earlier flowers and longer growing seasons might sound great in northern areas, Cornell University, the National Wildlife Federation and many others share concerns about a climate they believe is scientifically and verifiably changing.

  • Fruit trees that bloom too early might see their flowers fade before pollinating insects arrive. Out-of-sync blossoms and pollinators could result in little or no fruit. Their interaction is complex.

  • Longer growing seasons appear to be accompanied by increasingly dramatic precipitation cycles where some areas are too wet and others too dry.

  • New invasive insects, weeds and diseases are increasing their range into northern areas where the pests were previously not adapted.

  • Existing populations of weeds, insects and animal pests could become more severe, given more time to multiply.

  • Lawns might become increasingly difficult to maintain. Northern lawns prefer cool conditions with adequate moisture.

  • Although some regions might be able to expand their plant choices to include previously non-hardy material, other native and presently well-adapted plants could suffer from change.

  • Most sources believe any potential benefits from longer growing seasons will be outmatched by a host of problems like severe watering restrictions and aggressive advancement of pests.

What does the future hold for our yards and gardens? Certainly no one knows. I’m certain of one thing: Those of us who find the plant world fascinating will always discover ways to ensure success with trees, shrubs, flowers and vegetables.

Don Kinzler, a lifelong gardener, worked as an NDSU Extension horticulturist and owned Kinzler’s Greenhouse in Fargo. Tune in to his weekly radio segment at noon Wednesdays on WDAY Radio 970. Readers can reach him at forumgrowingtogether@hotmail.com .  
He also blogs at http://growingtogether.areavoices.com .

Related Topics: GARDENING
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