Random Thoughts

Global Weirding in the Garden

Polar vortex in New York

When it comes to winter weather, most Southern Californians tend to be smug as they scroll through their Facebook feeds full of friends complaining about cold, rain and snow, while the west coast is boasting warmth, sun and surf.

Summer temperatures in winter in Los Angeles

In fact, it’s happening right now. I spent the warmest Christmas I’ve ever had in NorCal, where afternoons were a sunny 65°F, and six hours south in my SoCal neighborhood, the mercury rose to 85°F — on Christmas Day, and all week until New Year’s Day. It was warm — too warm, as even our summers only average in the 70s.

My house sitter could barely keep up with the watering as the garden was dry, dry, dry. What’s typically a once-a-week watering schedule in winter turned into an almost-daily task. Our last rains came in early December, at the same time a cold spell lingered for two weeks and brought us below-normal temps. At the end of that period, we went from 55°F to 85°F and have been enjoying our second summer ever since.

On the flip side, I’m hearing from friends in New York shivering in 5°F highs — never have I heard of such a thing, and I used to live in New York. (And let’s not get into the polar vortex craziness going on in the midwest, where I can’t even fathom negative double-digit highs… i.e., RealFeel® Freezing my cojones off.)

Instead of basking on the beach like many Angelenos, I’m worrying about the unnatural state of my garden. My beets are stunted. My broccoli is bolting. My cabbage is inundated with aphids. My fig tree, which just barely shed its leaves for winter last week, is already starting to bud. My apple tree, which normally doesn’t wake up for another couple months, is thinking spring has arrived extra early.

Stunted beets in the heat

I’m tempted to start sowing my springtime seeds, but the uncertainty of this weather makes me think we’ll have a freeze in March.

To gardeners, farmers, and even skiers, climate change isn’t new news. We’re lamenting the lack of precip in winter and celebrating the abnormal shifts in temperature that, while bad news to seasonally traditional crops, does mean vine-ripened tomatoes in the middle of January.

Vine-ripened tomatoes in the middle of January

I shouldn’t be surprised by any of this, as the same thing happened last year. My winter garden almost never was, and my summer crops suffered from cooler weather that welcomed slugs and powdery mildew. It makes me wonder if I need to change my gardening habits in stride with what I call global weirding — the extreme, alternating hot and cold periods that particuarly take their toll on blossoms and fruits.

In 2012, the USDA finally updated its Plant Hardiness Zone Map since the last revision in 1990. The new map shows many areas a full zone warmer, which means their low temperatures are 10 degrees warmer than in 1990.

Despite the northern states now being able to grow some warm-season plants, climate change is not a good thing for gardeners. In California, if the current weather pattern continues, we could be entering our third year of serious drought. No rain means no snow. No snow means no rivers and lakes. No rivers and lakes means no irrigation for land in the Central Valley, where a majority of the country’s vegetables, fruits, and nuts are farmed. I may be bummed about my lettuce not thriving right now, but the bigger picture is what’s most troubling.

Meanwhile, stay warm and stay safe, east coast (and midwest) friends. (And send us some of your snow, please. We snow farmers need that, too.)

About Author

I'm a plant lover, passionate road-tripper, and cookbook author whose expert advice and bestselling books have been featured in TIME, Outside, HGTV, and Food & Wine. The No-Waste Vegetable Cookbook is my latest book. Garden Betty is where I write about modern homesteading, farm-to-table cooking, and outdoor adventuring—all that encompass a life well-lived outdoors. After all, the secret to a good life is... Read more »