Readers Write: When our age-old principles are threatened

The Island Now

It may seem obvious to say that the seasons drive what actions we take in the garden, but it’s becoming more difficult to follow maxims like: plant garlic after the first frost or start spring plants indoors so many weeks before the last frost. This year is a perfect example. We had our first frost on Halloween, but since then, the nighttime temperatures have been above 40⁰F and higher. So do I plant my garlic or not?

The difficulty is that if I wait too long, the garlic won’t have time to grow. But if the ground isn’t cold enough, the garlic doesn’t have proper growing conditions so my crop may suffer.
Imagine this on a larger scale.

How does a farmer trying to earn a living by supplying food to all of us manage these climate changes that are making adherence to centuries-old agricultural know-how impossible? Climate change is presenting very real challenges to small and large-scale farmers.

It is hard enough trying to predict the weather in the best of times, but when you can no longer rely on historical patterns of sun and rain, how do you know what to do?
Farming is a risky business at the best of times. With climate change, it is becoming a game of Russian roulette.
Take for example rain. The timing of precipitation is changing so that we cannot reliably predict when we will get rain and whether it will coincide with historical growing seasons. If a farmer cannot count on rain, the whole premise of farming is destroyed.

Of course, in any season a farmer may face drought and lose the crop. But now we are seeing actual shifts in the timing of rain. Climate change is causing more precipitation in the colder months when we are not able to grow food.

There is less precipitation in the warmer months when we have the right conditions otherwise to grow food. But without precipitation, the plants cannot grow.
Changes in precipitation patterns also contribute to increased drought and flooding. With less rain in the warmer months, there is more drought. More precipitation in the colder months causes more flooding as the frozen earth is less able to absorb the water that comes down. When the rain does come, it is often in the form of more severe and intense storms meaning heavier rainfall in shorter periods of time which exceeds the soil’s absorption capacity and causes flooding.
Remember all that rain we had recently and the massive puddles, or really street ponds, that formed? That happens for multiple reasons, but it does not help to have intense rainfall in short periods of time. That amount of water cannot be absorbed by the existing open land in that amount of time.
The irony of all of this is that one of the solutions to address the causes of climate change is to plant a garden as well as trees and native plants.

Plants absorb carbon dioxide, one of the primary greenhouse gases contributing to climate change. When left in the ground, the plants help sequester the CO2 in the soil removing the threat it presents to our environment.
We seem to have a classic damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation on our hands. Gardening and even environmentally responsible farming as well as other types of planting are all effective ways to take action against climate change, but, because of climate change, gardening & farming are becoming more difficult and unpredictable.

What do we do? Everything we can in the hopes of slowing the progress of climate change and maybe doing enough to establish a new steady state. Some of these steps are super easy and some require a little more investment.

Start by leaving the leaves on the ground. Clear the ones blocking the storm drains and put them in your compost bin, so by next spring you will have the best fertilizer you could want to add to your garden. Leave your vegetable plants and any other plants in your garden. At most cut them down just above the ground and leave the cut stems to compost right there in your garden.

Leaving the roots of the plants in the ground keeps the soil undisturbed and able to retain the carbon in the ground. If you can, consider converting your driveway or patio to a permeable surface so that when it does rain, there is more available surface to absorb the rain that comes down.

If that’s not possible, replace some of your lawn with native grasses and plants which help absorb more water and require little to no maintenance. Install a rain barrel to capture some of that precious precipitation your plants are going to need next summer. And finally, go ahead and plant that garlic. It’s time.

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