Understanding Climate Change

Lilac II
Creative Commons License photo credit: starmist1

I just wrote this rather long comment on Fern’s blog, in response to her post on climate change. I really love her blog and don’t mean to sound critical, but I thought it was worth repeating here, because her comments reflect a common misconception about how scientists are investigating climate change. Often people look at one year or one season’s weather and notice it is cooler than the previous year and so conclude that there isn’t clear evidence of climate change. The problem with this is that you can look at 1 or 2 years or even 3-5 years and find evidence for or against climate change.

There is a big difference between observing the weather and measuring the climate. I understand why many people, including some scientists are still not sure, but it’s important to talk about why so many scientists are convinced. Weather in individual places over time might be warmer or cooler year to year or season to season–there are always those types of variations. What makes many scientists worry is the changes in average temperatures world wide, over decades.

Biologists are also finding many plants and animals that are changing their ranges or flowering earlier. As gardeners, we can and should be helping to gather evidence about climate change in our local areas. Some gardeners regularly monitor the weather, including daily highs and lows, rainfall, and the first and last frosts of the year. This is the kind of information that, if it’s continuous for decades, lets you begin seeing climate change in action. You can also monitor your garden plants for changes in seasonality. If you want to monitor climate change for yourself and help scientists you could join the National Phenology Network. Their volunteers have been monitoring the dates of flower blooms (lilac and honeysuckle since 1956).  It’s normal to see flowers bloom earlier one year and later another, but when you monitor for decades and the average bloom date gets earlier and earlier, that’s when scientists start to worry.

It’s common for people to look at year to year variations and wonder where the evidence is, but a climate scientist is looking at decades (for temperature and precipitation changes) or centuries (if they are looking a CO2 levels in frozen ice.)

Here are a couple of audio stories from NPR about phenology.

Climate Scientists Enlist Citizen Volunteers
Beautiful Lilacs Tell a Tale About Climate

If you want more information, you might want to pick up The Weather Makers: How Man Is Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth by Tim Flannery. Flannery does a good job of explaining what evidence scientists are examining and related politics.

Cool Season Planting

Since securing my new garden I have been busily pulling weeds and loosening the soil to get ready for planting. I have had several beautiful days out in the garden, marred only by the constant swearing coming from the alley behind the yard. The Whitaker is an interesting neighborhood, with a strange mix of early 20th century cottages with beautiful gardens, warehouses, artist studios, and hipster food places. The neighborhood also has a surprising number of people who seem to on drugs and/or drunk, including the folks who live behind my garden.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Aunt Owwee

Since this spot has been an organic vegetable garden for many years, the soil is good. I’m limiting the amount of digging and turning of the soil I’m doing, since the soils seems to have nice structure already. I bought a fork and I’m simply loosening the soil with the fork and then pulling up all the weeds.  Organic vegetable gardening can be a hassle some days, whoever was gardening before me didn’t spend much time weeding. The grass was already 6-8 inches high when I first saw the garden. I managed to clear two beds, about 3.5ft wide and 20 ft long. Discovering in the process that they are both filled with bind weed. ACK! But I wanted to plant several things that are better direct seeded, rather than transplanted, so I cleared the bed rather than sheet mulching.

Here’s what I have planted so far:

  • broccoli
  • red cabbage
  • soft neck garlic
  • russet burbank potatoes
  • red pontiac potatoes
  • yellow granex-sweet vidalia type onion (short day)
  • red candy apple onion (intermediate day)
  • super star onion (intermediate day)
  • red wethersfield onion (long day)
  • texas supersweet onion (short day)
  • cascadia peas (bush snap peas)
  • sugar pod II (bush snow peas)
  • sugar daddy (bush snap peas)
  • yellow rock onion
  • white ebenezer onion
  • arugula
  • lettuce

This spring, since I’m gardening in a new place (and I’m a little behind schedule because I had to find a space) I stuck with varieties I could find at local nurseries, hoping that the nurseries were doing a good job of choosing varieties. Frankly, I don’t trust nurseries to do a good job of only selling what will grow well in their locale. Already I’m a little worried because it seems that some of the onions sets I bought are short and intermediate day when Eugene is a long day area. This doesn’t bode well for my onions. I also managed to save some garlic chives that I discovered there. I love all sorts of onion family plants and peas, I love peas. I may have overdone it planting peas and onions, but there is no way to have too many peas, and I’m planning to thin the onions for greens as they grow. Yum, I can’t wait!

How I lost the community garden lottery, but still got a garden…

Allotments in Chiswick
Creative Commons License photo credit: Ben30

A few weeks ago I lost the community garden lottery here in Eugene. The city was nice enough to send me a letter to let me know that I was number fifty seven on the waiting list. Apparently I’m not the only one with an urge to grow my own food. According to Oregon’s agricultural extension:

The number of names on a waiting list to rent plots in the Portland area’s 30 community gardens has grown to 1,000, according to Extension’s Clackamas County horticulturist Weston Miller, and landowners are offering to donate land for more community gardens.

I don’t know how long the list in Eugene is, but there are at least 57 people waiting. Further research would most likely reveal  long lists in other cities around the country. Faced with the depressing reality that I would have to make do with my little patio, I headed over to Down To Earth to buy a few containers. As I wandered from the nursery into the garden center, I noticed a bulletin board with various notices. Imagine my surprise when I discovered a post offering a backyard space for gardening. I called right away and now I have a lovely backyard space equal to a 600 sq ft community garden plot. It’s small, but as a grad student I have a limited amount of time for gardening.

Yardsharing is a new trend around the country, but the woman who is lending me her space has been doing it for years. The soil in my new garden is lovely, even if somewhat weedy.

Seeds are sprouting!

Creative Commons License photo credit: mahalie
Last Saturday I took a study break and headed down to the Eugene Propagation Faire at the local community college. The organizers had gathered an amazing array of fruit tree cuttings: apples, pears, apricots, almonds, plums, nectarines, etc. Gathered around long tables were people watching local experts raptly as they grafted the cuttings onto rootstock. Unfortunately for me, I don’t have a place to plant fruit trees at the moment and while I could plant a dwarf tree or two on my patio garden, I decided to wait until I was better prepared with the perfect container and planting mix.

Instead, I took advantage of the seed swamp happening on the other side of the cafeteria and went home with a nice mix of herb, flower, and vegetable seeds. When I got home I sorted through my box of old seeds and made myself a promise to plant all those old seeds this year. I have quite a collection of seeds of various ages going back about ten years.

Take note gardeners! This is not good practice. Seeds that are a year or two old are generally still viable, but the older seeds get, the less likely they are to sprout. Some types of seeds, like corn, age quite rapidly. I tend to be tempted to buy more seeds than I have time or energy to plant. Also, seed packets generally hold many more seeds than a home gardener would need in one year.

Saturday evening I planted something like ten different types of old seeds, figuring I would just experient and see what sprouts. I set my little plastic pots on the windowsill of my office and next to the sliding glass door were they could get some sun. Most of what I planted will take 10-20 days to sprout, but I woke up to find my first seedlings this morning!

Some of the seeds in my collection are from packets, some are seeds I collected from my own garden, and some are seeds I collected in my wanderings. When I see a flower I like somewhere going to seed I stick a few seed pods in my pocket to take home. My seedlings came from a plastic bag marked “unknown flower.” Also not good gardening practice! I’m excited to see what they turn out to be. When they get some real leaves I will try posting a photo and we can play name that plant.

Garden Blog Update

It has been very quiet around GardenSong the last few months. Although I managed to get some pots and mix myself up some potting soil, my little patio garden didn’t get planted before winter set in here. I haven’t had time to write for the last few months because my husband, Ian, and I have been dealing with his newly diagnosed rheumatoid arthritis, which has left him somewhat disable and exhausted. It has been quite an adjustment for both of us. We are hopeful that his new medications will get him feeling a lot better in a few months, but in the meantime he can’t do much, which has left me super busy.

I’m waiting for March and warmer temperatures before planting my patio garden. When it’s warm enough I will begin planting culinary herbs, greens, and edible flowers. I’m also putting in an application for a community garden plot. The community garden plot will be where I grow the majority of our vegetable for the year. Here in Eugene, there is a lottery for community garden spaces, so wish me luck.

Garden Dirt – Dealing with Dirt Clods

Creative Commons License photo credit: gregor_y

Deb asked a very important question, about how to get you garden ready for planting, what to do with those nasty dirt clods. First, I think of clods as signals to your that your garden dirt needs something different.

Clods happen often in heavy clay soil. Clay soil can be great for growing plants because it contains lots of nutrients, but it’s also very heavy, making it difficult for the roots of your garden plants to penetrate. There are various solutions for this, but adding large amounts of organic matter to your garden beds has always worked for me. I like getting loads of old horse manure and then mixing a thick layer into my soil a few weeks before planting. You will get some grass seeds mixed into your soil when doing this, but I find that those weeds are easily pulled when they are small.

The most important thing to remember about dirt clods is that you shouldn’t be digging up your soil when it is too wet. I learned this from John Jeavons’ classic book, How to Grow More Vegetables and Fruits. This is the book to buy if you are gardening in a small area and want to grow a lot of food for yourself. Jeavons’ recommends “double digging” your soil. This deeply loosens your soil and adds a ton of nutrients to create super fertile soil. Once that is done you can plant your vegetables much closer together than the standard recommendations and still expect each plant to produce well. The result is a ton of produce is a tiny area. I don’t always do this, but if I had the energy and a very small garden it would be the best way to grow a lot in a small area.

As Jeavons’ explains, if you dig while you soil is too wet you will break down it’s delicate structure and compact it, resulting in clogs. Think of your garden dirt as a cake; It has a crumb with a mixture of tiny rocks and bubbles of air and water. You don’t want to dig right after a rain, wait at least a couple of days. If you start digging and the soil sticks in big clumps to your shovel you know the soil is still too wet. Don’t dig when your soil is bone dry either. In California’s Central Valley where I use to garden, dry soil was like cement, making it impossible to dig. Even if you soil isn’t so heavy, you shouldn’t dig when it’s too dry because you will compact the soil and dry soil turns into dust and blows away very easily. They say it takes 1000 years to create one inch of good topsoil, so you don’t want any of that good stuff to blow away.

Sometimes I don’t dig or turn my soil at all, but rather clear away the weeds, mulch the soil with organic matter, and plant straight into that. If you want more information about planting a garden without having to dig and turn your soil, I would recommend Lasagna Gardening, by Patricia Lanza. Either way, it’s worth it to invest time and effort into preparing your soil before you plant. A little extra effort at the beginning will save a lot of effort and produce stronger healthier garden for you all year long.

Squirrels! How to deal with Animal Pests in your Patio Garden

This weekend I did some work to get my patio garden really going. I mixed up some of my very own potting soil mix and bought a few winter greens and flowers to put out in my containers. I also pulled out my box of ancient seeds to see what I might be able to sprinkle on the soil. Now November is not the best time to start seeds of anything because many seeds are dependent on light to germinate, and shorter days doesn’t make for great sprouting. But I figured that if they didn’t sprout now, they might sit in the soil, getting ready for next spring. I sprinkled some mache, arugula, and watercress seeds in some containers on my patio, pressed them firmly into the soil and figured all would be well.

Little did I know that in a few hours I would discover squirrels digging in my newly planted containers! So now the question is what to do about the squirrels. Mammals can do a lot of damage to a garden, both through digging and by eating newly planted seedlings. Now if we manage to get our patio door latch fixed so that we can let the cats in and out easily they could guard my patio plantings. But the cats sleep at least 12 hours a day, so that isn’t a complete solution.

Since I’m mainly gardening in containers I don’t have to worry about groundhogs and moles like many gardeners do. (The solution there is to dig down into your soil, lay down some sort of gardening fence, like chicken wire, underground and then place the soil on top. Imagine making an underground cage for the roots of your plants so that the digging animals can’t get inside.)

For rabbits, squirrels, and mice or rats, which can all be garden pests, I would advocate protective coverings for your new plantings. There is nothing tastier than newly sprouted seedlings and mammals know that. Essentially, you need to make a cage above ground for your plants. The problem with this is it’s not very attractive. The other alternative is to fence your entire garden, but building a squirrel proof fence is a lot of work! My grandparents regularly put out poison and traps for rats and moles, but I can’t imagine trapping for squirrels. Anyway, once you start down that road you will have to continue, periodically to maintain your traps or put out more poison because new individual animals will move into the area around your garden, replacing those you kill. I kind of enjoy watching the squirrel hop around on the lawn, so I’m not planning to kill them. I would rather limit their access to my delicacies.

Patio Gardening – Kitchen Herbs for Your Patio

Creative Commons License photo credit: tillwe

I’m still getting my patio garden set up and arranged, but one of the first things I bought to plant was some herbs. Herbs make me happy. They are beautiful, they like to grow in pots, and they then I don’t spend a bunch of money when I need some fresh herbs for cooking. I don’t know about you but I always feel like it’s such a waste to buy fresh herbs from the store. A small bunch of herbs costs $1-$1.50. I use a few springs and then the rest rots in my fridge, it’s such a waste. A small herb plant only costs $2-3 dollars and you can continue to pick sprigs off it almost year round here in Eugene.

Here are a few of my favorite perennial herbs for a patio…

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Sustainable Landscaping – Fall Planting

Bright & Cheerful

Creative Commons License photo credit: dawnzy58

Many people think of fall as the time to put your garden to bed or take a break from gardening, but fall is a great time to get a head start on your spring garden. Part of sustainable landscaping is planning your garden work so that it is personally sustainable for you. Getting a jump on your landscaping in the fall will save you a bunch of time in the spring when you will have more gardening tasks than time to do them.

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