Friday, May 25, 2007

Frost and Drought

I may have lost some tomato plants last night, even though I had them covered. No big problem - I knew it was a gamble, and I went ahead and set some out because I had lots of extra transplants to keep as replacements. But it got me thinking about last frost dates.

We had some very early warmth this spring. Farmers were out seeding in late April, and I would say that's about a month ahead of the traditional seeding time for this area. The ground dried out, and I got worried about drought. Then it started to rain, and I don't trust my cracked gauge, but Mom says they have had 5 inches in the hills since May 9th, while the average for the whole month is only 2. But before all that happened, at the end of April, I was gardening with drought in mind. I refused Garth's offer of rototilling and in fact refrained from digging the beds at all, to conserve moisture. As I started planting early vegetables, I went to fetch water from the ditch near our yard and found that it was already dry. I took my bike and trailer and hauled a tub of water from a vernal pool over on the east side of the 604. I was worried, but full of hopes that my earliest-ever garden planting might help get plants well established before a summer drought hit hard.

Last year I talked to many people in this area who said the crops turned out better than they expected, considering how dry it was in the latter part of the summer. One farmer friend agreed with my speculation that the early spring and early planting had allowed the crops to get a better root system established, so they weathered the drought better than in former years.

But as my tomatoes show, early planting is a gamble. I don't know much about frost tolerance of the common field crops in this area, but I know there are times when fields have to be reseeded because an early crop was killed by frost. As our springs get warmer, and droughts become more frequent (as predicted due to climate change), farmers may try to adapt by planting earlier. But what about frost? How are the last frost dates changing?

I pulled out my CD of climate data for Western Canada and checked what was available for our area. Carlyle had max/min temperature data from 1922 to 1996 (with one year missing, 1962). I plotted last spring dates with temperatures less than or equal to 0ÂșC.

Now, where is my old statistics text book? I vaguely remember a lot of cautions about interpretation and testing where time series are concerned, but to me this graph seems to confirm my suspicion that last spring frost dates have not simply moved earlier. They have become more variable, with earlier dates contributing almost all the new variation, but late dates still occurring frequently.

What does that mean for adaptation? In my garden, I can plant things in succession, I can hold back extra transplants as replacements, and so on. But in a farm operation with thousands of acres under cultivation, what is to be done? Can farmers absorb the costs of having to reseed fields one year in six, say, or one year in four? Can they choose their planting dates strategically and be prepared for reseeding operations, or do they have to get it all in as quickly as possible and get back to their off-farm jobs? I wonder.

I also wonder about spring weather patterns in terms of soil temperatures and growing degree days and the overall shape of the warming. My second planting of peas has not appeared yet, and I think it's been ten days. Did the recent cold and cloudy spell chill the soil and rot the seed? How does this spring compare to the springs we used to get? Was a steady warming more the norm? I will have to ponder how to analyse my climate data for that.

UPDATE: Oh, yeah, and speaking of adaptation, I forgot to mention that whole area of adaptation that most people never think about, where there will definitely be problems: adaptation by every other species except human beings and their little collection of manipulated plants and animals. Are we already seeing the effects? What about that die-off of poplar in the hills in the '80s? The experts blame insects, but the locals say it was a combination of drought stress and a late frost. What about the decline in bees across North America? Insects can adapt fairly quickly because of their short generation time, but pollinators are closely co-evolved with plants, and some plants take a long time to reproduce. These changes are happening incredibly rapidly when compared to previous evolutionary history. Can genetic adaptation keep up?

Friday, May 18, 2007

Putting Names to Voices

It is morning: after the first stir, before the second alarm. The window is open. I have been reading, but now I lie still, wondering at the chorus of voices from those whose work begins much earlier than mine.

I sort out the many separate songs and wait for the names to come, but there are few. The clay-coloured sparrow, of course: an un-birdlike buzz, so much less musical than the rest, and yet I cherish that voice as one that I can always name. There are several lovely melodies, captivating while I listen, but indescribable and even beyond recollection just a few moments later. One keeps ending with a suspiciously familiar chirp, and I wrestle with the startling idea that it might be the voice of a plain old house sparrow. There is a yellow warbler - "sweet, sweet, sweet, please some more sweet" - that one I know. Up front and insistent, over and over, there is an emphatic little song that rises repeatedly to a higher and louder tone. I want to picture the bird stamping his tiny foot as he sings, but that would make him tippy, so instead I imagine him beating his wings against his body in time with his tirade. There comes a snatch of familiar tones - is that a robin? Out beyond it all, when I listen for it, I hear the beloved tune of a meadowlark, the song that everyone knows.

Why that song? Why, with so many songs rippling by unnamed, why do we know that one?

I suppose it returns to us early in the spring, before the chorus becomes overwhelming. And it rings out to us often from a fence post or a power pole, out in the wide fields where the songs are fewer.

I hope someone can tell me who that emphatic little singer might be. If I could learn just one more name today...

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Real Gardening

There's a fine new reality-check blog post about gardening over at the Free Man's Garden. If you haven't met Eleutheros yet, oh, you should. Check out his advice on eating, too, at the Free Man's Table, and if you get to wondering how far removed he is from the dominant society, the archives of his original blog will tell you just How Many Miles from Babylon. A few hours at his place might shake you up. They might give you some real hope, too: not a vague hope for greater equity and unity and efficiency and all that, but a clear path to actually reverse your own share of the worrisome world trends. No more hand-wringing, friends; let's roll!


Yes, I'll admit I'm a fan. And I'll admit that I've been spending too much money on garden gadgets and supplies. And as I ate my packaged breakfast cereal this morning, I thought about how I've backslid from eating mostly bulk-purchased whole foods. Right now, though, my focus is getting the garden in so we don't backslide too much in that endeavour. Next comes the renovation for a greenhouse area and passive solar heat - a step forward. "When the work's all done this fall," as they say, there will be time for more conscious cooking and eating.

One small triumph: today I am slow-cooking the last buttercup squash of our crop from last year. All I did with the squashes was to bring them into the porch, which gradually cooled through the fall to about 5-10 degrees C. All winter they decorated the steps in there, and most of them kept beautifully. And now we will be losing the porch to make way for our sunroom. I hope the new cold room that we tucked into the design will work as well.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

The Turkeys

March 25th 2007, right here in Arcola. Congrats to Madcap Mum for solving the puzzle on the first guess.

Is there something about that yard across the street, where you can see the wild turkeys just rounding the corner of the hedge? Somewhere I have a picture of the wing-tip marks in the snow where a ring-necked pheasant jumped out of that same hedge last fall. This spring I was visiting over there, and as I walked back, I noticed movement on a spruce branch just above the walk. There was a woodpecker, and to my delight, she continued to peck at the bark just six feet or so away, giving me a great chance to look for all the marks that distinguish between downy and hairy woodpeckers. I couldn't figure her out at all. The field guide confirmed that she was neither; instead she was a black-backed woodpecker - the first one I had ever seen. True to the typical behaviour of her species, she was stripping bark off the smaller branches of a conifer.

I wonder if the remarkable bird sightings in that yard have something to do with the density and age of the trees there. There is a nearly complete border of trees and hedge, plus more trees inside. I hadn't noticed how aged those trees were until I happened upon an old aerial photo in the Arcola-Kisbey history book, showing the yard thickly treed back in 1954, while the yard that we now own was still essentially bald.

A Letter to Our MP

Dear Sir,
We drive a 1996 Geo Metro. We decided to buy a newer, more fuel-efficient vehicle, and then found out that there is no such thing. The hybrids might get slightly better gas mileage, but not enough to offset the energy used in manufacturing a new car. We are appalled.
Laura Herman