Adjusting Your Gardening to a Warm Spring

Squill in bloom.

Last week, encouraged by comments from a friend, I planted a short row of spinach, a short row of mustard greens and a slightly longer row of peas in my vegetable garden. Today, two of the three of them have tiny shoots coming up.

These are all in raised beds but none of them have row covers. It seemed OK to plant because the gardens met the basic requirement of  the ground being not too wet and workable. Given long range forecast for Minnesota, which shows no signs of temperatures anywhere close to freezing for the next week or so, I plan to plant more cool-weather crops outside today. Why not? Apparently we live in Kansas City now.

Based on the U of M’s kabob test, my lawn is thawed enough to water. Fortunately, the skewer was wet.

I also cleaned up some of my perennial beds. Normally, I heed the standard advice to stay out of the lawn and beds to prevent soil compaction until well into April or even May, but not this year. The University of Minnesota Extension suggested gardeners get a kabob prong and stick it in their soil. If it goes 8 to 10 inches, the ground is OK to water. If the tip is dry, get out the hoses, pronto!

I am not raking the lawn — partly because it’s a chore I don’t enjoy much and partly because it still seems a bit soft. That said, the weeds are popping up already, and I had a grand time this morning pulling a few dandelions. The ground is soft enough that you can pull out the root cleanly — very satisfying.

One of the stunning characteristics of this very strange spring is the speed with which spring bloomers are appearing and blooming. Normally, the squill in my yard come up very slowly, hold on to flower buds for a week or more and then finally bloom. Not so this year, they popped up, and it was boom and bloom in a couple of days.

U of M Extension Master Gardeners from around Minnesota are reporting unbelievable amounts of growth in their gardens. Perennials such as clematis, daylilies, lupine, bleeding heart and hosta are up. Like me, other gardeners planted lettuces, peas and spinach and are seeing shoots already. Under the mulch, I’m finding rudbeckia and sweet woodruff, even the roses and hydrangea are greening up. The consensus among garden experts now seems to be that it is OK to uncover perennials — just be ready to throw a sheet, blanket or mulch on them if the temps suddenly take a dip.

What are you doing differently in your garden because of the unusual weather?

Big Changes for Minnesota in New Hardiness Zone Map


A sliver of Minnesota is officially in USDA Zone 5, according to the new hardiness zone map released today by the USDA, the first update to the map since 1990. Beyond that corner of Jackson and Martin Counties going officially zone 5 (a place where the lowest winter temperatures don’t sink below -20 degrees F — like say, Chicago), a huge chunk of Minnesota is now rated zone 4b (lowest temp: -25) and the area around St. Cloud has shifted from borderline zone 3 to a firm zone 4a — break out the Japanese maples!

According to the USDA, the changes in zones are the result of several factors. Mapping techniques are much better than in 1990, allowing for finer distinctions. For the first time, cities with urban heat islands may show up a zone or half-zone warmer than in the past — though not the Twin Cities.  USDA also had access to more accurate data and more data because it has more weather stations checking in with information. This map also is based on 30 years of weather information (1976-2005) rather than the 12 years (1974-1986) used for the 1990 map. This smooths out the weather fluctuations plants experience and gives a more accurate picture of growing conditions, according to USDA. For instance, mountainous regions may now be rated colder because the new data takes altitude into account more accurately.

The fact that about half the U.S. is a half zone warmer than in the previous map certainly brings up the issue of climate change. The USDA takes a cautious approach, noting that this map may merely be more accurate than previous maps and that climate change shows itself over even longer stretches of time (50 to 100 years).

The USDA has a very informative website about the new map, which allows folks to input their zip code to get very detailed information.

Winter Weirdness

Salvia in January

I’m not sure which is more disconcerting–that I spent 15 minutes outside today wearing only a cardigan and was comfortable doing it, or that I found an unusual number of signs of life in the garden. Just a reminder: It’s Minnesota and it’s January.

Yet, today when I pulled aside some leaves I found this Salvia sending up several new shoots. In the backyard, the Clara Curtis daisies I ripped out in October had sent up new leaves — green ones. And, in the vegetable bed, a few sprigs of parsley were growing. Now all of these plants are decidedly in the hardy category. I have found parsley under snow in spring before, but still, there are far more green things in my yard than is usual for January (when things are usually covered in snow).

We’ll see what the rest of winter holds. But, so far, it’s just weird.

Dr. Mark Seeley on Climate Change

Dr. Mark Seeley, author of the Minnesota Weather Almanac and a regular radio commentator on climate and weather, spoke at the Rice County Horticultural Day this morning. Seeley gave the full-house of gardeners attending the event an overview on how the weather is changing in Minnesota, with a few ideas on how to accommodate it.

Here are my take-aways from the talk:

  • It’s not that the highs are getting higher, it’s that the lows are getting higher. Higher average night-time low temperatures and higher temperatures in winter are what most of us have been observing when we’ve noticed climate change in the past decade or two. Seeley’s graphs show clearly that we are in a shifting weather pattern and the shifts are heavily concentrated in winter.

    flooding in garden
    More and more serious rain events are one of the effects of climate change.
  • It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity. In addition to higher low temperatures, we are seeing rises in humidity to the point where the heat emergency days in Minnesota in the past few years have largely been due to high humidity (70 degree dew points) coupled with sort of high temperatures (90s). I noted that Rice County was one of several counties that had experienced more than 10 days where dew points were above 80 in the past few years. These weather patterns have also produced larger numbers of thunderstorms, resulting in more rain falling in gushes rather than trickles.
  • It’s not just SUVs causing the problem. While emissions from vehicles and industry (especially less-clean industries in developing countries like China and India) are part of the problem, Seeley is passionate that people not overlook other causes of climate change, including natural factors and the changes in land use. Every time a wild area becomes a corn field or a corn field becomes a housing development we are changing the land and environment, and that, in turn, can change the climate. (I’ve observed this first hand over the past 9 years as our neighborhood went from cornfield to suburb-like, and the spring frog noises changed from delightfully deafening to faint.) Some changes are small–extra driveways, grass instead of prairie–but they add up. Some are huge, such as the destruction of large amounts of boreal forests in Alberta, Canada, to mine for tar sands.
  • Despite the changes, it can still get darn cold in Minnesota. Seeley recalled a day in February 1996 when temperatures dropped to 35 below zero. For the gardeners in attendance, his message seemed similar to one I’ve heard from others who watch climate: go ahead and try higher zone plants, but be prepared to lose them in a bad winter.
  • Finally, we need to pay attention to this. Little changes can add up–and things that sound like a great idea (I’m thinking ethanol here) may not be so great after all. As gardeners, we can put more oxygen into the air, and we can watch and care for our own little corners of the earth. I’m on a multi-year plan to reduce lawn and increase gardens on our lot because gardens, especially those planted with flowers and shrubs suited to Minnesota’s bizarre climate, can handle the changes better and require less in the way of nutrients and water to survive. Is that a big deal? No. But it’s one thing I can do.

Update from 2018: While this post was written a long time ago, the points Mark Seeley made hold true. More so than ever. I’m still planting as many natives as I can and other heritage plants that can make it in our tough climate.

Fall Bloomers: A Sign of Zone Creep?

delphinium in bloom
Photo courtesy of Walters Gardens — I wish my delphinium looked this good!

Maybe it’s the heavy rains we have had this fall or a sign of global warming, but I’m finding surprising things blooming. Yesterday, I discovered new blooms on an English Larkspur (Delphinium elatum ‘Pagan Purples’). I bought the larkspur late in the spring in hopes of getting taller flowers in the back of my front bed. According to the plant tag, this particular variety is supposed to grow 5 to 6 feet tall. (Other sources say 4 to 5 feet.) Unfortunately, right after I planted it, the weather turned very dry and I got very busy and neglectful of the garden. It died–or so I thought. Even though it had wilted right to the ground, a new plant emerged after I got around to watering the flowers more. It bloomed a couple of times in the summer, and now in mid-October. It never got tall–perhaps due to its difficult youth–but its still a lovely plant.

This morning, I noticed my catmint (Nepeta ‘Walker’s Low’) had several new blooms on it, too. Walker’s Low is known as a prolific bloomer, and I cut mine back after its first bloom in June to promote a second round of flowers. I expected them earlier or not at all.

It’s hard to know how to react to blooms in mid-October–part of me wants to rejoice. And, it’s certainly possible that the dry spell we had in July and August delayed blooms that would have appeared earlier had adequate rain fallen. Now it’s wet and not too cold so the plants bloom. Another part of me feels a little spooked by this much blooming so late.

Felicia Parsons, a horticulturist and writer, whose also a jeweler, wrote an excellent article on gardening with climate change in the July/August 2007 issue of Northern Gardener. She noted that the American Horticulture Society’s heat map (based on how many days over 86 degrees F an area has) shows a distinct zone creep over the USDA’s zone map, which is based largely on how cold things get. The Arbor Day Foundation has also released a zone map showing that Minnesota is getting warmer.

For gardeners, Felicia offers some advice: If you are deciding what to plant, plant what has always worked or try less hardy shrubs and perennials, but be prepared to take a loss if the weather gets back to “normal.” If you are concerned about global warming, do what you can to diminish your energy consumption (buy efficient appliances and better lightbulbs, drive less, plant a tree near the house to provide shade and reduce your need for air conditioning, compost) and watch what is happening in your own garden. Several web sites have been established for people to report changes they see in the plants and wildlife in their area, including this site from an organization in Wisconsin. This blog will be my report on what’s happening in my garden. Let me know what you see in yours.