Sunday, November 8, 2009

A Question of Scale

Catlady's comment jogged a few brain cells just now. They are having temps in Winnipeg (85 miles straight north of Pinwheel Farm) that are 10 degrees--CELSIUS--above normal!

Based on what little media stuff I hear, the climate change scientists have been looking at long-range variations in the average temperatures: a few degrees average increase will cause melting of polar ice packs, etc., etc. Well, that's all well and good, and meaningful in a broad way.

But if you're a plant, things look a lot different. Averages from year to year may not make much difference if you're an annual. Averages within a year can make a HUGE difference.

Location is important too, as anyone gardening in a low spot can tell you. The frost comes days earlier to certain microclimates, even across the farm. One of the guessing games I play in siting any new infrastructure or planning my crop arrangement is trying to guess at all the factors affecting microclimates within the garden.

I'm sure our average temperature this year is WAY below average. But the current week of extremely unseasonable warm weather is likely shifting that annual average. A mild winter might make this a more typical "average" year. Yet, no hard long freeze could enable pests to overwinter that usually don't--as well as extending my gardening season nearly around the calendar.

In many instances, it's the daily fluctuations that set the limits for plant growth and reproduction. Tomatoes allegedly won't set fruit above a certain temperature, even though the plants will thrive (mine haven't seemed to mind the hot days, as long as their roots are in soil kept relatively cool by heavy mulch). One hour of frost is the boundary for the squash plants, no matter what the average for the day, week, month or year is. What date contains that hour of frost is what determines the length of the growing season....

For some plants. Some simply need a total cummulative number of hour or days of warmth (corn) or cold (apples and tulips).

Some plants thrive on day/night temperature differences...either large or small.

Some really only care about the hours of daylight--something that will be largely unaffected by climate change.

What I've seen in the day-to-day weather at the farm these past few years is increasing drastic swings and unseasonable temperatures--cooler as well as warmer than usual. This makes it a very, very challenging "climate" for production farming.

I think the successful farmers in this coming time will be those who are willing and able to try new things, take risks, and follow "gut feelings" about what to plant and when to plant it. The calendar printed on paper won't work anymore. Paying attention to and understanding the seasonal rhythms and complex interrelationships of the natural world will be critical to making day-to-day farming decisions.

Perhaps it is ridiculously obvious that in order to notice the complex interrelationships of the natural world, we have to first allow them to exist--stop the herbicides and pesticides, stop cutting shelterbelts, etc.--and then we have to nurture them through every means we can. That means allowing habitat to shelter a diverse array of creatures, and food for them as well. Sometimes that means growing parsley for the butterflies, instead of for the table. And resisting the temptation to make every corner of the farm neat and tidy.

In our corner of the world, neat lawns and tidy trees are the norm. They do look nice this time of year. It's tempting to "subdue creation" at this time of year, to get everything clean and tidy and "put to bed" for the winter. But the untidiness is the home of our climate change indicators, in their various and diverse forms.

I'll poke in a few (hundred) spring flower bulbs in the front yard to pacify the neighbors--at least a little. But a lot of leaves will lay where they fall, and a lot of weeds will stand through the winter, keeping the mantis nests safe, hiding the sparrows from the little hawk that hunts here, slowing the wind and trapping whatever snow may fall, securing the blowing leaves so that they mulch the soil and keep it warmer.

Besides, if it stays generally as warm as it's starting out, we may be too busy picking vegetables to get the farm cleaned up this winter.

1 comment:

Cary at Serenity Farms said...

I really enjoy reading your blog and appreciate that you take the time to write it!

Our weather has been "crazy" here in mid-Michigan, too, with heavy frosts and cold, heavy rains...followed now by some glorious Indian summer weather ;)