There's no better way to plan your garden season than looking at the previous one. Last year, the last frost was June 8, and our first frost was Sept. 8, accompanied by snow. That's a pretty short growing season! This is not the new normal, because some years are warmer, extending the growing season on each end by weeks. Either way, the weather is more and more unpredictable and gardeners are increasingly frustrated.
Over the last five years, I've seen summer days and nights get warmer. The overnight lows used to be 40-45 degrees, and daytime temperatures were 80 degrees, with 85 degrees being a heat wave. Now it is consistently 50-55 degrees at night, and 85-90 degrees is a typical daytime temperature.
Winds blew strong in March and April. Winters are now warmer and drier, giving us stronger winds late into the spring, even into June when we are planting our gardens.
It used to be that monsoon season started in late June with daily afternoon rains drenching the landscape and dropping the temperature. Monsoons are now spotty with less rain and hotter afternoons. Less snowpack means less ditchwater, forcing us to use our wells, which get lower every year.
We used to live and grow by these weather patterns. They were reliable with little variation. Now the weather is extreme in either direction – hotter, colder, wetter, drier or windier, and not when you expect it.
Gardening is more challenging now because there aren’t stable weather patterns anymore. Climate chaos equals garden chaos.
Sustainable gardening as adaptation
So how do you successfully garden with so much unpredictability? It takes flexibility, observation and a willingness to learn new gardening methods to be put into action right away. Be prepared to not be prepared. Adaptation is the new normal for gardeners.
Some sustainable ways to adapt are to understand the local environment and other growing zones around you, create diversity, grow perennial crops, collect and manage water, and utilize covered growing for protection.
Study your environment
I’m always surprised at how many gardeners are unaware of their surroundings, as though their gardens are separate from their yards and wild spaces. Although agriculture is the opposite of a natural ecosystem, they are quite connected.
Learn to be hyper-aware of your environment. Study the weather, birds, pollinators and native plants. Keep a journal, like I’ve suggested before. With annual records and knowledge of our ‘normal’ weather patterns, you’ll easily be able to see the differences in climate patterns after keeping records for a few years. If you record your problems and solutions, you’ll have a reference guide specific to your yard.
Be willing to experiment. Explore the growing zones on either side of your own. Climate change means warming temperatures and unexpected cold, so try plants that do well in warmer and colder locales. Plant earlier and later and use short and long season varieties. Accurate record keeping with photos and diagrams will show you what works from year to year.
Be flexible enough to deal with a surprise hot, cold, wet or dry season. Acquaint yourself with many growing methods, so when you need that information, you know where to find it. Be prepared for the unexpected.
Plant for broad diversity
Diversity matters more now than ever. With changing seasons, birds and pollinators appear in spring when the flowers they need aren’t blooming. Insects’ life cycles change, too, and they need food and shelter at unusual times. Planting as many species as possible with flowering times throughout the season will ensure food for pollinators and wildlife whenever they appear.
Diversity also provides resilience against pest infestations and drought. Be prepared for unexpected changes by growing a wide variety of plants. Grow in a milpa, a Mesoamerican way of companion planting for diversity and symbiosis, and let the various plants feed and support each other.
Again, the garden is not separate from the wild environment. Aside from creating an edible landscape, planting native ornamentals in wild spaces will attract, house and feed a wide variety of pollinators and wildlife.
Grow perennial crops
Because trees and perennials grow year after year, they withstand weather extremes better, due to their deep, extensive root systems. They also need less maintenance throughout the season, a plus for gardeners with busy schedules. Plant fruit and nut trees, berries, rhubarb, asparagus, horseradish, artichokes along with culinary and medicinal herbs.
Perennial cover crops can be used in place of grass lawns, to cover unused areas of your yard, or in pathways. They create diversity, pollinator food and habitat and reduce water run-off.
The best type of cover crops depend on their use. To reduce erosion, try crown vetch, white or red clover.
Drought is more prevalent and extreme than ever, so capturing as much water as possible is important. Build or buy a cistern, either above or below ground and collect rainwater in it through a gutter system. Connect multiples for overflow. Install the cisterns uphill from the garden for gravity flow. If that’s not possible, use a small pump and solar panel.
Dig shallow swales in the yard to divert water. Direct it to a holding pond or a system of shallow ditches in the garden. Put high-water-need plants in the swales and ditches to naturally water them and cut back on collected water or well water. Find varieties that grow well in standing water for flood prone areas.
Drip irrigation and mulch are simple, inexpensive, and effective ways to use minimal water and reduce evaporation.
Recycle greywater from the house to water non-food and shade trees outside.
Grow under cover
Greenhouses, high tunnels, low tunnels and cold frames protect plants from extreme weather events, such as heavy rain, hail or snow. They also extend the season in spring and fall by providing extra warmth and can be used for year-round growing with a little extra planning.
Passive solar greenhouses and walipinis use thermal mass for heat for extended growing seasons.
A walipini is dug down about 6 feet or more. It stays warm because soil temperatures that deep are always 55 degrees, so it’s easy to heat and is always cool. Then, like in the photo, you put a roof on it that drains water away. There are a few of them in Taos.
Rocket mass heaters can be used instead of gas or electricity.
Structures covered in shade cloth will protect plants from intense sun, extreme heat and drought.
Gardening in climate change is not about technique. It's about flexibility and adaptation. You have to be ready to suddenly change course when confronted with unfamiliar problems, be they pest infestations, hail, late frosts, early snow, or lack of water. Arm yourself with information and be ready to implement anything at any time. You might be exhausted and exasperated come fall, but you will have been successful.
Find out more
Morning Chores is a fun website chock full of gardening ideas from cold frames to raised garden bed plans at morningchores.com.