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Homesteading observations: Climatic considerations

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2016 March Issue Newsletter

By Sharon Gensler

In early February, I thought, “Well it’s spring, I guess we won’t really have a winter this year.” There was that spring feel and smell to the air, temperatures were in the 50s and spring bird songs could be heard. Then, luckily, it changed and we got some real snow. With one or two good cross-country ski adventures, I was so happy to have winter. Then, rain and freezing rain and now this deep-freeze, for three days the high temperature hasn’t reached 15 degrees with lows of 15 below, not to mention the wind chills. Tomorrow’s prediction is for rain and temps in the 50s again. I am so grateful for the few inches of snow that we have had, as it will help insulate the soil life from this deep freeze.

As a homesteader, this crazy swing in weather patterns is something that has to be taken seriously. We’ve also noticed a similar type of pattern throughout the growing season over the last several years. I’m not talking about the typical variability in our weather, but rather the intense swings of extremes. They aren’t easily predicted and so it’s harder to plan for and around them. But, I believe, we must try to do so in order to continue counting on reaping the bounty of fruits and vegetables on which we rely.

I think this must be harder for commercial farmers, who have to consider their family’s needs, their livelihood, and also their customers’ needs. As gardeners and homesteaders, we might have more flexibility, which could help us out. We might consider: thinking like a plant, adapting our timing, our variety selection, increasing our diversification and the use of physical plant protection.

It helps to remember, that for several years we’ve had a spring extreme of 80 degrees in mid-late April/May followed by a period of very cold with extended heavy rain or snow.

The first couple of years, I fell for that early heat wave, rushing to get seeds and transplants out into the garden, only to be fooled. When the cold and rain and snow not only dashed my hopes, but either destroyed or severely set back those early plantings. I since tried to listen more to the wisdom of the plants themselves. I now observe what is happening naturally in the garden. For instance, I watch for the self-seeded greens, from lettuce and endive, left to flower and set seed, to germinate and grow when the conditions are right for them to do so. They always beat my purposefully planted and tended ones to the table. So why rush things, now I wait to be shown my timing.

It’s the stress factor we have to consider and work with, and I’m not just talking about mine! Each time a plant is stressed, its potential is decreased. How many times and how much stress will determine if it dies, just survives or thrives. A couple of small stressors (a little too hot or too thirsty), might decrease its yield slightly, while major temperature and/or water fluctuations will substantially decrease its productivity. I’ve learned to be more patient and wait for the soil temperature to be warm and moist before venturing forth with tender seedlings. This means I’ve adjusted my seedling starting dates to be much later both in the greenhouse and outdoors.

I’ve also tried to decrease stressors by using more fabric row covers both to smooth out the fluctuating temperatures and also for protection from the increased insect varieties that arrive on those early, southerly, hot winds. Maybe soon, I’ll get around to finishing our small hoop-house, which will help on the protection front.

I’m also keeping the soil in good health with cover crops and mulch. A healthy soil will help the plants deal with stressors. And the healthier the soil the more organic matter it contains, which ultimately helps restore carbon to the soil where it belongs.

Another way we can help make sure there is enough for summer eating and for the fall larder is to diversify. Try different varieties of crops. Some plants are bred for different growing conditions. Choose some that like cold and wet and others that thrive on hot and less moisture. It’s a much better way to hedge your bets than through the volatile stock market!

Diversification of types of things is also a good bet. Having many types of fruits and berries or vegetables makes it more likely that there will be some product to count on. For us, last year, the blueberries flowered during a cold rainy period. We had very little pollination, so almost no fruit. However, the strawberries and raspberries both flowered when conditions were primo, so the freezer is full of these. Less blueberry pancakes and more strawberry shortcake! Thinking about strawberries reminds me to go get some from the freezer; they are also excellent on oatmeal or granola with that great yogurt I make with raw milk from my local organic dairy. Just the smell of those berries will transport me to a warm June day, surrounded by berries, bees, sunshine and happiness. How great is that? 

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