Variable Climate, Consistent Garden
It’s no secret that weird weather is the norm these days, case in point: one of the strongest “El Niño” patterns in decades is developing before our eyes. This phenomenon will likely have an effect on weather conditions for several months, particularly late fall through winter, with a trend of warm, dry weather toward the north and cool, wet weather further the south. Anyone who spends a good deal of time outdoors will be directly impacted, including gardeners. How do we grow a good garden in rough weather?
El Niño In The Garden
Although weather forecasting is imperfect and subject to unknown variables, the anticipated trends tend to be accurate. To garden successfully in volatile weather, we should pay heed to the trend forecast and take action. There are several positive steps we can take to hedge against many of the negative effects of El Niño in the garden. The two major variables being temperature and precipitation, here are some specific ways to be prepared for nearly anything the climate may throw at us, short of flooding.
Too much precipitation is a tough situation for exposed gardens. Constantly wet soil inhibits root growth and, if it persists, can lead to rot. Using mounded or raised garden beds will significantly improve garden success in wet weather, because they promote good drainage. In traditional row gardens (that do not feature framed raised beds), simply mound the soil from the aisles onto the growing space to create ten to twelve inch high ridges in which to plant. Also, adding generous amounts (at least a three inch layer) of coarse compost or organic soil conditioner will greatly improve drainage of heavy soils. The difficulty that may arise with elevated beds in the cool months is their susceptibility to temperature fluctuation – they get cold easily.
Organic mulch is like magic. It reduces weed competition, minimizes soil loss through erosion, conserves moisture and insulates the soil. It’s also a great way to make use of lawn waste. Use a deep layer of coarse wood chips on the aisles and ground up leaves or pine needles on the beds. The wood chips will allow excess water to drain away and help hold the ridged beds intact, while the leaves and pine needles will retain a bit of heat and slowly decay, adding traces of organic matter to the soil.
The final piece of garden engineering to help you grow through El Niño is plastic. Low tunnels that cover individual rows or beds may be made with 1/2″ PVC pipe arched over the beds and rebarred into the ground at five foot intervals, and plastic sheeting stretched over the arches and anchored with stakes and string.
High tunnels, or unheated plastic greenhouses, may be used to cover multiple rows or beds, and trap more heat than low tunnels. Construction of high tunnels has to be more sturdy than that of low tunnels to hold up against wind, ice and snow. Instead of regular plastic sheeting, use real greenhouse plastic to ensure that it lasts through the season. Inch and a half “schedule 40” PVC works for the arches, but for longevity and strength metal greenhouse hoops are ultimately the most durable material for high tunnels.
You may find that adopting these precautionary practices is the best thing you’ve done for your winter garden. Although they are listed here specifically as helps against unusual weather, they are beneficial all the time because they give you greater control over growing conditions, which is always a good thing.