Gardening in New England: Adapting for a Different World

John Kassel

Photo courtesy of Putneypics @ flickr. Creative Commons.

A couple of weeks ago I met a young farmer near Rutland, VT who was stunned to be out plowing his fields in the month of March. At that time the fields are usually knee-deep muddy, if not still covered in snow, ice or the slow-melting crust of the long winter. He was stunned:  if he plows and plants now, what’s going to happen next? How will his crops respond? Should he wait, for something more like a “normal” planting season to return?

These are questions that thousands of us gardeners across New England have been struggling with lately, in the wake of an unseasonably warm spell, and a winter that broke records first for early snowfall, and then low overall snowfall and high temperatures. Looking out our windows when the weather warms, we are drawn to one place: the soil – we long to get our hands in the dirt, and smell the wonderful scents of spring. For the farmer I mentioned above, the decision wasn’t just recreational or therapeutic; the crops for the CSA he recently founded with his partner were at risk. He had to plan carefully, not knowing what lies ahead.

In Vermont, where my wife and I have tended our garden for years, you start your seeds on Town Meeting Day and plant on Memorial Day. But this year, that timeline is way off.

Recently, for the first time in 22 years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released an updated version of its Plant Hardiness Zone Map. The map charts average winter minimum temperatures, or cold intensity. What this map confirmed in VT is what we have observed anecdotally across New England and the United States: that our world is warming, as this map by the Arbor Day Foundation shows vividly. For the first time in VT, for instance, zone 5b has crept into the southern edges of our state. And the south coast of Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts includes zone 7a, which is also found in Northern Alabama. The commentary on the new map carefully avoids concluding the shifts are the results of climate change; most gardeners will draw their own conclusions.

For me, the question of whether or not to plant returned me to a question about my greenhouse. Previous owners of our house built a small, traditional greenhouse that helped with the slow and wet transition from winter to spring, with consistency and in the same place for 15 years. It succumbed to the elements recently, and we decided to try smaller, portable hoop houses over our raised beds. They’re more suitable to highly variable temperatures. Where once a rigid structure suited our weather and our needs, that’s no longer the case. We need to be more flexible. More adaptable.

This winter ranks as the 4th warmest nationally since the late 1880s, when climatologists began keeping records. People still consider Memorial Day as a safe time to plant, but the average last frost day is 10 days prior, as Vern Grubinger, University of Vermont Extension vegetable and berry specialist, said in this Brattelboro Reformer article.

What happens when you plan according to tradition, but the seasonal calendar is out of kilter? What happens when convention no longer suits our contemporary reality? These are questions of adaptation, and they apply to backyard gardens – and also flood zone mapping, transportation, and almost everything we do in the natural world. We have to start building differently, for a different world.

And so I wanted to ask you – CLF members, and members of the public alike – how are you adapting? What have you done with your garden this spring?  Are you anticipating odd weather in the months ahead? How will you respond? Please share your comments here and share your photos with us on our Facebook page.

I look forward to hearing from you. And happy planting.

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