Gardening As The Climate Changes (II)

Scientists expect that climate change will have a number of effects on our lives. As gardeners, one of the most important of these is a change in the arrival time of spring temperatures. Averaged globally, spring temperatures will start arriving very slightly sooner each year. However, at any individual location, the arrival of spring temperatures — compared to their expected arrival date — will be highly variable. Since spring is more likely to arrive early than late, make a plan to take advantage of this situation.

USDA Plant Hardiness Zones correspond roughly to the last frost dates in those areas. Mountainous regions will have later than expected frosts compared to flatlands. Check the internet to find your local average last date.

Most gardeners are well aware of their region’s average last frost date. Gardeners generally begin planting vegetables and annual flowers once this date has passed and the weather forecast indicates a continuance of above freezing temperatures. In northern gardens, the overall growing season is fairly short. For long-season crops, such as pumpkins, getting them started at the right time will ensure that they develop and reach maturity under favorable temperature conditions. In the south, vegetables needs to be planted promptly so that exceedingly hot temperatures don’t arrive until after the plants have flowered and set fruit. Most vegetables will not set fruit at temperatures over 95 °F (35 °C). As an example, the unprecedented heat in Texas in the spring of 2022 was disastrous to watermelon farmers. (It also did in my watermelons and limited my tomato crop.)

Sometimes it seems like spring has arrived early, but don’t interpret early warm temperatures as an indication that no future freezes are coming. Watch your local long-term weather forecast as your last frost date approaches.

As spring approaches, you should plan to plant when you normally do in relation to your average last frost date. As this time approaches, however, keep an eye on the long-range weather forecast. If your last frost date is still approaching, but the forecast does not include a freeze, consider planting at least some of your spring garden plants. Keep in mind, though, that nearly every year there are at least a few days of comparative warm weather near the end of winter. Every year, this entices gardeners everywhere to set out tomato transplants early only to have them freeze later. Recall that half of all final freezes occur after the average last frost date. So resist the urge to plant over three weeks early. That’s just asking for trouble. Planting early can reap big benefits, but it is also taking a risk. If your last frost date is three weeks away, and the forecast overnight lows are all above 36 °F (2 °C) or so, think about planting the vegetables that will thrive (or at least tolerate) those temperatures. For example, most peas will be fine when planted immediately after the soil thaws. Most beans, however, will do poorly if the soil temperature is lower than 50 °F (10 °C). Lima beans require even warmer soil temperatures and daytime air temperatures should be around 65 °C (18 °C).

Covering plants with cloches, row covers, or by growing them in mesh enclosures allows you to get a jump on the season. They will also keep out pests, but must be removed before temperatures get too high. (Cloche photo courtesy Wikipedia)

If you do plan to plant early, invest in some hoops and agricultural netting. This will allow you cover the rows if a light freeze is forecast. For individual large plants, a cloche can serve as a mini-greenhouse when cold weather threatens. If the plant is only a few inches tall, you can cut the bottom out of a gallon milk jug and use that as protection. Large plants, of course, can be planted indoors in small containers and moved outside when the weather is suitable. Even before climate change became an issue, gardeners had been doing this to raise transplants for spring planting.

You can plant garden plants indoors before it is warm enough for them to be outside. Take them outside on warm afternoons and bring them in at night. Or, keep them by a window that gets sun or under grow lamps.

Among the longer-term effects of climate change will be a shifting of agricultural zones towards the poles. North American gardeners on the southern edge of where growing a typical vegetable garden is possible will find it increasingly difficult, and eventually impossible, to grow anything other than a few locally-adapted plants. Gardeners on the current northern edge of vegetable gardening feasibility will start experiencing longer growing seasons and higher peak temperatures. The line on the map separating places that normally experience at least one hard freeze every year from places that do not usually experience freezing temperatures will creep northward. This line is currently in the very southern tips of Florida and Texas. Gardeners south of this line may experience more insect pests in the early spring as they won’t freeze in the winter. (And of course, some insects are adapted to survive freezing temperatures in the winter.) However, these conditions will not arrive overnight.

 

Conclusion

So, to make a long story short, expect the change in climate to proceed fairly slowly. (Or at least, it will seem slow from our perspective. On a geologic scale, it’s happening blindingly quickly.) But expect the variability in your local weather to become progressively more pronounced. As a gardener, expect that spring temperatures are more likely to arrive sooner than usual than later than usual. But realize that advance will be sporadic. Most years, your weather will likely stick close to the long-term averages. However, sometimes spring temperatures will arrive substantially earlier than expected. So plan for your usual gardening season, but be prepared to get a jump on your spring planting each year. If the indicators of an early spring are present, the risk of early planting should pay off more often than not.

Gardening As The Climate Changes (I)

Our planet is warming. Carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in our atmosphere have increased from under 300 ppm in the early 1900s to over 410 ppm today. This is mostly due to the burning of fossil fuels. Carbon dioxide acts as a greenhouse gas and the global mean temperature has risen 1.8 °F (1 .0 °C) in the past 20 years. This change in temperature has affected weather patterns all over the globe. On average, what we expect to see in the coming years is an earlier arrival of typical spring temperatures. Likewise, we expect longer and hotter summers, a later arrival of typical winter temperatures, and less predictable patterns of precipitation. The phrase “on average” is very important to understanding climate change. The average rate of climate change for any given location will be very slow, but the effects on local weather patterns will vary in intensity.

Carbon dioxide levels have been rising steadily in our atmosphere for decades. The average temperature at the earth’s surface is also trending upwards, but notice that it drops for short periods, too. Compared to the 20th Century as a whole, we are now between 0.8 and 1.0 °C warmer. (Figures from NOAA.)

In the coming years, your garden is likely to experience spring temperatures sooner than in past years. However, in some years, spring could come later. The chance of the latter is lower than the former, but far from zero. As we’ve seen in the previous decade, peak summer temperatures will usually be higher than usual. In a like manner, typical fall temperatures will remain a bit longer before falling.  In both cases, the opposite may occasionally be true. But those instances with be rare.

On average, this progression will be very slow. It will also vary with location. For example, regions near the poles are warming faster. In addition to changes in the seasonal temperatures, you may experience more or less rainfall than average, depending global weather patterns. You will also likely experience years during which your weather is relatively normal.

You can think of climate change this way. Let’s say you had a 6-sided die and you rolled it each spring. The number you got determined your weather. One and two meant cooler than usual weather. Three and four meant average temperatures. And five and six meant higher temperatures. In the past, with a fair die, those three outcomes would have occurred equally frequently in the long term. These days, the die would be loaded. It would be fixed so fives and sixes occurred slightly more often than they should. You could still roll a one through a four, though. You could even roll a series of ones, twos, threes, and fours. However, over time, you’d rack up more five and sixes than any of the other numbers. 

The ten hottest years of all time all occurred in the past 20 years. Nine of the past 10 decades have been warmer than the decade before them. 1940–1949 stands out as a comparatively hot decade. (Data from NOAA and NASA; tables courtesy of Wikipedia)

When it comes to planning your garden, the thing to realize is that the average change in your seasonal weather is going to be very slight. However, the variability in weather patterns will be higher than in past years. Most years, your usual planting schedule should work. However, in other years it might be substantially out of sync with the weather. As such, you may want to hedge your bets. Since temperature anomalies are more likely to be higher than lower, your best bet is to assume that you will experience normal temperatures during the gardening season, but prepare for warmer temperatures. In an upcoming post, I will explain how to do this.

In 2021, some parts of our planet experienced temperatures on par with their long-term average. Much of the Pacific Ocean, for example, was not hotter or colder than usual. And, some of Antartica was slightly colder than usual. However, most places on earth were warmer than usual — especially near the poles. (Figure from NOAA.)

 

Octoberfest Season

Octoberfest beers are my favorite seasonal beer and I love Octoberfest season. In the US, Octoberfest beers begin appearing on the shelves in early September and remain available at least into early November. The actual German festival begins in mid-September, runs for two weeks, and ends on the first Sunday in October. German Octoberfest beers imported into the US are often of the Octoberfest Märzen type — malty, orangish-colored lagers around 5.5–6.0% ABV. However, you can also find imported Octoberfest beers in the ligher-colored festbier style. (Also note that German Octoberfests are almost always spelled with a “k” — Oktoberfest or Oktoberfestbier. Some US breweries also do this.) Of the German imports, Hacker-Pschorr — among the darkest and richest — is my favorite. However, as might be expected, there are plenty of German imports that are great and my preference is just a matter of opinion. Somewhat recently, US breweries have begun producing some spectacular Octoberfest lagers. These well-balanced beers taste great on a crisp fall evening. 

It’s not a tent in Munich, but I like my beer garden. Despite the name, Live Oak’s Oaktoberfest does not have any oak character. My arm has some poison oak character in this photo, unfortunately.

The best Octoberfest beers are malty, without any caramel or biscuit notes — just a smooth maltiness that mostly comes from Munich malt. (10 °L). The malty character may be accentuated by dark Munich malt (20 °L), melanoidin, or aromatic malt. Also, some Vienna malt (6 °L) — which is intermediate in kilning between Pilsner malt (2 °L or lower) and the Munich malts — may be present. However, a fantastic Octoberfest can brewed from a grist if 100% Munich malt. Neutral hops — noble hops in the case of actual German beers — provide just enough bitterness to make a well-balanced beer. The beer is not sweet, but it isn’t dry either. It has just enough body to feel a little more filling than a Pilsner, but not by much. Festbier types, brewed with mostly Pils malt, are generally a bit drier. The level of carbonation is within the usual range of lager beers. Overall, the Märzen style of Octoberfest is a malty lager beer with a bit more color and “heft” than a Pilsner, and with less hop bitterness. 

Another great local — or at least regional — Octoberfest lager.

US craft brewers have came a long way when it comes to producing Octoberfest beers. In the late 1980s through the early 2000s, most US “Octoberfests” were amber colored ales made with crystal malt in the grist and often showing a strong biscuit malt character. Sadly, some breweries still produce this type of beer. Many of these were also over-hopped, based on the target style. The best US breweries, however, started making lager beers that aligned with the traditional Octoberfest Märzen style and now there are many great examples. I live in Texas and the regional breweries Live Oak, Karbach, and Real Ale all make excellent interpretations of the style. (For what it’s worth, Real Ale was never a real ale brewery in the sense of brewing cask conditioned ales. They make both ales and lagers, including Hans Pils — which is one of my “go to” beers.) From discussions on social media, many homebrewers report local and regional breweries near them producing fine examples. 

For me, Octoberfests are an “indicator beer.” If a brewery or homebrewer can produce a nice Octoberfest, I have some confidence that the rest of their beers are decent. If you are brewing an Octoberfest, here is my advice. First, be fanatical about cleaning and sanitation. Even a hint of contamination — below the level that noticable off flavors are produced — can rob a malty beer of its malt flavor and aroma. Secondly, run an orderly fermentation — pitch enough yeast, aerate adequately, and hold the fermentation temperture in the proper range. Thirdly, if you are brewing an Octoberfest on the darker end of the scale, adjust your water chemistry. Make your water with just slightly more bicarbonate than the color would indicate is optimum. Not enough to throw your pH out of whack, just a bit. If you calculate residual alkalinity (RA), shoot for 1.3–1.4 for a beer that’s 13–15 SRM. Add calcium chloride such that you have 100–150 ppm calcium ions. Taste your treated water to ensure that it tastes good  — and of course eliminate any chlorine compounds through carbon filtration or with Campden tablets first. And finally, use  fresh, high-quality Munich malt.

With Octoberfest season winding down, winter warmers are up next. Prost!

Why Grow Native Plants?

One of the major focuses of this website will be growing native plants. A good question to begin with is why should we divide plants into natives and non-natives and favor growing one over the other? Plants are just plants, right? Long story short, yes but there’s more.

Purple coneflowers and blanket flowers are native perennials.

The native plants growing in your region are adapted to living there. There are adapted to the seasonal weather changes. They are adapted to the local soil types. And they are adapted to local wildlife and vice versa. As a gardener, you will find most native plants easy to establish and require less maintenance than non-natives. This is especially true of perennial plants — plants that live for more than one year. After their first year, during which they made need a little attention, perennials will often flourish without any intervention. 

A spider on a black eyed susan and a moonflower, which opens at dusk.

Native plants generally require less water than non-native plants. This is especially true for native plants adapted to living in prairies, open fields, or drought-prone regions. Of course, some natives live next to streams or ponds, and their water requirements reflect that. Knowing the microenvironment a plant lives in can help you decide what to plant where on your property. However, on average, you will need to water native plants less than non-native plants — especially those bred to be showy landscaping plants.  

Texas red salvia (a mint) and partridge pea (a legume) are native plants.

Native plants generally require less fertilizer than non-natives. They are adapted to living in soil that has not been amended by humans, unlike many landscaping plants. They also generally do not require pesticides. Native plants have insect pests, of course. They and the insects that feed on them have coevolved for long periods of times, up to hundreds of millions of year. But those pests also have native predators, including insect predators — such as ladybugs, preying mantises, and robber flies. They also have other predators. Many birds are insectivourous. So are many bats. So are many small reptiles. (I have a thriving population of Texas spiny lizards living in and around my garden.) And of course, spiders eat insects. 

Larkspur flowers and berries on a black nightshade plant. Catbirds love these berries.

If you have a typical suburban lawn (of non-native grass) and non-native landscaping plants, you can start small and simply subsitute some natives in your flower beds in the spring. Plant a ring of natives around your vegetable garden or between rows. Surround tree trunks with a ring of native plants or expand your flower beds to take up more room in your yard. Even making small changes can help your local environment and make your life as a gardener easier. 

A butterfly on a lance leaf coreopsis flower and a skipper on a Verbena hastata flower.

Native plants are connected to other species in your region in a way non-natives are not. A native plant may be a host plant for a butterfly. It may provide nectar to a bee, butterfly, or hummingbird — and in turn these animals will pollinate other plants. It may provide seeds for a seed-eating bird. It may draw in insects that insectivorous birds, bats, lizards, spiders, or other insects can feed on. Taller native plants provide perches for insect predators to survey your garden. 

A green-eyed robber fly and another robber fly (in the genus Efferia).

Having insects — and hence insect predators — in your yard and garden can also help you enjoy being outdoors more. If you have a typical suburban lawn and non-native landscaping plants, your yard and garden can easily get overun by mosquitoes or flies. Mosquitoes feed on blood, of course. And flies lay their eggs in dead animals, feces, or rotting food. As such, what you plant in your yard or garden isn’t going to attract or deter them. However, if you have a healthy population of insect predators around your house, they can knock the numbers of these insects down substantially — making spending time outdoors in the evenings more enjoyable. 

A monarch caterpillar on a milkweed plant and a black swallowtail caterpillar on fennel.

Planting natives plants does a lot to help your local environment. And they also require less care, water, and fertilizer — allowing you, the gardener, more time for other things (such as planting a larger garden). 

My 2023 Monarch Raising Project (I: Milkweeds)

In North America, there are essentially two main populations of monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus). The largest population overwinters in Mexico and migrates to the northern United States — from North Dakota to Maine — and southern Canada each year. The second population overwinters in southern California and makes a shorter migration up the West Coast. Additionally, smaller populations of monarchs live in Florida or overwinter in scattered locations along the Gulf Coast.

The number of butterflies overwintering in Mexico has been trending downward since the 1970s. Milkweeds (mostly plants in the genus Asclepias) are the only host plant for monarch butterflies. Many gardeners, like myself, grow milkweed in order to provide food for monarch caterpillars. A combination of milkweeds and other native flowering plants also provides food for bees, other butterflies, and hummingbirds.

The number of monarch butterflies has been declining since the 1970s.

In 2021, I raised and released 77 monarch butterflies. My goal for 2023 is to release 240 — roughly three times as many. The reason for 240 is that for many years I raised roughly twice as many monarchs as the year before — from 7 in 2016, to 15 the next year, 30 the next, and then around 60 in 2019. To fit the pattern, I “should” have raised 120 in 2020. But there was a pandemic and other factors intervened and I only raised around 30. So, for 2023, I want to get back to the doubling — if only for a year.

To hit this target, I figure that I need four things:

1.) Sufficient milkweed to feed the monarch caterpillars

2.) Enough blooming flowers to attract the adult female monarchs

3.) To suppress any disease outbreaks in either the milkweeds or the monarchs

4.) A little luck

In this post, I will discuss the milkweeds.

In 2021, I had roughly 40 milkweed plants in my garden. These ranged from plants I had grown for many years to first-year seedlings. By the time the 77th butterfly was released, I was running low on milkweed. Using this information as a start, I figured that I would need at least one milkweed plant for every two monarchs I plan to raise. This should give me enough milkweed with a little excess. This year (2022), I have around 70 plants and I easily have enough seed for 50 more. That should be sufficient milkweed.

Milkweed is the host plant for monarch larvae (caterpillars).

In past years, I would look for monarch eggs or monarch caterpillars on my milkweeds when the monarchs were migrating through my area. I would then pick the leaf the insect was on and place it in one of my butterfly enclosures. Unfortunately, this wasted a lot of milkweed. When small, the caterpillars won’t consume an entire leaf overnight. By the next day, they want a fresh leaf. So this year, I plan to conserve leaf material by taking a pair of scissors and cutting around the egg or caterpillar. I’ll then lay that bit of leaf on a small plant in an enclosure. When the caterpillar abandons the leaf cutting, it will find itself on a milkweed plant. I can rotate partially consumed plants out of the enclosures to let them recuperate for awhile before using them again. Milkweeds are very resilient with regards to caterpillar damage. This should give me a little more leeway with regards the amount of milkweed biomass I need.

Adult monarchs will feed on the nectar of many native plants, such as these.

In a few days, I will discuss the other plants I will be growing for my monarch project. Milkweeds are the host plant for monarch caterpillars, but adult monarchs nectar on the the flowers of many plants. I have a plan to provide multiple types of flowers — blooming at multiple heights — throughout the monarch migration. In spring, I will update this website often on the progress I have made. At my location in central Texas, milkweeds start sprouting in late March and “monarch season” usually lasts from April through June.

Newly eclosed monarchs in a mesh enclosure, about to be released.

 

Safe Seed Pledges Are Bunk

In the early spring, seed catalogs will start arriving. I always enjoy the new year’s set of catalogs although one thing in most of them bugs me — safe seed pledges. You’ve likely seen them, a promise that the nursery does not sell seeds for GMOs (genetically modified organisms). Sometimes there’s a little badge that goes along with it. I’m very pro-science and, given the title of this article, you might expect me to launch into a defense of GM plants. But I’m not going to. There’s no need to. Whether you believe GMOs are harmful or have a reasonable grasp of genetics, safe seed pledges are complete rubbish.

We pledge not to sell you GMO seeds. We offer you this heap of complete rubbish instead.

Why? Because GM seeds are not available to the public. No nursery anywhere sells GM seeds to private individuals. If you are a farmer, you can purchase GM field corn, soy, alfalfa, cotton, canola, sugar beets, and . . .  that’s basically it. There are a couple other GM crops available, but they are mostly grown outside the US. (Wikipedia maintains a list of what GM crops are available as well as how much of each is being grown.) There certainly are not GM varieties for the vast majority of garden vegetables and flowers. What about the Flavr Savr tomato, you might ask? It’s not being produced anymore.

. . . just like every other nursery.

Nurseries participating in the official Safe Seed Pledge are pledging not to sell you something they don’t have, cannot sell, and in the vast majority of cases doesn’t exist. If you believe that GMOs are a distinct class of organisms that are harmful to humans or the environment, they are treating you like a gullible rube. Some even go so far as to say, “We will not knowingly buy or sell and genetically modified seeds or plants,” as if there are unscrupulous seed suppliers out there selling GMO rutabagas to unsuspecting nurseries on the sly. Farmers have to sign contracts specifying what they can and cannot do with their seed when they buy GMO crops. There’s no way a nursery could unknowingly buy GM seed. And they know this. Safe seed pledges are “protecting” you from something that doesn’t exist. It’s like Old Spice certifying that Krakengärd shampoo will keep you safe from krakens.

An alternative to what, exactly?

Understanding GMOs requires you to know a bit of genetics and molecular biology. How they fit into our food choices requires you to understand a little about plant breeding and the history of agriculture. For those who are acquainted with these things, it’s annoying to see nurseries flog for an anti-science position at a time when conspiracy theories and “alternative facts” are having a large negative effect on our country. For a while, almost everything in the supermarket was labelled gluten-free. You could buy gluten-free sugar and gluten-free salt. You could also buy gluten-free vegetables, gluten-free fruits, gluten-free eggs and — I am not kidding —  gluten-free water. Were the companies selling these products making life better for people avoiding gluten? No, none of those items ever contained gluten. Gluten comes from wheat (and some gluten-like compounds, that can cause problems for celiacs, come from related cereals). A lot of companies preyed on the scientific ignorance of people to make a buck, just as nurseries tauting their pledges not to sell GMO seeds are.

So that’s my first gardening post of the Beer and Gardening phase of this website. I hope you like it. This is not the most popular sentiment among gardeners, but I am not alone in holding it. And finally, I solemnly pledge to all my readers to supply the type of gardening knowledge that will keep you safe from kraken attacks, which kill the exact same number of people as GMOs do each year. (What a coincidence, huh?) I care that much about you.

Krakengärd is manning the front lines of the battle against kraken. Like the sea monster it has sworn to fight, Krakengärd is gluten-free and not genetically modified.

Award-Winning Chili

[Beer and Wine Journal mostly features content focusing on how to make beer and some other fermented beverage whose name escapes me. Sometimes, however, we’ll post a food-related article if it has a tie-in to beer. This is one of those times.]

 

A lot of food blogs make you wade through some long, nearly-irrelevant personal anecdote before they finally get to the recipe. I hate that. You hate that. Everyone hates that, so I’ll keep this short and to the point.

Below is a chili recipe that I made and that won the 2018 Austin ZEALOTS Chili Cookoff. This was the 15th year the ZEALOTS (my homebrew club) held the cookoff in conjunction with the holiday party, so I was very honored to win. The recipe is mostly a variation on a recipe I found in Texas Monthly and had made a few times. That recipe, in turn, was a modification of a previous recipe that had won some awards in CASI competitions. (What’s CASI? It’s like the BJCP for chili.) This recipe has quite a few ingredients but is inherently simple to make — just cook the meat and “gravy,” then add the spices and simmer. The biggest key to success is using fresh spices. I’ve added some specifics about the spices I used, but ordinary supermarket spices should work just fine. The second biggest key is to simmer it as gently as possible — and stir frequently enough that it doesn’t scorch.

This chili is spicy, but not ludicrously so. If you like kung pao chicken or chicken vindaloo, you’ll be in the same ballpark of spicing level. Enjoy!

 

[Read more…]

Contest Karate (IV)

This is part four in this series — part one, part two, and part three can be found by following the appropriate links. in it, I examine ways to increase your chances of winning medals at homebrew contests. It all starts with brewing good beer, but for the brewer who really wants to make a splash in his local homebrew circuit, there’s more to it than that. 

There are different levels of contest competitors. Some brewers simply want to brew a few beers and win some hardware at their local competition — and maybe send a beer or two to the National Homebrew Competition (NHC). Other brewers may wish to enter several competitions or compete in a “circuit” of homebrew competitions. In a circuit, brewers score points for every beer that medals at each circuit competition. At the end of competition season, there are awards for the brewers who scored the most cumulative points. No matter how competitive you wish to be, a little planning can go a long way.

If your main concern is your local homebrew contest, you will know (at least roughly) when it is held each year. If you have your sights set on more than one contest, you should likewise determine when they are held. Most contests are held in the spring while the fewest are held in summer. Thus, many of the contests you wish to enter may be relatively close together. How does knowing this help you? It gives you time to plan your brewing. [Read more…]

Contest Karate (III)

In the first installment of this article, I discussed brewing quality beer and entering as many beers as possible as ways to use “contest karate” to win medals at homebrew contests. In the second installment, the metaphor somehow changed to Sun Tzu’s opinions on waging war and I stressed the importance of brewing your beer to stand out in a flight of similar beers. In this installment, I’ll inexplicably switch to talking about — oh, why don’t we make it ninjas? — and give further advice on entering homebrew contests. [Read more…]

Contest Karate (II)

Yesterday, I started a discussion of how to use “contest karate” to win medals at homebrew contests. And, I gave the two most obvious pieces of advice — brew high-quality beer and brew as many entries as you can manage. Today, let’s begin to delve into some slightly less obvious aspects. Keep in mind that nothing in this article is the equivalent of a knock-out blow that works every time under every circumstance. Rather, this is a set of advice that — if heeded — puts you in a position where you have a better opportunity to seize victory.   [Read more…]