A climate-wary gardener in a very weird spring



We’re deep into spring – never mind the calendar – and it’s a weird one. At the close of March, my lawn is 4th of July green, some trees are blooming, most shrubs have leafed out, and my kids have already played in the sprinkler. It’s enough to make anybody happy! But if you think about climate change, as I think most everyone around here has in recent weeks, it’s enough to give you the creeps. And if you’re a gardener, like me, it’s enough to set your teeth chattering. Because gardening, for all its year-to-year variation, is about working within familiar seasonal rhythms. And I confess I’ve lost the beat.

Growing pains of the growing season

The seed packets I order each year in late winter tell me to plant certain cold-hardy crops “as soon as the soil can be worked,” which in my central-New England neck of the woods tends to mean late March, at best. But this feeble winter never fully took and spring seems to have nudged it out of the way weeks ahead of schedule. In early February, for instance, we dug a nice hole and buried Polly the guinea pig unimpeded by frost; and by the first week of March, I decided to embrace the bizarre and plant my early spring crops: carrots, peas, greens, a few others. Now, this is dicey – my crops are fully exposed to the whimsy of the day-to-day weather. But I’m a gardener: the sun shineth, the soil beckons, I’m programmed to get out there and dig. And if the underlying New England climate keeps up its Mid-Atlantic impersonation, my kids will be munching snap peas in no time. Oh Joy! Oh dread.

There’s just no denying that if you stood outside on almost any recent March evening in New England, taking in the green, the sounds of birds, the kids in shorts, you could be forgiven for thinking it’s May. I love May. By contrast, I’ve never liked March. “Mud season,” gray, raw, little sign of life. But the absence of March this year, or its brief appearance in February’s time slot, has me thinking about what this time of year is about. Here in New England, March feels like nature’s chance to sit in bed with a cup of coffee for a few minutes, gathering itself, getting organized, before facing the busy day. Unlike “spring creep,” where the season gradually arrives earlier in the year, the nature outside my back door seems to have leaped out of bed and kept running. I don’t know what repercussions come from such an accelerated start to spring, but I’m certainly wondering – about this year and those to come.

Spring fever spikes in March

Everyone around here seems to have their testimonials about what a non-winter and weird spring we’re having – maybe you do, too? – and global warming is either blamed outright or insinuated with raised eyebrows and shaking heads. There was the t-shirt weather in February, the mosquitoes that local Facebook friends began sounding off about the first of March, the photos of month-early bulbs shared by friends, the kids swimming in our local pond the first day of spring, and the throngs at the beach as temperatures headed deep into the 80s.

We can take our pick; none of it makes for a scientific assessment. Nor will you find climate scientists laying specific weather events at the feet of climate change. The warmth this month, however, has taken the climate and meteorological worlds by storm, breaking thousands of temperature records here in New England and across much of the country – and in lots of cases shattering them by many degrees. My favorite is from Rochester Minnesota, where the low temperature on March 18th (62 degrees) was higher than the previous record high temperature for that day (60 degrees). As Heidi Cullen, a climate scientist formerly with the Weather Channel, reflected “It’s hard to grasp how massive and significant this is.” With so many large anomalies all heaped up like this, it helped my spinning head to read Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in a new article: “The answer to the oft-asked question of whether an event is caused by climate change is that it is the wrong question. All weather events are affected by climate change because the environment in which they occur is warmer and moister than it used to be.”

Beyond the climate data, I’m really curious to see a round-up, later this year, of data on first bloom, leaf-out, and other key seasonal indicators. If other states are getting their spring on like Massachusetts, we’ll be crushing phenology records, too.

Gambles, big and small

Now, people can certainly roll with this – there are harder things than putting up with pleasant spring weather and unexpected flowers. But it does make me wonder about the rest of the season, and next year, and beyond. If climate change is starting to show some of its cards, what else is it holding? When will it play them? And which ones can we still win back?

Back in my garden, everything I planted in early March is coming along nicely. And I’m thrilled on one level. (Arugula in April!) But frankly, I think I’d be happiest with a few good frosts. My gamble wouldn’t have paid off, but a shaky sense of normalcy would be restored: the return of spring, less one very weird March.

About the author: Erika Spanger-Siegfried is a senior analyst in the Climate & Energy program at UCS.