Weather patterns continue to change
Welcome to another wild and crazy Kansas City winter. One day we set a record high, and the next, the bottom drops out and we are in single digits. Now this week the temperatures will be above average. We have always said, “If you don’t like the weather, give it a day and it will change.” If you are confused about the weather patterns, well, what about our poor plants?
The good news is plants in our garden and landscapes are smarter than we give them credit for. Plants go dormant in the fall as a result of cooler temperatures and shorter daylight. They remain dormant until they have overcome their chilling requirements and the warmer temperatures arrive. That, unfortunately, is where we are running into trouble with the above average winter temperatures. Once the plants have hit this threshold they are ready to grow. This explains why daffodils and tulips start to emerge so early. They have met the requirements for a winter slumber and are now ready for spring weather. This year, I noticed tulips starting to poke out of the ground prior to Christmas. Heck, my counterpart in Wichita already has daffodils in bloom.
The problem comes when the plants start to grow and then we have a cold snap that damages the tender growth. For the old-timers, remember the Easter weekend freeze of 2007? We had a very warm February and March, and plants were about a month ahead of schedule when a cold front blew in and killed many plants.
Then there was last year, when we were again about four weeks ahead of schedule, just like in 2007. But this time it stayed warm. The result was wonderful spring weather, which resulted in roses in full bud at a time they normally should have been pruned. So the real problem is the unpredictable and wide swings in weather patterns.
For those that follow climate change, one of the results is greater and more frequent swings in weather patterns, which not only include temperature but also rainfall and violent storms. As gardeners, I think we will continue to be challenged by unpredictable weather patterns more often in the future.
So what about the average frost free dates? Are these still a useful tool? Well, that is a really good question. Some would say that they are in dire need of updating. I have heard some reports that over the past few decades our area has added seven to ten days to our growing season. Currently, most of the area uses April 16 to 18 as the spring frost free date. It is important to remember that this does not mean the last frost, but an average (50%) of the time the last frost will occur at this time.
These dates are still our best guide, but as the conditions continue to change we may have to shift to a new paradigm. Should the real date be shifted up to April 9, or even earlier? Should we plant our tomatoes a couple of weeks earlier? Probably not at this point, but it is certainly something to consider as we watch the trends in the future.
Many ask me what I think the spring and summer will bring. Will we have an early spring? When will it rain? I have no magic answer, and my guess is really no better than yours. The only thing I can say for sure is that the parameters in which to garden are changing. Altering the frost free dates by a few days may work in most years, but then Mother Nature could step in and remind us of who’s really in charge. Of course we are not in charge. But isn’t attempting to fool Mother Nature part of the fun of gardening?