Archives for posts with tag: microclimate

At breakfast last Saturday morning (pancakes and eggs at our favorite local joint), we started in on early planning for this year’s garden.  The first thing we concluded is that we are not really early.  By some reckonings, we should have sowed seeds for thyme last month and could be starting other herbs right now.  The second thing we concluded is that, once again, we are behind schedule.

Luckily, the choices of what to plant this year were relatively easy decisions even though a fair amount of thought went into each one.  We started with the list of plants we grew last year and then applied a few different criteria to assess their success.

The most important criterion for each vegetable is our answer to the question, did we like it?  It doesn’t matter how well it grew or how much it produced if, at the end of the day, we won’t eat it.  Of last year’s crops—those that actually yielded fruit—the only one that did not absolutely thrill us was the Aunt Ruby’s German Green tomatoes.  They were not bad, per se, but they didn’t leave us wanting for more.  Consequently, we will not grow them again this year.

There was one plant whose fruit we could not taste.  The Delicata winter squash did set fruit—several of them—but was not able to develop any of them to maturity.  And that leads to the next criterion, performance.  Plants that did not thrive last year may not be suited to our particular microclimate.  Then again, we may not have given them what they needed, either.

So, what besides the Delicata did not perform?  Well, the Kabocha winter squash produced only one specimen by the end of the year and it was a small one at that.  That’s two strikes against the winter squashes and based on this meager showing, I was tempted to say that we should try other varieties this year or skip them altogether.

However, roasted with a little olive oil and salt, the Kabocha squash was absolutely delicious.  It passed the first criteria with flying colors even though it showed weakly on the second.  Similarly, although we were not able to sample the produce of our Delicata, it is one of my favorite varieties (we often buy it at the farmers’ market).  Therefore, we will try the Delicata and Kabocha squashes again.

The next criterion then is, why did these vegetables underperform?  My best guess is that we underfed them.  I haven’t reported on last year’s testing yet (look for a future posting) but soil properties are a definite suspect.  The areas we planted with the squash were newly formed last year and have not had much chance to stabilize.  This spring, we will probably need to enrich their soil and fertilize them more frequently.

The same could be true of the summer squashes—both the yellow crookneck and pale green zucchini—and the cucumbers—one a pickling variant and the other a slicing type—all of which we planted in more or less the same area (the ground surrounding the planters) and with roughly the same soil (equal parts of compost and peat moss).

Despite these similarities, however, their performance was quite different.  Three of the four summer squash vines were hugely productive (especially the alpha crookneck; see August 6, 2013) whereas the cucumbers produced only a modest quantity of fruit before fading away in mid-summer.  Two other factors could account for the differences.

First, the amount of soil we introduced for the cucumbers was much, much less than for the squashes.  This is partly because of their location between the pool fence and planters but mostly because the cucumbers were the last seedlings we planted.  By that time, we were tired!  Our native soil is rocky and very difficult to dig but we will have to face up to doing more of it this year.  Adding to and amending the soil will be an early spring chore.

Second, the cucumbers were stricken hard by powdery mildew and once afflicted, perished rapidly.  It is not clear (and probably never will be) whether this was due to their undernourished state or simply because the varieties we planted are more susceptible than others to powdery mildew.  The squashes, on the other hand, seem better able to continue to produce after contracting the disease.  Each of the squash vines was still setting fruit into the fall.

Both of these are factors we can mitigate—or try to mitigate, anyway—and so we will plant both types of summer squash and both types of cucumbers again.  To help control the powdery mildew (which is endemic in the northeast), we will plant in new locations.  I will also arm myself with a spray bottle full of baking soda solution which I will apply early and often.  With diligence—and luck—we will have more squash and cucumbers than we can eat this year.

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After an unusually warm July, we’ve been experiencing a strangely cool August.  It is great for sleeping (no need to run the air conditioner) but it is not so good for the garden.  The humidity remains high (unavoidable in the northeast in summer) and, consequently, there is a heavy dew every morning.

Anyone growing cucurbits (squash, cucumbers, melons) knows that these conditions are conducive to powdery mildew.  And the evidence in our garden is proof.  The leaves of all of the squash plants—summer and winter—are covered with the white fuzz.  It seems to be increasing daily, almost as I watch, despite periodic (but, admittedly, infrequent) milk sprays.

Luckily (and so far, so good), the mildew has not affected squash production significantly.  New leaf growth is still quite strong, there are plenty of blossoms and the pollinators have not been interrupted.  We will still be eating squash for a few weeks (at least) to come.

Where powdery mildew seems to have the greatest negative impact is on the older end of the vine, nearest the roots.  This portion of the vine has already produced fruit and its leaves would be dying back anyway.  However, the mildew seems to speed up the process.  The question has now become, will the rate of mildew progress overtake the vine’s growth?

The song of the 17-year cicadas is starting to wane.  It is not nearly as loud as it was just a week ago.  Then, the sound was the first thing we heard in the morning and couldn’t be ignored.  Now, we have to stop and listen for it.

But the cicada population is extremely localized.  We’ve heard that their numbers are greater across the river, for example, and that their music is cacophonous and distracting.  Also, the ground is littered with cicada carcasses there, both alive and dead.

Closer to home, a garden center a couple of miles down the road from us (to the south) is located in a cicada hot-spot.  The drone is still loud enough to feel as well as hear.  Also, their nursery, with its vast expanses of shrubs, hanging plants and potted seedlings, is thick with cicadas bumbling around in their clumsy way.

These large bugs are not the best fliers and will literally bounce off the walls or alight on a customer’s brightly-colored shirt.  And each plant purchased comes with a complimentary cicada or two, free to take home.

We’ve been starting to think about this year’s garden which is the first step towards actually doing something about it.

When planning at this early stage, the milestone that comes up most often is the average date of last frost.  Seed choice, time of sowing, period of hardening off, and date to transplant all work backwards (or forwards) from this important seasonal transition.

So, when is it?

In the old days, we would ask an old-timer or consult an almanac.  I don’t know anyone around here who falls into the former category but there are a variety of almanac websites (and, presumably, one can still buy a print version), most of which provide a list of cities and dates.  Looking at the Farmers’ Almanac, for instance, I found a map of the US and after clicking on New York, a short list of cities popped up.  The nearest to us is Albany for which the average last spring frost is May 2.

That was very simple and convenient but Albany is significantly farther north than we are.  Also, the notes indicate that there is a 50 percent chance that frost will occur on a later date, which sounds risky.  With further research, I thought I might be able to determine whether the risk of frost—with a higher confidence level—might be expected to end earlier.

Other websites attempted to refine their estimate by combining information from several nearby cities, based on our zip code.  For example, Moon Garden Calendar presented data for Poughkeepsie (to the north of us) and Yorktown Heights (to the south).  For a 10 percent probability of exceedance (the site allows a choice), the dates range between May 14 and April 29; a linear interpolation would give us May 7.  At Dave’s Garden, three cities were presented (Mohonk Lake and Middletown, both across the river from us, and Poughkeepsie) and their information was averaged for me.  The “almost guaranteed” date after which frost will not occur is May 4.

These dates still seemed late to me so I went looking for other sources.  I next tried the Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE), which provides a map on which rough contours have been plotted.  Based on this map—which is extremely low in its resolution—we are on the border between a last spring frost in the range of April 30 to May 10 and April 20 to 30, with proximity to the Hudson River clearly accounting for the latter zone.  We are in a transitional area with a microclimate that depends not just on the river but elevation as well.  Apparently, I needed a more detailed map.

A little web searching led me to PlantMaps.  This site is a great example of a geographical information system (GIS), where a lot of available information is linked to a physical location.  In this case, after entering my zip code, I was presented with a zoomed-in interactive map of New York hardiness zones (see July 28, 2011), along with a list of other available maps, among them a Last Frost Date map.  I clicked on this link, and was directed to another color-coded contour map.

This one appeared to be in greater detail than the CCE version—after all, it is powered by Google Maps—but the problem with it is that because of all of the detail (roads, terrain, satellite imagery, etc.), the contour colors are difficult to match with the legend.  As best as I can tell, we are located somewhere between a last frost date of May 1 to 10 and April 21 to 30.  This is essentially the same result as before but with higher resolution.

Which should not be a surprise.  The source cited by all of these websites is the National Climatic Data Center, a part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  They maintain data for a long list of locations in each state, compile and average them, and maintain contour maps that present the information visually (the raw data is also available in text form).  Their map (which is low resolution, just like CCE’s) puts us squarely in the May 1 to 15 zone of last spring frost; the nearest city listed in their database is West Point, with a last spring frost date of May 3.  The Farmers’ Almanac had it right after all.

Based on all of this, we are approximately 14 weeks before the last frost.  Therefore, we’re already behind!  Of course, I knew that before I even started this exercise.