Changing Times

Spring forward; fall back, say phooey to the whole probably doesn’t save energy thing. Gardeners always know what’s what, daylight-wise, and no amount of fiddling with the clock can make any more of it.

We’re already hardwired to natural seasons. Winter – finally! – is for taking a break, though it’s work to resist catalogs in which every flower is blemish-free and every fruit delicious. Spring is for doing the monster sprint: move the stuff that wasn’t divided last fall, plant and plant, weed and weed and prune and pinch andthenthenextthingyou know, it’s harvest. Roast the summer tomatoes; freeze the succotash; move the tender plants indoors and get ready to get your jollies from things that grow in pots.

Only one problem: Whether you have the above hot-cold version, the western dry-wet or the tropical wet and more wet, seasons appear to be headed toward Hades in a globally warmed handbasket. Familiar rituals need adjustment.


What’s wrong with this picture ( other than the fact that real autumn leaves, having been hard at work all summer, don’t look as though they’ve had work done)?

Until this year, our record late date for nasturtium killing frost was October 6th, two days later than the previous record. This year, it was the 28th. Authorities quibble about how much longer the northern growing season lasts, but nobody has any trouble tacking a week or more on each end. And nobody ( unless you count the USDA) has any trouble seeing that most northern climate zones should have higher numbers than they did a decade ago.

Coping: Don’t assume this means you’ve been promoted. Zones measure only the lowest average winter low. That means little if there is also a 6 week warm spell that starts in mid-February and plunges to a frigid end after persuading your peach trees to start blooming. In the north, planting fruit trees on north-facing slopes is more important than ever. In the south, remember the zone range has a high end as well as a low one. Cold-loving plants like sugar maples and rhododendrons are now an unwise bet at the hotter end of their range.


Warmer weather means earlier leaf-out for many trees. That means spring ephemerals like this bloodroot – and crocus, narcissus and bluebells – may not get as much sun as they need to come back strongly year after year.

Coping: plant spring bulbs closer to tree’s drip lines, or out in the open. Consider limbing up – winter is a great time to look at the shapes of deciduous trees and think sculptural thoughts.


This Magnolia soulangeana was planted by an optimist, probably about 50 years ago, and was already huge when we bought the Hudson Valley house. In the old days, it was like Charlie Brown and the football, blossoms would start to unfold, a pink cloud on the horizon and then BAM! browned by frost, year after year. Not any more.

Coping: Fine to plant trees that were once marginal but do bear in mind that fruit-free male trees aren’t problem free. They don’t bear messy or smelly fruits, but they do add to the pollen burden, and allergy sufferers are already going to take a hit: increased carbon dioxide does great things for ragweed as well as poison ivy.

(The pruner is there to show how long the spears are; they were cut in the standard way: with a knife, under ground, to deny any passing beetles a place to land.)

Bill grew up knowing that “if the patch is strong, you can cut asparagus until the 4th of July.” Not true when you start cutting 2 or 3 weeks earlier than formerly. Going by the calendar instead of the size of the spears was never a completely wise idea, but now it would be a recipe for greatly diminished production if not outright death.

Coping: Stop cutting when new shoots start being thinner and fewer. Warm winters mean more asparagus beetles ( as well as every other wretched bug I can think of at the moment). Be sure to clean away old stalks and all surrounding debris; that’s where the eggs winter over.


What’s wrong with THIS picture? We don’t have that all many delphiniums. The bouquet is a consequence of a brutal rainstorm.

Coping: Delphiniums are famous for this, regardless of climate doings, but there’s no question summer storms are becoming stronger. Think carefully before planting things that are vulnerable to wind. Fertilize modestly; encouraging plants to be as tall as possible is no longer a good idea unless you’re fond of the staked-up look.


Storms are also a problem for brittle plants like tender fuchsias. The one on the left is inconspicuously anchored to the wall so strong winds won’t bust it.


This eye-catching fall display is pure genius on the part of the farmer. Not only does it announce abundance to passers-by on the busy highway, it’s also easy to cover on cold nights. Winter squash that is blemished by frost won’t keep. The grand assortment of squash that’s available at farmstands right now won’t keep either, btw; be sure to buy soon and store at home for the best flavor assortment.


It’s tempting to leave houseplants out as long as possible, especially when they’re protected by being close to the house. But if you plan to enjoy them indoors they need time to get adjusted to low light and dry air. Bringing them in when it’s still warm and bright enough to put them in an unheated sunroom or other transitional space will increase the chances that they stay strong, for when you need them most.



inside. Our friend from the window box. Passionflowers are particularly willing to do the in- and – out dance. Logee’s and Brushwood Nursery are among the many sellers with tempting assortments.


Daylight saving thought to live by: Every roasted or dried or frozen tomato you put by is saved daylight; as is every flower on winter’s amaryllis, there because the bulb was nourished by sun on last summer’s leaves.

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