Labor Day is always a time to reflect and a bittersweet holiday for me. The length of the day is dwindling, twilight is now at 7.30 p.m. The seasons are in transition, the aging process is catching up with me and the summer that I love is coming to an end. The consolation prize is, of course, that autumn and some of the most beautiful days of the year are coming up next.
Aside from the seasons, the times are challenging. Regardless of political belief, the cacophony of conflicting viewpoints, general lack of courtesy, commitment to the common good and human goodness are deeply daunting. And the news around the world was terrible.
Weather events dominate the headlines, catastrophes range from Hurricanes Elsa, Grace, Henri and Ida to forest fires in the west. And of course it was hot, damn hot. In fact, July was the hottest July in the world, according to the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration. Many places also marked August temperatures as the highest ever.
The facts continue to pile up and point to climate change and all of its consequences. The August UN Climate Change Panel’s report concluded that the world will face more seismic disturbances for decades, if not centuries, to come.
How we as individuals deal with this news is both personal and political. Certainly farmers and gardeners will witness it day after day, season after season. As the weather becomes more unpredictable and wild rain and wind events become more frequent, growing crops in an already difficult environment becomes even more difficult.
For example, the climatic zones of plants have shifted dramatically in the last few decades. In 2012, the US Department of Agriculture compiled 30 years of weather data from 1976 to 2005 and published an updated version of its climate zone map – the first update in 22 years. The map confirmed warming trends with a number of zones adjusted north. The 1990 map defines Carroll County as Zone 4b (-20 to -25). In the updated version, our zone changed to 5a (-20 to -15). Note, however, that the data is now 16 years old. The next update will certainly bring another adjustment.
On the one hand, changing cultivation zones mean a longer vegetation period, later frosts in spring and autumn and the possibility of growing more fresh vegetables. But it also means that insects and plant diseases are moving in from the south, sometimes due to weather events. And even heat-loving plants like
Tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant can have too much of a good thing. Hot, humid conditions – extended daytime temperatures above 85, with nights in the 1970s – can lead to “flower drop” and, as a result, to a lower harvest.
Many breeders implement practices that do not solve these dilemmas but promise to mitigate their effects. These range from focusing on native plants, fighting invasive species, moving away from gas-powered machinery where practicable, composting household waste, and generally reducing the energy footprint by eliminating chemical fertilizers made from fossil fuels .
Carbon sequestration, the process of absorbing, securing and storing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, is most often discussed in relation to large forest landscapes, but is also relevant for agricultural fields and home gardens. According to ongoing work by the Northeast Organic Farming Association, two-thirds of the excess carbon in the atmosphere comes from land use changes caused by human activities such as deforestation, industrial agriculture, and desertification. The organization promotes soil carbon restoration as a way of mitigating climate change while increasing the safety of water catchment areas, ecosystems and food systems.
That means a lot, but important practices are minimizing soil degradation through tillage, soil cover, be it through permaculture or with mulch and green manure, and the promotion of biodiversity.
Building soils with carbon-rich materials also means better water storage and resistance to heavy rain events.
And ultimately, as any good gardener knows, soil matters – the key to healthy plants is healthy soil. Weather can vary, different plants thrive and thrive or take turns failing to germinate in a particular season of the year. In the end, however, a successful garden depends on the soil, and building it is a labor of love.
Healthy soil is a living universe, a complex mixture of minerals, air, water, organic matter, microbes and other organisms. It’s bursting with life and requires a lot of attention, work, supplements, and a tremendous amount of organic matter. It is a constant practice to incorporate leaves, hay, grass clippings, compost, fertilizer or to plant a catch crop.
But remember, time is on your side. It’s not about breaking your back while improving soil quality and fertility. Building soil is a process, an attitude if you will. As the gardening year progresses, there are all sorts of ways to add carbon rich materials, if you just keep it in mind. And frankly, with the ongoing barrage of bad news, the process, like gardening itself, is a healthy distraction.
Late summer and Labor Day are bittersweet times. The garden is in full production and the sunflowers are unbelievably large. But the seasons are in transition and summer is just around the corner. The consolation prize is of course autumn and some of the most beautiful days of the year.