Posts Tagged ‘weather’

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Dealing with Frost in the Adirondacks

Last night the Weather Gurus predicted a low of 25 degrees Fahrenheit for Newcomb. Brrr. In anyone’s book, that is chilly. Thanks to a wet growing season, followed by a very dry September, I find that my garden has needed very little in the way of frost protection. With the exception of a couple pumpkins, this year’s garden is unconcerned with crisp weather.

But perhaps your garden is a different story. Are you one of the lucky few who have tomatoes? Perhaps you have squash and corn still ripening. Or maybe you put in some late season veg, like kale or other greens. If you fit into this category, then you’ll want to be alert for freezing forecasts and ready to ward off Jack Frost.

Some veg are hardy and can take the cold. In fact, there are veg that improve with cooler temps, like carrots. Many a gardener has claimed that carrots only get sweeter with the cold. I’m testing this theory this year by leaving most of my carrots in the ground as late as possible. But other veg are more tender and in need of some TLC if they are to survive.

Over the last couple of years I’ve invested in floating row covers. These fibrous white sheets come in varying thicknesses depending on the amount of protection you desire. The thicker the cloth (heavier the weight), the more protection. This is beneficial for frost protection. Row covers also reduce light transmission, so in the springtime lighter weight material might be preferable so that the plants can get enough light to sprout and grow.

A cheaper alternative to agricultural row covers is bed sheets. Sheets, towels and blankets sprout in many a garden with fall rolls around. Like row covers, they are draped over plants and pots, keeping the frost from killing tender leaves and fruits. A key to remember here is that you don’t want your cover to touch the plants. The cover is acting like a roof and walls, keeping the warmer air of the day trapped around your plants, and keeping the cold air of night away. If the cold air can get under your blankets, or if your sheet is touching the plant beneath it, the cold can still cause damage.

Usually, though, I find that by the time killing frosts arrive, the thrill of the garden has faded somewhat. The novelty of picking beans and making tomatoe sauce has worn thin. I go out and drape tender plants with sheets, row covers, blankets, using clothespins to hold them all together, but if the frost sneaks in and kills the beans and tomatoes, I find I can get over it pretty quickly. Usually it’s the still unripe winter squash and pumpkins that that merit the most attention.

You could go the route of The Fan. The idea here is that the fan draws the warm air up from the ground and sends it out over your plants, displacing the colder night air. Or you could try misting your plants before night settles. There’s a claim that misted plants will develop an outer layer of ice crystals that will protect the rest of the plant from damage. Hm. Then there are smudge pots. These essentially create localized smog, which traps heat and keeps the plants from freezing.

If you have only a few plants that need protection, there are some nifty options out there that you can try. One is called a water wall. This plastic device is essentially a plastic cylinder that you place around your plant. The cylinder is made of pockets/tubes that you fill with water. During the day the water absorbs heat, which at night is released slowly, keeping the plant within its embrace nice and warm. At about $12 a pop, this can be expensive if you’ve got, oh, say 90 tomato plants to protect.

We used a similar but much cheaper option in the greenhouse where I used to work in New Jersey. We brought in our empty milk jugs and filled them with water. During the day the heat of the greenhouse warmed them up, and at night they released that heat, keeping the inside temps relatively steady as the outside temps fell. I’m sure it would work just as well in a garden, especially if you covered the plants and sun-warmed jugs with a sheet.

Straw bales can also provide your garden with some protection. Stacking up bales around your sensitive plants will block the outside air. Toss a blanket, or old window, or a frame covered with plastic, across the top and you have a temporary greenhouse (or cold frame) that will serve you well.

Gardening in the Adirondacks can be tricky even in a good year. With frost possible in June and August, we are left with only a few short weeks to breathe easily in the belief that our plants are safe. But with some careful planning (the selection of seeds and plants, the layout of the garden, the construction of cold frames, a collection of plant protectors), we can extend our season and eke a few more days or weeks out of our harvest. And if you really want to get into it, you can build a greenhouse, or a high tunnel system, that will permit you to have harvests all year ’round…but that’s another story.


Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Adirondacks: Off the Couch, Out the Door

Severe thunder storms. Stuck in the house. So what else is new this summer in northern New York? Now, nature addicts like me don’t mind a little rain. That’s what Gore-tex is for. But crashing branches and slashing lightning? No way am I hiking or paddling in that, and it’s driving me nuts.

Where comes this craving to be out in the woods in all weathers (except severe thunder storms or maybe freezing rain)? It started when I was just a small kid, maybe 9 or 10, growing up in a boatyard on a lake in Michigan, with a dad who had lots of chores for me and who wasn’t all that nice about getting me to do them. But he had taught me how to paddle. And a winding creek ran between our lake and another, the banks lined with marsh and forest. And canoes were there for the taking. I soon learned that two turns of the creek carried me beyond the sound of my dad shouting about unfinished work. So the woods and the waterways became my refuge, my place to get lost on purpose.

And so they still are. For 15 years I worked as a nursing assistant for Hospice, traveling all over Saratoga County to care for people in their own homes, people dying of every illness the human flesh can fail by. And I couldn’t fix it. Each day I had to walk into the heart of suffering. And stay there. Friends asked me, “How can you stand it?” One way was to go to the river, push off in my little canoe (a 10′ Hornbeck Black Jack, weighing 12 pounds), and as soon as I felt that smooth silken water bearing me up and smelled the sweet scent of mossy banks, I sensed that all was well. I could really believe that some great goodness lay at the core of creation, that death and change were just part of the scheme of things, and that all would be well, indeed.

It’s funny. I thought I’d enjoy such nature magazines as Outside and Backpacker, but when I leafed through a few issues, I found the articles were mostly about surviving nature — enduring thousands of mosquito bites, falling off cliffs, freezing in the mountains, struggling across deserts, that sort of thing: Nature as something that had to be challenged or overcome. Not for me. I preferred to go to nature for its power to heal. During my work for Hospice, I witnessed this power in the lives of others, as well. Let me tell you about two of these folks. While it’s true they both eventually died, I know that their final days were enriched by getting them off the couch and out the door.

Dan, a Polish-American retired paper mill worker, wanted nothing to do with me. No, he didn’t need a shave. No, he could shower without my help. No, he didn’t want to chit-chat. “Just siddown and be quiet. I wanna watch ‘The Price is Right’.” Now, to spend an hour doing nothing was bad enough. But to have to spend it watching “The Price is Right” — torture! So I busied myself making his bed and nosing about for something to read. And there on his bookshelf were several field guides for mushrooms. I interrupted his program: “Dan, do you like to hunt mushrooms? You know, we could go look for some.” It was late autumn. There might be a few late fruiters. Click! The TV went dark. “Could you really take me?”

Indeed I could. We drove to a site where he knew some Late Fall Oyster mushrooms might be found. While he sat in the car, he sent me off into the woods. It must have been angels (plus Dan’s good directions) that led me right to them. A whole bunch. I gathered a gallon or so, and you know, it might have been gold I laid in his lap, he was so delighted. And after that adventure, off we would go nearly every day until the day he died. He’d sit in the car with his oxygen tank (he had terminal heart failure), and we’d drive along the Hudson and Hoosick Rivers, visiting all the haunts of his youth. We found where he used to hide his canoe. We found where wild asparagus grew. He recalled how his father was gassed in the war. He remembered his mother’s struggles to run their tavern. He confessed how he started drinking young and how mean he had been to his wife when he was drunk. And he found at last the courage to ask for his wife’s forgiveness before he died. And he died in her loving arms.

Then there was Eleanor. I’m not sure what Eleanor’s illness was. Terminal crankiness, probably. She lived in an assisted living facility, very nice, lots of social events, classes, good meals. She never left her room. She wanted her meals sent up. She wanted her shades pulled down. The one pleasure she allowed herself was to sit on the porch in her wheelchair on pleasant days. One day I rolled her down the ramp: “Some Blue-eyed Grass is blooming near the parking lot,” I told her. She reluctantly consented. She had never seen (nor ever cared to see) Blue-eyed Grass, but that day her eyes were opened. A sea of radiant blue covered a vacant lot, studded with bright yellow Small Sundrops and snowy Wild Strawberry. “Oh my! How pretty,” she said (in spite of herself).

All summer we walked and rolled, on into the fall. If the day was rainy, she waited for me in her raincoat. She couldn’t get over the beauty of Blue Vervain (“How can that be a weed?”) or the tiny pink blossoms of Northern Willow Herb (“Wouldn’t they make a darling dollhouse bouquet?”) We picked gorgeous bundles of Panicled Dogwood (burgundy leaves, waxy white berries on hot pink pedicels) mixed with the dark maroon seed sprays of Curly Dock. Then we got in trouble for bringing in armloads of Goldenrod. Her daughter threw it all out: “Get those weeds out of here! They’re dropping pollen all over!” I heard that cranky tone and marveled: that’s how Eleanor used to sound. She didn’t anymore.


Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Adirondack Rain Brings Little Reflief From Drought

As I sit here this morning contemplating my Wednesday post, the rain seems to be at a temporary lull. During the night I awoke to the steady beat of the rain and even as I let the dog out (and later toweled him off), I smiled: we need this rain and it is very welcome.

Rain has always been something we took for granted here in the Northeast. Some years might have been rainier than others, but overall, our rain could be considered moderate. We had no really bad floods and no real droughts.

Until lately.

Since I’ve been living in the Adirondacks (I moved here in 2000), we have been in drought conditions. According to the government hydrologist person who came through the VIC a couple years ago, we’d been in a drought since the late 1990s. Hard to believe! But looking at the precipitation numbers this year, the reality is there to see.

This winter we had an average amount of snow, but it was below average in the amount of moisture in it. As a matter of fact, three of the last four months had the lowest liquid levels in the six years we’ve been a National Weather Service Co-op Station. May seems to be making up for it (closing in on six inches for the month), but one month of rain does not make up for an entire winter’s deficit.

Feast or famine – that’s the phrase that seems to describe the precipitation patterns these days. When it does rain, it often comes in buckets, sometimes up to several inches at a time. And while some people think this signals an end to droughty conditions, in fact it is usually very little help. This is because sudden heavy rains tend to become runoff – the dry ground cannot absorb it and it all heads downhill, filling ditches, streams, ponds, lakes. Flooding happens. Even my hometown, which has NEVER had a flood, found itself 1-2 feet under water a couple years ago – the flood of the century. People were fishing in the streets. Amazing.

So when we get gentle soaking rain, like last night (over half an inch), it is something to rejoice. I spent the last three days working in my vegetable garden and conditions were dry. Even with my dripper lines on four times a day, fifteen minutes at a time, the soil was rather dusty. With all my newly planted seeds, rain was needed, and it arrived just in time.


Sunday, May 17, 2009

Saving Fruit Trees from the Frost

The forecast says the low temperature tonight in Saranac Lake will be 22 degrees. The apple tree we share with a neighbor decided to bloom yesterday. What to do?

Since the tree has thrived at an elevation of about 2,000 feet for longer than anyone living in this neighborhood can remember, it must be a pretty cold-hardy variety. But a deep freeze at blossom time really threatens to thin the crop. So we called Bob Rulf, who owns Rulf’s Orchards, in Peru. He said it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to light charcoal in a couple of grills beneath the tree (this is a pretty big tree) and keep the smoke rising. Between 4 a.m. and 8 a.m. is the coldest part of the night, Rulf said.

The temperature is only supposed to get down to about 29 degrees in Peru, the more-temperate apple basket of the Adirondacks. Cornell Cooperative Extension advises that when an apple blossom is tight and in the pink it can stand 30 degrees F for an hour; when it’s wide-open white it can stand 28 degrees for an hour, which seems counterintuitive, Rulf said.

His orchard is not equipped with wind machines or any large-scale equipment for dealing with frosts, so he’ll take his chances with the apples. However Rulf does plan to tow a furnace around the strawberry patch tonight with helpers riding along to blow hot air on that crop.

Photograph: Our apple tree in bloom


Sunday, May 10, 2009

Adirondack Gardening Dilemma: Timing Seed Planting

This spring has many of us North Country gardeners in a quandary: do I put in my peas yet or not? The rule of thumb here in Newcomb is not to plant before Memorial Day Weekend, but this year the weather has been so balmy so early that we are itching to get those early veggies started.

Seed packets come with instructions like “Plant after all danger of frost has passed,” or “Plant as soon as the ground can be worked.” The latter applies to peas. And with the scorching weather at the end of April, it was really really hard NOT to plant – I had to keep telling myself, “It’s still April.” And even though peas and spinach are cool weather plants, killer frosts and even snow are not out of the question.

I ran into a neighbor that last weekend in April and we immediately started talking peas. He said that if he could get his tiller going that day, he’d plant his; I heard the tiller rumbling the rest of the morning. And I hear that the doctor over in Long Lake put his peas in, too. I decided to spend the day prepping my veg beds instead, getting ALL of them ready for planting a little later in the season.

Last Sunday, as the weeding continued, I uncovered a whole bowlful of leftover potatoes in one of the beds! Mmmm – fresh potatoes in May! I even have undug onions and last year’s leeks resprouting! We’ll see if they grow into edible bulbs.

Meanwhile, every day the tomatoes are getting a bit taller in the kitchen, and the squashes I started are, eh, doing so-so (I was a bit over-anxious and started them a wee bit too soon). The flower seeds I started a week or so ago are sprouting now, too.

So, we wait and practice patience. Still, there is something appealing in being able to plant the garden BEFORE the blackflies come out!


Monday, April 20, 2009

A Dry White(water) Season

Low snowpack and scarce April showers have led to burn bans around the Adirondack Park. The drought also has river paddlers wandering, searching for streams pushy enough to float their colorful little boats.

“Whitewater kayakers are being forced into summer habits of traveling downstream, unfortunately by car, to seek water levels suitable enough to sink their paddles in,” writes Jason Smith, on Adirondack Lakes and Trails Outfitters blog. “The Hudson River along with the Moose River, in the central Adirondacks, offer reliable spring flow and are popular spring runs. But even these mighty rivers are running lower than usual. . . . [D]on’t be alarmed if you see a vehicle loaded with short, plastic kayaks driving aimlessly around your neighborhood.”

Other Adirondack critters known to crave a good spring rain are amphibians. In Paul Smiths, in the high-elevation north-central Adirondacks where ice was still on ponds as of Thursday, wood frogs and spotted salamanders began to move on a warm rainy night about two weeks ago, observes Curt Stager, professor of biology at Paul Smith’s College. The cold-blooded creatures live buried in the forest floor most of the year, braving exposure to predators and car tires on rainy April nights to travel to the ephemeral ponds where they breed. Peepers, American toads and other frogs and salamanders also congregate at waterholes this time of year.

Showers Saturday gave creeks and rivers a noticeable boost. The last two weeks had brought snow and then unrelenting sun. “They [herps] have been dribbling around. It was an early start and then it got cut off by the dry weather,” says Stager, who studies local phenology. “Every year is a little different in the Adirondacks. You’ve got to watch it for decades to notice a real pattern.”

High/dry kayaker sketch courtesy of Jason Smith



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