Two new climate reports indicate what gardeners may expect in the future

In the past week, two new major climate reports have been released. One is the latest (6th) report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the other is the State of the Climate 2020 report. Of the two, the IPCC report has garnered a lot more press, but both are compilations of work by hundreds of scientists looking at recent weather and climate patterns and how they are affecting us here on earth. The IPCC report also provides projections of what the future climate might be like, using a number of assumptions about how the earth behaves, which can be difficult, and how humans respond, which is arguably even tougher to determine. In this post, there is no way that I can cover both sets of reports in meaningful detail and I won’t address how we need to address the rapidly changing climate here, but I do want to try to pull out some things that you can use as gardeners now. {Note, the pictures are ones I have taken myself on recent trips to use as eye candy!}

What do the new reports tell us?

The State of the Climate 2020 report, published jointly by NOAA and the American Meteorological Society, focuses on global climate events that happened in 2020. You can read some of the notable findings from the report at my blog. The report also discusses many of the “big” climate events of 2020 and puts them into historical context, including how frequently these extreme events occur and how the changing climate is making them more likely.

The United Nations’ IPCC 6th Assessment Report presents similar information but also makes more explicit the cause of the warming, which scientists have known for well over 100 years has been caused primarily by human emissions of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that trap heat near the earth’s surface. The IPCC report makes it clear that the rapid pace of the warming will cause severe changes to the earth’s climate that will be difficult for humans and ecosystems to adapt to.

What do the conclusions of these reports mean for gardeners?

Here are some of the changes that we will have to adapt to in the future:

  • Rising temperatures across the globe—Temperatures are rising across nearly all the globe, both on land and in the oceans. Warmer temperatures mean warmer winters, hotter summers, and longer growing seasons. They also mean more increases in both evaporation from water surfaces and more evapotranspiration from plants, resulting in increases in water stress. That means you may need to water more often or use other techniques like mulch to preserve soil moisture. You may also need to switch to more heat-tolerant species as the USDA plant hardiness zones shift north (in the Northern Hemisphere). It may become harder to work in the middle of the day when it is the hottest.
  • Rising temperature leads to rising humidity levels, at least where there is a source of water vapor nearby. The higher humidity is contributing to higher night-time temperatures, which puts stress on animals living outdoors (pets, livestock, and wildlife) and also stresses some plant species. It can also lead to more clouds, which reduce direct sunlight and cool the air but also reduce solar radiation available for plants, slowing their development. You may have to manage your gardens for more diseases that are related to the high humidity levels.
  • Some areas like the northern US may see more rain, while others like the Southwest become increasingly dry. Year-to-year variability in precipitation is also likely to increase, with both more floods and more droughts. In both cases, water management of your gardens will become increasingly important, with the heavy rain events causing more erosion and the potential for loss of plants and trees from too much water and not enough air in the soil, and the longer dry spells making gardens more dependent on either drought-tolerant species or more frequent irrigation. You may have to put in rain gardens to help slow the movement of water through your gardens in heavy rain.
  • With the rising temperatures, frost and snow will become less likely but will still occur (there will still be winter!). This will allow you plant earlier than in previous decades but will still make the plants vulnerable to late-season frosts.
  • Increases in carbon dioxide may provide some fertilization of some plants, but only if there is enough water available for growth. Since some weedy species are more efficient at using carbon dioxide than other plants, you may need to deal with more weeds and invasive species in the future than you do now.
  • Strong storms like hurricanes and derechos may occur more often and be more damaging than the ones we are already seeing now. The research in this area is less definitive than that for rising temperatures because there are many different factors that go into storm development, but scientists generally agree that the number of hurricanes seems to be climbing upward and that the seasons are getting longer. In addition, the storms appear to be moving slower, and that is likely to lead to more rain from the storms over a specific area and more likelihood of rapid storm development. If you live in an area that is prone to strong thunderstorms or tropical cyclones, you may see them more often and the season may start earlier in the year. Rains and winds are likely to increase, leading to more tree damage and flattened plants.

Will we be able to see these changes over the next few years?

Year-to-year variations in climate will continue to plague gardeners, since whatever happened last year is unlikely to occur again this year. The climate naturally varies over time and space as well as exhibits these long-term changes. That means it can be hard to see the creeping trends in temperature and precipitation in the noise of yearly climate swings. If you are only worried about next year’s garden, what is happening in 50 years may not be of much interest. But if you care about your children’s gardens and their future on a warmer earth, than it is something these two reports make clear we have to think about and do something about.

Personal note: This week I was also invited to participate as an author on another upcoming large climate report, this one the 5th National Climate Assessment (NCA) that focuses on changing climate in the United States. I will be one of a number of authors contributing to the chapter on the Southeast US. If you are interested in what the content of that report includes, you can view the 4th National Climate Assessment, released in November 2018. There are chapters for each section of the country, but also chapters that deal with economic sectors like water and agriculture. The 5th NCA will update the information in the previous version as well as add additional information based on scientific studies completed since then.


The State of the Climate report in a peer-reviewed series published annually as a special supplement to the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. The journal makes the full report openly available online, here. NCEI’s high-level overview report is also available online, here.

Sixth Assessment Report, Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis is now out The report addresses the most up-to-date physical understanding of the climate system and climate change, bringing together the latest advances in climate science, and combining multiple lines of evidence from paleoclimate, observations, process understanding, and global and regional climate simulations. Get more information including links to the press release and some videos here.

Garden Logic – understanding correlation and causation in our gardens and landscapes

This home landscape is managed using science-based methods; the only routine additions are water and arborist chip mulches.

Upon reading this post’s title, you may be inclined to stop right there. (That’s why I have an eye-catching photo to lure you in.) While logic may seem irrelevant to your enjoyment of gardening, I can guarantee that reading this blog post will challenge many seemingly logical assumptions you’ve heard or read about. Recognizing unsubstantiated assumptions and avoiding their pitfalls means you can make wise choices about how you care for your gardens and landscapes.

You can find this and thousands of other silly correlations at

A few definitions are needed before we get started:

Correlation refers to variables whose changes mirror one another. For instance, the addition of nitrogen fertilizer to container plants is correlated to plant growth: as nitrogen levels increase so does plant growth. You can also have inverse correlation, where the variables move in opposite directions. An example is water availability in soil and planting density: the more plants you have in a specified area, the less water is in the soil.

Plant growth is correlated with increased nitrogen and other nutrients (from Xu et al. 2020)

Causation takes correlation one step further: it establishes that one of those variables is causing the change in the other. Using the same examples, we know through published evidence that the increase in nitrogen is causing the increase in plant growth, and the increase in planting density is causing the decrease in soil water because of competing roots. These relationships are obvious to us, but what’s important is that these causative effects have been established through scientific experiments.

Inverse relationship between planting density and soil water content (from Shao et al. 2018)

Sometimes scientific evidence doesn’t exist to demonstrate causation. That may be because it’s impractical or impossible to run an experiment that tests for a causative effect, or it may be because the experiments just haven’t been conducted yet. The latter is the unfortunate reality for those of us interested in managing gardens and landscapes: there is no major funding agency that supports field research for us. There is research being done, but it’s on a small scale with a shoestring budget…so the body of literature develops very slowly. In such situations, we must rely on established applied plant physiology and soil science to ask whether a suggested correlation might be elevated to causation.

Something caused these arborvitae to fail…but what? Research is slow to catch up to our observations of landscape failures.

Which brings me to my current source of online irritation: the constant blaming of tree failure on mulch volcanoes. Yes, tree failure is definitely correlated with mulch volcanoes – because lots and lots of newly planted trees fail. But is the mulch to blame? No one seems to care much that there is NO published work to show that mounds of appropriate mulch materials will somehow kill otherwise healthy trees. Instead, observers jump to the conclusion that thick layers of wood chip mulch kill trees. They are elevating correlation to causation in the absence of either experimental research OR known plant physiology. In fact, there is published research to show that thick layers of arborist wood chip mulch enhance tree establishment and survival. And there are many poor planting practices that increase the likelihood of tree failure. But it’s easiest to blame the wood chip mulch, though it’s merely masking a multitude of planting sins.

Not interested in mulch volcanoes? Well, there are lots of other examples of garden and landscape management practices or phenomena that fall into the logical fallacy camp. I’ve linked to appropriate references, when available, that go into more detail:

All of these products, practices or phenomena are correlated with some anecdotal observation (increased yield, healthier soil, plant failure, etc.) that elevates them to causative relationships. But no science.

I’d encourage you to think objectively about your closely held beliefs about your gardens or landscapes. Are you sure that what you’re doing is actually beneficial? How do you know there’s a cause-and-effect relationship? I’m not going to talk you out of your cherished beliefs – but if you are a science-based gardener, you might talk yourself out of them instead.

Willow screams in pain
What is its source of anguish?
More research needed!

Counting the Days to Maturity: Calculating planting dates for fall vegetables

While most of the US is still seeing sweltering hot temps, the cool temps of fall and winter aren’t really all that far away for those of us unlucky (or lucky) enough to not live in a tropical climate.  The tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and other warm-season crops planted back at the beginning of summer are still puttering along, even if they might be getting a little long in the tooth and starting to look a little worse for wear ( especially if disease has ravaged them).  For those who aren’t quite done with gardening for the year or who want to reap the bounty of fall crops and get the most out of their production space, fall gardening can be a great tool to extend the garden season.  But knowing when to plant what is tricky, especially when we are talking about different weather patterns and frost dates all around the country.  So a bit of weather data, info from the seed packet or label, a touch of math, and a calendar can be great tools to figure out when you can plant no matter where you are.  Of course if you do live in one of those warmer tropical areas your planting calendar is kind of turned on its head from what us more northern gardeners face. You may prefer to time your planting to avoid high heat. 

The first thing to think about is what you can plant.  Cool-season crops such as the Cole crops (cabbage, kale, broccoli, etc.), leafy greens (lettuce, spinach, Bok choi, etc.), root crops (radishes, beets, turnips, scallions), and some cool weather loving herbs like cilantro and parsley are all par for the course for a garden going into cooler fall and winter temps.  Depending on when you have extra space in your garden to plant and how long your growing season is you can often sneak in a late planting of fast-growing warm season crops to mature before the last frost.  Beans, cucumbers, and summer squash all have varieties that are fast maturing and can be started mid-summer for an early fall harvest.  Unfortunately, as of this writing the window for those warm-season crops has passed for me, but others in warmer zones may still have time. 

One question I get asked often is whether you should start indoors or out. I always tell folks that for things normally direct-seeded, like beans or lettuce, sow as normal. For things that are normally started indoors, the choice is yours. Cole crops are started indoors in spring because they need warmer temps to germinate. Since it is hot outside, you won’t need to grow them indoors for the heat (though it may be too hot outdoors if temps are over 85). You can start them in containers in a protected area outdoors instead of trying indoors. Theoretically you could direct seed them into the garden, but management is difficult to keep them watered, weed-free, and alive out there in the cruel garden world.

To know what you can plant and when, the first bit of info you’ll need is from the seed packet or label (or do some research if you know the cultivar/variety).  You’ll want to know the “days to maturity”, which is an estimate of how long it will take to go from seed (or transplant) to edible crop.  For those warm season crops, you might want to shop around because those days to maturity can be wildly variable – you can find beans that mature in 60-65 days and some that take 100+.  You’ll want to choose faster maturing varieties. 

Assuming that you’ll want a harvest window longer than a day and given that plant growth slows down as temperature cools (respiration is temperature dependent so plant processes slow down as temperatures drop), you’ll want to add a few weeks to the maturity days to take that into account.  This should be sufficient for cool season crops that will survive well past the first frost and freeze dates.  The aim for cool season crops is to get them close to a mature size before cold weather sets in since their growth will slow down at that point.  For warm season crops you’ll want to add a little more time to provide a cushion against frost which will kill the plants.  For info on killing temperatures of certain crops, check out my previous article here

Graphical user interface, text, application, email

Description automatically generated

For example, if I wanted to plant Asian Delight Bok choi (I fell in love with it when I trialed it for the All-America Selections program) I’d see on the packet that it has an average maturity time of 37 days (which is pretty damn fast).  My math would be:

37 days (to maturity) + 14 days (harvest period) + 14 days (fall factor) = 65 days

Next, you’ll need to know a bit of weather data – more specifically the expected date of your first frost/freeze.  You can find this on the website of your local National Weather Service office, or get an idea from the map below. (This data is usually updated every decade or so – you’ll want to check it every few years for updates as the dates have been changing due to climate change.) The date ranges given are usually a median, meaning that half of the frost days fall before and half fall after the given dates.  Keep that in mind – sometimes frost will come earlier or be much later.

I live in Omaha, Nebraska so our median frost date (according to the map) is Oct 10.  Now I know that I need to plant my Asian Delight Bok choi 65 days before Oct 10.  I can grab a calendar and count backward from October 10 (or I can cheat and use an online date calculator like this one) and see that the suggested planting date is August 6.  Since I missed it by a week I can decide if I want to gamble a little and still plant since I know that it could very well frost later than Oct 10 and that the Bok choi will survive much later into the season anyway.  But it gives me an idea of what to expect. 

Had I wanted to plant something like beans for a late crop, my calculation would have definitely shown me that it was too late, letting me know that I shouldn’t waste my time.  For example, Blue Lake beans take around 55-60 days to mature (almost twice as long as my Bok choi), plus I need to add that extra 14 days for the frost factor meaning that I would have had to plant 97 days before first frost, which would have been in early July for me. 

You can extend the time you have for growing fall crops by using season extension techniques like row covers, low tunnels, cloches, etc.  For row covers, the materials you buy such as the spun fabric row cover will offer a certain number of degrees of protection.  For example, a medium weight row cover might offer 8 degrees of protection, meaning it will be 8 degrees warmer under the cover than the air temp.  Keep those in mind when planning your fall garden.  Perhaps we’ll have to talk about those in another article soon. 


Fall Gardening (Nebraska Extension)

Fall Vegetable Gardening (Virginia Cooperative Extension)

Fall Frost Info (

Diagnosing Abiotic Disorders II

In this blog I continue to examine maladies caused by environmental conditions in the absence of a disease agent or insect.

Salt affected plants show damage to older leaves starting from the edge of the leaf and moving inward.

Salt in soils or water is simply the presence of too many soluble ions in the soil-water solution. This tends to happen in dry climates where evaporation rates exceed precipitation rates. In these climates salts accumulate in soil when surface waters pick up minerals from soil that is high in precipitated salts. In wetter climates water leaches salts from soil so surface waters (rivers and lakes) have fewer dissolved salts. Also, in dry climates irrigation is often a must and irrigation sources usually have high amounts of dissolved salts. In high salt environments plants must use energy to increase their own salt balance at the root interface to make uptake of fresh water through their membranes possible. This energy is thus not available for growth. Salt affected plants are often smaller, even stunted depending on salinity levels and are more susceptible to root pathogens as their roots are more likely to be “leaky” giving pathogens chemical signals of their susceptibility.  Salt damaged leaves often show “edge” necrosis or burning on the oldest leaves.

Salt affected soils should not be allowed to dry out as roots will be damaged. Leaching to dissolve salts and move them below the root zone is one approach to prevent further symptoms.

In this soil salts have precipitated on the soil surface because evaporation exceeds precipitation

Soil compaction
Soil compaction is the increase in soil bulk density beyond a point where roots function and grow. Bulk density is a measure of soil compactness and is calculated as the weight of dry soil per volume. Optimal and harmful bulk densities vary by soil texture. Sands have higher bulk densities than loams which are higher than clays in their growing range. Normal bulk density for a sand will be a compacted value for a clay. Values above 1.1, 1.4 and 1.6 g/cm3 can be restrictive for roots growing clays, loams and sands respectively. Compacted soils of any texture restrict plant growth. Stunting, poor growth and nutrient deficiencies due to loss of root function are common.

Compacted soils do not drain well and do not infiltrate (take in water) easily. Even small tree wells such as this one Kiev, Ukraine will not drain if soils are physically compacted by driving over them

Extremes of light
Light is necessary for photosynthesis but it is also a radiation source that can include damaging light energy when it reaches tissues that are not accustomed to it. This happens frequently on over-pruned or damaged trees, where the canopy is suddenly reduced and stem tissues receive intense sunlight. On thin or green barked trees this can cause sun scald. Apples are particularly sensitive and will develop large cankers on upper branch surfaces if too much light is allowed into the canopy during summer. Canopy loss compounds light injury because the tree is not cooling itself as efficiently with fewer leaves. Infrared energy (heat) builds up on branch surfaces and can kill underlying stem cambium layers.

Extreme light during drought can cause damage to stems and leaves. the damage is often centered in the middle of the lamina (leaf blade) or along exposed stems with green bark

Low light levels also harm plant productivity. All trees tend to lose interior branches as normal growth increases canopy density and light levels decrease in the innermost canopy. Inner branches store less and less energy and essentially die due to light starvation. The same thing can happen to entire trees if they are overgrown by vines, other trees or shaded by buildings. While canopy thinning will preserve inner branches, it is not absolutely necessary as branch dieback is a natural process in most trees.

Effects of Herbicides  Sometimes herbicides cause damage to non target plants.  This happens when herbicides are applied unknowingly, such as residues in composts, drift from off-site applications, or by choosing the wrong herbicide to use in a garden setting.  Herbicides affect plants in different ways: some only affect tissues they contact, others are systemic, and some affect seeds as pre-emergent herbicides and have activity in soil over time.  Diagnosing herbicide damage often requires sleuthing and inquiry of what has happened in the past and what materials your neighbors may be applying.  As with any pesticide, herbicides should be applied according to label instructions. 

Glyphosate the active ingredient in Roundup herbicide causes stunting and distortion of rose leaves. The symptoms can persist for many years.
In conclusion…Disease diagnosis can be a challenge for the gardener and dysfunctions caused by abiotic factors are no different. Carefully considering the symptoms that the plant presents is the first step to recognizing an abiotic disorder. Uniformity of symptoms is often indicative of disorders not caused by biotic pathogens. As with any plant health issue, figuring out the cause is the first step in helping plants succeed.


Costello, L., Perry, EJ, Matheny, NP, Henry, MJ, and PM Geisel. 2003. Abiotic Disorders of landscape plants a diagnostic guide. ANR publication 3420 University of California, Communication Services, Oakland CA.

Manion, P. 1981. Tree Disease Concepts. Prentice-Hall Inc., 399pp.