Do you use predictions of seasonal climate to plan your garden work? Or are you frustrated because they don’t seem to be very useful? I’ve been getting a lot of complaints this year about how bad the climate forecast for winter was because what we have seen so far has not matched the predictions in many parts of the country. Let me take a few minutes to explain how they are made and what you can learn from them.
First, let me specify that I am not talking about long-range climate forecasts for 50 years down the road. Nor am I talking about weather forecasts for the next week. I am talking about the forecasts that cover the period from about 15 days to 3 months, which climatologists call the “seasonal to sub-seasonal forecasts”. These are the kinds of forecasts that say “Winter is likely to be warmer and drier than normal” or “Get ready for a big warm-up in the next month.” They can be useful in planning garden work a few weeks ahead, but they come with caveats.
Unlike weather forecasts, there are only a few models that predict climate in the monthly to seasonal time period. That is because we can’t just run the weather models out four to twelve weeks and expect to get anything like real weather. The weather models are built to handle short time steps and detailed information about temperatures, rainfall, and all the other factors that make up your daily weather, and to do it fast enough that you can actually use the forecast to decide when to wear your raincoat. They are useful out to about a week, but then their accuracy starts to break down because there are too many things going on around the globe to capture accurately over time, and so the short-term models tend to drift away from reality the farther from “now” you get. Models for monthly to seasonal climate tend to be based not on dynamical atmospheres like weather models but on statistics.
NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center (https://www.cpc.ncep.noaa.gov/) is the biggest provider of seasonal forecasts, although there are a few others out there. This year we are in a La Niña, and so most of the seasonal forecasts have been based on that affecting our climate this winter. I won’t discuss La Niña here today (that is a topic for a future post, perhaps) but you can read a good general description at https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/ninonina.html. The basic patterns of La Niña affect the temperature and precipitation across the United States in fairly predictable ways, and you can use statistics to show these patterns. You can see some examples of how La Niña has affected past winters at https://www.weather.gov/mhx/ensoninaanomalies. This year, the primary predictors of the winter climate have been the La Niña and the persistent trend that we are seeing towards warming temperatures due to greenhouse warming. From a statistical standpoint, it made great sense to predict that this winter would be warmer and drier than normal in the southern US and colder and wetter than normal in the north, because that is statistically the most likely pattern to expect in a La Niña winter, even when the climate is trending warmer over time.
So why did it not work this year? Because statistics can’t account for rare events that don’t follow the expected patterns. At the end of 2020 the atmosphere over the North Pole experienced a Sudden Stratospheric Warming (SSW), which means that the atmosphere about 10 miles above the North Pole suddenly got much warmer than usual. That messed up the usual distribution of temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere and helped push the really cold air to the south. It also pushed the winter storm track far south of where it usually occurs, making this a very wet winter in the Southeast, which is not what we expected! My farmers are not happy, but at least it means less likelihood of drought this summer. You can read more about the SSW at https://climate.gov/news-features/blogs/enso/sudden-stratospheric-warming-and-polar-vortex-early-2021. It might happen only once every ten years, or the cold air might just get pushed in a different direction next time, missing you and your winter garden altogether. Since the models are based on statistics, they will always show the most likely pattern, and instead we might experience winter that happens just once in ten years. Not so different that being the lucky person who gets rained on when the National Weather Service predicts just a 10 percent chance of precipitation!
The good news is that we are getting better at these sub-seasonal to seasonal predictions, and we can expect to see improvements in the future as computers become more powerful and we have more experience looking at these periods. But for now, statistical models will continue to control the predictions at these intermediate periods, and we will continue to see the occasional miss when an unusual weather event occurs.
Ah, summer – vacations (pre-COVID), swimming pools
(pre-COVID), ice cream, vegetable gardens, and, in many places, really high
temperatures. These things all go
hand-in-hand (or at least they did before the pandemic). Many gardeners feel
that the heat of mid-summer goes hand in hand with garden production; those
high temps driving production on those fruiting plants like tomatoes and
peppers. But…..could they be wrong?
We’ve had lots of extra hot days this summer in Nebraska, so it stands to reason that we should have really great production on those garden favorites like tomatoes, right? Then tell me why our extension office has received numerous questions this year about why tomatoes aren’t setting on or ripening. Heck, we even had a Facebook post about tomatoes not ripening in the heat go viral (well, for our standards – 300,000 views/2,000 shares). Could it be a disease? Nope – it’s the heat. High daytime temperatures can have a big effect, but the effects are compounded when nighttime temperatures are high as well.
It turns out that high heat does two things in many of those
fruiting vegetables (and of course fruits) that we grow. First, it inhibits pollen production, which
in turns reduces fruit set. Second, heat
inhibits gene expression for proteins that aid in ripening/maturation of the
fruit. Heat stress also reduces
photosynthesis (Sharkey, 2005) in many different plants, which would slow down
plant processes (such as fruit development and ripening) as it reduces the
availability of sugars to fuel these processes.
So high heat can not only reduce the number of fruits developing on the
plant, but also slow down the ripening process for fruits that have already
set. And if you think that these effects
only happen at super extreme temps, most of the research studying temperature
effects of this nature use a common “high ambient temperature” of 32°C/26°C
for daytime/nighttime temperatures. For us U.S. Fahrenheit-ers, that’s 89.6°F/78.8°F,
which isn’t really all that hot for most of us.
Many studies show that application of this “high ambient
temperature” to crops such as tomatoes, beans, and corn during the
pre-fertilization phases of reproduction (ie – flower/pollen development) can
negatively effect fruit set. The
introduction of Porch and Jahn (2001) gives a pretty good overview of
literature detailing the effect in beans (Phaseolus vulgaris). I’ll sum it up here: heat stress while the
pollen is forming (called sporogenesis) led to pollen sterility and failure of
pollen to release from the anthers (dehiscence). It also led to flower abscission (basically
the plant aborts the flower) and reduce pollen tube formation (how the pollen
nucleus gets through the stigma to the ovule for pollination) when applied
during the period of pollen sac and ovary development. And application during flower opening
(anthesis) resulted in pollen injury (sterility) and reproductive organ
abscission. All of these effects lead to
reduced fruit/seed set in beans. (Interestingly,
heat stress at the ovary development phase also led to parthenocarpy –
basically the pods developed, sans seeds, without fertilization).
However, we get the most calls about tomatoes (they’re the top crop for most home gardeners). Is it the same issue? Yep. Numerous studies (Sato, et al., 2000; Pressman, et al., 2002; Abdul-BAki, 1992) show the same effect in tomatoes. Pressman, et al. (2002) linked the effects on pollen to changes in carbohydrates in the anthers (reduced starch storage and carbohydrate metabolism).
To add insult to injury, high temperatures also slow down or stop ripening of crops like tomatoes. Picton and Grierson (1988) found that 35°C (95°F) temperatures altered the gene expression in tomato fruits – inhibiting the expression of polygalacturonase, which softens cells walls, allowing the fruit to ripen. Reduced photosynthesis would also reduce the availability of sugars for fruit development and ripening.
But there’s hope, both this season and in the long term! The effect on the plants is not permanent. When temperatures drop below that “high ambient temperature” threshold pollen production, and therefore fruit set, will return to normal (as long as the plant is healthy). Sato, et al. (2000) found that pollen release and fruit set resumed within a few days after heat stressed plants were “relieved” and temperatures dropped back into the optimal range of 26-28°C/22°C (78.8-82.4°F/71.6°F). So many of those plants will become productive again (good news for my own tomatoes and beans, which had an initial flurry of production then went on vacation), especially as we head into fall. And efforts are under way to develop and test heat stress resistant cultivars.
This last point may be more important than you realized. These production problems plague many areas
around he world at current climactic norms.
Many fear that increasing temperatures will limit the productive
capacity of many areas of the world that are already struggling. It is easy to see how the difference in just
of just a few degrees can take your veggie production from prolific to paltry.
You can also try to reduce the heat a bit yourself for an immediate fix. Shade cloth can help reduce temperatures a little bit, which may make all the difference in your garden if you’re just slightly over the “high ambient temperature” threshold.
But in the meantime, if your vegetable garden has taken a summer siesta it will get around to producing again one day. You’ll just have to take good care of the plants in the meantime. And perhaps it’s a blessing in disguise – when its that hot I don’t want to be out working in the garden much, either.
Abdul-Baki, A. A. (1992). Determination of pollen viability in tomatoes. Journal of the American Society for Horticultural Science, 117(3), 473-476.Porch, T.G. and Jahn, M. (2001), Effects of high‐temperature stress on microsporogenesis in heat‐sensitive and heat‐tolerant genotypes of Phaseolus vulgaris . Plant, Cell & Environment, 24: 723-731. doi:10.1046/j.1365-3040.2001.00716.x
Pressman, E., Peet, M. M., & Pharr, D. M. (2002). The effect of heat stress on tomato pollen characteristics is associated with changes in carbohydrate concentration in the developing anthers. Annals of Botany, 90(5), 631-636.
Sato, S., Peet, M. M., & Thomas, J. F. (2000). Physiological factors limit fruit set of tomato (Lycopersicon esculentum Mill.) under chronic, mild heat stress. Plant, Cell & Environment, 23(7), 719-726.
Sharkey, T. D. (2005). Effects of moderate heat stress on photosynthesis: importance of thylakoid reactions, rubisco deactivation, reactive oxygen species, and thermotolerance provided by isoprene. Plant, Cell & Environment, 28(3), 269-277.
While we can’t ever
control or even predict the weather, in most places it is important to have a
plan on how to deliver water to our home gardens during the hot, dry months of
the summer. Aside from reducing water
need through some good management practices, delivering water in an efficient
and sustainable way is important when planning and planting our home
When there is
scarcity, it is necessary to conserve. Several years I got to see scarcity in
person on a sustainable agriculture tour of New Mexico. Farmers in New Mexico have only limited
access to water from irrigation canals, to flood irrigate their fields, or even
wells for drip irrigation.
This severe lack of
water got me thinking about how much we take water for granted in our own
gardens. We often apply as much as we
want or need in an inefficient manner (using sprinklers, sprayers, etc.)
because we think it will always be there when we turn on the tap.
Where I’m located in
Nebraska we are also blessed to have water falling from the sky. Sometimes
there’s too much, and at others there’s not enough. But that’s much better than
in some places – I visited some parts of New Mexico on a farm tour where they
get seven inches of rainfall in a normal year. Seven. Total.
conserving what water we have means that we are good stewards and are ready for
when issues do arise. And let’s face it, there are some times in the summer
that are dry where water conservation will help reduce using water, which can
also save money.
When we talk about
conserving water, there are two ways to go about it. First, look for ways to
reduce the need for water. Then, look at ways to reduce water waste and usage
whenever you need to use water on your lawn, landscape or garden.
Reducing the need for
During dry times, it
can be necessary to provide water to the garden to keep it growing healthfully
along. However, there are many ways to reduce water loss or increase the amount
that stays in the soil around the plants.
Mulching not only
reduces weeds, but also helps hold moisture in the soil. Having one to two
inches of mulch on landscape beds can reduce evaporation from the soil and
decrease the amount of water you need. Newly planted trees should be mulched
for the first few years to help hold moisture in the root zone as well.
Mulching is also important in the vegetable garden. Using straw or shredded newspaper are simple ways to conserve moisture, beat weeds and even reduce diseases. Note that this is shredded newspaper used on top of the soil for a mulch, not whole sheets applied below another mulch or on top of the ground. That process is called “sheet mulching” and we typically don’t recommend it here at the GPs because it limits air movement into the soil and can disrupt the soil microbiome. Stick only to shredded newspaper as a top dressing. (See the bottom of the article for journal articles discussing paper and straw mulches).
You can use woodchip
mulch in the vegetable garden, but it can be difficult to manage when you are
frequently planting, replanting, or harvesting crops. If you accidentally incorporate it into the
soil, it can tie up nitrogen available to plants and cause deficiencies. As long as you are good at keeping it on the
surface, it isn’t as much of an issue.
Large scale gardens or
farms make use of black plastic as mulches to do much the same thing. Plastic mulches
are typically beyond the scale needed for home vegetable gardens and have their
own set of drawbacks such as limiting water and air movement, but for those struggling
with difficult weeds or with issues limiting manual removal (disability,
limited movement, etc) it may be explored for smaller scale production. There
are now even biodegradable plastic and paper mulches available. Use of these
does require drip irrigation beneath the mulch, as rain cannot penetrate to the
root zone. With the issues associated with them, plastic mulches would be
considered a last resort for all but the largest home vegetable gardens, and
many of my GP colleagues recommend against them for all home garden situations –
but they can have their very limited place in the home garden toolbox. And we definitely recommend against the use
of plastics and landscape fabrics in ornamental beds and landscapes.
Choose plants that
require less water. There are many plants available that have lower water
requirements. Ornamental grasses, Liatris (blazing star), Kniphofia (red hot
poker) and sunflowers come to mind. Most native plants are commonly thought to
have lower water requirements, but this isn’t always the case and natives may
not thrive in altered ecosystems (urban settings or even managed landscapes).
Most bulbs also are water efficient and do not require extra watering, as are
most culinary herbs.
Mowing less often in
the hot and dry summer also can conserve water if you are one who waters the
lawn. I’m not a big fan of watering lawns, since it is such a large water usage,
but I know there are those who prefer to have their lawns lush and green at all
times. Instead, when the summer gets hot and dry, leaving the grass on the
taller side can help it stay green even without water. Many of the grasses we
grow here are cool-season and go semi-dormant in the heat. Stopping mowing when
the heat starts slows down growth and the need for water.
When it comes to
getting water to the garden, there are definitely more efficient ways to make
most common method — using sprinklers — is also the least efficient. It is hard
to direct the water to the right place, and during periods of high heat
evaporation takes up much more water than you think. But there are ways to get
water to your thirsty plants without running up the water bill.
Drip irrigation is probably
amongst the most efficient and sustainable ways to water your landscape or
vegetable garden. This method allows you to apply water directly to plants in a
controlled manner, rather than spraying an entire area with water. Also, since the water is applied directly to
the ground rather than sprayed through the hot summer air, the water is much
less likely to evaporate.
There are a few
different types of drip irrigation systems available. Probably the easiest to install is a drip
tape system. This is a deflated tape
that already has water-emitting slits cut into it. While each slit applies a precise amount of
water over a given time period, the pre-determined regular placement of the
slits makes this system better for plants grown in rows, like vegetables,
rather than landscapes where plants are of differing sizes and spacing. And while it can be used for vegetable gardens,
probably the easiest system for a landscape would be one where there are tubes
you can cut to various lengths and insert controlled drip emitters at
customized locations. Another use for
this type of drip irrigation could be for containers on a porch or deck – you
can easily run the tubing out of sight along a bannister or railing and direct
individual emitters to individual containers.
It all sounds
complicated, and larger systems can be, but there are small and simple kits you
can easily find at many garden centers or online retailers available for home
gardeners to install their own within a matter of hours. You will need to have
some skill at reading directions to install them, but the process is pretty
For information on
setting up drip irrigation for your home garden, check out these great
resources from Extension institutions across the country:
Soaker hoses are a
similar concept to drip irrigation, but instead of small drips these hoses just
emit water all along the hose. Still better than sprinklers, these hoses are
quite a bit less efficient than drip, since you can’t direct the water exactly
where you want it. They are also easy to
apply too-much water to an area since they can emit large volumes. Installation
is pretty simple, though, since you just lay the hose down where you want it.
One great benefit of both drip irrigation and soaker hoses is the application of automation. Using a timer can make it easy to keep the garden watered through the season. Timers can be as simple as a dial to manually run the irrigation for a specified time or fully automatic to run the irrigation for various lengths of time on different days of the week. Some more advanced timers also have rain sensors or soil probes to reduce or avoid running when rain makes watering unnecessary (if you don’t have a sensor, remember to stop automatic running until the soil has dried). And in today’s emerging technology, there are also timers or flow controls that can be automated or controlled from a phone app. The timer that I’m now using at home connects to my Wi-fi, and in addition to allowing me to control and observe the watering status from anywhere in the world, connects to local weather data to automatically set a “smart watering” schedule taking into account rainfall, temperature, wind speed, and other factors.
Another effective way
of providing water to your garden is through water catchment. Water catchment is just a fancy way of saying
that you use a rain barrel. Here you are collecting rain runoff to use in place
of water from the tap. There are some ultra-low-flow drip irrigation systems
that you can use with rain barrels (if they are raised high enough to get water
pressure), but this use is usually for watering by hand. For larger gardens,
the large IBC totes that hold 200 or more gallons can make good water catchment
barrels. Just make sure that if you are
using them (or any other barrel) for fruit or vegetable production that they
are made of food-safe plastic and their previous contents were also food safe. (Check out our guide on Building a Rain Barrel)
Except for areas of the US that are more tropical like southern Florida or Hawai’i, most gardener’s planting schedules are set around winter weather and the possibility of frost or freeze. And even for gardeners in those more tropical areas, planting sometimes needs to be planned to schedule around the extreme heat of summer. Understanding these planting times can really lead to success or failure, especially for vegetable gardens, tender annuals, tropicals, and non-dormant perennials. There are a few tools that help us understand weather patterns and predict critical temperatures for planting, namely the USDA Hardiness Zone map and the Average Last Frost/Freeze dates. The USDA Hardiness Map shares data on what the average coldest temperature is, which is key for selecting perennial plants that you want to survive the winter. However, to know when to plant we look at the average freeze and frost dates. There seems to be a little bit of mystery, and even confusion, around the dates and how to interpret them, so let’s take a little time to understand them a little better. And since my background is in vegetable production, I’ll share a bit more detail there in terms of plants – but you can translate the information to ornamentals, especially those that are frost tender pretty easily.
Understanding Average Last Frost Date
What is the average last frost date and how is it figured? The average last frost date is exactly what it says it is – the average date at which the probability of frost has diminished. Just how diminished really depends on the source, so we’ll follow up with that in a bit. The data is computed by NOAA (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration) and the National Weather Service to determine the probability of temperatures relating to frost and freezes based on weather data for an area over the last 30 years. They compute the likelihood of a light frost (36 F), frost/heavy frost (32 F), or freeze (28 F) at three different probability levels – 90% (the temperature is very likely to happen), 50% (the possibility is 50/50), or 10% (the temperature is unlikely). This tool from NOAA provides a chart with probabilities for locations throughout each state.
This data is typically collected and analyzed every ten years or so. I’m not exactly sure when the last data was analyzed, but I did find some maps on the NWS referencing the period 1980/81- 2009/20 (below). Therefore it is likely that new data will be released either this year or next year.
Temperature hardiness of common vegetables
Awareness of tolerance is especially important for vegetable crops, as the growing season and expected productivity of the plants. The following chart is a general guideline, and your mileage may vary based on cultivar difference, microclimates, and other factors. Also note that these temperatures are for both planting in spring and fall kill temperatures. Some of the more tender plants, like tomatoes, may withstand colder temperatures when they’re mature so they may be less susceptible to frost at the end of the season vs. the beginning of the season.
Season extension techniques, such as row covers can be used
to protect tender plants in the spring and extend harvests in the fall. Row covers can be selected by the degrees of
protection they deliver. For example, a
row cover may offer 4 degrees of protection.
This allows the protected plant to withstand air temperatures 4 degrees
colder that what it would unaided. For fall crops, note that plants may stop
growing well before the kill temperature but will hang out in “stasis” until
they are killed. The above NOAA chart provides probabilities for both spring
and fall – allowing you to not only plan for spring planting but also for fall
crops. For scheduling fall crop planting
dates, find your first frost date, count backwards the days to maturity (from
the seed packet or tag), and add a few weeks for a harvest window and for the
slowing growth as temperatures drop.
The Problem with Probability
These probabilities are based on past weather data, so keep
in mind that these dates are used as a prediction not as a guarantee. It is especially important to remember this
as weather uncertainty increases with climate change. Last frost could occur well before or even
well after these predictive dates. This
also begs the question – which probability should you use? Looking around at different sources, you
might find sources that use either the 50% or 10% probability statistic, and
there seems to be a bit of disagreement as to which one should be used. Based on the data for my region, I’ve seen
sources share both dates. It really
comes down to how much of a gamble you want to take or how much you want to
push up harvest or maturity. If you plant
on the earlier 50% probability date you may end up having to cover the plants a
few times to protect them from frost.
But each day that passes means that the chance of frost or freeze
Whenever I give a talk here at home in Omaha, I often ask my audience to guess what the average last frost date is for planting. Invariably, the answer I get is Mother’s Day…which I guess works as a guidepost in general. However, looking at the data (below), we can see that the 10% probability date for a 32 degree (killing) frost is May 4. The light frost date is May 11 – plants may be damaged but not killed unless they’re very tender. And the 50% probability date for a killing frost is actually April 21, which is the point where the probability of frost is 50% each day (and the probability shrinks each day.
Sometimes produce growers may opt to go early to get vegetables to market – which extends the sales season and allows them to charge a premium price if no other growers are selling. Season extension techniques like high tunnels have also pushed back farm production dates. As climate change makes weather more unpredictable, we may all be finding ways to alter the growing season as a norm rather than an exception. Until then, we’ll rely on the data we have to make the best predictions.