(Micro)climate Change

As the train rolled southbound along the east bank of the Hudson River, I took in the varied landscapes along the opposite west bank. Spilling down the slope to the river on that bank at one point was what appeared, from a distance, to be a vineyard. I was envious.

(I never could understand why the region here is called the Hudson Valley. Along much of the Hudson, the land rises steeply right up from river’s edge. Where’s the valley?)

I wasn’t envious of the riverfront site of the vineyard property. I wasn’t even envious of having a whole vineyard  of grapes. (I cultivate about a dozen vines.)

What I did envy was the microclimate of the site. Microclimates are pockets of air and soil that are colder, warmer, more or less windy, even more or less humid than the general climate, due to such influences as slopes, walls, and pavement. 

The vineyard was not that far from my home, but the microclimate was worlds apart. Every parcel of land, from a forty-acre farm field to a quarter acre lot, will have some microclimates, and siting plants with this in mind can spell the difference between whether or not they thrive or even survive. Microclimate, early tulipsI’m banking, for instance, on the slightly warmer temperatures near the wall of my house to get my stewartia tree, which is borderline hardy here, through our winters. (It has.) And I expect spring to arrive early each year, with a colorful blaze of tulips, in the bed pressed up against the south side of my house. Proximity to paving also warms things up a bit.

Microclimate for cold, microclimate for warmth

Microclimate isn’t always about trying to keep a plant warmer in winter, or speeding up growth in spring. It’s also useful for keeping plants cooler. By training my hardy kiwifruit (Actinidia spp.) vines right up against the shaded, north sides of their hefty supports, I keep the sun off their trunks in winter and avoid the splitting that occurs when trunks are warmed during winter days, then precipitously cooled as the winter sun drops below the horizon. Microclimate, lingering snowBy planting the coveted blue poppy in a bed on the east side of my house, I hoped to give the plant the summer coolness that it demands. (That east bed was still too sultry; the plants collapsed, dead.)

Microclimates are important when growing fruit plants that blossom early in the season because frozen blossoms do not go on to become fruits. Early season bloomers need microclimates that are slow to warm up.

South facing slopes stare full face at the sun, so these slopes warm up early in spring and are warmer in both summer and winter. Therefore, a south facing slope—even if the grade is only slight—can be used to hasten fruit ripening on a plant like persimmon, which blooms late but needs a long season when grown near its northern limits.

Right after I push soil over the first seeds of sweet corn that I plant, I firm it over that hole with my foot at an angle to make a south-facing depression in the ground. That mini-slope will warm up just a wee bit sooner than flat ground.

The sun glances off north slopes, delaying their warming in spring and keeping them cooler in summer. Such a microclimate is ideal for an early blooming fruit tree like apricot or peach, and for plants, such as sweet peas, that enjoy cool summer weather. Likewise ideal for such plants is near the north side of a building, where shade remains through winter and the early part of the growing season.

If a slope actually has some elevation to it, the air is going to cool by one degree Fahrenheit every three-hundred feet going up the slope. If I had sloping ground, which I don’t, and sought a cooler location for planting, I’d avoid planting at the very top of the slope, though, because the upper reaches are usually windy.

A cold spot, here

Ideal vineyard site, from plant perspective, in Germany

Counterintuitively, the very bottom of a slope will also be a cooler microclimate. On nights when the sky is clear, with no clouds or leafy trees to block re-radiation of the sun’s heat from the ground back to the heavens, the air at ground level cools. An “inversion” occurs, with warmer air higher up. The cold air, which is denser than warm air, flows downhill to settle into depressions, just as a liquid flows downhill. A low point would be the worst possible location for planting strawberries, which grow near ground level and whose early blossoms are threatened by late frosts in spring. Any dense fence or shrubbery on a slope stops the downward flow of cold air, which will pool, just as dammed water would, near the upper side of the barrier.

Among the fruits I grow are apples, peaches, plums, and pears, all of which tend to bloom early. My site, unfortunately, is just about the worst possible site for growing these fruits. Apple blossomsThe cold air that settles here on clear spring nights increases the likelihood of late frosts and also causes moisture to condense on the plants, leaving them more susceptible to disease. Hence my envy for that sloping vineyard site.

Check out my new book, The Ever Curious Gardener, for more on microclimate!!


Microclimates, Here, There, and Everywhere

    Mark Twain wrote that “Everyone complains about the weather but nobody does anything about it.” I’m going to step up to the plate and do something about it — not the climate but the microclimate. “Microclimate” is the very local weather. And I do mean “very local,” as, for example, right around a particular plant.
    Different microclimates exist all around my property — and yours. Near the south wall of my brick house for example, winter low temperatures don’t plummet nearly as low as they do, say, 30 feet away from the wall. The bricks are very good at absorbing the sun’s heat, then let it slowly ooze out after nightfall. Near that wall is where I’m planning to plant out a Kadota fig tree now dormant in my basement. (Come late fall, after harvest, I’ll dig up the tree with a good root ball and return it to winter quarters in the basement.) 

'Surround', a white clay, sprayed on apples

‘Surround’, a white clay, sprayed on apples

    On the other side of my house, where sunlight can’t fall in winter, days and nights are colder than the general temperatures, and remain colder from spring through fall. Near that north wall, then, would be a good place to plant an apricot or peach tree to delay unfolding of their blossoms, which otherwise open so early that they often succumb to subsequent spring frosts. Dead blossoms mean no crop for that season.
    Apricots and peaches, like most fruits need sunlight to fuel the most flavorful fruits. Although areas near the north wall are shaded — and hence cooler — in winter, from spring through early fall the sun wraps enough around the sky from the northeast to northwest corners to cast its light there.
    Other influences on microclimate include fences, land sloping in various directions, paved areas, plant or built windbreaks, and changes in elevation.

(Micro)Climate Modification

    Much of what I have planted, including many fruit plants, are nowhere near fences or paving, and my land is mostly flat. It is lowland, in a valley, and cold air, which is heavier than warm air, collects in this low spots, to threaten the blossoms on my fruit plants with late, killing frosts.
    Mark Twain notwithstanding, I’m going to try doing something about the weather — the microclimate, in this case — on plants nowhere near walls, fences, or paving.
    Enter ‘Surround’, the trademark name for a special formulation of kaolin clay. This product was developed about 30 years ago mostly as a nontoxic way to thwart insect pests. It’s especially useful for controlling plum curculio, a pest of plums, peaches, apples, and some other fruits; curculio isn’t easily controlled by other organic methods.

'Surround'  spray on blueberries

‘Surround’ spray on blueberries

   Kaolin is white, so when a sufficiently thick coating of ‘Surround’ is built up on branches, they appear white. Old Sol’s rays just bounce off white surfaces, the surfaces, in this case being the buds of fruit plants. So the buds stay cooler, delaying bloom, hopefully until after threat of frost has past.
    I’ve already given the plant a couple of coats of ‘Surround’, and they already have a sun-drenched, gray-cast, Mediterranean look to them. A couple more coats will make the visual effect more dramatic, both to me and Ol’ Sol, and will get a jump on curculio control.

Awake too Soon

    Downstairs, in the basement, things are not as quiescent as hoped. That’s where the figs, pomegranates, and mulberries are spending winter, the cool (45°F) temperature holding back growth. Or so I thought.
    One plant, Pakistan mulberry, has decided to awaken. This mulberry is a species of white mulberry (Morus alba) that differs markedly from the white mulberries you see here. Pakistan is only about as cold-hardy as fig (which is why they share winter quarters in my basement) and bears a very delicious, dark purple fruit up to three inches long!

'Pakistan' mulberry

‘Pakistan’ mulberry

    Pakistan evidently has a low chill requirement, that is, it does not take much cold for it to feel like winter has ended so it can begin growing. Different plants have different requirements for the number of hours of chilling, which is temperatures between about 30 and 45°F., they need to be exposed to before they can begin growth for the season.
    I may have to move the budding plant into the greenhouse where it really is spring, with temperatures at least into the 70s on this sunny day.