Year 3, Month 5, Day 12: Not Phrenology, Phenology

USA Today runs an article on phenology. Ominous:

As the climate warms, many plants are flowering 8.5 times sooner than experiments had predicted, raising questions for the world’s future food and water supply, a new international study concludes.

Higher carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels can affect how plants produce oxygen, and higher temperatures can alter their behavior. Shifts in natural events such as flowering or leafing, which biologists call “phenology,” are obvious responses to climate change. They can impact human water supply, pollination of crops, the onset of spring (and allergy season), the chances of wildfires and the overall health of ecosystems.

To better understand this, scientists from 22 institutions in Canada, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States studied 1,634 species of plants across four continents. They compared how plants responded based on historical monitoring data and on small-plot experiments in which warming was artificially induced.

Jeez. Nobody saw that coming, did they? Sent May 3:

It’s unsurprising that researchers studying the responses of plants to increased atmospheric CO2 found their predictions nearly an order of magnitude too low. The uncomfortable fact is that almost without exception, scientific forecasts have underestimated the magnitude, speed and significance of climate change and its effects. There are two important reasons for this disconnect.

The first is that scientific language is inherently conservative, striving for accuracy without emotion. A phrase like “statistically significant correlation” doesn’t immediately trigger anyone’s adrenalin — even when it’s linking greenhouse gas concentrations to a warming planet. The second is that scientific research is usually specialized, thereby minimizing the effects of interacting factors in a complex situation — and if any situation deserves the term “complex,” it’s global warming.

America and the world must mount a robust and meaningful response to the climate crisis, if we are to avoid a future full of unpleasant surprises.

Warren Senders

Year 3, Month 2, Day 7: Don’t Forget To Mulch

The Albany Times-Union runs another piece on the USDA hardiness zones:

Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture updated its Plant Hardiness Zone Map for the first time since 1990. This is the colorful map that is on the back of most seed packs that helps gardeners match their region’s climate to plants’ climatic tolerances.

The updated map has many new features, including finer-scale resolution and more interactive technology such as the ability to view specific regions by ZIP code. However, the most notable change is a nationwide shift in planting zones to reflect how climate change is altering our climate and plant-growing regions. The vast majority of the country finds itself in a warmer zone, including large areas of the Capital Region and the rest of New York.

This update makes concrete what many researchers have been saying for some time: that climate change is not just the province of the future.

I have a lot to do this evening, so I just re-used another letter on the same subject — rearranged all the words, used synonyms as appropriate, etc., etc., etc. Sent February 1:

The new map of hardiness zones from the USDA will probably make some gardeners very happy. What’s not to like about locally-grown mangos in Minnesota? But as we change our seed orders to reflect these new climatic norms, we need to remember that they’re only temporary benefits — and they aren’t unmixed blessings.

For every new tropical fruit or vegetable we can grow, we’ll lose some of the resilience and interconnectedness of our local and regional ecosystems. Beneficial flora and fauna may suffer from changing weather conditions or the introduction of invasive insects and plants from hotter regions (perhaps the most genuinely dangerous class of illegal immigrant).

The agricultural infrastructure which provides our corn and wheat is extremely vulnerable to the epiphenomena of the rapidly burgeoning greenhouse effect. The USDA’s map makes for pleasant contemplation in the short run — but the longer-term picture is not a pretty one.

Warren Senders

Year 3, Month 2, Day 2: By The Time The Jackfruit Trees Are Fully Grown, It’ll Be Too Hot

The Chicago Sun-Times is one of many papers noting the USDA’s new map of hardiness zones:

WASHINGTON — Global warming is hitting not just home, but garden. The color-coded map of planting zones often seen on the back of seed packets is being updated by the government, illustrating a hotter 21st century.

It’s the first time since 1990 that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has revised the official guide for the nation’s 80 million gardeners, and much has changed. Nearly entire states, such as Ohio, Nebraska and Texas, are in warmer zones.

The new guide, unveiled Wednesday at the National Arboretum, arrives just as many home gardeners are receiving their seed catalogs and dreaming of lush flower beds in the spring.

It reflects a new reality: The coldest day of the year isn’t as cold as it used to be, so some plants and trees can now survive farther north.

Short-term and long-term. Long-term and short-term. Yick. Sent January 27:

While gardeners in Northern parts of the country will welcome the USDA’ revised map of hardiness zones, the fact remains that any benefits from a changing climate are temporary. As the Earth’s atmosphere absorbs gigatonnes of carbon dioxide from our civilization’s consumption of fossil-fuel, the greenhouse effect will intensify, with potentially catastrophic effects for all of us.

Sure, growing figs in Boston will be fun (and tasty!). But as we smack our lips over the new local availability of produce that formerly traveled hundreds or thousands of miles to reach our stores, let’s remember: a rapidly warming planet is going to wreak havoc on our agricultural infrastructure; the monocropped farms providing much of America’s corn and wheat are vulnerable to the rapid temperature shifts and anomalous storms which global climate change will bring. The USDA map confirms that in the long run, we’re likely to reap a harvest of disaster.

Warren Senders

Garden Photos On The Way Out The Door

I am in the airport getting ready for the first leg of my India trip. I’ll be heading out in about two hours to Paris and from there to Mumbai. Concerts in Mumbai, Nasik and Pune, and some lec-dems & workshops. And some family time, of course. I’m told my daughter caught a cold — hope she’s feeling better soon.

Anyway, before I left I took some photos of the garden and thought I’d share them. This year most of the plants are doing very well. The squash vine borers attacked my zucchini and pumpkin plants and totally killed them — but for the first time left my tromboncino squash (waaay better than zucchini IMO) totally alone. I win.

The first pictures are from my front steps, looking out over the slope.

…there are some potatoes in buckets in the foreground.

Some vegetable porn:



…these will be orange pimiento peppers.


Now a new set of garden beds next to my garage, with some very productive tomatoes and peppers.

Coming along nicely…

And an amaranth plant, a volunteer from last year. I have an entire bed planted in amaranth but I forgot to take pictures of it. Too bad; the red plants are spectacular en masse.

And now, here are pictures of the container garden on top of our garage. This year I finished building a deck on this surface, and have moved almost all my other containers to be in the center of the space. The result is impossible to believe; we have a fabulous crop. For the next two weeks various friends will be picking, watering and keeping things going; we get back on the 25th, just in time for the really serious harvesting.

For some reason I can’t get photobucket to rotate these pictures so they embed correctly. Just turn your head 90 degrees, ‘k?


Cute little eggplants…

There is a karela vine in my greenhouse as well as several climbing the sides of the garage. They are producing very heavily. Good thing I like karela.

A Japanese karela. The Indian kind are rougher.

Ho Chi Minh hot peppers. Amazing.

Here’s what the garage-top garden looked like last year in early July. We’ve come a long way.

Year 2, Month 4, Day 30: Justice Delayed, and All That…


WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court appeared ready to rule that federal judges cannot set limits on greenhouse gas emissions, after a majority of justices suggested Tuesday that such disputes over global warming are better left to Congress and federal regulators.

I’m getting ready for the Violins concert and don’t have much time to devote to this letter, which is just a restructuring of yesterday’s to the WaPo on the same subject.

Sent April 20:

Judging from the Justices’ comments and questions during the Supreme Court’s hearing of AEP vs. Connecticut, it seems likely that the Judicial branch of our country’s government is going to be enjoined from addressing climate change in any substantial way in the immediate future. Yes, as Justice Ginsburg remarked, setting emissions standards is exactly the sort of thing that the EPA does, and in a properly functioning American democracy, the EPA would set and enforce those standards. But there’s the rub: our democracy is no longer functioning properly. When legislators disregard scientific expertise in favor of anti-environmental nihilism, disaster is inevitable; when corporate profits are more important than the continued maintenance of the earth’s biosphere, catastrophe is a certainty. While the court may deny the legal grounds for the states’ action, the fact remains that drastic reduction of greenhouse gas emissions is economically sensible, environmentally essential, and morally necessary.

Warren Senders

My Big Fat Garden Project

It’s Independence Day! And I’m just going to brag on my garden a little.

Our little household will never be able to get off the food grid entirely (can’t grow rice in the Boston suburbs! No room for the spaghetti trees!) but we’ve been getting better at it every year.

Let me describe our layout. We live on the side of a hill. 47 steps lead from street level to our front door. When we bought the house, the front yard was a very steep slope, covered with weeds and debris. There is a garage at street level, inset into the hill. When we bought the house, the garage had a peaked roof in wretched condition.

I started a garden four years ago. It took a lot of work. The weeds and debris had to go — and individual planting beds had to be made out of rock, rubble, and concrete. I mastered the technique of building a leaky stone structure (dig shallow ditch & fill with gravel; plop rocks and rubble on top of gravel; slap concrete on top of rocks and rubble; allow to dry; add more rocks and rubble; add more concrete; repeat until you’re at the height you want, then add soil) and at this point have fifteen or sixteen fully operational planting beds in my front yard.

My front yard during the off-season. Note the drip-irrigation hoses.

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