The Wolf Moon was full yesterday. Being full on the 5th, this is a rather late Wolf Moon; it feels more like a Snow Moon — which isn’t full until March this year. And yet, this very late Wolf Moon is, nevertheless, decidedly lupine.
The period of the Wolf Moon is the coldest time of the year in the North, and this year Nature is taking that seriously. For the first time ever, I wrote down “wind chill temperature: -40°F” in my weather journal. The observatory on Mount Washington in New Hampshire recorded almost twelve hours with air temperatures below -45°F and a wind chill very near -110°F. (I hope the observatory folks were not on the mountain during the worst of it; can’t imagine any heater keeping up with that.) It is still cold here in Vermont, but only hovering a few degrees above 0°F, not below. Only…
I am a bit concerned about plumbing and heating oil and other discomforts here in this house. I am also concerned about my car and its future viability in an era of collapsing polar currents. Despite the overall global warming — or, rather, because of it — there will be increasing numbers of days with the circumpolar vortex draped all over the North American continent. Meaning there will be periods of intense cold during the Wolf Moon for the duration of my lifetime, probably for that of my kids as well. This does not bode well, not just for but for our whole country. Much of our infrastructure and most of our systems have repeatedly failed us under extreme conditions already. This is the “new normal”. In fact, we may soon look back on these years as being relatively benign.
But mostly today, I am concerned about my garden plans. I’ve been planting under the assumption that my garden will at least remain in USDA Zone 4b and possibly move to Zone 5 as the map of minimum temperature ranges shifts to more northerly latitudes and higher elevations. But that might not be true. In fact, we might start seeing a reverse of that trend as the Arctic warms. Most winters will be warmer overall; but there will be days, maybe weeks, with literal arctic cold dipping down as far south as Texas. Not good for the roses. Nor for most fruit trees and a good number of my beloved herbs. I am already worried about the lavender. Luckily the plants are buried under snow and the roots are further insulated by several inches of mulch. So maybe the dip into the negative 20s won’t have affected them too much. I suspect I’ll be cutting back dead wood in the roses though.
Carrying on with this train of thought, if this trend of drippy polar vortices continues, there will be many nights that might kill even the hardiest of the pit fruits. So no plums or peaches here in Vermont. And I’ve already planted one peach tree. It is located in a very sheltered place, nestled against the southeast wall of my house with the lilacs and an established apple tree to shield it from the north wind without shading it. But still… It is hardy only to -20°F. If I haven’t created a microclimate to keep it above that temperature when the ambient temperature falls below, then the tree will die. At best, its fragile bud tips will drop off. Which still means no peaches here in Vermont.
My jungle remediation plans include oaks and hawthorn and pears and many other denizens of Zone 5. This is not as foolish as it sounds. For one thing, Zone 5 is about the limit of the deciduous forest. Go just a little further up — north or upslope — and you find the boreal forest with its evergreens and far fewer fruiting plants. Go a bit up from there and you’re into the tundra, where light and heat are so low that very little grows at all. (Though not nothing! Just not much that I would want to eat…) Of course, the choices for the food forest are necessarily going to come from the deciduous regions. (Actually, it’s worse: being a decidedly warm-climate trend, most permaculture plant lists are composed of plants that are even more tender than Zone 5.) So my options are to plant what might work or plant not much that will work for human foods. Thus far, I have chosen the former path.
My choice is supported by the fact that for many years my part of Vermont has been Zone 5 in actuality. The last USDA maps were created in 2012, and conditions are already much different here in the real world. Furthermore, the data for those maps were collected long before 2012. My part of the world might not have been Zone 4 even then. In any case, there haven’t been temperatures below -20°F here in years, not even during the relative cold of January 2022. So I thought we’d already passed well out of the boreal borderlands.
Now, I’m not so sure. Is this current weather a fluke? Something my microclimate building and careful selection of the hardiest species can withstand? Or is it a trend? If I insist on creating a human food forest, will it just die every few years? And how much food will it reliably produce even if it stays on the boundaries? If the weather is mostly Zone 5 but has occasional dips into Zone 4, will humans be able to count on harvests?
Here is a fact to chew on. The coldest, most interior, parts of Denmark — places not noted for their warm winters or substantial plant-based food production — are Zone 4. Most of the country is Zone 5 or warmer, sheltered from the northern latitude by the waters of the North Sea. (Here’s another thought stopper I just tripped over: the coldest parts of Norway are warmer than Mount Washington, NH. Sweden, however, is colder…) Because food forests do not generally exist in cold climates, humans have generally not settled in those places in large numbers. Most Danes do not live in interior Denmark. Humans may be farmers, but we still live where we can depend to a large degree on what grows perennially without our help.
All this is to say that my plans are probably not going to work if cold air regularly comes blasting out of the Arctic, and there will be substantial risk of tree death if these temperatures are even sporadically possible. So I am scratching my head today. Do I plow on and hope for the best, planting what will feed a human well most years? Or do I give up on perennial food and focus more on potatoes and cabbage? There are reasons people in cold climates eat those things. And it’s not because people like cabbage.
There are other facets to this conundrum. If I plant trees now, I myself am not going to eat from them. This is for the future. Which actually may be warm enough to support regular peach harvests. Definitely acorns and pears. But another consideration for me is that I am going to spend the rest of my life trying to stop the things that want to grow there from growing — especially that monster male sumac. Are potential future peaches worth all that effort? Well, maybe not peaches, but I suppose future food is worth whatever effort went into it.
Still… it’s a lot to ask of an old body. A cold, old body. One that is prone to fits of the grumps when planning out things that only might work…
So I am thinking potatoes today. And I’m having a good deal of fun imagining a terraced bed full of heirloom varieties on that slope out there. I’ll shall name it Cuzco… which is… despite its altitude… Zone 9.
On the other hand, this sort of thing is easily produced in this climate. Even the wheat for the bread. It’s a heritage grain grown in Champlain Valley. Even better, I got it when the co-op was having a 20% off, members-only sale on bulk goods. The pumpkin (actually butternut squash) was my own. The blueberries are from a farm just outside of my town because my own bushes are not old enough to fruit just yet — though they are coming along nicely. The walnuts are from Maine, but that’s not because we can’t grow them in Vermont — or even right here in my jungle. There are just no closer places producing shelled nuts in sufficient quantity to sell at market. I suspect those who are raising nuts are selling them at their own stands, likely in the shell. (Because who wants to shell nuts to fill other bellies…)
The only thing we can’t produce here is the spice. And, well, that always has been and always will be a small but costly import that is used sparingly — and appreciated all the more for its rarity.
Best of all, producing this delicious and nutritious food also heats up the house! Win-win!
Signs of Spring
In direct defiance of the weather… This morning, I saw a flock of redpolls munching on maple buds in my neighbor’s tree. This tells me that there are buds full of sugar, for one thing. But also the redpolls are heading north again. I don’t know what they smell in the wind. Maybe it’s the very fact of that air from their Arctic summer home telling them that it is less cold up north. But there they were, flitting among the thinnest branches, snapping up red candy bites, quietly chattering about redpoll things. They were not particularly interested in my seed and suet feeders…
And another sign: as I was putting away last night’s bread mess and taking down the extra precautionary window coverings (because it is so very dark when those are up… and it was a few degrees above 0°F… so…), there was the sudden sound of running water. My heart skipped several beats and I ran to find out what had exploded. But it was merely the cold water line opening up. This may not, in fact, be a sign of spring. But it is clear evidence that we are not in the boreal forest today!
Incidentally, when I was making up my garden and writing calendars back in December, some combination of the moon and the seasons prompted me to declare that February 6th would be the start of the season of Early Spring in my house. I am not sure I still agree, given all these blankets I’m wearing right now. But it’s less a laughable goal today than it was yesterday.
©Elizabeth Anker 2023
3 thoughts on “The Daily: 6 February 2023”
In my 15 years here on my Zone 6 homestead, I decided against planting fruit trees, though I have plenty of space. I live in an area with over 100 orchards and can get apples, pears, cherries, peaches, plums, and apricots (some years) but our orchardists are living with incredible stress each year. Our PNW winters have been unseasonably warm, tricking fruit trees into thinking it’s spring and then we get a cold snap in May or June, which can kill the buds. Last year, the late spring cold snap resulted in freezing rain, which ironically, coated the buds, protecting them from the freezing temps.
I focus on annual northern crops in my permaculture garden but have an amazing raspberry patch that keeps me in berries for a year and requires little maintenance. I have asparagus and rhubarb that are struggling and I plan to move them to a different, more protected bed. I grow nettle in a bed – the greens are highly nutritious and medicinal. Not fun to harvest and process but I cover myself in protective gear.
My small greenhouse collapsed last January under the weight of several feet of snow that was dumped in a couple of days of a wacky snowstorm. I am not investing in a new one but am looking at a seasonal tunnel. This year I will be erecting mini tents over some of my garden beds because of extreme heat waves the last few years. Days of 90-100 degrees at 2400 elev.
the new norm has arrived.
LikeLiked by 1 person
-40 wind chill? Wowza! We’ve made it into the low -30s on windchill since I’ve lived in the Twin Cities beginning in the mid 1990s, but we have not made it to -40, yet. I hope we never do.
I too am in zone 4b and I’ve been thinking for a decade, oh in a few years we’ll surely be zone 5. And even though winters are warming overall, we still every year plunge to -15 to -20. And so, while I am tempted, I still plant for 4, and even better for zone 3 hardiness, just in case. Which is one reason I decided to not plant a peach tree. I need reliable, and even the cold hardy Reliance, while it will make it through -20, might lose all its spring blooms to a late snowstorm or frost. And if I do get fruit, there’s the summer humidity to contend with.
As for plums, you can have them reliably with prunus americana, it’s our native wild plum and is hardy to zone 3. And sour cherries too.
Hope you warm up soon!
LikeLiked by 1 person
Great points about the fruit trees and cold snaps related to climate change. My dad didn’t get too many pears last year because of a spring freeze. All the more reason for more crop diversity I’d think.
LikeLiked by 1 person