The Dramatic Switch to El Niño

What does this mean for your garden? Read on to prepare your gardens for the dramatic switch to El Nino from La Nina.

El Nino – Little Boy, warmer, dryer

La Nina – Little Girl, colder, wetter

Gardening in an El Niño Year, what does this all mean for gardening in Western Washington?

What does this mean for your garden? Read on to prepare your gardens for the dramatic switch to El Niño from La Niña. As we transition out of a three-year-long record-setting La Niña cycle, characterized by cold and wet conditions that promote the thriving of leafy greens, root veggies, and brassicas, it’s important to understand the implications of gardening in an El Niño year for those residing in Western Washington. With warmer and drier conditions on the horizon, it’s crucial to look ahead and plan to protect your garden. In this article, we will explore a range of tips and strategies to help you navigate the challenges and opportunities presented by an El Niño climate.

1. Germination. Most seeds need to be planted quite close to the surface of the soil. In a typical spring, rainfall keeps the soil evenly moist. Rain filters deeply into the soil so that even when the surface appears dry, there is moisture beneath. When the surface of soil is exposed to unusually high temperatures it will form a crust. It can actually act as a sponge and draw moisture from seeds. This is particularly true with pelleted seeds – the clay coating of each seed will suck moisture out of the seed itself unless the seed bed is kept constantly damp.

2. Irrigation. When there’s no rain, we simply need to use more of the water supply to keep our gardens alive. We need to water mindfully this season, and follow Good Watering Practice. As never before, the preciousness of water is obvious this year. Please use it sensibly. Water early in the day whenever possible, and water deeply, allowing the soil to act as a reservoir. Keep soil in container gardens generously damp. When possible, use drip irrigation to conserve water in the garden.

3. Bolting. This is the term to describe the sudden change from foliar growth to flower formation in many garden plants. Cilantro, arugula, lettuce, spinach, mustard, kale, and a host of other garden herbs and vegetables are prone to bolting. In just a matter of days, a plant can send up a flower stalk and become nearly inedible. This is a natural reaction to heat stress. From the plant’s perspective, hot soil indicates that summer has arrived. The plant responds by urgently producing flowers and, hopefully, seeds in order to pass on its genetic lineage. Bolt resistant varieties may not go to seed until weeks later, but all plants will eventually bloom.

4. Lack of flower formation. The tropical heat we will likely be experiencing causes other plants, by their nature, to grow lush, abundant foliage, but few flowers. Tomato growers should expect to see excess leaf growth this season, while flower formation is weak. Hand pollination will be critical for maximum yields. Garden flowers like nasturtiums will likely be growing huge, but not forming flowers at all. Spike forming flowers like foxgloves and lupines tend to fade suddenly from the bottom up as the plants deal with the heat and drought.

5. Early blooming. Many plants may be in full bloom that one normally associates with the height of summer. Echinacea, Rudbeckia, and Crocosmia flowers can be spotted easily in gardens all over the place, possibly a good twenty to thirty days earlier than normal. The strawberry picking season can be weeks earlier than expected.

6. Sun Scald. We may hear from pepper growers that some fruits show brown patches, all appearing on the same side of the plant. Normally, we don’t see peppers ripening until July or August, but once again, this is may be an unusual year. If you have a greenhouse, it may be a good idea to invest in some shade cloth and ventilation in order to minimize damage to fruits and vegetables. The plants simply cannot cope with the excessive heat.

More problems may occur as the season unfolds, a lot of gardeners may be facing serious challenges this year. What this means for growers and gardeners on the Pacific coast remains to be seen. But one conclusion is clear: We have never faced a more important time to be conservative with water.

Evergreen plants are often the hardest hit because they continue to use water for photosynthesis. Deciduous trees and shrubs require less moisture, but will benefit from some irrigation during periods of little to no rain. Remember, infrequent deep irrigation is better than frequent shallow irrigation. Don’t forget to water your container plants well.

Without rain, roots can desiccate and die. And the little rain we have in our summers encourages the weed seeds to start germinating, which further uses up what little moisture is in the soil. Pulling weeds and mulching around your plants will help to conserve water and keep plants stronger. Organic mulches such as bark or wood chips are best because they add organic matter to the soil as they decompose.

Warmer temperatures sometimes cause shrubs to start putting out leaves early and while there’s not much to do about that, be on guard for cold snaps that will freeze tender new growth. Before a freeze, water your plants, as soil moisture and hydrated roots will improve their cold hardiness.

With current climate models the summer of 2023 will be warm, possibly the warmest on record, making it a great year for growing tomatoes, squash, corn, peppers, eggplant, melons and more warm summer crops, be sure to pay attention to moisture levels in your soil. If the soil is cool to the touch 4 inches down, no water is needed.

For new seeds and transplants, water in the morning, don’t let them dry out. Growing in 100% aged compost, and using straw or mulch at the base of your plants will hold moisture longer, requiring less watering later.

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