Savvy gardeners keep one eye on the sky and the other on their plant beds. They give nature a nudge by understanding the climate, learning how to read the weather and then creating a landscape that fits.
"It’s interesting to know what the weather is doing, why it’s doing it and what it will do next," said Michael Allaby, author of "The Gardener’s Guide to Weather & Climate" (Timber Press, 2015). "If you go with your climate and soil, your garden will be much more successful, and if you choose the appropriate plants and tend them well, you’ll save money because there’ll be fewer failures."
Climate and weather are not the same thing. Climate is the average weather recorded in a certain area over decades. That would include annual rainfall, arrival of the first killing frost, standard air currents and humidity.
Weather, on the other hand, is the set of atmospheric conditions experienced during the course of the day: things like temperature, wind velocity, and whether it’s raining or sunny.
Meteorologists are fond of saying that "climate is what you expect while weather is what you get."
Learning how to read clues about upcoming weather can result in a more productive garden.
"You can predict whether there will be a frost by noting the temperature and the rate it changes at dusk," Allaby said. "You can predict whether dew will form. Calculate the atmospheric humidity, and you’ll know how likely it is to rain or snow. Watch the clouds for approaching weather fronts and gathering storms."
Soil and climate are closely linked, Allaby said. At the extremes, desert soils are sandy while tundra soils are low in nutrients because vegetation is so limited.
"The more sand you have, the faster it will drain, so you might need to irrigate," he said. "Clay retains water and is very fertile, but because it stays wet it tends to be cold in spring, so you can’t work it or plant it early in the year.
"Silt is very fertile. Loamy soil, which is best of all, has approximately equal parts of clay, sand and silt."
Then there are microclimates, which can vary depending on the size and shape of your property.
"Lower terrain may have lower temperatures than higher terrain," said Gretchen Voyle, a consumer horticulture educator with Michigan State University Extension. "Exposure to sun and wind can create a dry microclimate even in areas with adequate rainfall."
The world’s climate may be changing, but that doesn’t mean you should disregard the calendar, Voyle said.
"When you have a few days of unexpected 65-degree weather, people may think they can plant. But nature has a way of getting even," she said. "It’s best to stay with the tried and true. Things aren’t what they used to be, but nobody’s sure what we’re moving toward."
Smart gardeners know what’s going on around them, making them better prepared, Voyle said.
"Life is never going to be static," she said. "You’ve got to be responsive. The nimble gardener is the one who’s going to get the tomato."