Farming is tough business. Whether you are growing in fields or raised garden beds, anything dependent on the weather itself is going to be tough. There are just too many variables. The soil must be the right temperature, there has to be just the right amount of sunlight and limited exposure to strong damaging winds. The odds are against us and we need to use all the tools we can to help us succeed. One simple idea, if used properly, can be one of those tools.
A Micro-Climate is what you would consider to be the small differences throughout an environment. On a miserably hot sunny day you can find it degrees cooler under the shade of a big tree. UV light sensitive bugs and organisms find it beneficial to live under a rock where the soil is cool and moist. Certain snakes may in turn lie out on top of the rock to absorb the warmth throughout the day. Different organisms need different environmental conditions. In the world of plants, they need a combination of sun, heat, wind and rain to survive but too much of any of them spells disaster. Micro-Climates can be used take the edge off the harsh weather outside so that whatever could thrive there, can thrive. By influencing the climate or weather of an area surrounding your crops, you can help their chances of survival.
“What sort of voodoo is this that controls the weather?” you ask. It is much easier than that. If you know me at all by now you know that I look for techniques that make my life easier. Micro-Climates can make it easier, but it’s not just something you do, it’s a way of thinking.
I used to struggle to keep any houseplant alive. I used to either water them too much, or not enough, or maybe just the right amount and they would still die on me. Now with my forty something houseplants I know that it’s as much the right spot as it is the right ingredients. Some like the early morning light in the front window while others enjoy our low lit kitchen. Some don’t mind being in a drafty window and a few don’t seem to like it anywhere (reality showing its ugly face). In order to keep your plants alive you must know them. Watch them, and pay attention to signs of stress.
We have quite a few Aloe plants that we grow inside. Most do fine in our front windows under direct light but the small ones struggle in it. We notice they start turning a darker color than the brilliant green of our healthy mama Aloe. But move them to the banister about five feet away and they pop right up. Like a sick child that suddenly starts feeling better, you see the vibrancy in it and you just know that it’s going to be alright.
This is the first step to creating a micro-climate. Watching for signs of stress and changing the conditions to best suit the plants. This doesn’t work with just decorative houseplants but should be applied to beneficial plants grown inside as well. Most of our starts for the spring garden begin in the house. I use no heating pad or grow light. I find the best spot for those little seedlings to germinate and get as strong as they can before I send them outside.
This technique can also be used in the fall. I had been working on pepper plants for over three years in myPacific Northwest climate and when I finally had a good looking Cayenne plant I wasn’t going to let it go without a fight. Before fall really kicked in, I pulled it from the ground into a pot and brought it inside to ripen the peppers. Keeping it in my bedroom window, it started growing new shoots all winter long and before February arrived, there were new flowers starting to bud. I gave the plant a different environment and it not only did great all year long but now has the best head start for next year. This is a plant that is considered an annual in cooler climates. I changed the climate and kept it going.
Many plants can be grown in conditions they are not typically grown in. Most herbs can be grown and harvested all year long inside. You just need to experiment, pay attention and keep looking for new ways of making the micro-climate better.
The other step to creating a micro-climate is just that; create one. In Mother Earth News’ August/September 2013 issue we met blogger David Goodman who grows tropical key limes, pineapples, guavas and lemons which would be impossible in his part of Florida. He grows them against his house on the south side and the thermal mass of the structure radiates enough heat to keep them alive through the winter. I tried this approach with my garlic. I planted them in October in the bed against my garage. Even with the angle of the sun low behind my neighbor’s house most of the day, this bed was the only uncovered bed that didn’t freeze. With our two stretches of freezing temps lasting continuously for a week or more each time, this bed remained warm enough to make me wish I had planted more.
The other thing you can do if you need more protection is to cover them. I built a hoop tunnel this year with the hopes of harvesting greens all winter long. Easier said than done but what I did learn was even if the temps weren’t noticeably warmer inside, the protection from the heavy wind and rain kept everything in there looking fantastic all winter long. All my mint plants and lemon balms that I had in big containers over the summer went in there for hibernation. I had parsley and chamomile growing outside the hoop tunnel and some inside but only the ones under the tunnel are still alive and looking great. It shows you that it’s not just the temperature that can kill plants but exposure to the elements is often the stronger accomplice.
We are one of the only creatures on Earth who changes its environment as drastically as we do. It’s time to take that ability and add it to our knowledge of plants. We can grow a hedgerow along our garden to block heavy winds; plant near a slope so the cooler, heavier air moves away from the plants; use buildings, rocks, ponds, rain barrels or other thermal mass for growing plants next to. Any extra help we can get should be added to our survival tool kit and learning to create micro-climates is definitely that.