Unexpected Drought Consequences

I’ve written a number of posts about the effects of global warming from a personal perspective. It does make a difference in how I view the whole issue of global warming. Whether global warming is a matter of cyclic world changes, human interaction, natural sources, or some combination of thereof isn’t the point—the point is that the earth is getting warmer, which is causing changes of various sorts that affect me as a person. Your best way to deal with these changes is to make a list of how they affect you and come up with effective strategies for dealing with them.

This summer saw a drought come to our area. There is more than a little evidence to say that the drought is just another effect of global warming. People focus on droughts during the summer months because crops are affected, grass dies, and the heat becomes oppressive. The television, radio, and newspaper blare pronouncements of impending doom from dawn till dusk each day. However, the winter effects of drought can become even more devastating than those in summer.

Consider the fact that snow acts as an insulating blanket for the earth. It helps retain some of the heat in the deep layers. When there is a lack of snow, frost tends to go further into the ground and cause all sorts of nasty consequences, especially during a heavy freeze. My reason for writing about heavy freezes is that we’re experiencing one here in Wisconsin and I’m concerned about the potential of damage to either my well or septic system. Nothing is quite as exciting as living almost four miles from town and not being able to use any water because your septic system is frozen. Once frozen, you need to call a professional to thaw the system so you can use it again. If your professional is especially busy, you may be waiting for a few days.

The problems of deep frost aren’t limited to the well or septic system. A deeper frost creates more heaving—water freezes and the resulting ice displaces some of the earth underground. The most conspicuous result of heaving is that any pavement on your property buckles and doesn’t last nearly as long as it could. It’s possible to assign an actual dollar amount to the lost longevity of your sidewalks and driveway. The effects can also profoundly affect your house’s foundation.

Heaving also causes myriad other problems for the self-sufficient person. For example, those posts you put in for your grape vines will become misaligned—forcing you to spend time readjusting the cables and possibly damaging the vines. A deep frost can kill tree, vine, and permanent bed plant roots. You’ll also have the pleasure of picking more rocks from the garden come spring because heaving brings them to the surface (despite the perception that they grow there during the winter). I’m also wondering how a deep frost will affect our new chicken coop (despite having put the posts as deeply as we could in the ground, heaving will still have an effect on them).

There is also the direct heating costs to consider. A blanket of snow on your roof acts as additional insulation. When this blanket is removed completely, your house loses more heat. Of course, there is also a problem when there is too much snow on your roof (causing damage from the weight) and the whole issue of ice dams. However, during this time of the year, a nice insulating layer of snow can save heating dollars.

Drought causes serious problems during the winter as well as the summer. No matter where you live, you have to consider the effects of drought on your property and the structures it supports. What sorts of winter drought effects have you see in the past? Do you think the increased number of droughts is due to a natural cycle in the earth’s weather pattern or from global warming (or possibly a combination of both)? Write me about your drought observations at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Feeding for Healthy Chickens

It’s essential that you maintain close contact with your animals to ensure they remain healthy. Even if you do all of the right things, It isn’t always easy to maintain good animal health. This seems to be especially true with chickens.

We decided to start raising laying hens this year after building a new chicken coop from recycled materials (see the series of coop-related articles). At first the chickens were quite happy and produced eggs regularly. However, with the excessive summer heat, we noticed that their egg shells (not the inside of the egg) seemed to suffer. The eggs weren’t quite as smooth as normal and the shells were thinner.

We had given the chickens oyster shells to eat and they have access to a wide variety of plants and insects, so we thought we were covered. However, it turns out that the chickens weren’t eating the oyster shells and that the summer heat was severely draining their calcium levels—yet another effect of global warming. Because we were inexperienced, we missed some warning signs and the chickens actually began eating their own eggs.

After a lot of thought, we finally found some solutions to fix the problems with our chickens that may be helpful to anyone else who is encountering this problem. Here are the things we changed in our coop and our chickens seem a lot healthier now than before.

 

  • Place the water feeder where it won’t get dirty (after all, chickens are birds and will fly to the water).
  • Mix the oyster shells into the feed at a ratio of 9:1 to ensure the chickens get enough calcium in their diet.
  • Collect the eggs several times a day.
  • Remove any broken eggs from the coop.
  • Add a vitamin D supplement to the chicken’s water during high heat times when the birds are less likely to get the full amount of sun they require (if you don’t want to use the supplement, then give the chickens vitamin D enhanced milk).
  • Provide fake eggs in each of the nest boxes (the chickens will peck the fake eggs, find that they won’t break, and be less likely to peck the real eggs as result).


Things could have easily been worse. We didn’t lose any chickens this summer and they do all seem to weigh about as much as they should. All of the chickens have remained active. We also didn’t make a few of the mistakes that novices can make, such as feeding the chickens raw eggs or eggshells (which will encourage the chickens to eat their own eggs). Even so, as with everything else we’ve done so far, this summer has been a learning experience and I expect that we have more to learn as we move forward.

Making sure your chickens have access to a variety of greens and insects is an essential part of raising healthy birds. However, there is more to it than that and unfortunately, chickens don’t come with a manual. You may find that you need to work with individual birds to get the most out of them. Let me know your thoughts about raising chickens at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Considering the Effects of Short Rain Bursts

As many people know, the Midwest is suffering through a terrible drought at the moment. The forecast calls for the drought to last through October as a minimum, so there isn’t any relief in sight. What many people don’t realize is that some parts of the Midwest actually have received some rain, but the rain hasn’t been especially helpful. There are a number of issues to consider and I’m sure I haven’t reasoned them all out. The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that even the best irrigation can’t completely replace rain. With the limits of irrigation in mind, here are some of the conclusions I’ve come to during this particularly hot summer.

The first is that the main problem with irrigation is water temperature. I had wondered about this for a long time, but I’ve come to the conclusion that watering with a sprinkler uses cold water that could actually shock the plants. Rain water usually comes down warmed a little anyway. To test this out, at least partially, I watered part of our corn row using water warmed by the sun in our hose and the other part of the row using cold water. The warmed water has grown larger, more robust plants. Now, there could be other factors that affect our corn, such as quality differences in the soil in one part of the garden as contrasted to another part, but on the surface, it appears that anyone who uses warmed water (such as that found in a rain barrel), has an advantage over someone who irrigates with well water (such as I do).

Second, irrigation water lacks mineral content. I’m starting to think that rain water must pick up a certain amount of nutrients from the air that the water from our hose doesn’t provide. I’d need to back this up with some sort of laboratory analysis though and I’m not even sure where to send a sample. Even so, it does seem as if there is some nutritional factor in rain water that doesn’t appear in well water. At least I’m not fighting the chlorine and other additives of city water.

Third, there is no lightning when you irrigate. Lightning releases nitrogen into the soil. Plants absolutely must have nitrogen to grow well. You can artificially supply this nutrition with fertilizer, but there seems to be a difference between fertilized plants and those that receive the nitrogen naturally. I don’t use any commercial fertilizer on my garden, but I do supplement the garden with compost and I do things like plant winter rye to improve the quality of my soil.

Fourth, irrigation applies the water in an unnatural way. Rather than having randomly sized droplets provide the water at varying speeds over the relatively long time of a summer storm, irrigation uses uniformly sizes water droplets that apply water at a consistent rate over a short time. The water from rain seems to penetrate deeper for a given amount of water than irrigation does (as checked by digging into the garden after each event and actually measuring the penetration using a ruler). Penetration is a key here because surface penetration tends to promote weed growth, rather than nourish your plants.

I’m currently working to quantify my observations so that I can better understand the role of rain in promoting good garden growth, but this summer has provided me with some insights into how global warming will ultimately change our world. Even if we overcome the effects of droughts created by global warming by using irrigation, the overall effect is still going to be a loss of robust plant growth in the garden. Yes, you’ll get most plants to grow, but not in the same way as they would with just the right amount of rain. Let me know your thoughts about irrigation versus natural rainfall at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Real World Global Warming

Every time I hear someone talk about global warming, they discuss the issue in terms that have no real meaning to me. Yes, I understand that the average temperature is going to increase as a result of global warming and that I’ll see weather pattern changes. However, what does it really mean to me? Why should I care? I don’t mean to appear uncaring, but prognostications of impending doom are better served with a dose of reality.

I’ve already discussed one direct result of global warming—the USDA has defined new hardiness zones as described in my Contemplating the Hardiness Zone Changes post. However, even this direct result of global warming doesn’t say much to me. It’s not an indicator that I see every day—something I can point to and say that it’s the result of putting too many of the wrong chemicals into the air.

However, this spring is providing something in the way of a wake up call to me personally. Spring came early this year; very early. Odd spring weather is nothing new to Wisconsin—we get odd weather every year. In fact, it’s the variety and uncertainty of weather that attracts me to Wisconsin. However, no one can remember a spring coming this early. Our spring has also been quite hot and dry. As a result, vegetables that normally do quite well in our garden, such as broccoli, are doing poorly.

In fact, all of our brassicas are doing poorly. I should have planted the brassicas earlier this year to accommodate the warm spring, but I didn’t. Local wisdom says not to plant too much, especially not tender plants, until Mother’s Day, which was simply too late this year. After talking to a number of other people, I find that I’m not the only one who planted too late. Everyone is complaining about how their broccoli has bolted without growing a head. Yes, you can pick the pieces and use them, but what you get is more like a second crop, rather than that perfect first crop in the form of a head.

The weeds, however, are doing marvelously. Rebecca and I can hardly keep up with them. We’re grabbing bushels of weeds from the garden at a time when we’re normally looking at light weeds and are able to mulch to keep them controlled. This year, we’re battling the weeds with vigor and mulching as soon as we get a patch freed from their grasp. However, I’m thinking that the late summer weeds we normally get poking up through the mulch are going to appear by mid-summer this year, long before we’re ready to harvest some of the end of season offerings (assuming they grow at all).

Fortunately, the news isn’t all bad.  We’ve just had the best asparagus season ever. Not only have we had spears vigorously poking their heads above ground, but the spears are thicker and more tender than usual. Rebecca has quite a few meals worth of asparagus already frozen because we can’t even contemplate eating it all without making ourselves sick. So, we’ve learned that asparagus loves exceptionally warm springs, but brassicas  don’t.

We’ve also had a pleasant surprise in the form of cantaloupes. Normally we have a hard time growing them, but we try anyway. The other day I noted that our cantaloupes are already flowering. They also appear quite vigorous this year, so I anticipate getting a lot of a cherished fruit that I often have to buy at the store as a “nicety” instead of picking it from my garden. This change in garden does lend credence to my number one rule of planting a wide variety of items to see what works and what doesn’t in a given year. Next year may very well prove to be the year the brassicas fight back, but this year I’m expecting a lot of broccoli soup.

I had mentioned in a previous post that our trees have also been affected by the spring weather. It turns out that our tree fruit harvest is just about ruined due to the odd weather because our trees simply aren’t used to it. We had thought we might get an exceptionally good berry harvest (the bushes are certainly full enough), but the exceptionally dry weather has already caused the black caps (a kind of raspberry) and the blueberries to fail.  On the other hand, the grapes apparently love our spring and are putting out more than I’ve ever seen them put out.  We can still hope that the blackberry and gooseberry harvests will be good too. The point is to look for the good and bad in the situation (as I described in my Every Year is a Good and a Bad Year post).

When you hear people discuss global warming in the news, it really doesn’t hit home. A degree or two temperature rise doesn’t quite make an impact. Even seeing the loss of ice at the poles doesn’t really hit the nail on the head like seeing your gardening conditions change so significantly that you never imagined they’d be the way they are now. Most scientists now accept global warming as a reality, but they continue to spout facts and figures that most of us can’t begin to relate to. What does global warming mean to you? How have you been affected by it? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Contemplating the Hardiness Zone Changes

Just in case you weren’t aware of it, the USDA has recently changes the hardiness zones for the United States. The hardiness zones help you understand what will grow in your area. Certain plants require warmer temperatures in order to grow and others require cooler temperatures. For example, if you want peaches, you need to be in a warmer zone. Our area has changed from 4B to 4A, which means that some types of trees that I couldn’t grow in the past will likely grow now. You can see an animation of how the hardiness zones have changed on the Arbor Day Foundation site.

Most people would agree that changes of this sort make global warming undeniable. Of course, it’s a misconception to strictly say that the effect is global warming, which is a misnomer. Yes, the planet has warmed up some, but a more correct assessment is that the weather is going to become increasingly chaotic. The point of this post is not to drag you into a discussion of precisely how global warming will affect the planet, what generalizations we can make about it, whether our scientists can define any long term trends about it, or anything of that sort. I’ll leave the discussion of how much man has contributed toward global warming to those with the credentials to make such statements. The point is that last year I was in Zone 4B and now I’m in Zone 4A. The long term weather changes have finally appeared in the form of new charts from the USDA, which after all, are only predictive and not infallible indicators of anything.

There are some practical considerations in all this and that’s what you need to think about when reading this post. The change in weather patterns means that you need to rethink your garden a bit. Not only do you need to consider the change in heat (the main emphasis of those hardiness zone charts), but also differences in moisture and even the effect on clouds. Little things are going to change as well. For example, have you considered the effect of increased lightning on the nitrogen levels in your soil? If not, you really should think about it. The weird science bandied about by those in the know has practical implications for those of us who raise food to eat after all.

Even if you aren’t into gardening at a very deep level, the changes in the hardiness zone chart has one practical implication that no one can escape. The literature on the back of those seed packets you buy from the store is going to be incorrect for this year as a minimum. The changes from the USDA came out after the seed packets were already printed. When everything else is said and done, the main reason for my post today is to help you understand that you can’t believe the seed package—at least, you can’t believe it this year. By next year the seed companies will have recovered and the documentation on your seed packets will be useful again.

Springtime is approaching. If you live anywhere near my area of the country, it seems as if we’re going to have an early spring indeed. I don’t normally need to trim the trees in the orchard until the end of March. This year I’ll trim my trees on March 1st, a lot earlier than normal and even then, I might be trimming a bit late. A few people in our area have already seen budding trees. So, if you’re used to waiting until April or May before you get out very much, it may be a good idea to take a walk around your property now to see if there are any changes that you need to know about.

Global warming is a reality. The effects it will have on your garden and orchard are also a reality. Just what those effects are and precisely what has caused them are still being debated by those in the know, but if you’re a gardener, you need to be aware that the garden you had last year may not work this year. Let me know about the global warning-related changes in your garden at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.