Temperamental and unpredictable — two good words to describe the weather this winter thanks to El Niño.
While the term El Niño (meaning The Child) may have come about as reference to this weather pattern’s arrival around Christmas, I can’t help but wonder if the unpredictability of the weather doesn’t also have something to do with the name. The pattern, caused by a shift of warm waters in the Pacific Ocean, is the third strongest since 1950 and has the possibility to be the strongest on record.
The effects on land have been more dramatic, thanks in part to the already unpredictable weather patterns we’ve been seeing over the last few years due to climate change.
We are seeing many of the common and devastating effects of El Niño this year, especially when it comes to rainfall and flooding. Another effect of the weather pattern is warmer than normal weather in our part of the country thanks to a shift in the jet stream. This warmer weather will definitely have an impact on the garden this coming year.
While I don’t think the warm winter will overtly damage or kill any plants, there are some effects that I think will be negative for our gardens, at least in early 2016.
Many gardeners are noting that some plants, namely those that bloom early in the spring, are blooming in the middle of winter. I found a dandelion in bloom in my yard the day after Christmas, and some of the greens (pictured) in my garden have bolted and started blooming mid-winter (rather than late spring). Azaleas and redbud trees are common ones I’ve heard of, but there are others.
For trees and shrubs, there likely won’t be long-term damage, but those buds that bloom during the winter won’t be replaced for next year’s bloom — so you may see a reduced number of blooms and flower displays that are a little less spectacular.
Where this will be more problematic is if any of these trees and shrubs in bloom are fruit-bearing. Blooming now, when there is no hope of pollination or survival will result in reduced fruit yields next year. Luckily, many flowering trees and shrubs, especially fruiting ones, have a built in chill requirement, meaning that they must receive a certain number of hours of temperatures between 32 and 45 degrees to initiate blooming.
For apples, the requirement can be as low as 400 hours and upwards of 1000, depending on variety or cultivar, but for figs flowering can start after just 100 hours of chilling. Once the plant reaches around that number of hours between those temperatures, warm weather can trigger blooming. Those blooms will likely be lost if they happen before they are supposed to.
The chilling temperature can be both a blessing and a curse in a year like this. Yes, it can keep plants from blooming out of season, but if we fail to meet that threshold of temperatures before the end of winter, next year’s harvests can be drastically reduced if not eliminated altogether due to lack of blooms.
I’ve also heard reports of some trees and shrubs leafing out and perennials starting to poke their heads up out of the soil and the mulch. While they may get frozen back if temperatures do indeed fall to near freezing, it likely won’t cause extensive damage. Unlike flower buds, plants can usually regrow leaves lost.
Some sources I’ve read say that the warmer temperatures can reduce the cold hardiness of some plants, so if we do have a drastic downward swing of temperatures into single digit or sub-zero temperatures, some plants may have more than normal levels of damage.
Another concern from warm winters is the likelihood of higher than normal insect and disease pressures in the coming year. One thing a cold winter does is help reduce the population of insects and disease organisms. Without the killing of a good prolonged freeze, we could see higher than normal populations of pests like flea beetles in the garden. We could also see a rebound in populations of some of our favorite house pests like Brown Marmorated Stink Bugs and Asian Lady Beetles. Only time will tell.
There are at least a few benefits to warmer weather. While most of the plants we grow are dormant above ground in the winter, the roots are growing when the soil isn’t completely frozen. This warm weather can help with root growth (if we don’t get so much rain as to damage the roots), resulting in stronger plants and even a fuller, greener lawn in 2016.