New Year’s Lettuce —by Jinny Batterson
Last month’s weather was much milder and rainier than is typical for the part of the U.S. East Coast where I live. Usually by January, the surface of the ground has frozen several times, and any plant without a lot of frost-hardiness has succumbed to the cold. Its remains have either been spaded under or relegated to the compost heap. Not so this year. Yesterday morning, New Year’s Day, I visited my local community garden and picked several salads’ worth of still-thriving lettuce, arugula, beet greens, and spinach. Fortunately, the kale, mustard and collard greens that can withstand nippier weather had taken our December heat wave in stride. I picked some of them, too.
In December, 2015, our local area had high temperatures well above average for 26 of 31 days. Although no new temperature records were set, existing record highs got tied six times. On 15 different days, it rained a measurable amount. Our December precipitation total was about 6 inches, over twice the norm. The 2015 total precipitation was about 57 inches, nearly 15% above normal.
Many years ago, when global climate change was a somewhat arcane topic, a meteorologist friend explained to me the difference between weather and climate. “Weather” describes short-term phenomena like an extra-warm December, an exceptionally strong hurricane, a freak snowstorm. “Climate” tracks longer-term changes, covering decades, centuries, millennia, even geological epochs. So I don’t know whether last month’s unusual weather was necessarily linked with climate change—the coincidence between the onset of our sub-tropical fortnight and the signing of the latest global climate accord in Paris could have been just that: coincidence. Nonetheless, the happenstance has gotten me wondering what further climate change preparations I can make as an individual and as an activist. How can I better adjust to whatever longer-term climate changes are likely to be irreversible? How can I help frame better policies to help mitigate the changes still susceptible to concerted human action?
The latest U.S. Department of Agriculture maps of plant hardiness zones, issued in 2012, are on average half a zone warmer than the previous set of maps, issued in 1990. Advances in information retrieval and in data mapping since the previous maps have made it possible to note much finer local variations in climate than was previously true. Very small temperature gradients can make the difference between New Year’s lettuce and New Year’s dead plants. Gardening practices that buffer temperature and rainfall extremes can both lengthen the growing season and maintain healthier plants throughout it.
I’m not great on New Year’s resolutions, having lived enough years to know that mine tend to peter out in late January. Still, since gardening is for me more pleasure than chore, this year a garden-related resolution is one I may be able to keep: Maybe I can learn more about lettuces and some “new to me” plants that I may be able to grow with a bit of tending as our global climate gets on average warmer, but more erratic. For 2016, I’ll research and plant small quantities of a larger variety of vegetables and herbs. I’ll pay closer attention to the weather, doing my best to provide shelter, seedling to harvest, from extremes of heat, cold, flood, and drought.
Perhaps lettuce and gardening provide germs of a couple of more general resolutions worth adopting:
1) Let us, those of us who play with words, resolve to use fewer bad puns in our 2016 blog posts.
2) Let us, all of us, also resolve to nurture at least one living thing with more care than last year, be it ourselves, a child, a tree, a windowsill herb, or this complex, varied, ever-changing planet we live on.