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How Climate Change Will Affect Wisconsin Gardeners

Do you or anyone you know enjoy winter sports? By winter sports I mean activities such as snowmobiling and skiing. Sports that involve snow. As we move further into winter I normally see pictures on social media of friends or family going on weekend snowmobile trips having a blast out on the trails. It looks like a great time and if you ask them, I’m sure one or two stories could be shared that make you question their believably. Moving into 2019 however, I’m either not seeing these photos anymore or these people are forced to travel farther north to find snow. Warmer weather being to blame. So warm in fact, that a few weekends ago the temperatures reached the mid 50’s. This had me wondering – “is our climate actually starting to warm up”?

EDIT: Of course I mention warm temperatures and after posting this article we were hit with a cold snap taking temperatures down to below 0 degrees!

There is a lot of debate around climate change and what is causing it. This article is not meant to be a finger pointing contest or challenge people to do things differently. Mainly, I want to know what the data is showing. Are we seeing changes as gardeners, and what might those changes be? 

My research took me to a video hosted by Shelly Ryan at the Wisconsin Gardener in 2013. I highly recommend checking it out.

(https://wpt4.org/wpt-video/wisconsin-gardener/climate-change-for-gardeners-iehjkw/)

In 2012 the state of Wisconsin DNR updated the plant hardiness zone map to represent the current climate. Surprisingly most of the state saw their plant hardiness zones change by about a 1/2 zone from 30 years ago. In her quest to find out more information Shelly interviewed experts at the University of Wisconsin who’ve done extensive research on the matter. Incredibly, they explained that with the current trends, we could expect that by the end of the century our hardiness zone will be similar to northern Mississippi (zone 7a)!

https://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov/PHZMWeb/

My initial reaction was joy at the prospect of no more -30 and -40 degree days. And with that, one of the first things that we as gardeners will notice with a changing climate is – new plants will move in and old plants will move out. The thought of growing new plants that we couldn’t before due to their hardiness rating is rather exciting. Maybe now I can grow that peach tree that previously wouldn’t survive the winter. On the flip side however, is that certain plants need colder temperatures in order to complete their life cycle. Certain pines will struggle with a warmer climate and may disappear from parts of the state. As a gardener you may be thinking “well that isn’t so bad, peaches are a good trade off”, but along with the new plants you want to grow come new plants you do not want to grow – weeds!

New Weeds

The video mentions Canada thistle plants thriving in an environment that’s warmer and full of CO2 gases. Six years since the video, today thistles are increasing in number each year around my garden. It’s a noticeable pattern. Each year they become more numerous and invade my garden boxes more so than any other weed. Even on the side of the road on the way into work there is a hedge of thistle that never used to be there. I’d be curious to know – are you seeing a rise in thistle plants in your garden as well?

New Insects

Warmer temperatures will not only bring new plants, but new insects as well. Some cool insects like Praying Mantis and Cicada Killing Wasps, but bad bugs as well. A rise of invasive insects have the potential to wreak havoc on our gardens in ways we’re not prepared for. Many of you are aware of my ongoing battle with Japanese Beetles, but recently I’ve seen a rise in a new pest – stink bugs. This last year there were thousands of stink bugs in my garden destroying zucchinis, squash, and Chinese cabbage. I tried to use some organic treatments, but even Neem Oil did not seem to deter them. On top of that, the chickens preferred to avoid them. Now they have invaded my home and the battle continues. Have you started seeing these invaders as well? A tip – do not crush them with your hands unless you want them to smell for days.

Although increased temperatures, thistles, and stink bugs are only a few of the things I personally am noticing that were explained in Shelly’s video, there is no doubt that things will be different for us gardeners with a changing climate. We will need to adapt for better or worse, but I can tell you one thing, a gardener will always find a way to grow plants no matter the weather.

About the Author

Geoff has been growing plants and vegetables consistently for the last 6 years and actively experiments with, and writes about, all aspects of gardening.

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