As the snow melts into the ground, I’m thinking about the wonderfully warm winter and what an awfully cold, rainy summer we just had and am wondering what this summer will bring.
Unfortunately, I can’t predict the weather, but by learning more about past weather we might have a more educated guess at the future. By understanding your garden’s microclimate, you’ll be able to choose plants that will thrive in your particular neck of the woods.
Many gardeners rely on the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone map (http://tinyurl.com/6rryldj) for a quick and dirty synopsis of the climactic conditions in their garden — otherwise known as “zones.” Zones are also a favorite qualifier of some nurseries and seed companies. There are two main reasons I encourage you to look beyond your zone. Zone maps are based on only one thing — the “average annual extreme minimum temperature.” They are also outdated because they are based on data from 1976 to 2005.
I’m not going to tell you to set up weather station in your back yard, although that would be the most accurate thing to do and there are some fairly inexpensive digital temperature monitors out there. I’m going to show you a couple of tools that will allow you to zoom in on the particular climactic conditions in your garden, all from the comfort of your armchair.
First, go to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Climate Data Online website at http://tinyurl.com/l4gjey3. Enter Fairbanks in the location box then, in the dataset drop-down menu, select “annual summaries.” Now you should be able to see on the map all of weather stations in and around Fairbanks. Find the station closest to your garden, then click on “full details.” Note the elevation of the station. Is it very different from the elevation of your garden? Is there another nearby station with a more comparable elevation? Now scroll down and select the year of the data you’re interested in on the drop-down menu. Now click “view data.”
Maybe I’m just excited because there is a new weather station in Goldstream Valley where I live. I can see from the 2014 annual summary there were three days in June and two days in July where the temperature dropped below 32 degrees. I compared this with the University Experiment Weather Station where the temperature did not drop below 32 degrees at all in June or July. That made me a little depressed even though I already knew that I had several mid-season frosts last year. Because the Goldstream Creek Station is so new, there is not enough data to establish normals, however, depending on the station, the normal could be a useful benchmark.
The annual summaries are just a start and you may want to explore the NOAA data further, keep your own records, or note the following characteristics of your garden:
• The first and last frosts of the season (and, ugh, mid-season frosts), which in turn determines the length of your growing season
• The slope aspect of your garden or farm
• Hours of direct sun each day — not to be confused with the day length
• Day length
• Frequency of wind events.
While you’re at it, decide on the best time to plant your garden in the spring by looking at the probability of the last frost in the spring and first frost in the fall in your area: http://tinyurl.com/mlm4dy3 (click on Alaska in the drop-down menu).
And learn more about your soil, at http://tinyurl.com/p3x9cq9.
But don’t forget how important things like weeding, watering, and fertilizing are to your garden’s success.
Heidi Rader is a tribes Extension educator for the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service and the Tanana Chiefs Conference. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For answers to gardening questions, contact the Tanana District Extension office at 474-1530.