Flexibility in the Midst of Uncertainty: A Chat with Scott Aker

In the last days of 2018, there was one email I looked forward to each morning in amongst the coupons and the Groupons and the chaff and the wheat that now passes for correspondence in the 21st century.

It was from Agrible, Inc.® – an agricultural and commercial service headquartered in Illinois that provides farmers and growers all over the United States with field-specific, real-time data.  A friend had alerted me to the service earlier in the year, and though it took a bit of time to plot my property on their maps and jump through a few random hoops, once I was registered, the data issuing from the Oracle each morning had my full attention.

For this non-farmer, that meant what kind of real-time rainfall (and temperatures) I could expect in the dismal swamp once known as Oldmeadow – i.e. yesterday’s accumulation, today’s further disappointment and tomorrow’s martini-inducing prediction. 

Agrible was also kind and cruel enough to give me annual totals and inches above average, and I think it must have been around the first of October that, to stay sane and relatively sober, I began to play a game with myself called “Maybe we’ll hit [insert outrageous total here] this year.”

Suffice it to say, my round number estimates shifted several times.  By December 31st, Agrible had charted 74.58 inches of rain in my Virginia stream valley (38 inches above normal and within NOAA’s own estimates) and left me feeling vaguely and bizarrely dissatisfied that the clouds couldn’t have wrung out that last half-inch on New Year’s Eve and called it a round 75.

flooding, garden

I quickly repented of the thought. New Year’s Day began with an equally strong commitment to the policies and practices of the previous administration: All Rain. All The Time. No shutdowns on the horizon.

So where does this leave us, besides sopping wet and up to our calves in mud and unknown parasitic life? What can we do?

There are of course Big Picture answers sparked by the above question, but putting politics, predictions and policies aside for a moment, I’d like to focus instead on The Little Picture.

After all, The Little Picture is where each of us resides, and to reside there saturated in pessimism and despair tends to negate the reasons we’re out in the garden in the first place. I don’t think anybody is debating the fact that we’re experiencing some challenging weather patterns (if they are, I’ve got some swampland in Virginia to sell them), but the soldiers in the trenches are being forgotten as the generals debate who’s got the shiniest stars.

So let’s ask that question again, a little differently. “As gardeners, how can we prepare & plant our gardens to most effectively navigate between extreme and more normative weather events going forward?”

To answer this question with more authority than I can provide, I talked to Scott Aker, Head of Horticulture and Education at The U.S. National Arboretum, and Q & A columnist for The American Gardener magazine.  I attended his lecture on USDA Zone Maps for Gardeners at a Master Gardener training session a few years ago, and his ability to discuss the touchy subject of climate for his entire audience impressed me.  

1.   “Don’t panic.”

I particularly loved Aker’s very first, very succinct, answer to my question above.  But then, I’m a Douglas Adams fan from way back, and ‘Don’t panic’ has always struck me as sound advice in most situations. 

2.   “Be flexible.”

“As gardeners we shouldn’t be too focused on how things deviate from how we want them.”  Aker said. “You can either become discouraged and give up on gardening or you can look at what happened as a challenge, and learn from it. For instance, this was a great year for figuring out which parts of the garden need better drainage!”

ligularia, dryopteris
What a great year for ferns and other moisture lovers!

So what happens when you get depressed about losing plants in the landscape? I asked him.

Aker tells us to try and see the bright side, and likens furnishing a garden with plants to decorating a house with furniture.

“The fun part of gardening is changing things out,” he says. “You don’t think anything of switching out your orange, 1970’s couch with a modern replacement – why not update your plants?  When you lose a plant it gives you a great excuse!”

3.   Don’t rely solely on the USDA Zone Map.

The USDA Zone Map was revised in 2012, and many of us officially jumped a half a zone even if we’d been gardening that way for a while.  But Aker cautions us not to rely solely on this map.

“It is a good guide based on average low temperatures, and that’s what it should be used for…but one of the most important things to think about is average night temperatures in summer [heat zones]…as plants stop being able to produce the food they need to survive.” 

Aker then reminded me of the recent winter of 2016/2017 where we had relatively mild weather in the very early spring.  Plants came out of dormancy only to be zapped by extended temperatures in the teens.  These temps fell within our ‘designated zone,’ but were deadly due to timing. 

“We lost plants [at the Arboretum] that year that had never had problems in the 26 years I’d been there.” he told me. “Even though our average winter temperatures may be increasing, we do need to think in terms of plants that are hardier and can withstand more fluctuation.”

4.   “Provide the best drained soil you can.”

Unless it’s a bog or marginal plant that thrives on extra moisture, the better drained your soil is (especially over winter), the less likely you are to have plants suddenly perish in the landscape when conditions get overly wet.  Our growing season takes place in a warm, wet climate, so erring on the side of better drainage is better practice. And don’t forget to look at your drainage areas.

“People often don’t think of this,” said Aker, “But when it rains, check what’s planted near your downspouts. You need to know if some parts of your garden are getting 2-3 inches when other parts are getting a half an inch.”

5.   “Use your micro-climates.”

Every garden has them.  Scott urges us to find them. And use them.

“For instance, that neighbor who can grow a Zone 8 windmill palm without damage probably owes most of his success to his warm courtyard surrounded by a poorly insulated home.”  

I myself love to take responsibility for the 6’x 6’ Edgeworthia chrysantha growing in the L-shaped cozy of two wind-buffering walls near my front door, but you won’t see me applying my ‘magic touch’ a second time by planting one down by the barn where it will be hit by cold winds, badly drained soil, and stagnant, cold air on winter mornings.  This girl’s not stupid.

edgeworthia chrysantha, xanthosoma aurea

“If there’s something that you’d love to have, and you look at the catalog and it’s a zone beyond your own – look for a sheltered spot and try it.” said Aker. “The plants don’t always read the catalogs!”

And finally?  “Diversify.”

“Our gardens and landscapes have a function,” Aker told me.  “And you need to think of that function first when you’re choosing plants. That function is different for every gardener and every garden.”

Think of it almost as a theme. So, whether you’re planting for pollinators, planting for color, planting only natives or creating a tropical paradise for five months of the year, it’s important to recognize what you want for your landscape and how each plant can achieve that vision in different ways – creating diversity that can then withstand challenging environmental conditions.  This way you are less likely to lose all when things go pear-shaped.

Don’t live in a bubble of one-size fits all gardening. Keep an open mind.

*    *    *

Aker’s guidelines are all excellent, but as we launch into the new year and new seasons of garden challenges ahead, I ask you to keep his first words closest to your heart – “Don’t Panic.”

lycoris squamigera, oldmeadow
Take time to see the victories. Don’t just focus on the defeats.

When we spend a lot of time stressing about things over which we have little control, and don’t spend enough time re-thinking our practical, personal strategies in order to be successful dealing with most eventualities, we tread water and learn little.  Running around screaming “The sky is falling!” or feeling so overwhelmed by the enormity of the problem will not help you in the here and now. 

Face your garden knowing your job as resident gardener is to figure it out.  It always has been.

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This article was originally published  in The Frederick News Post and is republished here with kind permission.


By | 2019-01-22T21:27:14+00:00 January 25th, 2019|

About the Author:

Marianne is the mother of two, wife of one and the voice of The Small Town Gardener. She gardens and writes from her home in the scenic (and exceptionally convenient) heart of Virginia's wine country.

2 Comments

  1. Susan Peterson January 26, 2019 at 3:06 pm - Reply

    Another wonderful read, Marianne, and much more relevant to my Florida garden than others would think. My neighborhood has summertime floods when our tiny creek is visited by tropical systems. And winter is always a crapshoot in zone 9a where almost nothing goes dormant and the sap is up in everything when mid 20s hit. I have a cousin in SC who can grow plants that freeze in my garden. Ah, dormancy!
    We will likely have some of those mid 20s this coming week. I’ll protect what I can and mourn my losses come March. And hopefully, replant wisely.
    Better luck with the remainder of your winter season.
    Susan

    • Marianne Willburn January 26, 2019 at 3:23 pm - Reply

      Thanks Susan! Yes, the challenges are different for all of us, but finding our way around them definitely makes us better gardeners.

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