In my part of the Midwest, April is the time that daffodils are in their glory and the wildflowers bloom. Supposedly.
This April, most of my daffodils are already bloomed and dried up and gone. Tulips popped in the third week of March. Scilla and muscari bloomed simultaneously. Forsythia and redbud – normally the first brave banner-carriers of spring – were quickly rivaled and overshadowed by crab apples, flowering six weeks early. Everybody’s sneezing from the pollen dump.
For more than 10 days straight, this March brought 80-degree-plus temperatures to Chicago. Nighttime temperatures rarely dipped below 50. Weather records fell like dominoes. Greenhouse owners talked of moving out seedlings that they normally would protect until mid-May.
On average, our last frost date is somewhere between the last week of April and the third week in May, depending on how close your garden is to Lake Michigan. But gardeners seem to have forgotten all about frost risks this year.
While the rest of the region romped in shorts and T-shirts, I went through a period of panic and mourning. If we spend all our blooms in March, I fretted, what will be left for April and May? I missed that tender period I enjoy every spring, when my native wildflowers brave the chill to wake up one by one among the brown leaf litter, unveiling the secret of new life. This year the bloodroot pushed up a month early and the white flowers lasted 24 hours before being blasted to bits by a torrential rain. Trillium was blooming by April Fool’s Day.
Of course, all the talk was of global warming. And in the middle of our sweaty March came a new zone map from the USDA that seemed to clinch the conclusion: It moved most of the country, including the Midwest, to a zone a half-notch warmer – so most of Chicago is now in Zone 6a instead of 5b.
It was easy to forget, while lolling in a lawn chair on St. Patrick’s Day, that last year was one of the snowiest on record, with the ground covered almost all winter and an epic blizzard in February. After that winter came a long, cool, glorious spring in which blooming delight after delight rippled out with the grace and precision of a Rockettes kick line month after month.
Wild swings – from year to year and from day to day – have always been the major characteristic of what meteorologists call the “continental climate,” in the interior of the country, far from the moderating influence of any ocean. In Chicago at least we have Lake Michigan, which tones things down a little bit. Out in Iowa and Nebraska the weather is far wilder, with a temperature range from 30 below zero in January to 110 in July, and a constant risk of blizzards and floods.
I’ve felt guilty, this spring, worrying about my garden flowers as wave after wave of heartbreaking, deadly tornados have ripped through south of us. But that’s the kind of spring weather they’re used to in Oklahoma and Kansas.
From all I’ve read and written about climate change, my understanding is that scientists expect the Midwest to have even more extreme weather as we move toward the middle of the century. Bigger storms, dumping lots of rain or snow at one time, separated by longer droughts. More tornados. Lower water levels in the Great Lakes as summer heat brings more evaporation. Winters that no longer reliably get cold enough to kill off the weeds and insects we’ve depended on low temperatures to keep under control (we’ll get a taste of that this year; I’ve already had my first mosquito bite). But always the risk of brutal cold snaps that blast the hopes of zone-pushers. More species of plants will escape from gardens and invade natural areas to choke out our native plants and threaten ecosystems.
What can gardeners do, today and tomorrow? Just brace ourselves. If you don’t have a greenhouse to buffer unpredictable weather, you can mulch to insulate the soil. If you have enough sun, you can plant native prairie species, which evolved in this crazy climate, so they are likely to be able to handle more extremes to come. For long-term plantings, such as trees and shrubs, you can choose native species from areas a little bit more tender – maybe oakleaf hydrangea or river birch or Kentucky coffee tree.
I’ve resigned myself to a short spring and a long, hot summer this year. I’m fertilizing my roses (already fully leafed out). I’m rushing to cage peonies – 18 inches high at the end of March — and stake lilies. As I divide burgeoning hostas, I’m concentrating on the design of the garden and trying not to brood about individual plants. Because who knows what they’ll do next year.