Despite the cold, I was rather disturbed to learn that 13 of the last 16 winters in my area have been “Zone 5” winters. If you aren’t a gardener or in the U.S. you might not know what that means, so let me explain. The United States Department of Agriculture, USDA, long ago created a plant hardiness map. It is based on average annual extreme minimum temperatures over a 30-year period and goes from zone 1, the coldest, to zone 13, the warmest. My zone in Minneapolis is 4 which means minimum winter temperatures regularly dip below -20F/-28.9C. That’s air temperature without wind chill added in. The last time the USDA updated its zone map was 2012. I’m not entirely certain, but I think they update it every ten years.
For 13 of the last 16 winters to be zone 5 is a big deal. It won’t yet put me squarely in a warmer zone but it is definitely moving there. State climate watchers and meteorologists are speculating that within the next three to four years we will begin seeing zone six winters. This is both crazy and scary. A zone 6 winter would mean a minimum temperature of only -10F/-23.3C. Some people might wonder why I’m not cheering, why I am not excited about the bigger variety of plants I might be able to grow, why anyone would be upset over a winter that never got colder than -20F/-28.9C because, wow, -10F/-23.3C is still pretty cold.
But it is not cold enough.
Minnesota ecology has evolved around long, frigid winters. Already forests in the northern part of the state are showing signs of stress and disease. Our moose population is getting smaller every year. The emerald ash borer is spreading at a faster rate, killing the state’s ash trees. And every year incidents of West Nile virus occur earlier and earlier in the season. That we even have to worry about the virus at all is a fairly recent, within the last ten years or so, thing.
And it isn’t just ecology that is affected by warmer winters, people are too. Minnesota culture is heavily invested in cold winters. Heck, we have a frozen lake’s worth of jokes about it. And we tend to think we are better than everyone else because we can endure the frigid cold. There are winter carnivals and events that warmer winters will make difficult. This year it took so long before the cold hit, the lakes have not been able to build enough ice for the various pond hockey tournaments and many of them have been postponed or cancelled entirely.
Warmer winters are no small, inconsequential thing.
I am not quite sure how to plan for shorter, warmer winters in my garden. I continue to operate under zone 4 assumptions but clearly I am going to need to adapt. I don’t know what that means, exactly. Today I spent an hour or so figuring out where to plant all those seeds that arrived in the mail earlier this week. I am supposed to rotate my “crops” to keep garden soil healthy and avoid hungry insect problems. But, as big as my garden is—pretty much my entire backyard—it still is not large so rotating is a flexible term. I mean growing my tomatoes three feet from where they were last year and moving the zucchini from one end of the garden bed to the other counts as rotating, right?
I got it all figured out though, at least on paper. There are always revisions when it comes time to plant because I can never remember exactly how much room I have in all the various garden beds. And bundling up and walking around the garden right now won’t work because everything is under snow and I can’t even tell where the paths are and where the beds are. Spring and planting time will reveal all!
Just a quick bike note today. I did another race on Thursday and it was an entirely different mix of people than the week before. There were eight people in group D and I was still the only woman. It was a crazy fast race and I think the guy who won by just over five minutes should have been racing in the C group instead, but maybe he has low self-esteem issues and needed an ego boost or something. I came in fifth in my group riding pretty much at the same rate I had the week before. I had a great time though riding with a C group rider who had gotten dropped from the main group and playing tag with another D group rider.
I’ll try again this coming Thursday and see how it goes. One thing for sure, it is most excellent exercise and I work a lot harder in a race than I do during a regularly scheduled workout. I will be really interested to see how it all translates to riding outdoors again when spring comes.