2012, the Year of Unnerving Weather

Extreme weather dominates my thoughts about gardening for this past year. It started with extreme winter mildness. This may sound like a contradiction in terms, but it was unnerving for those of us accustomed to harsh Chicago winters. January was about 8 degrees warmer than normal on average. Snow melted, the snowdrops (Galanthus) came up early.

Snowdrops
Snowdrops in January

The unusual warmth intensified by March, and all kinds of stuff started blooming early by a month or more. On the whole, March was about 15 degrees F warmer than normal.

Species tulip 'Fusilier'
Species tulips in March – the red Tulipa praestans ‘Fusilier’ is one of my favorites.

But if March lulled us with warmth, April slammed us with a frigid sucker punch. A new flowering dogwood I had planted early was annihilated, and stone fruits like cherries and peaches were devastated. Fortunately, many of my spring flowers are extremely hardy, and these bloomed through the cold snap without missing stride.

Celandine Poppies, Grape Hyacinths
Celandine Poppies and Grape Hyacinths.

It was in May that I got the first intimations of the drought that was to dominate the summer. The whole year had been on the dry side to date, but I think it was in May when I really noticed how few and far between the rain showers had become. One change I had made in the front garden was fortuitous for a dry year, however. Inspired by the river of blue Salvia at the Lurie Garden, I had pulled out a long patch of wild geranium (Geranium maculatum) and replaced it with Salvia ‘May Night’ and ‘Blue Hill’. The wild geranium will go dormant in a dry summer, but the Salvia is relatively drought tolerant.

Salvia 'May Night', Golden Alexander
Salvia ‘May Night’ with Golden Alexander

In June, I invested in some soaker hoses that I could move from bed to bed. I also had to dig out some purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea) infested with aster yellows. I replaced them with yellow coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) and Culver’s root ‘Fascination’ (Veronicastrum virginicum). I was pleased with these choices.

Culver's Root 'Fascination', Veronicastrum virginicum
Culver’s Root ‘Fascination’ with Asiatic lilies in the background.

The drought, combined with a heat wave, hit its peak in July. I spent a LOT of time dragging around the soaker hoses. We’re lucky enough to live in the Lake Michigan watershed, which means we have no watering restrictions. However, that doesn’t make it free, and when the summer water bills arrive from the city I pretty much have to be scraped off the ceiling. Between the watering and my drought tolerant, mostly native plants, I was able to keep things looking pretty good.

'Casa Blanca' Oriental Lilies, Eupatorium maculatum 'Gateway', Joe Pye Weed
Front garden with ‘Casa Blanca’ Oriental Lilies and Eupatorium ‘Gateway’.

We turned the corner on the drought in August. Rainfall and temperatures were normal, though we still had an enormous moisture deficit to make up. And of course, a “normal” August means, for me, days drenched in perspiration. In any case, I was pleased that in its second year my Joe Pye Weed ‘Gateway’ was doing fine even though I had put it in a freely draining raised bed. (Joe Pye Weed likes LOTS of water.)

front garden, anise hyssop, purple coneflower, brown eyed susan
Grass path through the front garden in August.

The arrival of September was a relief. Things were cooling off. The asters and the goldenrods began blooming.

Aromatic Aster, Symphyotrichum oblongifolius, Anise Scented Goldenrod, Solidago odora
Aromatic Aster with Anise-Scented Goldenrod.

Fall foliage came into its glory as September turned into October.

Serviceberry 'Autumn Brilliance', Amelanchier
Serviceberry ‘Autumn Brilliance’

And November reminded me why it is such a good idea to devote significant space to grasses.

Northern Sea Oats, Chasmanthium latifolium
Northern Sea Oats

So there you have it, the 2012 garden year. The garden did all right, thanks to lots of supplemental watering. But climate change worries me, and I think it should worry all of us. “Normal” weather is becoming a thing of the past, and gardeners as much as anyone need to let policy makers know that we expect them to get a grip on this emerging reality.

29 Comments on “2012, the Year of Unnerving Weather

  1. Despite some horrid weather, your garden looked beautiful in all seasons. I know you picked the best pictures, but still — given what mother nature threw at it, it performed beautifully, even in July and August!

    • Thanks! Like I said, I did a lot of watering, which I normally don’t. On the other hand, a lot of my plants are good old Midwestern natives with the deep root systems that can survive hot, dry weather.

  2. We seem to have had the opposite whether to you never ending rain and low temperatures all summer. Those that grow veg gave up and we are now experiencing flooding across the country whenever it rains alot due to the ground being sodden. You cant win can you, oh for something in between but then as gardeners I expect we would find something else to moan about!!

  3. I was taking notes on which plants to get as I read through your post…

    It’s always good to know about, or remember another plant that will stand up to drought.

    Great info in this post.

    Jen

  4. I remember a number of people talking about the early spring last year, I had forgotten until I saw your post. It will be interesting to see if this coming season is a repeat or a different change altogether from last year. We don’t have the accustomed cold winters and excess snow here anymore, at least not consistently. Each year seems to be different and it’s hard to guess what will happen.

  5. My hope is that change is coming. Thank you for touching on this topic. Your garden is outstanding! i love your combinations of colors and textures. I have made a list from your post of some plants that I would like to get this spring…my geraniums were blah last season. Here’s hoping for a cooler summer with more rain!

  6. Today I was out in the yard – it was in the upper 50’s – and I noticed some daffodils are already up. 😦 I don’t know how to garden anymore.

    • Well, the good news is that daffodils can take a lot of abuse as long as the flower buds haven’t emerged. But i agree it is discomforting to have the expected normalities of the seasons upended.

  7. You dId one helluva job maintaining your flowers in conditions far less than ideal!.
    I think the weather these past few years is very creepy; nature is sending us a message.
    Your last paragraph summation is great advice and worthy of a wider auduence. Maybe the WP powers-that-be will deem it Freshly Press-able.

  8. My garden weather of last year sounds very like yours…my natives did well and needed no watering during our drought…warming weather is worrisome but our winter this year is on schedule.

  9. I think your garden looks fabulous. I especially like your red tulips. Will they come back in your climate? Here we pretty much have to treat them as annuals. And seeing your ‘Casa Blanca’ lilies has inspired me to order some from the Brent & Becky’s catalog that I just received!

    • These are species tulips, and they do come back. I get them from Scheeper’s, though there are plenty of other sources. The big hybrid tulips don’t last much more than one year for me before going into decline.

  10. A beautiful year in your garden! While the temperatures worry me, as I look back on my decades of garden journals, I am assured that weather has always been a topic of concern, and each year there is something that seems out of sorts. Too much snow, too little snow, too hot, too long a heat spell…etc. Whether global warming is a trend or not, we need to treat our Earth better, and we gardeners are the ‘grass roots!”

    • I’m not an expert, but the consensus among the people who are is pretty clear: global warming is very much a trend. We are not seeing normal variations in whether, but a definite movement toward a warmer planet. This is disturbing to contemplate, but I think it is a mistake not to address the situation.

      • Thanks for sticking to reality, Jason! We really need a planet-wide awakening to global warming. Check out this great interview with Anthony Leiserowitz. Even has some good points on how to talk with people who believe global warming is a myth. http://billmoyers.com/video/

  11. Last year was very odd, and, with this week of January weather in the 50s in northeastern Pennsylvania, the start of this year is worrying me. Most of our 14 inches of snow, accumulated in the week after Christmas, is gone. I see little bulb sprouts above ground already (crocuses and/or winter aconite, I suspect). I’m pretty sure they’ll be OK, but there’s a part of me that wants to gather up what snow we still have and cover them up!

  12. Things were beautiful in Chicago I see, but your weather sounded more like that of Oklahoma. Those devastating late freezes and drought. Ugh. Here, as you know, it was all drought, all the time. Let’s hope 2013 treats both of us more kindly.

  13. One of the best 2012 summaries I’ve read. Kudos. Here, with less than 7 inches of rain, even the natives suffered. Alas.

  14. Hi Jason, that’s a lovely journey through the year in your garden. It seems that gardeners in most places have had to do their best with far-from-ideal weather, be it drought or floods. I would hold back on filling the garden with drought tolerate plants, we were told to do that year-before-last due to the drought but after the year we’ve just had, most of them will be sat rotting in soil that’s completely wet through!

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