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The Way I See It: For This Gardener, 2023 Yields a Growing Harvest of Concerns

Just a few days before the witches, Barbies, and Spidermen (Taylor Swifties and Travis Kelces?) descended on College Street and other noteworthy candy collection zones, I was experiencing a fright of another kind. 

It happened when I realized I was out on my mountain bike, dressed in shorts and a light bike jersey, with temps in the ‘70s, in late October, when the leaves were down and the afternoon daylight was shrinking like a wool sock run through the dryer heat cycle. 

Now this was goblin weather, an unprecedented warm treat that a bedeviled Mother Nature played on us, though of course there’s a trick behind it all, namely the new-normal vagaries of Vermont weather in a climate change world. 

I don’t have to remind anyone this followed the damaging slow-motion wreck the July deluge delivered to our beloved state. But the mild, and frost-free, October weather was a more subtle blow: Think of it as a slowly-soaking-in revelation that the verities of Vermont weather are vanishing before our eyes (to wit, our right to a sunny dry summer). 

I have kept a garden/yard journal since I moved to Calais (near the village of Adamant) back in 1984: When the ice goes off Bliss Pond, when the daphne, the lilacs, the apples blossom; when the peas get planted; when the asparagus comes up; what grows well, etc.

A key item every year, this being Vermont, is the first frost for my Zone 4 location. This year was an outlier of almost giant zucchini proportions: Oct. 31, Halloween.

My weather journal, unlike my more avid data-watching and journal-keeping friends, is tied to my garden observations and the rhythms of my annual ritual of growing things for visual and dining pleasure. I have gardened myself into a near-state of impossible-to-keep-up-with flower beds, berry patches, vegetable plots, herbs, fruit trees, and shrubs. Now that I am in my 70s, this insanity is manifesting its downsides in a cranky back and the feeling that I am barely keeping my head above water.

On the flip side, being highly attuned to, and observant of, the growing season and the flora around my yard is one of the joys of gardening. But this year for the first time it really hit me that something has really shifted, not just in our sense of weather predictability, but also in the sense that our climate has lost its old Vermont anchors and is adrift heading to an uncertain shore. 

Through 40 years, my garden journals have noted the first (usually light) frosts march ever later, from early to mid-September or more, and the first hard frosts migrate toward the end of the month or even into the first few days of October. To tack an entire month on the growing season is hard to comprehend. 

Needless to say, as a fan of long-season veggies like tomatoes, cantaloupe, and peppers, I am not about to complain at this largess on the temperature front. This year I was picking green beans, squash, lettuce, and kale until the end of October. 

On the other hand, there was some irony in the extra month extension to my vegetable garden. The rainy summer slammed the tomatoes, eggplants, and cucumbers with every disease symptom out of the Better Living Through Chemicals guidebook, from blights to leaf spot and various molds and wilts. They expired or shriveled into a pathetic resemblance of healthy plants by the end of August, along with my usually robust hollyhocks, which normally provide colorful homes for many pollen-dusted bees but turned into dried stalks. 

My peppers were small and often bitter, I got all of three cantaloupes from two plants, and my potato crop was positively pathetic. The flavor seemed to have washed out of the blueberries and raspberries this year, and the late spring frost did a number on the apple crop. So the benevolent fall temperatures provided mixed benefits until the growing season finally got nipped in the (real) buds and flowers that had re-formed on many of my perennials. At least the stalwart and prolific zinnias produced flowers for three months, before finally getting zapped.

I have yet to clean up the garden and haven’t even dug the gladiolas out of the ground, due to the late advent of colder temps. But I have been thinking a lot about this year’s erratic harvest and what it means in the larger picture, from the lackluster water-logged foliage colors to the apparent increase in ticks, the mosquito plague that came with the rains, and the general unease that comes from wondering if generations of weather and gardening axioms are being thrown into the compost pile.