Bring Back the Seventies

I have to admit, I miss the 70s. Not the midriff-bearing, bell-bottom swinging, “Welcome Back, Kotter” and BeeGees 70s, but the balmy, it-feels-absolutely-perfect-outside 70s.

In my last post, I talked about the impact that our pretty cold winters/very hot summers have on plants in the Washington, DC area. But gardens, by definition, involve human intervention. So in this post, I’ll examine the other half of the equation by looking at the impact of our climate on the people who tend them.

The good news is that we’re fortunate to have a nice long growing season here (just over 6 months, starting in mid-April and ending in late October, according to the Old Farmer’s Almanac). The bad news is that we don’t have a whole lot of days where being outside in the garden is a truly idyllic experience.

I’ve always found that temperatures in the high 60s/low 70s are the most pleasant for working outdoors (and here’s a quick explanation why). So, out of curiosity, I decided to find out how many days in a recent growing season the DC area actually had a high temperature between 65°F and 75°F.

Because I remember 2012 (the year of the derecho) being particularly hot and 2014 (the year of the polar vortexes) being particularly cold, I settled on 2013 (hey, it’s a blog, not a science paper).

Using data from Weather Underground for Washington, DC, here’s what I found:

Of the 191 days between April 15 and October 23, 2013, 42 had a high temperature between 65° and 75°F. So, during our growing season that year, about 22% of the days fell in my comfortable-temperature sweet spot. (I should also note that measurable rain fell during 16 of the 42 comfortable days – which probably lessened their appeal as “ideal” gardening days.)

Happily, about a third (14) of the comfortable days (6 of them with rain) occurred in May, which is prime time for getting new plants in the ground. Less happily, only 4 of the comfortable days occurred in the combined months of June, July and August, and rain fell during three of those four.

By the time we got to mid-September, the weather became a lot more accommodating, and we enjoyed 18 comfortable days between September 14 and October 23, only 6 of which had rain.

Of course, if you’ve lived in the DC area for any length of time, you already know what my quick-and-dirty analysis reveals: it’s darn hot (and humid) during much of the growing season, and when it’s cool, it’s often rainy (and humid). So what does that mean for those of us who love to garden here?

I think there are three good strategies. The first (which I rarely follow) is to jump out of bed at the crack of dawn on hot summer days and get your gardening done before the sun is really blasting away.

The second (and far preferable, to my mind) is to pick plants that don’t actually require much maintenance once installed. Surprise, surprise – only plants that are well suited to the hardiness and heat issues I wrote about in my last post make this list. But beyond that, I also select plants that don’t need staking, or constant dead-heading, or constant dividing, or constant anything else in order to look their best.

Third, I encourage you (in the immortal words of Lou Reed’s 1972 hit single) to “take a walk on the wild side.” I think we’re downright lucky that a big trend in landscape design is a more relaxed and naturalistic planting style, which for a variety of reasons I’ve long embraced. More natural = less maintenance = less wear and tear on the gardener.

All of which means I have plenty of time on the most miserable days to load up my “Best of Abba” CD, and enjoy the garden through the windows of my air-conditioned home.

ABBA photo credit: P2720654 via photopin (license)


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