Climate Change and Victoria Gardens

by Christina Nikolic

Christina Nikolic Garden Late June 2022
Christina Nikolic's Garden Late June 2022. Photo Credit: Christina Nikolic

Hello there, Christina here from Victoria, BC in Canada’s Zone 9 “Banana Belt”. Situated within the moderate oceanic zone, Victoria enjoys warm dry summers with a long drought period, and mild wet winters reminiscent of Mediterranean climate. Snow is rare and usually doesn't last more than a week or two. Thunder or hail are almost unheard of, though we do get pummelled by wind storms.

Located at the southern tip of Vancouver Island, the Victoria area is significantly drier than Vancouver and the Lower Mainland, though not as dry (or as cold in the winter) as the Southern BC interior.

All that said, things are no longer what we expect them to be, and climate change became glaringly obvious last year when records were set for heat, drought, rain, and cold, all within six months between June and December.

Having just posted a general blog on the topic [https://www.gardenerspantry.ca/blog/gardening-in-a-changing-climate/], this is a good opportunity to be more specific.

It is pretty safe to assume not only an increase in average year round temperature, but also weather extremes becoming more frequent and fluctuating more rapidly. I have lived in my urban neighbourhood for 15 years and have been looking after this particular residential garden for 12 months now. My observations mirror recorded data:

Winters are getting wetter, and Arctic outflow patterns, when they do happen, last for longer. Part of the garden remained flooded for weeks last November through March. On the plus side, the grass is still lush and green there now, six months later and after weeks without rain. I had planned on converting this area to a vegetable garden next. In light of the flooding which will likely repeat every year, I will try and create low mounds for beds, and will not grow winter veggies or perennial food plants in this place.

Because of saturated soils throughout the garden, I held back planting garlic until January, which paid off with a bountiful harvest last month.

The basement water pipes froze for four days in December and a lot of tender perennials died back to the ground (most came back, phew!). My landlord’s citrus trees made it, but with a twist: The grafted part died, and the surviving rootstock sent up new shoots. Pretty, but they won’t flower or fruit. This will teach me to no longer bother with marginally hardy plants.

The spring was slow to come along, cold and wet, and pollination was spotty. To my surprise, the peach tree is bending low with fruit, but there are almost no apples at all, and maybe a dozen pears between two trees. That’s a tough one to adapt to. One of my strategies will be to improve wild pollinator habitat and forage options. Check out Pollinator Partnership Canada [https://pollinatorpartnership.ca/]! If fruit trees ever need to be replaced, I will pay attention to late blooming varieties.

On the other hand, when things go right, some plants might yield a sudden and unexpected bounty. I think it’s time to learn how to preserve the harvest... by fermenting, drying, canning, and freezing. Peach chutney!

Due to hotter drier summers, the ubiquitous ‘Emerald’ hedge cedars (Thuja occidentalis ‘Smaragd') seem to be having a harder time every year — and the future doesn’t look good for Western red cedar (Thuja plicata), bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum), and even something as seemingly indestructible as salal (Gaultheria shallon). This is pretty serious.

Looking at the large amounts of water needed by cedar hedges, I would no longer recommend them, opting instead for other barrier plants, or vine covered fences. I also think it’s time to reconsider Victoria staples like hydrangeas and (gasp!) rhododendrons. In the meantime, I care for the 30 or so cedars around my place through mulching, soil building, and water wise irrigation.

Speaking of mulch: Most of my time and energy this fall will go to collecting and spreading leaves on the many new garden beds I created. I will also set aside as many bags of dry leaves as I can so I have top-up material come next summer.

To reduce lawn watering needs, I continue to leave the grass to grow long and I mow in sections. I do water the lawn, moderately, and mainly to keep the soil ecosystem underneath alive. Thankfully my soil texture is a silty loam with great water holding capacity!

I planted my winter veg seedlings already to give them the longest possible time to develop, which is a tightrope act between the current summer heat and not knowing when the cool and wet autumn will arrive. The tomatoes are doing okay in their containers but for the first time ever I saw some blossom-end rot. A calcium deficiency, exacerbated by irregular watering. My bad — I need to come up with a more balanced water supply system especially during heat waves.

Overall, I think Victoria is so far getting off easy(-ish), so far, compared to other regions ravaged by climate change fuelled disasters. But in our complacency we are far from prepared to fend for ourselves, even for a week, and remember, we’re sitting right at the rising ocean’s edge.

I draw hope from noticing how a lot of the tips for developing climate resilient gardens (see the blog post above) are the same as those we are teaching in the Organic Land Care curriculum. Build soil. Mulch. Plant in layers, and densely. Save seeds. Use water wisely. Grow biodiversity. Share your knowledge.

After all, what else would we do?



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