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Weather and Climate on the Backyard Farm

WeatherFarm

Wherever you live, the weather and climate have a major impact on your backyard farm.  The climate controls what crops you can grow, which animals are likely to survive, and what supplies you need on hand, and on any given day, the weather influences your daily chores and changes the needs of the plants and animals on your backyard farm.

Over the next several weeks I will share a short series on weather and climate specifically related to the backyard farm.  I'm planning to discuss some of the climate terminology related to gardening, explain some of the traditional weather sayings, and discuss how to prepare and overcome weather and climate challenges.

Weather versus Climate

Weather is what is happening at the moment, and is usually predicted over several days at a time.  Climate is the average weather over a long period of time for a specific location.  Many of the climatic averages you are likely to hear are computed over a 30 year time period. While the weather can change dramatically over the course of just a few hours, climate is generally much more stable; although short term or long term shifts can and do occur.

As a backyard farmer, the climate allows you to plan and predict the success of your crops and your ability to raise specific animals, but the weather of any given year (and your ability to adapt to the weather) is what will determine which crops will grow and what needs to be done to keep your animals safe and healthy.

What is Your Climate?

When you begin to plan your backyard farm, it's important to determine the specific climate that occurs in your backyard.  Your climate is impacted by your height above sea level, terrain, distance from the equator, proximity to a body of water, and any number of smaller influences. Determining your climate gets tricky since climate not only changes across large areas, but changes over incredibly small areas, making the climate across even your backyard variable.

You can start to understand your specific climate by looking at the climate averages in your general region (this is how planting zones are identified).  You can get a general sense of the climate by making observations around you, but if you are someone who likes to see the numbers in front of you, you can get to work collecting some data.

The most important data to collect is temperature and precipitation averages (although wind strength/direction will also be important if you live in an open, windy area).  You can find the data from a number of sources, but for the United States, I prefer the National Weather Service.  You can find climate data for your area by clicking on the map and than selecting the NOWDATA tab on the top right.  Pay special attention to the average date of your first and last frost, the number of growing days, and the amount of precipitation per month.

Once you've determined the general climate in your area, it's time to determine the micro-climates that occur in your neighborhood, and even within your yard. Small areas in your yard may experience dramatically different climates. And even though a certain plant won't generally grow in your zone, you may find that a certain part of your yard is warm enough on certain years. Look carefully at the layout and general placement of your backyard farm.  If you are located on a hill, you are likely more exposed to cold temperatures in the winter and heavy winds, while if you're at the bottom of a valley, you may find that cold air settles and you experience earlier frosts than homes located uphill.  Here are some basic 'rules' for finding the micro-climates in your backyard:

  • Southern facing areas are usually warmer (especially when these southern areas are against a building) The soil here will also dry out more quickly
  • Areas in the shade are cooler and retain moisture
  • Areas near water are more temperate (warm when it's cold and cooler when it's warm)
  • Areas at the bottom of hills (even small hills) will be colder on still, clear nights as the air sinks, this is especially important in the fall and spring as these spots will likely experience a frost earlier than nearby areas
  • Small spaces protected from the wind will experience warmer temperatures and conversely, exposed areas will be subject to wind
  • Gardens that are under the edge of your roof will get more run off when it rains and will be wetter

Once you've determined your climate and microclimate, you can use this information to plan the crops and animals that with not only survive, but thrive in your area.  Next week I will discuss the specific parameters that can help you select crops, but the best way to plan your garden, is to find someone in the area and learn what works for them.  If you don't know anyone locally, try talking to people at farmers markets, or even simply observe what varieties they are growing.

Weather for the Backyard Farmer

Climate may be important for planning your garden, but this year's weather is what will determine your success or failure.  The weather reports get a lot of grief for the number of times they get it wrong, but when you realize they are making predictions of air movements that impact each other horizontally and vertically across large and small areas, it's often more impressive that they get it right so much of the time.  Weather reports also have a much more difficult time making predictions for a small area.  It may be possible to predict a thunderstorm is in the area, but very difficult to predict where the storm may travel, and even harder to predict where in that storm the strongest winds may be found.  As a backyard farmer, you should approach a weather prediction skeptically and recognize that a variety of different weather phenomena might occur over your region at a given time.

Temperature

Temperature is important for the farmer: it dictates whether a frost will kill off your seedlings, whether your greenhouse will get too hot, or whether your animals water will freeze and need thawing throughout the day.  Temperature prediction are often more accurate than other forecast predictions.  In general, your temperature will change based on the amount of clouds in the sky as well as the larger scale circulation. Clouds keep the sun from warming the ground during the day, but keep the ground insulated and warmer at night.  As air masses and fronts move through your area, they can pull air from warmer and colder climates causing rapid changes in temperature. 

Precipitation

Precipitation is even more difficult to predict than temperature.  As a backyard farmer, the type of precipitation your yard receives is more important the the amount of precipitation.  Strong heavy rains will often run-off the surface and may not replenish your garden.  On the other hand, slow, steady drizzles may only drop a small amount of rain, but will actually be more readily absorbed into the soil.  It is always a good idea after a rain to dig into your soil a bit and see how well the rain replenished the moisture.  By collecting you own rainwater, you can more easily adjust to changes in precipitation.  You can also install a cheap rain gauge to track total precipitation.

Wind

For many people, wind plays a dramatic role on their garden and farm.  Wind cools plants and animals, evaporates water, and can knock over struggling seedlings or even trees.  It's important to know the dominant wind direction, and to protect your plants and animals using wind barriers when necessary.  Winter winds especially can make a cold night significantly more dangerous for animals since wind causes the warmth from an animals own body warmth to dissipate.

Stop by next week for more backyard farming weather and climate!

nebraska dave
2/19/2013 2:54:50 AM

Gretchen, great information. Now if I could just change the weather to what I want that would awesome. That's one of those ideas that just ain't gona happen. Weather in my experience kind of goes through cycles but the last couple years have changed my ideas about that for sure. The weather here in Nebraska has been extremely bipolar. This last week we have had temperatures from 50 degrees to 4 degrees, snow, rain, and bright sunshine. Nebraska weather does vary but even for Nebraska this has been an extreme fluctuation. What are your thoughts about "Climate Change" or as it was called a few years ago "Global Warming". Have a great climate/weather day.