November departs and winter approaches…
After a run of wimpy winters, we are having a real one, with cold temperatures — all the way down to -2C (28F) — and snow. Snow that sticks around for more than a day. And then more snow!
Most years, I think of February as ‘early spring.’ Not this year! After the indecently mild El Nino winter of 2015-2016, this one must have been brought to us by La Nina, El Nino’s mischievous sister.
Fresh snow dresses up the garden and makes it look wonderful. Even drab or ugly scenes take on a new interest, as though the dead stalks were placed there intentionally to support snow.
For the past several days, news media have been preoccupied with Preparing for the Big Snow Storm, amplifying weather forecasts into a news story. A lot was made of a shortage of domestic salt and “ice melt” in local stores. It’s true that after a fall of ice pellets, rain and snow a few days ago, an inch of ice resulted. A few hardy souls (moi included) got out on Tuesday to crack and shovel. No salt needed, and a good workout to boot.
But there was no Big Snow Storm last night, not where I live, anyway. An inch or two of snow fell overnight, followed by rain. By daylight, it was a pretty typical West Coast snow scene, as exemplified by this 3-foot tall snowman across the street from me.
This morning, I dutifully went out and shovelled the slush off the sidewalk in front of my place, making sure there was a slush-free canal along the gutter so the water from melting snow would flow to the drain. Melting may be short-lived, however. Environment Canada is predicting low temperatures of -8 degrees C (18 F) for next week. I’ve noticed that they tend to err on the dramatic side, so have my doubts whether it will be this bad, but…
But perhaps I should lug my pots of pelargoniums (non-hardy geraniums) inside. I’ve resisted doing that so far, because they are a nuisance indoors all winter, taking up too much space, getting leggy, catching aphids (from where, I ask), and generally looking terrible by spring.
So I muffled the pots with old bath mats and toilet garments (those sets of fuzzy fabric designed to be wrapped around toilet tanks and seats for some mysterious reason*), and draped a sheet over all. With luck, it won’t prove to be a pall for dead pelargoniums.
Otherwise, the only plants whose survival I worry about, should temps drop as low as predicted, are Convolvulus sabatius, a nice little blue cousin of the evil bindweed, Convolvulus arvensis, and, strangely enough, Gaura lindheimeri. I’ve had a hard time wintering that one over, even though it’s said to be hardy to Zone 6.
White Christmases are rare here, so the predictions of continued cold weather (due to an outflow of arctic air along the valley of the Fraser River) have some (but not all) hopeful that this might be one of those years.
*I’m thinking I could write a blog post about this.
It has been definitely spring-like here this week, after a winter that was rather unusual in some ways. I thought I would look through my weather records and get an overview of it — recognizing, of course, that compared to the cold, harsh conditions other parts of the country experienced, we on the west coast have little to complain about.
Apologies for not providing the Fahrenheit equivalents for temperatures and inches for precipitation amounts. Just keep in mind that 0 C equals 32 F and 25 mm. is an inch.
November was pretty moderate. Temperatures ranged from a high of 12 C to a low of -2 C. Winds were light to moderate most days, and rain was delivered in modest shots of no more than 10 mm. at a time, adding up to 67.5 mm., which is rather low. This was the beginning of a dry period of several months which caused some anxiety about reservoir levels and next summer’s growing season.
Early in December, a cold snap began, which did not end until the 14th. On December 8, we had a low of -9 C. Though cold, this period was clear and sunny. Clouds returned as temperatures rose to normal values, dispelling hopes of a white Christmas. December 15, which has in former years been a dramatic weather day (windstorms and/or heavy rain), was quite temperate — 6 C to 10 C, with 2 mm. of rain followed by bright moonlight. The first snowdrops were in bloom on the 31st.
January temperatures were pretty typical — ranging from -2 C (on the 4th) to a high of 10 on the 24th, which was a brief preview of spring. There were no major rain events; in fact the “winter drought” continued. Ski resorts on Vancouver Island feared for their season. I registered 89.5 mm. at my place, which was better than the 60 in January 2013, but followed two relatively dry months in November and December.
February began with another cold period. On the 5th and 6th, temperatures stayed below freezing, with a low of -6 C on the 6th. I find a note from February 9th: “Garden looks beaten down.” The big Corsican hellebores looked deflated, and the frozen state of the ground (surface only!) gave the whole scene a desiccated look. Snow would have been welcome, if only in an aesthetic sense. Crocuses and Iris unguicularis began to bloom despite the dismal scene, but the flowers looked slightly nibbled, as though by slugs, leaving tattered fragments on the ground. I never saw the culprits, preferring to stay inside wondering what kind of insect would be out in such inhospitable conditions. Finally the rains typical of winter began, delivering 125 mm. by the end of the month. February 22 through 24 was a period of truly miserable weather — mixed rain and snow with a wind that made it seem colder than 0 to 4 C, but by the end of the month things were brightening up and spring seemed a distinct possibility.
And now it looks like it has arrived…
Summer rain is a blessing here on the west coast of Canada, but from November through January rain is something else. That’s when we get the bulk of our annual rainfall, and it’s the reason many people refer to this fortunate part of the world as the “wet coast.” The average rainfall in each of those 3 months is about 100 mm. (4 in.), but I have recorded amounts as high as 246 mm. (nearly 10 in.), in November 1998 and 297 mm. (about 11.5 in.), in November 2006.
Aside from problems such as flooded basements, this rain is annoying because it comes at the low point of the garden year, when not much is growing and watering is definitely not an issue. Rain barrels are kind of a joke here. In winter I don’t bother to collect water in mine; I move the drain hoses to the bottom tap and let the water run through, draining into the pond. In summer the barrels would be empty much of the time if I didn’t fill them with the hose, for hand-watering purposes. Winter rain is, in a sense, wasted.
The best solution would be to capture and store it somehow, for use in summer. I have visions of a huge storage tank somewhere near the garden shed, or a cistern under the house. The houses used by lighthouse keepers here on the coast (yes, we still have staffed light stations, despite sporadic initiatives on the part of the federal government to close them down), are equipped with cisterns. Water from the roof drains into the cistern and is used for household purposes. It works. So why aren’t cisterns standard in all houses built in summer-dry places such as ours?
In a way, my region does have a huge communal cistern, in the Sooke Hills to the west of the city. It’s the reservoir from which we draw our drinking water (and washing water, and swimming pool water, and garden-watering water). Several years ago it was enlarged, a matter of controversy at the time. Usually it takes a couple of months to fill up once the rains start in fall, after which any surplus drains away. From May 1 to September 30, which is when rainfall becomes slight or nonexistent, the region is under watering restrictions. Because of this and other water-conserving measures, our total consumption has remained constant for the past decade or so, despite an increase in population. So I suppose that works too.
In the meantime, we are expecting a “pineapple express” here in the next couple of days, a period of heavy rain and warm temperatures from a monster weather system stretching from Haida Gwaii to Hawaii, tapped into tropical air and moisture. Floods may occur — it’s time to prime our sump pumps and get out that wet-dry vacuum! We don’t need to worry about our rain barrels; our lawns are green and lush, and are likely to remain that way through Christmas.