While most of Canada spent February and March buried under snowdrifts, the west coast has been enjoying cherry blossoms and balmy breezes for weeks. UBC Botanical Garden’s associate director Tara Moreau explains just how the early spring is affecting agriculture in the province, and how urban gardeners can make the most of it.
How has the early spring in B.C. affected farming and agriculture?
Our growing season this spring is about three to four weeks ahead of typical years, and plants and insects are way ahead of what we would have normally expected. Farmers are getting their first cut of hay already, and blueberries are already in bloom.
There was some concern earlier in the year that we might get a late frost, but it seems we have passed that window, so we can relax a bit on that front. So there’s been great productivity in terms of early spring, with plants getting a jump on the season.
The impacts later in the season remain to be seen. An early spring can help increase productivity and yields, but B.C. has a special place in the market calendar, which means that farmers may end up competing with other markets. If B.C. blueberries hit the shelves at the same time as California blueberries, they could see a dip in price.
What should hobby gardeners be considering when deciding what or when to plant this year?
Warmer soils means that crops can go into the garden earlier, but it also means that they could dry out sooner. Drought-tolerant plants are a good idea in coastal B.C. generally, as long, hot dry summers are typical. Water conservation techniques, such as trickle irrigation or mulching, will help later in the season. I would also suggest considering local plant varieties and cultivars, as well as trading seeds with neighbours and getting involved in local seed networks.
Are the current major crops in B.C. sustainable in the long term? How should local agriculture be adapting to climate change?
B.C. has an incredibly diverse agricultural sector, with a wide range of plant and animal products. If the impacts of climate change fall hard on one crop, it doesn’t mean the whole sector is going to have problems.
In the past, industrial agriculture has suffered due to monocropping and the high use of pesticides and fertilizers, but there are some great local programs, such as the B.C. Environmental Farm Plan, that support farmers in adopting the best management practices. There are other initiatives that are currently consulting with farmers on climate-change adaptation practices such as drainage, water storage, flooding, riparian zones and biodiversity. Going forward, additional research and support for traditional crop breeding for locally adapted plant cultivars will also be important.
How have bees been affected by the weather this year?
With the extreme weather, insects as well as plants are emerging early, including native bees and honeybees. This means that pathogens such as varroa mites may also get a head start on the season.
To support the bees throughout the year, homeowners and gardeners can plant a variety of native and flowering plants, with varying colours, shapes, heights and bloom periods. You want to create a continuous supply of nectar and pollen through to September.
Pesticides should be avoided, and there should be space in the garden that is left untended—no weeding, watering or pruning—where the beneficial insects can overwinter and find refuge.
A Growing Affair, UBC Botanical Garden’s annual perennial plant sale, takes place May 9, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The Garden is also hosting a number of workshops this year aimed to get people growing and engaging with nature.