Gardening in a Time of Climate Change, Wild Fires, and Smoke: This Season’s Most Common Questions Answered!

Edy Cassell, Community Progarams Manager at Sierra Harvest

How is wildfire smoke affecting the plants in my garden?

This is a valid question and one I hear (and ask) a lot.

Falling ash and particulate matter coating the surface of your plants has the potential to inhibit photosynthesis in plants by clogging the stomata, thus slowing growth and production somewhat. An easy solution is to spray off your plants if you see a dusting of ash. Ash, dust and particulates can also infiltrate your house, so your house plants will appreciate a good dusting as well. Heavy smoke cover may have a similar effect, but a surprising amount of light does get through, so even a day that feels hazy and smoky may not be impacting the plants too badly. Have you ever gotten a sunburn on a foggy day? It’s kinda like that. If the sky is not actually dark it is likely that natural processes of photosynthesis are not being terribly inhibited. It has actually been found that the increased Carbon Monoxide in the atmosphere can be good for plants and encourage growth, as long as there is sufficient light.

Is it safe to eat my veggies that have been exposed to wildfire smoke?

The short answer is Yes. Smoke toxicity does not seem to penetrate into the fruit, and analyses have not uncovered any serious concerns of health risks. Of course, there may be surface contamination from falling ash and particulate matter in the atmosphere, but these are easily rinsed off when you wash your veggies. Do wash your veggies! I personally tend to worry about longer term contamination of the soil with heavy metals and settling particulates, but I was unable to find anything conclusive to corroborate this concern. We are more at risk from breathing airborne particulates than from growing and eating the food exposed to them. Here is an article if you want to delve a little deeper. The second link is for folks who really want to geek out on this topic!

I have so much to do in my garden, but being outside is unpleasant. What do I do?

This has been a recurring theme this year, and I certainly share this concern and lack of motivation. I admit that I have done less regular maintenance in my garden this year…the edges are obnoxiously weedy, my tomatoes and cukes are not well trellised, I really haven’t fertilized at all…I could go on and on.  I have had to come to terms with only having the energy to do the bare minimum this season, which for me has been keeping up with the absolutely necessary things like watering and harvesting.

I happen to be someone who thrives on making lists and crossing things off…so I will set tiny tasks for myself in my garden, like spending 20 minutes checking and repairing irrigation, or harvesting tomatoes for 15 minutes after work. It seems like such a small thing, but by setting these tiny goals you can still get some satisfaction out of your garden, keep it alive,  AND reap the bounty! Give yourself a break. Not every season has to be the best garden ever.

How Can I Protect and Prepare My Garden for a Changing Future?

Every season of course presents its own complicated set of factors, ensuring that no two seasons are alike, and this is becoming, even more, the case as conditions become more extreme due to climate change. “Normal” may be a pointless designation in these changing times, so I encourage restraint when it comes to making statements like “My tomatoes should be ripe by now. Last year I had been eating melons for a month at this time. I’ve never had powdery mildew before.” 

Know that every season is different, and things are constantly changing. For instance, it is well known that many plants will be slower to flower and fruit when temperatures are above 85 degrees. Most years we experience a brief hot spell and then things quickly get back to normal. This year however we have experienced something like 2 ½ months of sustained temperatures in the high 90’s, which may account for the fact that your tomatoes seem slow to ripen, or your melons have very little fruit compared to previous years.

What will next year be like? Hard to say. All the more reason to pay attention to what is happening in your garden and around you and respond accordingly. I think someone wrote a book about that in the 70’s…Be Here Now!

All that said, there are things you can do to prepare and even improve your garden for a changing world, and they are all good practices to employ even in the steadiest of times. At Sierra Harvest, we try to teach the best regenerative methods for your home garden, including four-season growing; mulching; cover cropping; minimal tilling; and of course the use of all organic inputs. Here’s a link to an article that goes a little more in depth about what you can actually do in your own garden, and it’s simpler than you might think!

Growing your own is more important than ever, so I hope this helps you stay motivated to adapt to current conditions!