What a Winter! (...Well, maybe not.)

As we're blanketed here in the Northeast by yet another massive snowstorm, many people are just so sure that we're having a winter of historic proportions. It appears, however, that we may have just become weather wimps who can no longer fathom the kind of real cold gardeners of previous eras considered exceptional.

Most contemporary gardeners here in New York City are aware that the USDA has recently raised our Plant Hardiness Zone to 7B — the former cold hardiness of places much further south, like the North Carolina Piedmont. New York City was previously a much colder zone 6B.

I was questioning the wisdom of that change now that we have experienced the 'polar vortex'. How do this year's lows stack up against historic lows? Are we indeed 7B, or was that zone change a bit premature? 

Well, the temperature lows (how these things are determined) for zone 6B are in the range of zero to minus-five degrees Fahrenheit. I couldn't recall temps that low this year, so I checked the records. So far, the coldest temperature we have experienced is 4 degrees Fahrenheit in Central Park on the morning of January 7th. We hit 5 degrees once on January 23rd and experienced single digits a total of just seven times this year. We have yet to dip below zero.

The 4 degree mark should technically put us in zone 7A (zero to five degrees Fahrenheit), but since everyone seems to agree that this is an abnormally cold year — one not likely to happen again for decades — it seems highly unlikely that, with global warming, we will ever see that temperature in New York City again. So, yes, we are now Plant Hardiness Zone 7B — a hardiness zone that was formerly reserved for southern states.

Our milder winters are further confirmed by the shorter duration of cold spells. According to an article in the New York Times, the longest span of continuous temperatures below freezing this year is just 6 days, which is "less than half as long as the freezing periods in the 1970s."

Apparently, our cold sensation is somewhat relative — we've become so accustomed to mild winters that we no longer know what truly historic cold feels like. Or have we just been listening to TV meteorologists' exaggerated 'feels like' temps for far too long? 

Meager Monarchs: Are Mosquitoes to Blame?

Meager Monarchs: Are Mosquitoes to Blame?

There is yet another article about the dwindling monarch butterfly population in the NY Times this week. A related article last fall blamed intensified GMO (genetically modified organism) crop production and its related Roundup use for a vast reduction in this iconic insect's host plant, common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca).

Loss of this host plant and associated native nectar sources is the chief culprit in the monarch's precipitous population declines. Or so some butterfly experts would have us believe, but I'm not so sure.

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Circulation Tragedy on the Upper West Side

When I first outlined this post a few months ago, it had a title of "City Throws Subway Riders Under the Bus". That title was meant to be a little funny and a lot snarky, but as of this past week, it's no longer funny and snark seems completely inappropriate.

Sadly, a 73-year-old man was knocked under a bus and dragged to his death at the corner of 96th and Broadway a week ago. (That same night a 9-year-old boy was hit and killed at another problematic intersection just a block away.) And again yesterday, a young woman was hit and killed by an ambulance while crossing 96th Street near Broadway.

What's going on here?

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The Persistence of Place

During one of my rare forays into social media, I came across a digital posting of a  George Bellows painting, "Rain on the River".  As I stared at this glistening image — a brushwork tour de force on how to paint wet surfaces — I had a growing feeling that I had been there in person and looked out at that view.

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Greedy Gardeners?

Mariellé Anzelone has a rant against urban farming in the New York Times this week. While I greatly admire her work elsewhere, I feel this piece is both unfounded and misguided. Her primary claim is that the urban farm movement has gone too far and is displacing valuable natural processes needed in our cities. That's a fair complaint, if true, but her examples of damage to 'ecosystem services' just don't seem all that harmful to me — or even very real for that matter.

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Tiny Garden

I passed a magical little garden this morning on West 74th Street. It was composed of nothing more than moss, some moderately interesting rocks, and three toy dinosaurs.

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The Legend of the Dogwood Tree

With the recent passage of Easter, and my unsuccessful attempts to save what may have been the largest dogwood in New York City (see blog entry below), I have been recounting the legend of the dogwood tree to many of my friends & acquaintances. I don't think a single one of them had ever heard of it.

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My Little Chickadee

I made an early spring trip to the New York Botanical Garden this past weekend and had a wonderful time. I always find this period between seasons most interesting as one state of nature wrestles with another to gain the upper hand. The tussle was especially dramatic as the sunny temperature reached nearly 50 degrees but there was still plenty of snow on the ground.

Of course, the witch hazels and snow drops were in full bloom, and a few crocus in sunny microclimates had opened tentatively (see my BloomTime blog), but the real treat was the persistence of winter bird life. If you walk behind the wetland that is the northern edge of the Children's Adventure Garden, it is a birders delight. As many as four male cardinals shone electric against drab brambles and white snow, but the titmouse and the chickadee stole the show. Especially the chickadees (Poecile atricapilus), which someone has surely been feeding at close range. All you need do is hold out your hand at the sight of the black-capped bird and within a minute, the fluffy fellow will alight on your finger.

Birds are a delight to watch, but how magical to feel as well — a rare treat. The frail delicacy of the tiny feet is more tickle than grasp, and they weigh practically nothing. It is a wonder that a creature so athletic and acrobatic in flight could be so delicately made.

photos: Amy Mosedale