EDITOR'S NOTE Dean Fosdick retired in May 2001 after 23 years with The Associated Press, 15 of those as Alaska bureau chief. He has covered the Exxon Valdez oil spill, volcanoes, galloping glaciers and harvesting Alaska-grown 100-pound-plus cabbages. He can be reached at: deanfosdick(at)netscape.net
NEW MARKET, Va. (AP) Gardeners subscribing to that old refrain about being able to talk about the weather but not being able do anything about it might profit by meeting meteorologist Bill Blackmore.
He contends you can do something about the weather in ways that will save you money, stretch your growing season and influence the way the wind whips around your window boxes.
You simply need to be weather wise.
''Farmers and nurserymen for centuries have been reading nature for clues about the weather,'' says Blackmore, with the headquarters office of the National Weather Service in Silver Springs, Md. ''They understood what might be coming because of certain changes in the clouds and shifts in the wind.
''This is how they survived,'' he says. ''Working with the weather gave them an edge.''
People then, as now, may have learned the hard way to pay attention to the first and last frost dates in their areas and what they might expect in annual rainfall.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture in recent years has developed a map delineating plant hardiness zones. Select plants appropriate for your region.
You won't need a digital weather station to succeed as a gardener, but you might want at least a few weather instruments in your inventory.
One a rain gauge can be had dirt cheap.
''You probably should use more than one rain gauge if you're trying to monitor different growing situations,'' says Blackmore, himself an avid gardener. ''Vegetable gardens, for example, usually are laid out in sunny locations. Shade gardens are protected by clusters of trees with leaves that tend to channel a lot of the rain away. In those cases, one (rain gauge) won't serve all.''
Shave some costs by making your own rain gauge from an open can or cylinder, Blackmore says.
''Just stick a ruler in it and place it out in the open,'' he says. ''Paint the can a dark green if you're concerned about aesthetics.''
Using a rain gauge tells you when to water and when not to. If you recorded, say, an inch of rain overnight, then leave your hoses coiled. That will save you time as well as money.
''Do the math,'' Blackmore says. ''If you've got 5,000 square feet (in turf grass) and you don't have to water, that adds up. It also doesn't drain the environment.''
Another weather instrument in every gardener's collection should be a thermometer, Blackmore says. If you have a greenhouse with seedlings sprouting from a lower shelf, you may want to position your thermometer near ground level.
''Place it at any height of interest in your garden,'' he says. ''It can be used to monitor heat or warn of killing frosts.''
Gardeners are crowding their nearest nurseries about now, spending hundreds of dollars apiece for young blooms and vegetables. But this is still a chancy time of year. Most growing things are tender and can be damaged by a lingering chill.
''A clear sky and calm winds combined with a low dew point can tell you you've got a frost coming on, and that you should protect those new plants,'' Blackmore says. ''Especially if temps around sunset are in the 40s or lower.
''Look to what the weather is telling you about getting your plants under cover, mulching them or watering them. Water holds heat. If you let plants go dry and a frost hits, it may do even more damage.''
Study how the sun, wind and shade impact your property and consider making a few climate-appropriate changes.
Some well-placed landscape modifications can help your flowers bloom longer, produce healthier vegetables and fruit and make for a more attractive yard.
Gardening aside, managing your microclimate can help weed out high energy costs.
Carefully positioned trees can save up to 25 percent of a typical household's power consumption for heating and cooling, federal officials say. Computer models created by the U.S. Department of Energy predict the proper placement of only three trees can save an average household between $100 and $250 in energy costs per year.
A study in South Dakota determined that windbreaks to the north, west and south side of your house can cut fuel consumption by an average of 40 percent, the Energy Department says.
''Prolong your growing seasons by modifying your immediate environment,'' Blackmore says. ''Adding a few trees or shrubs can buffer the wind flow and keep cold air (which is heavier) from pooling up around your yard.
''Likewise, certain plants like sun, so placing them in warmer soil near the south side of your house can give them a boost early in the (growing) season.''
Ignore the weather at your peril, Blackmore says.
''Gardeners are outdoors a lot and dozens of people are killed each year by lightning,'' he says. ''It only costs a few dollars to buy a weather radio so you can head for shelter if some thunderstorms are rolling in.''
On the Net:
To find your nearest weather station: http://www.noaa.gov
For more about landscaping for energy efficiency: http://www.eren.doe.gov/erec/factsheets/landscape.html
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