The Gardening Year 2014 -- a Look Back at the Weather

The new year has rolled around so it's time to sort out and file the detritus of facts, feelings and convictions associated with 2014's weather and effect on our gardens. My immediate recollection of the gardening year 2014, as a whole, was that the year was not too bad, not exactly average year, but closer than what we've experienced lately. Not overly hot, nor bracingly cold. A windy year, yet not the windiest. A year absent extremes.

Most of the days fell within the average ranges for a typical year in the Texas Panhandle. The highest temperature recorded was 104º on August 31st and the coldest temperature was 1º on February 6. Between these two bookends lies a lot of weather, most pleasant and some nasty.

In the garden, all in all, it was a very good gardening year, especially if one gardened with either native or non-native xeric plants and using organic gardening principles. I didn't note any gardening failures and quite a few successes, aided by milder summer temperatures, in comparison to the last few years, and average rainfall.

Upon closer inspection, temperatures did fluctuate, six months recording warmer than average maximum temperatures, and six months recording colder than average mean minimum temperatures. Roughly half of the months that recorded warmer mean maximum temperatures didn't record higher than average minimum temperatures, and vice versa. I didn't do a study of prior years, but I would imagine what we experienced in 2014 was rather typical.

The average of the monthly mean maximum temperature was roughly .5º warmer; the average of the monthly mean minimum temperature was .2 degree warmer than average using preliminary yearly totals. The months of May (3.9º+), August (3.5º+), and October (3.2º+) recorded the highest deviation from maximum temperatures, and July (-3.7º) and September (-2.3º) recording the coolest deviations from the mean maximum temperatures. The months of June (1.9º+), September (1.9º+), October (2.6º+) and December (4.3º+) each recorded higher mean minimum temperatures with the months of February (-3.0º) and November (-3.1º) recording the lower mean minimum temperatures.

Because of such variance, I find it helpful to summarize the gardening year by the season. And often, because of what occurs in the winter affects the spring, I start the gardening year with the previous winter.

Winter

Last year, cold came cruelly and abruptly to the Texas Panhandle, as it often does. It came just prior to Thanksgiving, 2013, with a sudden 20º+ drop. Now, temperature swings of 20º happens often, however, nature had been teasing plant life with a week of unseasonably mild weather. Slamming the door on growing so abruptly did appear to have a negative effect on a few plants, and happily, snails. As is usual in the world, a benefit can accompany a negative. It was with great delight that I noticed the absence of snails and made a casual association between the sudden cold onset and their fewer numbers. However, it could just as well have been due to dryness, but 2011 – 2013 seemed to be pretty normal snail years.

January brought dry snow measuring .03”, keeping in mind both the previous November and December's precipitation measured half or less of average. Precipitation during the first two months of 2014 was scant, a mere .39”, which includes nearly 6 inches of snow.

Maximum temperatures were higher and the mean minimums were considerably lower. The coldest day of the year was February 6th with the temperature falling to 1º. The wind blew less than average in January and February. In summary, the winter months were slightly warmer during the day, but colder at night and much dryer than normal. There were no AHS Heat days, that is, days 86º this first 2 months, as is to be expected.

Spring

Spring proved to be a challenging season again in the Texas Panhandle. March ( 1.1º+) April (2.1º+) and May (3.9º+) were hotter during the day and March (-2.1º) and April (-.1º) were somewhat colder in the evenings than average. The last spring frost date was April 15th.The cooler evening temperatures, and no doubt the lack of rain contributed to a later spring. Of course, this is all subjective, without recording and comparing bud break dates, but to me, spring did seem delayed. And just as well, as conditions were not favorable for growth.

The most notable feature of the spring was wind and dust. March and April were far windier than average, 16.1 and 16.4 mph respectively. May was just slightly windier at 13.9 mph. The 30 year normals are March – 13.9, April – 14.6, and May – 13.7mph. The significant feature of the wind were the dust storms. Three years of drier and hotter than average weather contributed greatly to dust storms rolling across the plains each time the wind got up around 20-25 mph, which were far to often. Dust was measured in my rain gauge, rather than rainfall. And a walk across the lawn left visible tracks on the grass. Yes, landscapes that irrigated enjoyed spring flowers. Unfortunately, they were left looking like a vase of long forgotten plastic flowers set off in a corner of the room, dust covering all their surfaces dimming their appearance. I had resorted to spraying down the landscape to relieve the dust build-up. It was beginning to get depressing.

March (.20”) and April's showers (.57”) still left us nearly 3 inches behind the average for the first four months. But by the end of May 21st, the weather pattern changed. May brought 3.55 inches of rain over a period of six days, the only days to receive moisture; no other days even experienced a trace.

Temperatures ranged higher in 4 of the first 5 months, and as one would expect, the number of heat days (86º and above) averaged 2 days higher in April (5), 6 higher in May (17). The highest temperature reached thus far topped at 98º, though no century days were recorded; the 20 year average is .65 days. The year started off badly, and we held our collective breath hoping this break in the pattern would remain. All preferred visions of dust clouds to only appear in our memories, rather than on the horizon.

Summer

June was even better, with a third of the days (10) measuring precipitation; 5.4 inches overall. Cooler days came upon the plains, though only slightly in June, it was welcome. Not only was humidity and cloud cover in the air, but hope. July and August received nearly two inches of rain a piece, though about an inch each below the 30 year average. Overall, for the summer months, rain was nearly spot on average, recording 8.98 inches (compared to the 30 year average of 8.91 inches). Average was indeed delightful!

After 3 years of heat, the let-up made me nearly giddy. Frowns turned to grins, city-wide. Expectations turned positive. The near area-wide and regional rains quieted the fears of the dust storms returning, at least for awhile. June averaged -.8º less than average mean maximum temperature, July -3.7º less, and August warmed to +3.5º warmer than average. I overlooked it, in hopes it would go away again. Evening temperatures were slightly warmer – June 1.9º+, July -.4º and August .5º+.

The summer experienced 69 heat days (days 86º and above), 2.4 fewer than the 20 year average. (Refer to the GardenNotes on AHS Heat days). And 5 century days (100º and above), 3.75 fewer than the 20 year average. August experienced 3 century days, including the hottest day of the year on August 31 topping out at 104º.

The winds died down less quickly, even though they no longer carried dust. June was exceptionally windy, for June, at 16.2 mph, compared to the average of 13.8 mph. Anytime winds average 15 mph or above, it is excessive, even for Amarillo. And in 2014, we experienced three months (March, April and June) of excessively windy weather. In fact, a study of mean wind speeds for the past 20 years did not show up any other years that suffered under three such windy months. (More on wind speeds in a future GardenNotes.)

Plant growth excelled. We had a good crop of weeds this year (but less snails). I'm convinced the dust storms carried along copious amounts of unwanted weed seeds, that quickly germinated everywhere once it rained. Diligent effort rewarded the garden and allowed flowering plants to take center stage. The summer floral display was glorious! I particularly noted an exceptional daylily year, though perhaps it came on the heels of a year in which we enjoyed almost no daylilies, due to the great hail storm of May, 2013. Hollyhock and salvias of all sorts had exemplary displays.

Summer vegetables had no excuse but to grow well, in properly amended soil and some additional irrigation, especially in August. I tried pole beans, after experiencing several dismal bush bean years. Red Noodle Bean from Hudson Valley Seeds produced bright red pods on tall vining plants with reddish stems. A milder tasting bean, Red Noodle produced into the fall, causing me some internal conflict in removing it for the fall/winter crop.

Autumn

After a hotter than normal August, all hopes turned to a cooler September. After reaching the hottest day on the last day in August, temperatures did cool into the mid 90's. The first 9 days of September included 6 heat days, the last of September when the temperature reached or exceeded 86º on September 9th. October brought five more heat days, peppered throughout the month, the last on October 26th. Late November flirted with the heat, rising to 83º twice right after Thanksgiving, however the foliage had long since freeze dried. 2014 was an average year for AHS Heat days, and Amarillo fell squarely within the AHS Heat Zone 8 (90-120 heat days) with a total of 102.

Similar to the other seasons, autumn was alternately cooler and warmer with September (-2.3º), October (+3.2º) and November (-1.4º) below and above the maximum mean temperatures. On the nighttime temperatures, September (+1.9º), October (+2.6) and November (-3.1º) experienced on the whole, warmer nightimes. October was warmer during both daytime and evening and November was cooler during the day and night.

Precipitation for the fall was greater than average, for a total of 5.58 inches, 1.2 inches more than the 30 year average. September's cooler temperatures and 4+ inches of rainfall allowed another splendid fall, and the warmer days in October extended the season.

Perhaps that's why when freezing temperatures arrived, it seemed so abrupt falling from a high of 83º on Monday, November 10th, to a low of 27º before midnight. That Monday the 10th caused many a gardener to spend the day bringing in plants and preparing for winter. Below freezing temperatures remained from early evening on the 11th through mid day on the fourteenth. Freezing temperatures returned each evening until the 22nd, eventually falling to 9º on the 17th. This severe and prolonged first freeze pretty much sealed the growing season for the year. Additionally, it marred what was looking like a splendid fall color change into a leaf browning and early drop. Usually some flowers linger on the plants into December enabling snipping for bouquets. By Thanksgiving, there was nary a flower for even a sparse bouquet, not even from the warmest micro-niche.

Winds were mixed in the autumn. Winds in September (12.4 mph) and November (13.2 mph) averaged slightly above the 30 year average and October's days were considerably less windy, only 10.9 mph. Not every year includes a month when the winds drop below an average of 11 mph. Warmer days and nights in a cool season and less wind add up to October, 2014 awarded the Best Month of the Year status!

The fall garden was magnificent! If I was told I could only have one season for my garden, I would choose fall. Volatile spring weather disturbs the blooms, bringing uncertainty to the early gardening season. Falling temperatures are nearly guaranteed to come sometime in September. It is a rare year that shorter, cool days don't couple with adequate moisture to allow warm season plants an extra show. A garden composed of North American natives transcends to a level far above gardens in traditional European northern latitudes, where cold temperatures come early.

And the cooler temperatures shortly after Labor Day aided the planting of cool season vegetables for the fall and winter veggie garden. This year, I seeded Swiss chard, kale and spinach in August. The chard out performed all others in surviving the heat of August, and quickly took hold when transplanted into the garden when temps cooled. Lettuces, mache, onions, turnips, beets and cilantro excelled.

I've struggled with spinach of late, and the kale suffered a severe setback due to flea beetles, however, are rebounding nicely under the polytunnel, as I write. I hurried to cover my crops on Nov. 10th, and was slow to remove it. Too slow for the Red Sails lettuce, the only crop to become infested with aphids under the tent, so to speak. Red Sails was removed on the 20th, and a lettuce mix replanted at Winter Solstice. Growth will be slow, but once daylight lengthens by Feb. 20th, growth accelerates. Harvest will be insured in March.

December

December's weather, averaged out for the month, was slightly warmer and drier, yet still fairly typical. The mean maximum temperature was right on the 30 year average of 50.9º, and the mean minimum was 4.3º warmer than average of 24.4º, even though the month finished fairly cold, with the last two days of December registering -4º and -3º for the lows. Amarillo received .13 inches of precipitation in December, down over half an inch from the 30 year average of .71”. Wind speeds were slightly lessened at 11.8 mph, compared to the 30 year average of 12.1 mph.

 

In Summary

Here are some notable stats for 2014:

  • Coldest Day: February 6, 1º
  • Hottest Day: August 31st, 104º
  • Last Frost: April 15th
  • First Frost: November 10th
  • 209 Frost Free Days
  • 102 AHS Heat days, a solid AHS Heat Zone 8 year
  • 5 Century Days
  • 0 Days below zero, a solid USDA Cold Hardiness Zone 7 year
  • 19.4 inches precipitation, within the average range of 17-21 inches a year
  • 9.2 inches of snow (nearly half our average of 17.8 inches)
  • Best Month: October
  • Average yearly wind speed: 13.34 (preliminary)
  • Windiest Month: April, 14.6mph
  • Warmest Month: August, 79.3º Mean Temperature
  • Coldest Month: January, 37º Mean Temperature

For the negatives in 2014, I list dust storms and the stronger winds at the top of the list, followed by a dry winter and spring. Although I only have the preliminary average – 13.34mph – to work with on the average yearly wind speed, only two other years exceeded 13.3mph (2008 at 13.7 and 2002 at 13.4mph). The only other negative thought on the gardening year was more than average weeds in summer.

On the positive side of the balance sheet, at the top of the list is a return to average precipitation, a further moderation of temperature since the hotter than ever 2011/2012, a lessening of snails and absence of hail (except for one quite minor incident on Sept. 24th in Amarillo).

A vibrant, thriving and lush garden from summer forward replaced my thoughts of a windy, cold, dry and dusty landscape. My first negative impression of 2014 turned out not to be the lasting one. A fairly typical year can indeed be a good gardening year.

Resources

All climate data is from NOAA Climatic Data Center or National Weather Service Forecast Office, Amarillo as follows:

AHS Plant Heat Zone Map, http://www.ahs.org/gardening-resources/gardening-maps

Angie Hanna, January 3, 2015