He Wrote a Gardening Column. He Ended Up Documenting Climate Change.
In the summer of 2019, Jeff Lowenfels told me, one of his friends successfully grew okra in Anchorage. Lowenfels could not believe it. The crop was shorthand for all the change he has witnessed since he moved to the city in the 1970s, a distance between past and present that he has measured in vegetables and fruits from cabbage, snow peas and potatoes to tomatoes, pumpkins and now, incredibly, okra. Holy crow! he said. We can grow anything! Lowenfels, a 72-year-old retired lawyer, has written several best-selling books on organic gardening and one on growing cannabis. He is a former president of the Garden Writers Association and was inducted into the organizations Hall of Fame in 2005; his personal website describes this as the highest honor a garden writer can achieve. Perhaps his most notable feat, though, is one of endurance. Lowenfels has written since November 1976. It is the countrys longest-running such column. In it, he gives advice: on the care and feeding of African violets; on the benefits of raking or not raking your lawn; on how to ward off hungry moose. He also observes. Gardening is fundamentally a local endeavor, an experiment in fitting plants to a specific soil and climate. For more than 40 years, Lowenfels has noted Alaskans successes with new plants, tracked the lengthening stretch of frost-free days and recorded the arrival of new horticultural pests. Until the recent past, few people ever set out to create a long-term record of climate change, says Abe Miller-Rushing, an ecologist at Acadia National Park in Maine. Many have done so by accident, though. Foresters write down when trees bud. Flyfishers monitor when aquatic insects hatch. Birders track when migrating birds appear in their yards. Phenology, the study of climate-related biological rhythms when flowers bloom, for instance, when frogs sing, when birds migrate had long been viewed as boring, Miller-Rushing says. Once you had things figured out, you had it figured out, because it happened the same every year. But then it began to become clear that things werent happening the same every year. Since 2003, Miller-Rushing has pored over dozens of long-term records. He has scoured data from the diaries of Henry David Thoreau for notes on when flowers bloomed. Others have been searching French ledgers that stretch back to the Middle Ages for wine-grape harvest dates, sifting through imperial Chinese documents for mention of the arrival of locust swarms, examining 17th-century Japanese diaries for information about the timing of the annual cherry-blossom festivals. These documents often created for mundane reasons, because flowers and harvests and pests are what gardeners have always concerned themselves with have become sources of useful data. Its really valuable to have those kinds of observations, Miller-Rushing says. How things have changed over the past hundred or 200 or more years can really tell us a lot about the changes we can expect over the next hundred or 200 years. In the same incidental way, Lowenfels has produced a chronicle of his own: In observing the small, local experiment in fitting plants to soil and climate, he has created a long-running account of climate change in the state where it is changing the fastest, providing hints of what awaits as people take part in a similar but much bigger climatic experiment, one now rearranging plants across the planet. in the suburbs of New York City. The family was in the butter business. Gardening was a Lowenfels hobby: Lowenfels and his two older brothers spent much of their time working in their parents garden. Their grandfather A.L., known professionally as the Butter Man, had thousands of plants, too, including a patch of orange day lilies. Lowenfels was in college in the late 1960s when A.L. died, and he helped his father dig up some of the day lilies and replant them at his parents house. Lowenfels studied law at Northeastern University, where he met Judith Hoersting. On their third date, a mugger shot Lowenfels in the neck. He nearly died. The bullet, a .22, remains lodged close to his spine. In 1975, he and Hoersting, now married, moved to Alaska, where Lowenfels would soon go to work for the state attorney generals office. Not long after, Lowenfels helped lead a group of concerned citizens trying to save The Anchorage Daily News, one of the citys two daily papers. Its circulation had fallen to just 5,000. Its competitor, The Anchorage Times, was the Chamber of Commerce rag sheet, Lowenfels recalls. We needed The Daily News. One day over his lunch break, he says, he signed up 2,500 new subscribers. (This astonishing feat could not be independently verified.) The Daily Newss publisher asked him to be the papers circulation manager. Lowenfels suggested that he write a gardening column instead. OK, she said. Lets try it for a few weeks. Starting with todays column, Lowenfels wrote, I will answer questions you have about plants and gardening. The column, initially titled Petal Power, started out as a classic Q. and A. advice column. He answered one question about Christmas cactuses and one about coaxing last years poinsettia to bloom. The column ran on Nov. 13, 1976. The next week, Lowenfels wrote another, and another the week after that. Months passed, then a year. It was easy to come up with topics. Gardening writing had its phenology, too. The end of March, for instance, was the time to start letting people know what he thought about tomatoes. April 1, 1978: It seems that all anyone wants to know these days is when to plant the tomatoes. Well, now is about the right time. ... First, make sure you really want to go through the hassle of growing these fruits. March 28, 1981: There are hundreds of reasons for not growing tomatoes. They are not pretty plants. They attract white flies. They wont set fruit if the temperature drops below 56 degrees. March 28, 1987: Now is the time to start tomato seeds in Alaska. Mind you, I am the first to admit that Alaska is a lousy place to grow tomatoes. In May, tell readers to rototill their gardens. Memorial Day weekend is the time to plant seeds outdoors and to transplant tomatoes. In May and July, remind readers to fertilize the lawn. They should pull dandelions or spray them with 2,4-D. In August, note the blooming fireweed: According to Alaskan tradition, this means six more weeks before the first frost. In September, a reminder to rake the lawn and plant bulbs and a call to harvest; green tomatoes will ripen if placed in a paper bag with an apple or banana. In November, provide a gift guide. In December, discuss houseplants and offer tips on poinsettias. In January, prompt readers to order seed catalogs. Soon the season for tomato dissuasion rolls around again. Ten years of columns! Lowenfels wrote in November 1985. (Actually, it had been nine; when I pointed this out to him, he texted back, lol.) By now, Lowenfels was a successful lawyer in the private sector. He was an optimist, a man walking around with a bullet in his neck. He wore a bow tie to work and carried a red clown nose in his pocket as a talisman of levity. He and Judith had children, Lisa and David. His dad died. After the funeral, Lowenfels dug up some of the orange day lilies and brought them back to Anchorage. He planted them by his driveway. Every year they sent up shoots, but they never flowered. Few of the plants that Lowenfels grew up with in New York flourished in Anchorage. Remember the old axiom, Lowenfels wrote If children wont like eating it, it will thrive in an Anchorage garden. Kale, broccoli and lettuce could be cultivated reliably, along with peas, carrots and radishes. A few crops did exceptionally well. In August 1983, he wrote about Gene and Mark Dinkel, residents of the nearby Matanuska Valley, who had once grown a 79-pound cabbage. One day he hopes to top the 100-pound mark, Lowenfels wrote, referring to Gene. Gardeners were always pushing the bounds of what was possible. Lowenfels often recommended new flowers, vegetables and horticultural plants to try. He discussed a new bean that matured in 51 days, a new carrot with 40 percent more vitamin A than other carrots and two new radishes of interest. He suggested Ligularia. Now, you are probably thinking: Ligularia? What is that? Some sort of new pasta? (It is a genus of tall, flowering plants with big leaves.) He praised Mayday trees. Somewhere they must bloom on May Day, he wrote, but here they never have. Lowenfels was converted. The epiphany came from an image, captured by an electron microscope, of fungal hyphae strangling a nematode that was attacking a tomato root. A fellow garden writer had sent it to him. He was stunned, suddenly realizing his ignorance. He read everything he could about the soil food web. I didnt sleep for 24, 48 hours, he told an Anchorage Daily News reporter in 2006. Was that true? It doesnt matter. He was changed. For decades, he had encouraged readers to douse their yards with pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers. No longer, he wrote. Not here. The yearly publishing rhythm began to reflect his new faith. In spring, he told readers not to rototill their gardens. In summer, he implored them not to use pesticides and fertilizers. In fall, he urged them not to rake their lawns fallen leaves are natures fertilizer. Feed your soil bacteria and mycorrhizal fungi. Embrace the mushrooms sprouting in your yard. Yellowjackets eat aphids; they are our friends. Use corn gluten to prevent dandelions from germinating. It wasnt just dandelions anymore. Lowenfels was increasingly concerned about invasive species. So far, he wrote, Alaskas cold and isolation meant that it had suffered fewer biological invasions than the Lower 48. But that was changing: He pointed to butter-and-eggs, oxeye daisies, bellflowers, tufted vetch, hemp nettle, spotted jewelweed, creeping Charlie, common tansy, orange hawkweed. Most of them were old experiments, escaped from the garden. I know the cause of the problem, he told his readers. Its you. Old climatic barriers were falling. High latitudes were warming much faster than the world as a whole. In this way, Alaska was not an echo of the Lower 48 but a preview. Lowenfels mentioned the greenhouse effect as far back as 1990, taking a skeptical tone; now he was a believer. Dec. 6, 2002: We could adopt a new state motto in place of North to the Future, substituting Global warming. Its our turn now! Nov. 14, 2003: What a treat to see late potentilla, pansies and even petunias in bloom. ... These have not been bad replacements for snow at the end of October. July 21, 2005: Even if you are not a gardener, surely you have noticed that the fireweed, traditionally a mid- to late-August bloomer, is almost spent, and its only the third week of July. ... Its global warming, and its our turn now. At least you will have a nice green lawn, right? November 2006 marked 30 years of columns. The next decade seemed to go quickly. Zucchini, once exceptions, became standard. Pumpkins were possible. Bolivian sun roots were worth a try. Tomatoes were no longer the holy grail peppers were the holy grail. Invasive species were terrorist cells. His New Years wish was that each and every one of us will resolve to turn our backs on the use of chemicals. Discussion of climate change was in regular rotation. More and more, there were flashes of anger. Why are we so hellbent on ruining the environment, he wrote, just so we can have a perfect lawn or flawless flower or even a record-breaking cabbage? An August 2015 column was about A.L. the Butter Man. He recalled his grandparents farm and the orange day lilies. He was 66, approaching old age himself. He had two grandchildren. That summer, he wrote, one of the day lilies he had planted in his yard bloomed for the first time, a single red-orange flower. He cried when he saw it. That November marked the start of his columns 40th year. Aside from a short break he took in 1978, he had not missed a single week. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you, he wrote. Heres to 40 more years, my friends. is a perceptual puzzle, says Brian Brettschneider, a research scientist with the National Weather Service in Anchorage. The zigzag of year-to-year variation tends to obscure trend lines. Extreme weather, meanwhile, becomes more extreme in the retelling, the colds colder, the hots hotter. Which details are normal, which are abnormal and which are wholly new? The only way to anchor ourselves in reality, Brettschneider says, is via long-term record. Its important to be able to put things in context, he says. You have to be able to look back. During the century-long span of climatic records collected at the Matanuska Experiment Farm and Extension Center, a 45-minute drive northeast from Anchorage, the average yearly temperature increased by 6.9 degrees. The coldest winter temperatures were not as cold as they used to be. The 70 years of records collected at the Anchorage airport show that the average yearly stretch of frost-free days, which set the bounds of the growing season, increased by 17 days. In his column, Lowenfels has marked the changes by the increasing possibility of growing tomatoes outdoors; by the fireweed, whose bloom no longer dependably predicted the first frost; and in the unusually mild winters. Seeds and starts could now be planted outside two or even three weeks before Memorial Day weekend, the traditional planting-out date. He encouraged gardeners to plant a second crop in July. Then came the summer of okra. In 1996, he noted that Alaska was the only state in the country that couldnt grow okra. In 2014, he mused that that might soon be possible. In 2019, it happened. Salmon and halibut gumbo could be the new Alaska dish, he later wrote. It was a summer of extremes. Throughout June 2019, Southcentral Alaska was unusually warm and dry. On July 4, Anchorage hit 90 degrees, smashing the citys previous all-time record high, set in 1969, by five degrees. Little rain fell the rest of the month. A fire on the nearby Kenai Peninsula swelled past 100,000 acres, shrouding the city in smoke for weeks on end. By August, the regions plants were ailing, needles reddened and leaves browned, like fall come early. That month, a group of researchers made a projection: By the middle of this century, Alaskas forests, now dominated by spruce, would give way to forests of deciduous trees, like birch, aspen and cottonwood. In Anchorage, the shift seemed to be well underway. I spent that summer in Anchorage. I grew up there, and during the late 1990s and most of the 2000s, I saw Lowenfelss face once a week on my way to the comics, a minor deity in the pantheon of local celebrities. My mother often invoked him to settle disputes of yard and garden. My father was somewhat less devoted. I sent Lowenfels an email in late August, curious about his view of the ongoing drought another month had passed with barely any rain. A few hours later, he called me. I hope Im wrong, he said, but I think were going to lose every single spruce tree in Southcentral Alaska. Were going to lose our lilacs. Holy crow, weve got some problems. Letters from readers had been pouring in, he said, asking him what they should plant to replace dead spruce. But he wasnt sure what to tell them. Before his conversion to no-till, organic, microbe-focused gardening, he spent 25 years telling readers to douse their plants with poisons and chemicals; to plant Mayday trees, an invasive species no longer sold in Anchorage; to rake their lawns. Giving advice is a terrible responsibility, he told me later. Its got to be used properly. I didnt use it properly. Now people were asking him what they should plant to replace wild trees, and he didnt know what to say. Suddenly, in Anchorage, the small experiment of the garden had been subsumed by the bigger, global experiment. But despite his doubts, the gardening guru had to show up. That weeks column was about the spruce trees. We need to talk as friends regarding replacements, he wrote. We need to have community discussions. You sure dont want a cranky, arthritic, guilt-ridden (for past advice that was nonorganic), moralistic, organic-garden columnist making decisions that determine what Southcentral communities will look like for the next 100 years. The next week was devoted to zinnias. The week after that, he urged readers to prepare their garden for the first frost, admitting that he had no idea when it would arrive. In the months that followed, he reminded them not to rake their lawns, urged them to leash their cats outdoors and suggested they try growing luffa and pawpaws. Why not? Just see that they dont escape. The pandemic arrived in March. He answered questions about tomatoes, about repelling hares (try human urine) and about eating slugs (cook them first). November marked the beginning of his 45th year as a columnist. He asked readers not to sterilize their soil, advised them on ornamental kale, offered tips on the care of poinsettias and Christmas cactuses. On and on he continued, week after week, as spring stretched into summer. May 14, 2021: Spruce bark beetles are still the No. 1 subject of questions I get, and I get lots. June 25, 2021: A reader wants to know what I have against radishes. My mild aversion to rhubarb she can understand, but radishes? July 16, 2021: Tomatoes like buzzing insects to pollinate, so the latest advice is to put an electric toothbrush on stems to vibrate the pollen out of the flowers. The columns were written for the mundane reasons of the present. Considered one by one, they didnt look like much of anything at all. Zach St. George is a freelance reporter focused on climate change and conservation. He is the author of The Journeys of Trees, an investigation into the future of forests.