What are Micro-Climates and How to Get Started with Them
In this episode, we’re going to look at what micro-climates are, how to identify them, and how to create new ones. Learning how to take advantage of micro-climates can help you cultivate abundance for people, plants, and wildlife.
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Do you know where the micro-climates are on your property?
Some like the south side of a building here in the northern hemisphere are warm micro-climates. These spots tend to be warmer than surrounding areas.
This is due to sunlight reflecting off the building and heat being radiated from the building throughout the night.
And other spots like the northern side of a building are cool micro-climates. The northern side of a building gets less sunlight and tends to be colder.
But there are likely a bunch of other micro-climates where you live. Learning to identify them is important to ensure your plants thrive.
Apricots for example tend to flower too early here in western Washington which makes them vulnerable to late frosts. This happens because we tend to warm up fairly early in the year during the day but still have cold nights.
One option is to plant apricots in warm micro-climates that might be safe from late frosts. But another option would be to plant them in cool micro-climates that would delay flowering until after the last frosts.
A cool micro-climate could also be used to extend your lettuce and spinach harvests by making them less likely to bolt.
I’m planning on creating some garden beds in cool areas on my property. These beds will be slower to get going in the spring but could be more resistant to summer droughts and provide longer harvests for vegetables that don’t like hot days.
Combined with garden beds in warmer areas I should be able to get good harvests over a longer period than I could with just warm garden beds on their own.
Using micro-climates in this way can make it more likely to be successful with your plantings which will help you cultivate abundance for people, plants, and wildlife.
So let’s dive into identifying existing micro-climates and look at how you can create new micro-climates.
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People like you, who want to bring these skills home, to enjoy wildlife, grow more food, and help heal our living world.
Okay, let’s get started.
Further Listening and Reading: Growing with Nature episodes and blog posts with more information about the topics covered in this episode.
- How to Get Started with Cool Microclimates
- How to Get Started with Warm Microclimates
- 3 Lessons Learned from a Hot Dry Summer – The 2021 Drought
- Why You Should Plant a Hedgerow (Plus 5 Tips to Get Started)
Books and Other Resources
Plant List: More information about some of the plants covered in this episode.
What Micro-Climates are and How to Identify Them
So we’ve talked a bit already about what micro-climates are but I want to discuss this a little bit more.
You can think of micro-climates as areas that are either warmer or cooler than the average temperature for your area.
Most micro-climates won’t have a big impact though some like the south side of your house can have a significant impact.
I’ve noticed that along the south side of my house frosts are delayed by up to a month in the fall. Because of this, I’ve planted purple tree collards here and I’ve created a garden bed for tomatoes. Tree collards can handle frosts but only down to about 15 °F.
Planting them on the south side of our house keeps them safe even on our coldest days.
Large rocks and rock walls create similar micro-climates. The south side will tend to be warmer than average and the northside will be cooler.
Ponds and other waterbodies also create micro-climates. Water tends to be warmer than the surrounding land in the winter and cooler in the summer. This has a moderating impact on the land around them.
On the large scale, it’s why coastal areas tend to be warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer than nearby inland areas.
Ponds also reflect sunlight onto the surrounding land. This can warm up nearby areas.
Low areas tend to be cooler than higher areas too. On our property, we always notice how much cooler our low gully is in the summer.
It’s fun to take an evening walk down to the gully in the summer. It feels just like walking into an air-conditioned building.
But in the winter much of this area fills up with standing water making it warmer.
These are some examples of micro-climates but there are many more than I can cover here. Luckily, there are 2 easy ways to identify micro-climates where you live.
The first is to get outside on cold, frosty mornings and look for areas that stay frosty longer and look for areas that thaw first or potentially didn’t get frosted at all.
Often cooler areas will be areas that stay shady and warmer areas will be sunnier.
But you might also notice that areas below trees tend to not frost. Trees tend to have a moderating impact on the climate—warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer.
And don’t just look for large impacts—even a single downed log will create warm and cool micro-climates depending on how it’s orientated on the ground.
If you live somewhere that has snow cover throughout the winter you can use the snow to identify cool and warm micro-climates. Look for areas that melt first and areas that stay snow-covered.
Watching frost and snow patterns is a great way to help you identify warm and cool micro-climates.
And another great way to identify micro-climates is to just take a walk and which areas feel cooler or warmer.
This won’t really help you identify small micro-climates but larger ones will stand out. You can also put out thermometers in different spots to see how the temperature changes. Just make sure to observe them at the same time of day.
And one final tip for identifying micro-climates is to pay attention to the wind. We’ve been talking mostly about sun exposure but winds and the flow of air can be a big driver of temperatures.
Our low gully is colder than the surrounding land because cold air flows down the surrounding hills and collects in that area. Winds also tend to get funneled into it.
Cold winds can increase the risk of frosts and warm winds will make an area drier and warmer. But these winds can be blocked by hedgerows, and other vegetation creating micro-climates.
In the summer blocking hot winds can make areas cooler and keep them from drying out. And in the winter blocking cold winds will keep areas warmer.
So as you’re walking around your property pay attention to the winds to help you identify micro-climates.
Creating Micro-Climates on Your Property
Once you get a good sense of existing micro-climates on your property a good next step is to explore creating new micro-climates or enhancing existing ones.
Creating new micro-climates is relatively straight forward and the existing ones you identified can help guide your work.
On our property, I’ve put a lot of my focus on creating relatively cool micro-climates by planting hedgerows and trees.
I talked about this a bit in a recent episode, but I’ve observed that drought and heat are having a significant impact on our property.
Our property is wide open meaning that most areas get far more than the 6-8 hours of sunlight needed to be considered full sun.
This also means that winds can blow across our property making droughts even worse.
So I’m focusing on planting more hedgerows and trees that can deflect the winds and provide additional shade.
I especially like to provide late afternoon shade.
This is the hottest time of the day and by that point, our plants have already gotten all the sunlight they need.
By carefully placing hedgerows and trees I can reduce the amount of late afternoon shade different planting areas get in the summer.
And by using deciduous plants that lose their leaves in the fall and not planting too densely these hedgerows will have less of a cooling effect in the winter and early spring while still providing shade in the summer.
I’ve put links in the resources section of the show notes for this episode all about hedgerows, lessons learned from a hot dry summer, and more information about cool and warm micro-climates.
So make sure to check those out.
Raised beds are a great way to create warm growing areas. Even relatively short, mounded beds will stay warmer than the surrounding land.
Cool air settles so by raising the beds above the surrounding land they will stay above the coldest air. And the sides of these beds will get more direct sun making them warm up faster.
But this also means these beds will dry out faster in the summer so watch for that.
This is the balancing act you need to do when working with warm micro-climates. These areas will tend to be hotter and drier in the summer. Though water features like ponds are the exception to this since they warm the land in the winter and cool it in the summer.
You can also use small features like logs and rock piles to create micro-climates around individual plants. I like to place logs and rocks on the south side of my fruit trees and shrubs.
The logs and rocks help shade the soil at the base of the tree and block warm southern winds from blowing across the soil around the plant. This helps keep the soil relatively cool and moist compared to the area around it which can help new trees and shrubs get established.
And rocks can also absorb the heat of the sun in the winter and release it at night helping to warm the surrounding area.
There are other ways you can create micro-climates but the methods covered here should help you get started.
First, take some time to identify existing micro-climates where you live. Get out and observe and look for frost and snowmelt patterns.
Then see what you can do to create new micro-climates or enhance existing ones.
Finally, when planting keep your micro-climates in mind. Plant heat-loving plants in warm micro-climates and plants that don’t like the heat in cooler areas. Doing this will help you work with your land which will result in more abundance for people, plants, and wildlife.
And stay tuned for our next episode where we will look at Pacific Northwest native plants that you can grow for easy winter harvests. And don’t forget to check out the show notes for more links and resources related to this episode.
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