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Our Climate

While this page describes in detail our exact climate, its thrust is to demonstrate that that climate is typical of a rather large portion of North America. (The data shown are in all cases the most recent available.)

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USDA Climate Zone

We are in eastern Washington State, about 50 to 60 miles west-southwest of Spokane (more precisely, 4 miles south of Ritzville, Washington). The zone map shows us as Zone 6a, but owing to our micro-climate we’re really something like Zone 5b or maybe even 5a. That’s because we’re in a small coulee that amounts to a freeze pocket, making us a few degrees cooler than the immediately surrounding areas, though, as you will see, we can nonetheless get pretty hot in the summer.


Local Seasons

Controlling Climate Influences

One often sees and hears the phrase “Pacific Northwest” used in a sweeping way for the Oregon-Washington area, but that is an extremely parochial use. Coastal Oregon and Washington, the relatively narrow strip (variously called “the I-5 corridor” or “the rainyside”) running between the Pacific Ocean and the western slopes of the Cascade mountains, is a mild-winter, cool-summer, rainy, maritime climate; it is also where the great majority of Washingtonians and Oregonians live (think Seattle and Portland). It is not, however, the majority of the land area of either State. Rural eastern Washington (and Oregon, about which we know less) have very different climates from that of the I-5 corridor, and gardening considerations here are wildly different from those of the “Pacific Northwest” of books.

The Cascades, like all coastal ranges, act as a rain shield against weather blowing in off the ocean. Hence, it is very dry to the east of them, in their “rain shadow.” Just past their western slopes, rainfall can be as little as 4 inches a year; even where we are, the climate is quite dry. That climate also is not moderated by the proximity of an ocean, and so we have four full, real seasons.


Local Climate

Since we have been here for a bit over two decades, and have been assiduously recording weather data since almost Day One, we now have a pretty good handle on our local micro-climate. (But of course, global warming is having its effects: we may never again ever see what old timers here consider a “normal” winter.)

Temperatures

The average overnight low temperature on the coldest day of the year (in early January) is 15 degrees; the average high temperature on the warmest day of the year is 91 (around the end of July). In those two decades, the coldest-ever low was -30 (though that was rather a freak show) and the highest-ever high was 108.

Basically, it seems fair to say that around here lows of zero are cold and highs of 100 are hot. You can, if you like, see an actual day-by-day (of the year) tabulation of our average and extreme temperatures and precipitation. (And, if you like, you can compare our micro-climate data with those of the nearby town of Ritzville, which is more like what the USDA Zone for this region suggests.)

Rainfall

Annual rainfall, excluding winter snow, is a hair over 13 inches (13.28), with seasonal variations that are not drastic (but not including snowfall).

Frost-Free Days

“Frost-free” growing days here are—as they are everywhere—a complicated subject. Simplistic statements like “Ritzville has about 150 frost-free days, with last frost typically around May 15th and first frost typically around September 15th” are silly, for a number of reasons. One is that some care is needed in defining a “frost”: it is not just a day when the air temperature drops below 32°F. We have a separate page on this site discussing in detail frost data; it includes links to regional Climate Centers where you can get detailed weather data from the official weather station nearest to you.

On that page, you will see that the climate folks use temperatures anywhere from about 20° to about 36° when speaking of “frosts”. The American meteorological Society says this: “Depending upon the actual values of ambient-air temperature, dewpoint, and the temperature attained by surface objects, frost may occur in a variety of forms. These include a general freeze, hoarfrost (or white frost), and dry freeze (or black frost). If a frost period is sufficiently severe to end the growing season (or delay its beginning), it is commonly referred to as a killing frost.” A government publication amplifies that: “Because frost is primarily an event that occurs as the result of radiational cooling, it can occur with standard observing level temperature (at 5 feet above ground) in the mid to upper 30s. Most experts suggest that a “killing frost” would take place at temperatures lower than 32 degrees Fahrenheit. The range most often cited is between 25 degrees and 28 degrees Fahrenheit.” [emphasis added] And, of course, every year brings different dates for the last and first killing frost.

The best we think that can be said from our own spot data is that our frost-free growing period averages—dangerous word!—147 days, running from May 11th through October 4th (inclusive). That is the “never below 32°F” range; the range if we instead use “never below 29°F” is from April 20th through October 11th (again inclusive), which is 175 days. The mid-point of our season is thus around July 22nd or July 23rd. So is our growing season 147 days or 175 days or something else? As you see, it all depends on your definitions. More generally, we can be said to have fairly short but fairly hot sumnmers. (So the usual advice for growing in “short, cool summers” is of little to no use to us.)

Keep also in mind that the length of the “growing season” does not specify what crops can be grown. The ones that stretch us are usually going to be the warm-weather crops, and you cannot plant them in the ground on the first frost-free day of the season. One way to figure that sort of thing is to look at the seedsman’s quotation of days to harvest from either, as applicable, direct-seeding or transplanting out, halve that number, then look at your weather that many days back from and on from your mid-season date.

If that’s confusing, let’s take an example. Say we have a tomato that we are told is 90 days from transplant to harvest. Half of 90 is 45, so we count back 45 days from our mid-season—if we use July 23rd as that date, we get to June 8th. Then we count forward 45 days from July 23rd, which gets us to September 6th. Now we look at our temperature data (if you have your own records, swell; if not, use data from your nearest weather station—ask your county ag agent what that is and where to find the numbers). In our case, on June 8th the average temperatures are a high of 73° and low of 40°; and on September 6th, it’s 76° and 42°. Then all we need ask ourselves is whether, based on those temperatures, the start and end dates both look safe for plant survival. (Which is a judgement call—is 40° too cool or not?) If you think those temperatures safe, you should be able, in a reasonably normal year, to grow that plant.

Another point that has become clearer and clearer to us over the years—and especially so in this era of accelerating global warming—is that trying to beat the onset of summer with inherently cool-weather crops like brassicas is ever-increasingly a losing battle. The answer is to instead do mid- or late-summer plantings for fall (and even early winter) harvest. Mother Nature has been trying to tell us that by having many of those cool-weather crops actually want and need some touches of frost before their full flavor develops. Take her hint.

We also experience, at times, substantial wind, generally right out of the west—on occasion, real windstorms. With tall crops like corn, some sort of protection from blow-down is wanted.


Growing Conditions

Soil

Throughout this region, soil is a deposit over a thick layer of basalt (volcanic rock); the depth of that soil layer determines the usual use of the land. At about 5 or more feet deep, soil is economically usable for wheat, and farmers out here grow wheat kind of like the Japanese grow rice—it seems as if not a usable square inch gets overlooked. Where the soil is less than 5 feet deep, yields for wheat become marginal and such land—sometimes with soil depths of only a few inches—is “pasture land,” suitable (to commercial agriculture) only for grazing cattle.

The soil itself is usually pretty good in texture, albeit definitely on the clay side—though land previously used for wheat will have been through many, many of the hideous two-year cycles used in PNW wheat farming: one year of dumping as much poison on the soil as you can afford plus as little artificial fertilizer as you can get by with, then a year of letting the land sit unplanted and uncovered so that as much of the topsoil as possible can get blown away (the micro-particulate air-pollution rate in eastern Washington State is shocking and unhealthy) so that next year you’ll need yet more artificial fertilizer, and—as the King Of Siam supposedly used to say—“et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.” What was not wheatland tends to be medium-heavy clay in its natural state. The natural pH tends to be rather alkaline; potassium and phosphorus are usually lavishly present, but nitrogen is puny, the soil having been farmed out in the hideous manner just mentioned.

The location we selected for our vegetable garden appears to be about as good as it gets here—that is, it is on the better edge of marginal wheat use. At its best, it’s perhaps 3 to 4 feet deep, while at some points it’s 2 feet or less. It’s also rocky, but we removed the larger stones as we dug the ground. We are also amending the soil with aged steer manure and—after we get some going—we will add compost as well. Back at our last place, the “soil" was mediocre junk of about 12 to 24 inches depth that we had had dumped over some hardpan clay—which, for the uninitiated, is about the equivalent of sidewalk concrete—so we know you can grow good vegetable crops on surprisingly shallow soil if you take some care of it; four or more feet of soil is, for us, Heaven. We even have a few earthworms! (Big deal you say? In twelve years at our last place, we saw nary a one.)


Orientation & Sunlight

The land here was long ago utterly stripped of trees; none are found today except in proximity to houses as windbreaks. We thus have a clear shot to the south, and for that matter to the east and west, though we will eventually have a treed windbreak to the west about a hundred feet off. The land slopes very gently uphill to the south; the garden proper is essentially level. We have oriented the beds north-south, which should make no real difference to the light available to any particular bed or portion thereof no matter what we grow where, since the summer (and even spring and fall) sun passes from east to south to west.


Our Garden

It’s not essential that you know exactly how we have laid out our own garden, but it will to some extent illustrate the points about crop rotation and using deep-dug beds that we discussed in the introduction to this site.


Our Plot Layout

(If the descriptions below start to get confusing, here is a crude plot of the garden layout—and we do mean crude.)

What we have is four parallel rows each comprising two 4' x 16' planter boxes (that is, 8 boxes total, for 512 square feet of planting surface), oriented north-south with a 4-foot-wide walkway between each box in each direction. The house lies about 25 feet to the north of the garden area (actually, the garage north wall does, with the house proper east of the garage).

This year we will be putting in an arched gateway of bent 4' cattle fencing, on which to grow scarlet runner beans (highly decorative as well as tasty); it will be at the sount entrance to the garden between what the plot—which is now somewhat outdated—shows as “strawberries” and “raspberries”; further out, on both sides will be plantings of Marigolds (edible!), Lovage, and Borage. The berry beds are no more (but we will be growing a berry plant indoors, in our living room where it will join two lemon trees and a lime, all producing year round.

(The two dedicated lettuce beds shown are also no more: we will be growing lettuces in one of the main beds.)

We used to keep putting in fruit trees in the orchard area, and kept on having them die from vole attacks on the roots, even with partially buried metal screening round the trees. We now firmly believe that voles tunnel rather deeper than the 6 to 12 inches usually cited, and have abandoned the orchard as Mission Impossible. (Nonetheless, fruits, both tree and bush, are discussed further on our Fruits and Berries page.)

We always dearly wanted an asparagus bed, the bigger the better. We ended up establishing it, owing to reasons beyond our control (namely pallets of cinder block injudiciously placed where one part of the bed should have gone), as two rows quite a ways apart; we explain all that away by saying it increases the odds that at least one row will be productive, which may even be true as the original site has pretty shallow soil, while the last-minute-add row is in pretty deep soil (for this area). (Though the two seem about equally successful, and have been satisfactorily productive.)


Our Indoors Space

Contiguous with the house proper is what may be called a garage area. We say “may be called” because besides a garage proper, it has some other walled-off rooms. One of these, which we call “the tank room” (you’ll see why) is about 16' x 16' x 10' high and has an exposed 6-inch-thick concrete-slab floor. All the walls and the ceiling are heavily insulated (as are two edges of the slab). The tank room has four huge, multi-pane (that is, high energy-gain) windows—essentially the full 16-foot width and seven feet high—facing due south. In front of these, we have put a row of eight 55-gallon drums filled with freeze-protected water and painted flat “barbecue” black. Over top of that 16-foot-wide row of drums, we have placed two-foot-deep plywood, making a 2' x 16' surface on which to place variously sized pots and planters to accommodate things from herbs to tomatoes. (And we have shelves up with fluorescent gro-lites and heating pads as a seedling-starter area.)

The “tank room” is so called because toward the back (north) side is a 2,250-gallon water tank, which acts as a buffer between the well (which, by the way, has quite a raw capacity, about 80 gpm, though we only have it pumped for 5 gpm owing to the tank). The presence of those 2,250 gallons plus the 440 in the drums, for a total of at least 2,700 or so gallons of water in the room, was intended to keep the room (and, of course, all that water) well above freezing even in darkest winter, and it works well (which is nice because that room is also our wine cellar!): the extreme range, year round, is about low 50s to mid-60s.

(Fans of solar heating will recall that the lowest winter temperatures normally come when skies are quite clear—because that’s when the ground radiates infrared energy back up to the sky—and thus with sunlight available for heating, whereas overcast, low-sun days are almost always relatively mild-temperature days because the overcast reflects ground-radiated infrared energy back down.)

Our original intent in designing in the tank room was to use it for a continuing supply of lettuce throughout the winter, with a sideline in those herbs that one prefers fresh and a few cherry and maybe regular tomatoes. We have since become aware that lettuce is so cold-hardy (down to 20 degrees, some say) that we have a fighting chance of growing it year-round if we put a poly “tent” over the rows (and maybe put some bricks edgewise in the soil between plants to help hold heat acquired in the daytime). By moving the lettuce outdoors year-round, we acquired enough indoor space to grow some tomatoes, radishes, scallions, and mini-carrots for fresh salad use. And, of course, we also now have goodly space for those never-got-enough fresh herbs.

(Some of these things can be seen, if poorly, on some photos available on the separate web site Owlcroft House, about our home and homestead.)


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