Chances of an El Niño put at 60 percent.
The Pacific Northwest is in for a chilly winter, and the U.S. Southwest expects a cool one, according to the 2014-2015 Winter Weather Outlook developed by The Farmers Almanac. Its data states, “No region will see prolonged spells of above-normal temperatures; only near the West and East Coasts will temperatures average close to normal.”
While the actual source of its predictions is never revealed, many old-timers rank its accuracy over the years as close to 80 percent-a lot better than a coin toss. To review the full Farmers Almanac outlook, go to http://farmersalmanac.com/weather/2014/08/24/2015-us-winter-forecast. The primary source for daily scientific forecasts is the NWS National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Visit http://www.weather.gov and enter your state, city or zip code. It’s a 24/7 resource, more up-to-date than the broadcast news and without the additional chatter.
Where To Get Your Weather Data
Many local media stations combine National Weather Service information with their own resources to produce their weather reports. Some stations offer links to their information either through streaming of their on-air segments or connections to their constantly changing forecast models, or both. Pick the source with the strongest accuracy rate and channel the information to your computer, tablet or smartphone.
The best updates of the impact of weather conditions on lawns and landscapes come through the local extension service. Some university extension services have even developed special sections geared toward green industry professionals. In many cases, you can sign up for the periodic updates via emails, blog links, texts or tweets. When concerns develop, you can communicate directly with turfgrass or ornamental specialists by phone or email.
Winter in the West: what to expect
Long-range forecasts for much of the western region are ambiguous this year. Temperature and precipitation predictions are rated with an equal chance of being above or below average. Longer-range information, such as the Winter Weather Outlook, is issued by the NWS’s National Center for Environmental Prediction (NCEP) through its National Climate Data Center. These forecasts are posted monthly at http://www.cpc.ncep.noaa.gov.
The NCEP is also the primary source for other major weather issues, such as hurricanes and tsunamis, and for the El Niño watch. Its September report puts the chance of El Niño at 60 to 65 percent during fall and winter for the Northern Hemisphere.
Even the Farmers Almanac took notice of that prediction. Though the map it posted with the 2015 Winter Outlook shows normal precipitation for the Pacific Northwest and average for the U.S. Southwest, it is holding out a little hope due to the official El Niño watch. “An El Niño could result in more rain this winter for drought-stricken California and southern states, and a milder winter for the nation’s frigid northern tier,” it says.
The National Drought Mitigation Center is the best resource for drought condition assessments and outlooks and for drought impacts. The link to all that information consolidated on the U.S. Drought Monitor map is http://droughtmonitor.unl.edu. Despite recent heavy rainfall and flooding in parts of the Southwest due to the aftermath of Hurricane Norbert, much of California and a few other areas are still registering extreme drought conditions.
The best updates of the impact of weather conditions on lawns and landscapes come through regional or state extension services. All of these have website resources available.
Yvonne Savio is the master gardener coordinator for the University of California Cooperative Extension in Los Angeles. Her program is a prime example. “We’ve set up a tips section within the Master Gardener Program to provide the most practical, useable information for lawns and landscapes,” Savio says. “It’s designed to be beneficial for everyone-the homeowner, the person involved with a community garden, the teacher focusing on health and the environment or the green industry professional. Check it out at http://celosangeles.ucanr.edu/UC_Master_Gardener_Program/Garden_Tips_for_Los_Angeles_County/.
Though the coming winter is still just a prediction, looking back at last year may give some indication of what to expect. Whether your area was too wet or too dry, with temperatures too cold or wildly fluctuating, some of your clients are destined to have problems. If adverse conditions repeat, no matter what precautions you’ve taken, be prepared for a flurry of customer calls next spring. While winter damage is obvious to you as a lawn care professional, your customers may need help recognizing it.
Tips for turf
You can’t control the weather, but you can prepare for it. That’s a philosophy long supported by Stephen Cockerham. He served for years as the superintendent of ag operations for the University of California-Riverside. Now with an emeritus appointment, he’s continuing to support the green industry and to work on the California drought issue in research projects.
Preparation starts with basic agronomics. Take a soil sample and follow the recommendations given in the test results. When you get the pH, phosphorus and potash levels right, all plants have better odds of standing up to adverse conditions.
Cool-season grasses generally handle cold winters with minimal problems, though preventative treatments for snow mold are often required.
Photo: The National Drought Mitigation Center
Monitor the late fall applications of nitrogen (N) on the warm-season grasses. Pushing late-season vegetative growth can reduce the plants’ carbohydrate reserves.
“When the warm-season grasses go dormant, you can kill the winter weeds with a nonselective herbicide; just make sure there’s no green tissue remaining,” Cockerham says. “In Southern California, late February is the best time to verticut the warm-season grasses and apply fertilizer.”
Drought is the prevailing issue for California, and it looks like this problem will continue for the state. “Even if we have a wet winter, we’re so far behind we won’t catch up,” Cockerham says. “Water restrictions are in effect with a mandated 20 percent state-wide cutback this year.”
“Every single drop of rain is precious here,” Savio adds. Thus, irrigation system efficiency is essential, and green industry professionals are in the best position to deliver it.
“Most homeowners don’t even know how much water they’re using,” Cockerham points out. “Installation of a new irrigation system or upgrading an existing system with moisture sensors and controllers that tap into evapotranspiration (ET) levels are the key. It’s possible to grow pretty good home lawn grass with 50 to 60 percent of ET. That’s a big savings that quickly pays for the technology.”
Tips for ornamentals
Ornamentals require more individualized care than turf, though soil testing and fertilization adjustment and irrigation do apply. Watch the pruning schedules to avoid a late season flush of growth. Advise clients to be cautious in selecting and installing ornamentals that are on the fringe of their region’s USDA growing zone. Recommend mulching to protect established plants.
Or, convince them to adopt the approach taken by Dr. Michael Goatley, turfgrass extension specialist/professor, crop and soil environmental science at Virginia Tech. “I plant what I like and enjoy it while it thrives,” Goatley says. “And, if it can’t withstand the winter, I try something else.”
Suz Trusty is a partner with her husband, Steve, in Trusty & Associates, Council Bluffs, Iowa. She has been involved in the green industry for more than 40 years. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.