Nitty-Gritty: Wildfire Smoke Impact on Garden

I don’t know about you but my throat has been raw and my chest just tired tired from all this smoke. I know there has been other years with lots of wildfire smoke settling in the Valley but during those years I wasn’t a flower farmer!  I spend A LOT of time outdoors and it has finally taken it’s toll on me.  At first I thought perhaps a small reaction from the smoke, then it got so bad I knew I was getting sick… well not sick from a virus but feeling rather crummy nonetheless.  I’m sure my mom is tired of hearing me whine about how smoky it is here but I bet all my fellow locals are feeling the burn (in your lungs and eyes I mean).  Just bleh. Nothing worse than feeling like you can’t catch a good deep breath.  I have begun to smother my pillow in eucalyptus essential oil, just so I can breathe at night! I think the only places with worse air quality around here at the moment is probably from the casinos.  

 

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Even last week, some of you may have noticed, I skipped farmer’s market.  As I was harvesting Friday my throat felt like it was on fire and my head spinning.  The air quality wasn’t even as bad as it has been this last week but I felt ill.  I really hate (yes I used that really strong word that I don't let my girls say) bailing on engagements I committed to.  It makes me feel terrible and like I've let people down.  If you are one of my loyal farmer's market customers and have felt let down, from the bottom of my heart I am sorry.  

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Obviously, we all know the precautions to take with our health, our children, and our pets.  Stay indoors, if you have a swamp cooler you are out of luck, take it easy- oh and they give you this amazing excuse to not vacuum your carpet!  One of the top inquiries I get during the wildfire season is “how is your garden handling all this smoke?”  With so many avid gardeners in our area and since we seem to get smoke worse and worse each summer I figured it was worth addressing.  This isn’t a long or complicated post by any means, it’s also fairly basic so here we go!

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Alright, let’s take a stroll back in time to the beginning of acne and bumming off sticks of gum from classmates.  Middle school.  Let’s hone in more and go back to biology.  I know, I try not to think back then either, with the dissection of pig hearts and creepy long night-crawlers, icky.  Let’s focus more on an area I obviously fell in passion for: plants. Oh yeah, we’re going there. Photosynthesis.  

 

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We are coughing.  Our throats are raw.  A nice deep breath is out of the question.  The smoke is lessening our oxygen levels not to mention all those nasty micro-particle pollutants in the air.  We feel like we are slowly suffocating.  It’s blah.  We feel like blah.  Naturally, our tomatoes must be suffocating too, right?

 

Nope.  Actually, you can argue that, especially in the heat of the summer, this smoke is helping out your garden!  Yes, there is a silver lining in these devastating fires.  Not much of a silver lining but we’re here and going to look on the positive side.

 

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Air quality affect on plants

 

So we need oxygen, yes? Yes.  Plants create oxygen but do they need it?  Well, they like that lovely carbon dioxide.  According to New Mexico State University, the smoke is actually giving them a “carbon dioxide fertilization.”  Going back to basic biology- the plants need carbon dioxide to create energy (sugars) and basically poop out oxygen as a byproduct. Even though we are feeling the burning in our chests from the smoke, our plants are completely fine and are actually enjoying it.  Plants like balance, as long as we can help them stay in balance they will not be impacted by the air quality.  More on that later.

 

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Blocked sunlight

With the smoke comes the haze.  I am craving seeing our blue skies once again, these days you wouldn’t even know we had Job’s Peak looming over us.  Nothing like some wildfire smoke to make you feel like the world is crashing in on you.  But what about the affect on plants?  They need the sunlight.  The sunlight is where they gather the carbon dioxide to create the sugar and energy right? Yes, they do but we are already having additional carbon dioxide in the air.  It’s close to looking like doomsday out there in the haze but not quite. We’re getting breaks and the sun is peeking.  Actually, in the heat of the summer your tomatoes and other plants are probably appreciating the harsh UV lights being filtered a bit.  I remember the year we had all that terrible ash and smoke from the Yosemite area was the year with some of my best tomatoes! Tomatoes appreciate some relief from the afternoon sun, it’s rough on them.  It allows them to set more flower buds which in turn gives you more tomatoes. Don’t worry, they are getting plenty of sunlight still, just a little less harsh on them.  The worse thing is they *may* get a little on the leggy side.  I have not personally seen that happening in the garden, actually, the plants are pretty stout right now!  Even my little seedlings that I just direct sowed a few weeks ago.

 

Ash here there and everywhere

 

Thankfully, we aren’t seeing giant snowflake size pieces of ash flying in the air but smaller ash-flakes sure are there. What started out as tiny particles over the past few weeks have escalated to being more visible with the most recent fire.  Not fun to breathe in but wood ash is actually beneficial to plants.  Obviously, I’m not talking in smothering quantities but with the levels we’re experiencing it has upsides.  Wood ash is a common soil amendment.  It has potassium, phosphorous, calcium and other trace minerals that make plants happy. Disclaimer:  ash in large amounts in soil already alkaline is a big no-no (typically).  Acidic soils benefit from wood ash being added to help bring that pH down. End of disclaimer. With a wildfire, we don’t get to choose whether our blueberries are getting a dose of it or not.  There are still benefits and plants are resilient, they want to grow and can handle natural occurrences better than if we mistakenly amend our alkaline soil with a full wheelbarrow of ash from our woodturning stoves.  This is one of those times where I let nature take it’s course.

 

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So what to do?

 

Put weeding on the back burner.  As long as your garden is getting water, it will forgive your neglect for a few days until the air quality improves.  The gardener’s well being is more imperative than the garden.  It does not need you to babysit or go hose the ash off today or even in the next week.  Stay indoors and can some salsa.  When the smoke has run it's course, then you can hose off those plant babies (early in the morning so they don't get sun scald!).

 

Bump up the watering. Make sure your garden is staying hydrated.  If there is any kind of stress the plants are experiencing with the wildfire smoke, consistent watering and maybe a few additional minutes more will help them to overcome that.  Just like we need to up our water intake during this time, the plants need the same.  I highly recommend having your garden on drips, if possible.  Drip irrigation and a timer also allows you to hunker down indoors and not worry that your garden is dying of thirst.

 

Phosphorous help plants in distress and it is a vital nutrient in the development of blooms. The good news is that the ash has you covered there!  If you are still worried about your plants are being too stressed and are looking sad, hit them with some kelp, preferably when the air quality improves- once again the gardener is more important than the garden.

 

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To learn more about plant nutrition be sure to read my blog post on that here.

 

To summarize: your garden is fine.  If it’s not thriving, do not automatically assume it’s due to the wildfire smoke because (most likely) that’s not the root of the problem.  Check for pests, water and nutritional deficiencies before throwing in the towel and blaming it on the smoke.

 

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Here’s to hoping for relief soon and that all our firefighters and the communities impacted by these devastating fires will stay safe.  Houses can be rebuilt but a life lost is a tragedy.  

Happy gardening and I am looking to be handing you blooms soon.