You may have heard reports that we're in an El Niño year, or experiencing an El Niño event. However, you may not know what exactly El Niño is.
It's a weather pattern that occurs when surface water temperatures rise in the Pacific Ocean to above-average levels. El Niño weather events generally mean that the southeastern United States is in for a cooler, wetter winter and spring (as opposed to a La Niña year, where we experience a warmer and dryer winter). These patterns occur every two to seven years.
While it is important to know what causes these events, as a gardener you're probably more concerned with what exactly an El Niño year means for your plants.
For one, a wetter winter means that you could see an increase in plant disease and fungal problems, as the conditions will be favorable for their development. Keep a close eye on your garden so that you can quickly catch any issues that may arise before they become a major problem. Additionally, with more rain comes increased soil erosion and stormwater runoff. Rains can also leach nutrients from the soil, particularly nitrogen, so be on the lookout for nutrient deficiencies in your plants.
The increase in rain, coupled with cooler temperatures, could also slow the development of deciduous fruits. Even increased cloud cover from all the rain can affect the growth of some fruit trees.
Speaking of fruit, keep in mind that strawberries develop slower during El Niño years and can be more at risk for developing fungal diseases. Take care when watering to keep your strawberries as dry as possible to prevent fungal diseases. Harvests of other crops in your garden may also be impacted; expect tomatoes and green peppers to yield less.
An El Niño year is not all bad. While the winter will generally be cooler than average, this does not mean that more hard freezes are likely. Cooler winter temperatures during an El Niño year are actually caused more by the increased cloud cover than south-moving arctic blasts. Another plus—the El Niño pattern generally means a milder hurricane season.
The landscape issues caused by El Niño can be mitigated with some extra vigilance and care. For specific questions related to your plants and garden, you can contact your local county Extension office for more help.