Book Review: The Weather Detective by Peter Wohlleben

I like to think I inherited my love of gardening from my grandmother, who had the most beautiful vegetable garden. I always loved talking with her about our gardens, and whenever I would visit she always had a clipping of a plant or fresh vegetables for me to take home.

It is around this time each year that I start thinking and planning for my garden. The days are getting lighter and brighter each day, and I am all but over the cold weather and snow. I enjoy getting out in my garden so much. I like watching how things change from year to year and reviewing my journals from years past to how various seeds and plants I’ve tried, have worked out. The fun thing about gardening is that there is always some element of surprise…both good and bad. I recently read The Weather Detective, and this book is a must-read for any gardener, no matter your level of expertise.

At its core, this book is all about how to do what many of us who garden do without even realizing it- pay attention to nature’s signals and rhythms. While written from the perspective of a European author, many of the seasonal rhythms and patterns Mr. Wohlleben discusses are similar to those we might observe here in the United States, although some of the specific plants and wildlife he discusses won’t be the same.

As a meteorologist, I was glad to see that this book was soundly based on science, and the author tries to explain phenomena as accurately as possible. For the most part, his explanations of meteorological features such as fronts, frost, thunderstorms, and the seasons are well done and accurate save for a few ‘colloquial’ terms used here and there. While I cannot speak to the other scientific disciplines, I would suspect that his explanations of biological, ecological, geological, and other phenomena are similarly well researched. What I found most fascinating is how the natural world is truly interdisciplinary- each of these areas of science is dependent on the others, and feedbacks and cycles affect both plants and wildlife on both a short and long-term basis.

For example, the author explains in detail how both plants and animals react to AND predict rainfall. Trees, birds, and insects all show subtle changes in response to approaching precipitation and also affect how it is distributed and absorbed into the ground afterward. It was so interesting to learn how my own watering patterns can affect the growth of my garden plants. For example, the author discourages watering plants every day (he calls it ‘mollycoddling’!!!), because they will grow used to having water near the surface and spread out their roots horizontally rather than growing deep into the soil. Then, if dry weather occurs or you miss a day watering, the plants suffer because they cannot tap into deep soil moisture. Hardier plants are the ones whose roots are much deeper, and the author gives suggestions about how to water such that plants grow stronger and more resilient, and not more dependent on you.

The author discusses at length how frost (both at the ground surface and underneath) affects plants, and explains various techniques to shelter plants appropriately. I was pleased to see that the author correctly noted that temperature instrumentation is located about 6.5 feet (2 meters) above the ground, and thus frost can affect plants even when the measured air temperature is above freezing.

We found this stunning and very large (as big as my hand!) creature in our yard one day. A little research and we were able to identify it as a Cicropia Silkmoth. Look at its beautiful antennae and wings!

There is also an excellent discussion of how the seasons work (due to the tilt of the Earth’s axis), and how our changing climate is impacting growing patterns of vegetation, migration patterns of birds, and countless other rhythms in the natural world. For example, drier summers in some areas of the world could cause die-off of many plant varieties, even if the annual precipitation over the entire year does not change appreciably. In short, the author is a proponent of encouraging plants to grow so that they are hardy and adaptable to whatever weather patterns dominate in any particular year, and outlines good water management, soil testing, and other strategies in order to do that. He further encourages that gardeners measure temperature and precipitation in their own location to really understand what your local climate is like, and then study and look for changes over the long term.

I love to keep fresh herbs in pots.

One thing the author notes is that plants are carbon sinks, as they intake carbon dioxide as part of their respiration process. While it may not seem like much, he notes that a 1/4 acre garden can intake up to one ton of carbon dioxide per year (enough to offset a car trip of more than 4000 miles!). The author also includes a very thorough discussion of invasive species (not all of them are bad!)- how to identify them, how to determine which ones are beneficial, harmful, and neutral, and how to educate yourself about what plants you buy to add to your own garden.

The author also discusses the impact of various rhythms and seasons on humans. We have discussed in past blogs about human sensitivity to changing weather conditions (here, here and here), but one thing I learned is that my indoor houseplants can let me know if I need more light in my home during the cold winter months, even if I can’t sense it myself (hint: yellow leaves and long shoots on your houseplant mean it is not getting enough light, and thus you probably aren’t either!).

There’s nothing like getting your hands in the dirt!

The bottom line: The Weather Detective is a great read for anyone who is a weather enthusiast, loves gardening, or loves science and learning about how the natural world works. I finished the book with some practical ideas for my own garden, more knowledge about how meteorology impacts seasonal and daily cycles of both plants and animals, and an overall appreciation for the nuances of the world around me which I can observe if I just stop to pay attention.

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