A fig tree that was exposed to the elements not only survived...

A fig tree that was exposed to the elements not only survived the winter but began producing figs in spectacular quantities. Credit: Newsday/Alan Raia

There is a pond not far from my house. It sits sandwiched between a group of homes and some thick woods along a road. In the dead of winter, the pond freezes over and kids who I suppose are from the neighborhood tucked in between those trees play hockey on it. On occasion, I catch glimpses of them through the leafless trees as I drive by, always at night, when overhead lights reveal a magical and nostalgic scene. My mind can hear their skates scraping the ice, the clack of sticks on the puck, and the excited shouts twirling through the air.

But it’s been a few years now since I last saw those kids playing, and quite probably that long since the pond last froze over.

I thought about that this week when the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced it had updated its plant hardiness zone map. It’s of intense interest to gardeners, of course, since the map details climate changes that make some species newly viable in some places and others less so as our temperatures warm. In terms of government-speak, most of our region moved from zone 7a to zone 7b. In terms of the big picture, it was another one of those nagging everyday life reminders that things are changing.

Like the fact that Coney Island’s iconic Luna Park will be open for part of this winter for the first time in its 120-year history. Like the fact that it’s easier to find a day around Thanksgiving to hang the Christmas lights outdoors and not get frostbite. Like the fact that it’s getting harder to find kids skating on a frozen pond.

For the USDA map, the change was modest. Long Island is now considered to have a minimum average temperature of 5° to 10°F, instead of the previous 0° to 5°F. The first frost of the season comes a little later, the last frost a little earlier. But what does it all mean?

A colleague has a fig tree, as I do. Last winter, her first in her new home, she did not wrap it — a cardinal sin on Long Island, I told her with conviction. And the tree not only survived the winter, it began producing figs earlier than mine and in similarly spectacular quantities. Buoyed by her example, I’m now thinking of not wrapping my tree this winter. Remembering my advice and wondering whether she just got lucky, she is asking for guidance on how to wrap hers.

And that’s the way it goes. Sometimes we are slow to react to evidence, and sometimes we overreact. It really gets dicey when you’re not sure what the evidence means.

What seems certain is that we can start planting the beets and carrots and peas a little earlier and push back plantings for a fall crop a little later. But there are other implications.

Take the crepe myrtle, for example. It’s a popular plant on Long Island. It is unable to survive “real” winters, but it can persevere through the current brand of Long Island winter, especially now that it’s the 7b brand. But crepe myrtle is not a native plant, a concern for many eco-conscious gardeners. But then, what exactly is native?

Native is what has thrived in the conditions that have existed in one’s region over the centuries, an entire ecosystem of interaction and dependence. But when those conditions begin to change, does our definition of “native” still hold? There are mosquitoes and other bugs not native to Long Island that likely will be taking up residence here before too long. The same will be true — already is — of species of plants and fish. Should we change our definition or change the conditions that would change the definition?

You can write off a zone change as just numbers on a map. But as with so much else, there’s a bigger story being told.

Columnist Michael Dobie’s opinions are his own.

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