Gardening in Iceland - The Climate Challenge

By Rannveig (rannveig) on March 17, 2010

Gardening in Iceland is a challenge; I think that is what I like about it. I find it exciting to try out new plants to see how they will manage in our unique climate. Many plants that "looked good on paper" do not do well, while others that were unlikely to succeed do for some reason.

My garden in JuneIceland is a volcanic island in the middle of the North Atlantic, between 63°N and 66°N.  It would fit right in the centre of Alaska.  The capital Reykjavík, which is the northernmost capital of the world, is approximately the same latitude as Fairbanks, Alaska and Archangelsk, Russia (around 64°N).  Trondheim in Norway is slightly farther south (around 63°N). 

Our climate is a maritime climate with mild winters and cool summers. It is temperate despite our location, because the Gulf Stream brings warm water from the Gulf of Mexico our way. Where the warm water of the Gulf Stream meets the cold water of the Arctic Sea the sea is rich of fish, which has been Iceland's main export for centuries.

The weather here is unstable in all seasons and there can be a great variation in temperature and precipitation between years.  The winters are long and dark; the summers are short and cool with everlasting daylight.  These short and cool summers are more of a limiting factor in what can be grown here than winter cold. The growing season is simply too short and lacks the heat many winter hardy plants need to prepare for the winter months.

The greatest limiting factor however, is the ever-present wind. The first thing you need to establish in a garden is shelter. Without it, only the hardiest of plants have a chance of survival. Hardy, fast growing plants, like some species of willow and cottonwood, are the primary frontier plants used to create shelter for the more tender plants that follow.

In many towns, trees planted over the years now provide the necessary shelter for plants previously thought too tender for our climate. The Reykjavík area is the largest "forested" region in the country.  There you can find sheltered microclimates where wind speed has decreased and temperatures increased significantly as neighborhoods have developed and the vegetation matured.  Plants currently grown in Icelandic gardens are only a fraction of what could potentially thrive and so an exciting journey of discovery awaits.

The four seasons 

The Old Icelandic calendar only has two seasons, winter and summer.  There are 6 winter months and 6 summer months.  The first day of summer is a national holiday and children receive summer gifts, typically toys for playing outside.  Declaring summer from around April 20th to around October 20th is stretching the definition of summer to an extreme.  In fact, only about 8-10 weeks can truly qualify as true summer as we define it, that is to say, with daytime temperatures consistently above 40°F (5°C).  Some would not even call that summer at all.

Here is a link to temperature maps that show the average temperature in all months of the year: http://www.vedur.is/vedur/vedurfar/kort/manadarmedalhiti/First day of summer, April 19th 2007

 

Average Temperatures in the Reykjavík Area (SW)
January

28-32°F (-2-0°C)

February

32-36°F (0-2°C)

March

32-36°F (0-2°C)

April

36-39°F (2-4°C)

May

39-43°F (4-6°C)

June

46-50°F (8-10°C)

July

50-54°F (10-12°C)

August

50-54°F (10-12°C)

September

39-43°F (4-6°C)

October

36-39°F (2-4°C)

November

32-36°F (0-2°C)

December

28-32°F (-2-0°C)

Average Temperatures around Akureyri (North)

January

25-28°F (-4--2°C)

February

25-28°F (-4--2°C)

March

28-32°F (-2-0°C)

April

32-36°F (0-2°C)

May

39-43°F (4-6°C)

June

46-50°F (8-10°C)

July

50-54°F (10-12°C)

August

46-50°F (8-10°C)

September

39-43°F (4-6°C)

October

36-39°F (2-4°C)

November

28-32°F (-2-0°C)

December

25-28°F (-4--2°C)

Winter

Here in the Reykjavík area located in the SW region of the country, winter temperatures range between, 14°F - 40°F (-10-5°C). 5°F (-15°C) is about as cold as it can get here and we can very well see 50°F (10°C) in January as well.  We get many winter storms, some years mostly rain, and other years more snow. Throughout the winter, there is a repetition of freeze and thaw, varying in length from a few days to 3-4 weeks. Snow on the ground for a longer time is extremely rare. 

In the northern part of the country, the winters are colder with longer periods below freezing and more snow accumulation.  Temperatures in inland areas in the north can occasionally dip as low as -15°C (-26°C).

January 4th 2010, around 5 pmA week later all the snow has melted and tempeartures close to 40°F
 

Spring

There are varying opinions on how to define the onset of spring.  My own definition of spring is that when the crocus start blooming spring is here.  This typically happens in late March or the beginning of April.  This definition of spring entails that hard frosts and snowstorms can still happen though.  Temperatures can fluctuate from 20°F – 50°F.  The last frost date is around the end of May and snow is a possibility through most of April.  By mid-May the gardens have turned green with spring flowering bulbs and perennials, but beyond the man-made shelter of houses and planted trees, the countryside is still wearing it’s brown wintry cloak.

May 12th 2008, Lake Elliðavatn on the outskirts of ReykjavíkMy garden the same day
 

Summer

After a long and dark winter and typically, a turbulent spring, summer finally arrives in June like a wondrous miracle.  A fleeting, slightly manic miracle, but a miracle nonetheless.  The countryside is finally dressed in green, the nights are bright and the air is filled with the sounds of birds singing at all hours. 

Daytime temperatures range from 50-65°F (10 - 18°C), occasionally dipping into the 40’s (5-10°C).  The almost-but-not-quite-annual heat wave can bring a few precious days of temperatures in the 70's (above 20°C).  The highest recorded temperature in Reykjavík is 78°F (25°C), recorded on July 30th 2008. The highest temperature ever recorded in Iceland, recorded that same day in Thingvellir, is 85°F (30°C). 

Summer barely lasts 3 months, by mid-August it is already winding down.  The nights turn dark and the nip in the morning air signals the inevitable arrival of autumn.

The central highlands in July, the glacier Langjökull in the distanceEvening sun in July, around 11:30 pm

Autumn

Autumn is a short and typically stormy season here.  The first frost date is around mid-September, sometimes even sooner. Stronger storm systems, often the remnants of tropical depressions or hurricanes, start making their way up here with heavy winds and rain. The first snow often falls in early October.  The first day of winter according to the Old Icelandic calendar around October 20th is, unlike the first day of summer in April, really quite accurate.  And so begins the long wait for another fleeting miracle in 9 month's time.

Hafnarfjörður town center in OctoberA stormy November day, Reykjavík in the distance

Related articles:
climate, gardening, Iceland

About Rannveig
Born and raised in Iceland, I found a deeper appreciation for my country after spending 6 years of my teens in the US (Florida). I've been a garden enthusiast since my childhood and love the challenges of gardening in Iceland ..... well, most of the time. I have to admit that slighly longer, warmer summers would not be a bad thing.

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