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Gardening in a Changing Climate

When I worry about climate change, I often think first about human consequences. But the line between human losses and nature’s losses is pretty fine – literally a tree falling in the forest question. That is, if the sugar maples that turn my region into a blaze of red, the hemlocks that overshadow my creek disappear, who loses me or nature? The only answer is “yes.”

The evidence that any prevention of the worst forms of climate change would require radical action is becoming firmer. If it is not already too late to avoid many of the worst effects of climate change, it shortly will be, and if we do not act quickly, our losses will grow each year. I see no signs of quick action. I hope for them, of course, and work for them, but there comes a point at which we all need to turn to the problem of mitigation.

If climate change cannot be limited, if we will see our local ecologies change – perhaps quite rapidly. In general we will get warmer – but that’s not all – many places will get dryer, while others may get wetter. Or areas may see one sort of change in the short term, and another later. What we do know is that we’ll see more violent weather, more extremes of wet and dry, more extremes of temperature, more instability and uncertainty. This affects both our ability to feed ourselves and also to preserve what we value in our region.

We will need to find ways to feed ourselves in our new climates, and in many ways that’s project enough. But the land we husband can do more than simply feed us – it can soften the blows of climate change, help bring new and valuable species into regions just becoming able to support them, or on the contrary, help breed and adapt new varieties of old residents of our areas, so that they not lost to us. They can provide wildlife habitat for new and old species, and even microclimates, in which things being chased to extinction can survive. To an extent, we can even hold back raging floods and deserts with our hands.

Does that sound too extreme? It is, nonetheless, true. That is, one of the most remarkable examples of what small scale husbandry can do is shown by Wangari Maathai’s Green Belt Movement in Kenya, which has planted more than 30 million trees in Kenya, a nation deforested by a combination of colonialism and poor management. As deserts encroached, Maathai demonstrated the only way to keep them back was to create oases of trees, producing food, drawing up water, cooling people and making areas livable. The trees were planted, almost all by poor women, most of them desperately poor, who carry water to their trees each day by hand, because they know that the way to fight the desert is trees. My friend Kate worked for a while with the Green Belt Activists, and she said that in Kenya, trees are powerful – they free up labor for women who no longer have to walk miles for firewood, and provide food and security. But most of all, the trees create life – it is possible to live in a place shaded and lush with green, in a way it is not for most of us in the desert.

How many of us live in places where topsoil washes away, where rising temperatures are reducing water? We need a worldwide Green Belt movement, bringing suitable, food and wood producing trees to the driest and hottest places. That is the beginning of our gardens – the planting of the trees that will make them possible, that carry water from the deepest places, repair and hold soil, and create places we can live. We will have to choose our trees carefully, especially in the hottest and driest places, but we must plant them – and if necessary, carry water the way the women of Kenya do.

One tree that more of us ought to consider is Moringa, a naturalized shrubby tree that has several highly drought tolerant strains, but will grow as a die-back perennial as far north as Atlanta. The leaves are enormously nutritious, a single tablespoon of dried moringa containing 100 % of the Vitamin A, 14% of the protein, 40% of the calcium and 23% of the iron needed by a small child. The fresh leaves are rich in Vitamin C as well. The seeds make a high quality cooking oil, and the pods can be cooked and eaten like green beans. Moringa can become invasive in disturbed soil areas in tropical places, but offers enormous potential even in cold climates, grown as an annual, because of its potential use as a human and livestock feed.

There are other equally important trees – many oaks in warmer places are suffering from diseases, but there are oaks that can tolerate wide climate ranges, and acorns are an important human and animal feed – my own property has a long swath of swamp white oaks being nurtured in the wetlands for their future value.

Water is likely to be a huge issue all over the world. One of the things we can do to deal with this crisis is grow our own – although that requires irrigation water, Gary Nabhan of Native Seed/Search, in his book _Coming Home to Eat_ documents that generally speaking, homegrown produce, even in drought regions, uses up less water than produce trucked in from distant places. In many cases, the sheer cost of refrigerating produce means that it uses more water even within the dry region than it does if you grow your own.

We must see water shifted to home agriculture when possible. But we also must minimize water use wherever possible, choosing annual and perennial food crops that can handle heat and drought, and growing them in appropriate ways, using greywater, rainwater, and water-thrifty growing techniques.

As we choose our perennial species, we must make decisions. Do we push our zonal limits, moving north plants from southern places that are newly able to survive here? This can be important work, enabling us to replace species as they are lost, and also providing food and habitat for birds and wildlife that move northwards faster than trees and plants can.

This exercise does come with some risks – new species can naturalize more swiftly and aggressively than we would like them to. But human beings have perturbed the climate and transformed the world unwittingly, making mistake after mistake in our rearrangement of nature. We cannot wash our hands of the work and say “it is too complex for me – best not mess with it” – we’ve already messed with it, now our project is to use every power we have – mind, imagination, passion, strong backs – to do the imperfect best we can to shape our future.

We will undoubtedly make wrong choices and do harm – but better we try as wisely as we can to fix what is broken than we go on choosing without thought or care. And so we begin to push our limits. I have recently added the hardiest of the hardy bamboos to my yard, and we shall see whether it becomes a pest, or if it even survives. But the sheer usefulness of bamboo makes me think that the choice is worth the risk. And if it does not survive this time, perhaps in a year or two, it will. Although I hold little hope of it attracting pandas, it may yet serve other purposes for our native wildlife, and it certainly serves me.

My Maypop has survived and fruited – as far as I know, it is the only maypop at my elevation in my region of rural upstate New York. I know of no other quince trees up here, or of any medlars. But perhaps, if they survive and fruits, someday the seeds will grow in someone else’s garden, and on again.

You see wild teasel growing all over the place here – its spiny heads are unmistakable. It is hard to imagine that this pesky weed was once a major crop in my area – used to brush down the nap of woven cloth in the cloth mills of Lowell, MA, farmers once grew acres of teasel – now it is a wild thing, unloved, untended. And it shows just how quickly crops can change – what will New Yorkers grow, for example, when olive oil is too expensive to import from California and Italy? My own guess is oilseed pumpkins that once filled fields in Germany. I plant them now, not because I think the days of oil pressing pumpkin seeds are coming quickly, but so that I will have seeds to share – and for their delicious pumpkin seeds.

We can also to a degree stem the tide of loss of beloved species. In my region, the two trees I first mentioned, the glorious Sugar Maple and the cooling hemlock, are both projected to disappear from my region this century. In the desert southwest, the pinion pines are disappearing, and one report suggests that someday, Redwood national forest will have no redwoods in it.

But although species are lost, they rarely disappear entirely. Despite the depredations of Dutch elm disease, in my region you sometimes see that beautiful vase like shape in the middle of an old field, a tree that lived even though the rest did not. The American chestnut, that two centuries ago filled half the eastern forests, is gone – but there are a few left that grow up from stumps and even produce the occasional nut before dying back. It is these hardy, partially resistant specimens that offer hope to plant breeders that we might bring back the Chestnuts and the Elms. But that work isn’t the work of professional plant breeders alone. All of us who own even a tiny postage stamp of a yard can get to know our trees, watch them and the ones around them.

Perhaps your maples or pinion pines will show signs of withstanding warmer temperatures, or resistance to new diseases moving northwards. Perhaps if in the autumn, you take a garden bed and plant some seeds, you will give birth to the next generation of familiar plants.

Backyard plant breeding sounds hard, but it is as simple as this – when an annual or perennial crop is grown in your place, a host of information and slight adaptations are created to your conditions. The children of this plant will have a taste of those adaptations in their blood – study after study has found that the plant children of first generation transplants uniformly do better adapt more easily to a climate. That is, if you grow a heat loving squash like “Seminole” in your borderline too cool climate, and mature only one fruit, the next year the seeds of that fruit will be better able to handle your cool soil and nights, and perhaps you will get two, or three, and the next generation still better.

This works with both annual and perennial crops – seed saving is not just a way to save money or preserve genetic diversity, but a way of increasing yields, and often, increasing the nutritional value of a crop, for as plants respond to stress, they lose nutrients. A plant adapted to your region, soil, climate will have more energy to create beautiful, healthy, nutritious edible parts.

And it isn’t just the plants themselves that we can mitigate with. Soil saving can mitigate the harm of climate change – rich soils, high in organic matter, over time can store as much carbon as a similarly sized forest, and pasture animals as well. If we were to transform the millions of acres of lawn to high humus pasture, or rich garden soil, we could soften the blow of climate change a great deal. The process of cover cropping, adding manures and nurturing a piece of land may not just help us adapt – it may limit the amount of adaptation we have to do.

What about wildlife? We are destroying our species so thoroughly – a third or more by mid-century that we must give them a hand. Whether we manage 10 acres or a 20 x 20 yard, we can plant diverse species, and protect endangered wild plants at the margins of our gardens. We can work to attract wildlife, and to meet its needs for food, water, shelter, places to reproduce.

We can watch for new species, and changes in habit, and strive to adapt to them. One garden among a row of postage stamp lawns seems like it can do nothing to stem the loss of wildlife, but you’d be surprised. Thousands of insect and animal species can live in a single yard, and hundreds more may visit on their way somewhere else. Your milkweed may be the difference between monarchs next year and none at all; your wild places the one that the bumblebees rely upon.

Moreover, your influence doesn’t lie only on the ground, but on what you start in your neighborhood – the neighbor you persuade to leave a little space for the bumblebee, the native seeds you toss over the fence into the vacant lot. Farmers might consider bringing back their hedgerows, even using British style “laid” hedges as livestock fencing. In those hedgerows we can provide habitat, animal feed, and also wood and food for ourselves. Mixing traditional regional species with those who might adapt, we can create integrated plant colonies, or Permaculture style “guilds” that may adaptively work together, enabling the plants as whole to do better than any isolated specimen.

We can protect the most vulnerable creatures, at least a little. In some places, the robins never leave at all for the winter, but here they still do, and every year I record the first time they return. This year it was January 27th, the first time I have ever seen them here in January. The first year it was mid-February. They lay earlier, too, and the ones that return each year to the nest in the old chicken house on our property sometimes lose their babies to cold. Last year, I started going out in the evening, once the parents were on their nests, and simply shutting the door to the chicken house, rising early in the morning and opening it. Last year, the first batch of babies survived.

It might be wisest to have our gardens do a little of each thing – bring in some new crops and push our regional limits, particularly when such crops might fill a void, such as pumpkin seeds in a vegetable fat poor region, or leguminous trees that can be interplanted with annual crops to feed the soil and respire moisture into the air. But also, we can protect and preserve what we have, watering a little, if we have it to spare, to enable the old crops to hang on a little longer, to find the ones that might survive.

As my own home gets warmer and wetter, it is a challenge to figure out what my new norms are. It is warming in the spring, but I’m not planting any earlier most years, because the rains are so heavy that it isn’t possible. In anticipation of a time when I might truly need the food I can produce in April here, I am building some beds, with gravel at their base, designed to dry out even in the wet times. Many of us will have to adapt our gardens – or even move them.

With a little protection, I hope that fresh greens and perhaps rhubarb will produce soon enough to bring the spring season home a little earlier, and to stretch the winter food reserves – we may as well take advantage of the small number of pluses of climate change – despite claims to the contrary, for food production, they are extremely few.

The changes in the spring flooding season also mean that it is more important than ever to keep topsoil from eroding and the banks of my creek stemmed with trees. My own security from flooding depends on not losing soil, and on keeping my ground intact. Near the ocean, this may mean finding salt tolerant marsh and reed plants to hold back soil, or in heavy wet soils, finding root crops, like cattails, that can take the place of less wet tolerant foods in our diets.

In hot, dry places, the whole system of agriculture may have to change to a vegeculture model. That is, field scale cultivation may not be possible as things get dryer and hotter – in many drought stricken parts of Kenya, the only places to grow gardens are under the shade of leafy oases. That means returning to traditional African models of agriculture, that integrated small, intermittent patches of root crops with perennial tree and vine crops (more on this here.

When Europeans came to Africa, at first they could not understand how Africans fed themselves from their tiny gardens, but soon they realized that they cultivated the forest. We too will probably have to cultivate our forests, and change the shape of our food cultures and food production. That is, climate change won’t just change our gardens, but our diets as well. It may be necessary to give up the hope of summer salads in hotter places, and accept that summer is a time for other foods, or to give more priority to cool weather cultivation for staple crops.

Here in my garden, our growing seasons seems to lengthen on the autumn end – 4 out of the eight falls I’ve spent here, we’ve had a frost more than 10 days after our traditional frost date. So I need to plant better fall gardens, and wait longer before taking out winter stores – if I can be growing cold hardy crops into early December, I should be.

There is no single process of adaptation – every region will have to deal with its own projections, and the specific ecology of a place and time. And as quickly as we determine what we should do, we will probably have to change it again – for climate change moves forward, whether we like it or not. But the preservation, sustenance and recreation of a piece of land is good work, and necessary work. The starting point is beginning to look hard at the realities of the problem, and anticipate what our landscapes may look like, and what our proper role in our new world is.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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