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Resilient gardening - Part I


Hail. Gale-force winds. Torrential rains. Blistering sun. Droughts. Late freezes. Flooding. Squash bugs, deer, squirrels, raccoons, tomato hornworms, spider mites. In any year, gardening can be a sheer exercise in will. With increasingly unpredictable weather, and zones that are already shifting North, it becomes almost an exercise in prayer.

At the same time that gardening is becoming more difficult due to factors such as climate change, declining resources, colony collapse disorder, etc., it also becomes even more necessary as we begin to rely on our food gardens for financial and economic reasons. Because of that transformation from hobby to necessity, I've become very interested in incorporating resilience into gardening. The concept of resiliency can be variously defined as:

- The capacity to keep functioning in spite of shocks to the system,
- The ability to recover quickly from misfortune, and
- The ability to adapt and respond effectively to disturbance.
Evidence is accumulating that, due to peak oil/resource depletion, climate change/environmental disaster, and our ongoing financial upheaval, we will be experiencing an increasing level of "disturbance" of many different kinds. How then can we reduce the chance that disasters will destroy all of our food production capacity?

This post focuses on backyard gardens, since they represent a very localized form of agriculture, and they are the one with which I have the most experience. Over the next two posts, we'll cover some ideas, compiled from various sources, to help add resilience to your gardens in four ways:

  • Reduce dependence on external inputs (localize)
  • Diversification
  • Backup plans (redundancy)
  • Feedback, knowledge and observation

Reduce dependence on external inputs (Localize)

Growing a garden / orchard is one key way to reduce your need for the oil- and financial-system-dependent food supply chain. But external inputs to the garden (such as seeds, transplants, fertilizer and chemicals, mulch and compost) may themselves become more difficult to obtain if money becomes scarce, demand overwhelms the system, or supply lines are strained.
A first step is to go organic - build your soil to nurture your plants rather than using chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. To reduce dependence on regular inputs of external fertilizers (even organic ones), you could adopt some of the following strategies:
  • Front-load fertility by building up your soil now (importing manure, cover cropping, etc.)
  • Make your own compost
  • Use perennials, which can draw fertility from deep in the soil
  • Incorporate animals such as rabbits or chickens, and use their manure
  • Store fertilizer (bone and blood meal, greensand)
  • Use diluted human urine for a good source of nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus
  • Plant nutrient accumulator plants which can be used as mulch/compost (comfrey)
  • Rotate beans and peas (legumes) throughout the garden

To reduce dependence on purchased seeds and transplants, you can save your seeds and grow your own vegetable transplants. Saving seeds from your best plants has an added benefit in that, over time, the plant will adapt itself to the particular conditions in your garden. In order to save seeds, you should choose plants whose seeds will "come true", i.e. open pollinated and heirloom varieties, not hybrids. (See Suzanne Ashworths's book Seed to Seed for detailed explanations.) If you don't want to grow your own, transplants are also often available at Farmer's Markets.

To reduce the need for fossil-fuel based chemical pesticides, you will probably need to take a multi-pronged approach. First, build your soil and treat your plants right (watering, weeding, fertilizing) so that your plants are healthy and can repel infestation. Other ideas include:

  • Plant flowers that attract beneficial insects like ladybugs and parasitic wasps
  • Create an environment friendly to insect eaters like bats and toads
  • Hand pick off some insects (tomato hornworms)
  • Pay attention to your plants to catch infestations early
  • Use row covers to protect against certain insects
  • Use organic treatments like soap sprays
  • Use chickens or ducks to eat slugs and insects (be sure to protect your seedlings!)
  • Plant varieties that are pest-resistant

Many organic gardeners don't use much gasoline, although some rely on a once-a-year rototilling. Gasoline stored for this purpose won't last too long, although you can use additives to extend the life of the gas. If you do depend on machines for key parts of your food production, you might consider what hand tools you could use instead, and store those - or start transitioning to another way of gardening. Another option might be finding a way to make, or buy, locally produced biofuel.

Shovels, hoes, watering cans, hoses, trowels, gloves, and rakes are key to gardening. A good tool can last a long time, so buy quality tools, learn how to take care of them, store extras, and learn how to fix a broken tool. If you still plan on having a lawn, consider a reel mower, which needs no fuel to run.

To reduce the need for externally-supplied water (in case of drought restrictions or supply breakdowns such as a power outage on your well, or a broken water main), you might want to adopt multiple strategies, since water is so vital to a garden. Here are some to consider:

  • Mulch deeply
  • Use swales (level depressions) to catch and store water in the soil
  • Add organic matter, which retains water, to your soil
  • Use water catchment such as rain tanks or cisterns
  • Re-use greywater from your home
  • Plant some drought-resistant or tolerant crops or vegetable varieties
  • Incorporate perennials, which need less watering after the first year

To reduce the need to buy feed for your animals, you can choose varieties that forage well and can grow some of their feed on-site (depending on the size of your land). You can also store extra feed in case of emergency, or arrange to pick up vegetable matter from restaurants or breweries as a source of feed.

Diversify

Another powerful strategy is diversification. As we know, weather and pests can and do destroy crops. How can we reduce the overall damage? There are many ways to diversify - through time, through space, and through variety.

First, we can diversify over time. Sowing certain seeds multiple times - staggered every two weeks - will extend the life of your harvest and insure against complete destruction if birds / squirrels get the first set of seedlings.

You can also grow food throughout the year, instead of just in the summer. Adopting a four-season harvest approach insures against depending solely on the summer garden, and also supplies fresh greens in the winter. Year-round gardening can be done cheaply by using simple row covers and hoop houses to protect cold-hardy crops like spinach, broccoli, carrots, etc. (depending on your zone - see Eliot Coleman's Four Season Harvest and The Winter Harvest Handbook for more information).

We can also plant veggies and fruits that bloom and mature at different times, for example so that one late frost won't destroy all the fruit. This can also spread out the harvest to make the preservation task less difficult. Instead of planting three of the same peach tree, think about planting three kinds that mature at different times. This way, you can have peaches throughout the summer rather than a glut at any one time. If you have space, you can also plant unusual fruits that tend to be less pest-susceptible like persimmons or jujubes.

Consider installing a variety of food production. Not just annuals such as tomatoes and lettuce, but also perennials such as vines, fruit trees and shrubs, nut trees, rhubarb and asparagus, and even animals, which yield protein and fat (or honey) as well as eating pests, pollinating plants, and yielding manure. Consider using the principles of permaculture, forest gardening, or edible landscaping in your design (See Toby Hemenway's Gaia's Garden for more information).

Within each type of crop, we can plant multiple varieties. Different varieties tend to do well under different conditions - some are resistant to heat and drought, some do well even when waterlogged, some resist the blight when it arrives unexpectedly, some repel squash bugs.

Diversification through space is another approach. In Oklahoma, a tornado can completely flatten one house while leaving the next untouched. You could have gardens in many locations - your back yard, the one down the street with the elderly gentleman that you give 30% of the produce to, the community garden, your parent's garden two miles away.

Another approach to diversification through space is avoiding planting all of one type of vegetable in one place (i.e. monocropping). In small gardens, it may not be feasible to separate your tomatoes among several different areas - but in larger gardens, it might. This can help prevent bugs/diseases from getting all of your prize plants in one year. You can also separate plants by using an intercropping method that mixes several different kinds of plants in the same area (e.g. the Three Sisters approach).

Summary

Using the strategies of reducing external inputs (localizing) and diversification through time, space, and variety can help increase your garden's resilience. Some of these approaches will work well in certain localities, but not in others; it depends on many factors - climate, location, garden design, etc.

One warning: because our culture has long worshipped maximization of one variable (profit), rather than paying attention to stability and survival, these strategies may feel odd at first - inefficient, troublesome, redundant. It may take time - or even disaster - to realize the value in some of these efforts. But many of the strategies will have immediate benefits aside from resiliency, such as extending your harvest, reduced work, and reduced expense.

Please contribute ideas and examples from your own experience! Next post: Backup plans (redundancy) and feedback / observation.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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