Climate change gardening: Tips for planning ahead

In the past two decades our USDA hardiness zone has shifted from zone 7 to zone 8. That’s an enormous change. Despite the Bush administration USDA’s attempt to muffle the information, the Arbor Day Foundation published real maps using the same data and you can see what an enormous movement we are talking about.

It is pretty much guaranteed that our food supply will continue to experience pressures from a rapidly changing world climate (wikipedia has a nice summary with article links). It’s also quite likely the rate of change will pick up, perhaps in unexpected ways.

While many of us garden to save money or get outdoors, with a nod to self sufficiency or local food movements, figuring out how to garden for climate change is a different mindset. It’s not as simple as expecting it to be warmer a few years down the road. It means planning for greater variation, greater disease and pest pressure as plants and soils try to adapt, and building connections to the people in your area who are really good at what they do so that you have the resources you need, when you need them. Luckily a lot of what decreases the environmental footprint of my garden and makes it more resilient will make it cheaper and more successful, whether or not the climate creates new challenges.

Nowadays many of us live in cities that are densely urban with little green space. You can’t do any kind of major gardening under these circumstances, though there’s a lot you can do in pots and in community garden spaces…but that’s another post.

Start small but start now

I’ve been passionately gardening for a decade. My mother is a skilled and experienced gardener, as are many of my friends and neighbors. I still experiment in disastrous ways and make mistakes every year that cost me money, time, and harvest. Probably the biggest things I’ve learned from all this are be organized, keep notes on successes and failures, ask advice from local experts, and don’t buy anything that with a bit of creative thinking you could make, borrow, or substitute.

I watch new gardeners make the same mistakes I did with great gusto and zero interest in hearing people tell them to be more conservative. I was also deaf to words of wisdom at those same stages in my gardening journey. Give yourself time to figure it out, especially if you worry that at some point it will need to be something more than a hobby.

Don’t put off gardening for years because your space isn’t just how you want it, your neighbors might object, or you don’t have time or money. When someone on your local listserv says “I have extra such and such plants if you’ll come get them,” go get them if you think you might have a place and a use. Grow what you can in the space that you have and work on developing the site bit by bit.

Don’t invest too much at the edge of your hardiness zone

This is a classic gardeners’ dilemma because everyone wants to do as much as they can for as long as they can. But there’s a reason southern food culture revolves around sweet potatoes, sorghum, beans, watermelon, okra, blackberries, and dark leafy greens (chard, beets, turnips). These are crops that tolerate hot summers and dry spells while staying fairly disease resistant in our humid climate. These are crops homesteaders could grow reliably before the advent of chemical farming; they are crops you can grow that way now.

If you are going to tinker at the low edge, do your research and do it from multiple sources. Nurseries are inclined to tell you a broader hardiness range than is realistic. If no one is doing it in your area, maybe you’ve hit upon the world’s best-kept secret, but more likely old timers have tried it and figured out it didn’t work.

When I wanted to grow raspberries, all kinds of sources told me their varieties were everything-resistant and happy in my zone. Then I dug into the always-awesome NC Cooperative Extension resources (all available online, often with separate commercial and home gardening publications) and found that certain types of raspberries would be way more high maintenance with our humidity and disease issues (which will get worse as the planet warms, not better). So I emailed a small local biodynamic berry farm down the road and asked my neighbors what raspberry varieties worked for them. Caroline was the only one they’d had consistent success with, they said, and gave me advice on how to manage it.

I wanted to plant a cherry tree and several well recommended local nurseries claimed their interesting and funky sweet cherry varieties could be grown, with a little effort, up to zone 9. I let those exotic and enticing varieties sit in my cart for a few days while I bummed around online reading people’s experiences growing cherries in the south. Sweet cherries, and even the more curious varieties of tart cherries, just didn’t produce well here and were plagued with high maintenance disease issues, especially if they weren’t grafted onto very particular root stock. I don’t know anyone with sweet cherries. I ordered the classic, low maintenance, heat tolerant Montmorency tart cherry. And I still might be pushing it. In 10 years I may feel I shouldn’t have been planting cherries at all.

Raspberries and cherries are borderline too cool for my garden reality, but I think I’ve found varieties that work. Still, these are my side experiments, not the work horse plants of my garden. For that I focus on what I know works.

The temptation on the warm side is just as dangerous. Most of the things we can’t grow in zone 8 because it’s not warm enough are things that can’t tolerate freezing at all, or buckle in an extreme cold snap. While the winters may be getting milder and shorter on average, extreme weather and broad swings are becoming more common. I’ve had success growing ginger and turmeric as annuals and overwintering the roots inside. I do the same with my key lime tree, bringing it inside for the winter.

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ginger and turmeric. large roots were preserved in brandy, small ones repotted to overwinter, and the greens dried for tea and soup.

Plants like malabar spinach are new to this part of the world but thrive in our climate. I love trying a few new things every year, but as always–do your research and choose low maintenance plants that fit your garden ecosystem. Otherwise you waste your time creating an input-intensive system (water, fertilizer, pest and disease management) that will only become harder to maintain as resources become more constrained.

Plan for a quasi-closed system

We didn’t realize how far we were from this until a few years into it when I actually started paying attention. And I don’t suggest this in an apocolyptic kind of way (though deep down I lust for the elusive 90% self sufficiency just like the best of ’em), but rather in terms of thinking about the ways in which we contribute to an unsustainable system and may find ourselves, at some point in the middle future, with less access to things that have previously been easy to get.

Be frugal for when it matters. Learn to take care of your tools. Most tools have a lifetime guarantee–take them back if they break and any store will replace them. But start taking proper care of them now. Use bamboo for garden stakes, trellises, or chicken runs instead of buying a bunch of nasty pvc or investing money in lumber. The impulsive, unplanned DIY purchases are the kind of things that keep a million Home Depots and Lowes in business. Some things you have to buy, but not as many as you think. Especially when you are mucking around and experimenting and don’t know what you are doing, the mistakes can be cheap or very expensive, you choose. I’ve had plenty of both.

One of the big ways to better steward the environment and stop hauling in garden inputs is to become self-sufficient in water and soil amendments. A few years ago our family installed 1350 gallons of rain water cisterns. IMG_4827

Every summer we have dry spells where we come closing to tapping both of the big 550 gallon tanks. But we use well water and I neither want to put more pressure on the aquifer than necessary, nor worry about my food supply when we have intense heat and drought. It also means I can let my kids mess around with the hose as much as they want without stressing out about the waste. If I had unlimited time and money (and county inspectors who would look the other way), I’d have full house gray water systems. But this is close enough.

When we have trees taken down, we have them chipped on site. Usually this saves the tree folks money too and so makes the job cheaper. There’s a few year’s worth of mulch, right there. We mow our clover yard and bag the clippings to feed the hens and use as green manure in the garden. I plant rye and vetch cover crops in my beds to build up the soil without fertilizer and protect the soil without mulch.

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two beds planted with rye and vetch, a pile of green manure, and some hardwood mulch mountains

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planting basil directly into dying cover crop (no till)

Keeping chickens has been the best way for me to become less dependent on buying compost and fertilizer. Livestock manure is a crap shoot, depending on what cocktails of drugs and feed people are giving their animals. Municipal compost loads I’ve used in the past have had all manner of unspeakable things in them, not to mention everyone’s RoundUp-ed yard waste. But mostly the issue is how to produce fertilizer on site. If you are really ambitious, eat a clean diet, and it wouldn’t ruin your marriage, humanure is how the world did this for a long time before we forgot how. It’s clean and plentiful, but it takes time and space.

Plant disease-resistant perennials

Every year add a few low maintenance perennials to your space. Every year they will take less work, you’ll know more what you are doing, and you will be closer to harvests. Low maintenance perennials will begin to form the backbone of your garden. Three years ago I planted persimmon trees, herbs, comfrey, and perennial onions. Two years ago I planted strawberries, rhubarb, blackberries, raspberries, elderberries, hardy kiwi, nettles, and jerusalem artichoke (the latter two in pots to keep them from invading). This year I am adding globe artichokes and fennel. Every year I have more food of my own, in my own backyard, that only requires some weeding, watering, mulching, and harvesting.

Learn about foraging wild edibles, pass-along plants, and seed saving

At this time of year, my new lettuce isn’t ready to eat, if I’m lucky I have some spinach, but because I didn’t take care of my overwintered tender greens during a cold snap, I don’t have much. Yet because there are dandelion greens and yellow dock in the yard, I can still put together dishes with nourishing greens. It’s easy to learn online about wild edibles. Ask the old timers in your neighborhood. Dandelions will probably be the last thing to go when the apocalypse comes.

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dandelion greens and roots

Plant things that folks around you are giving away, or that can be divided. Pass along plants are the best. They are tried and true. Your neighbors and (new) friends will teach you about what has worked for them. Things that are fussy or hard to grow don’t make good pass along plants, so you will  end up with a collection of useful and adaptive plants (though still do your own research…don’t go letting some friendly looking stranger convince you to plant their extra running bamboo).

Some seeds are easier to save than others, so start slow. I keep garlic, ginger, turmeric, and sweet potatoes to replant each year. I’ve found sorghum, kale, radish, beans, peas, lettuce, and cilantro to be easy and reliable savers. I try saving a few new things each year, decreasing my dependence on purchased seed.

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coriander and radish seeds

Understand microclimates

Pay attention to the microclimate of the space that you have and make appropriate choices. When we moved out of town we kept our urban garden space. It was a farm a century ago and the soil was magnificent. Plus, the climate in town was a good 4° F warmer than out in the country on our sloped land. I started my little orchard there with two persimmons and two pomegranates–these were trees that could withstand drought and that were not picky about harvesting times. I chose them for these qualities because I knew caring for a garden not in my backyard, with two kids under foot, would not be a daily affair. I couldn’t afford to baby these trees.

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fuyu persimmon and ‘wonderful’ pomegranate

But I didn’t take into account that we’d have two back to back winters with 5° F cold spells. The persimmons were the right choice–they are disease resistant, tolerate drought and cold, and can hang around waiting to be harvested until I have time to visit. The pomegranates were not. Like my beloved figs, they die all the way back to the ground in cold snaps like that. While they like hot weather and don’t mind our sometimes dry summers, they do not like being cold. While my 3 year old persimmons gave me an excellent first harvest this year, there’s been nothing close to fruit on the pomegranates.

This was the perfect example of naive expectations about climate change. I thought “it will be warmer!” but didn’t think “we will have bizarre highs and lows.”

In contrast, I knew planting rhubarb in the south was iffy. The experts said 25% might make it through the summer. I chose a north facing slope of a berm that runs across the bottom of our sloped yard. It’s in partial shade during the summer and cooler air flows down and pools at the foot of the berm. Instead of 25%, I’ve had 80% survival. Knowing your microclimate and using it wisely can make all the difference.

Choose multi-use plants

Get the most bang for your buck and avoid waste by growing plants with several usable parts, and use them!

Sweet potatoes are an easy crop requiring little care. They are one of my favorites because their growth smothers weeds and their greens are delicious at a time when most of my leafy greens are suffering heat stroke. Sorghum is also a new favorite. It’s incredibly drought and poor soil tolerant. The seeds make a delicious gluten free flour and the stalks produce molasses (even with just a small patch and no press you can do it like this). Elderberry flowers and fruit can be used to make food and medicine. Comfrey makes excellent forage and mulch, and the leaves and roots are center pieces of basic herbal medicine. Herbs attract and feed beneficial insects and are used for seasoning food and making teas. I use my lavender, rosemary, and sage to make anti-bacterial cleaning supplies with vinegar. Raspberries are delicious and the leaves are edible, historically used for teas during pregnancy.

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sweet potato beds with my first experiment with sorghum in the background

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first elderberry harvest. seeds and stems are toxic, always process properly

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sorghum. maybe the prettiest seed ever

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sweet potato slips rooting

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last year’s garlic

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comfrey root and leaf, just dug

If you need to plant big trees, plant something with useful wood, bark, and nuts. We don’t eat the nuts from the mature walnut and hickory trees shading our house, but the squirrels do, which keeps them out of our garden. And we could eat them. Black walnut tincture is also a useful anti-parasitic for animals and people, and externally for treating ring worm and skin yeast infections.

Roses have edible petals and the hips are wonderful in tea and rich in vitamin C–the rosa rugosa variety is best at producing these. There are tons of options, just please don’t plant boxwoods and crape myrtles when a thousand useful and edible options exist. Just google “edible landscaping” for ideas.

Takeaway

Start small but start now. Get to know your neighborhood gardeners and farmers for plants, help, and pooling resources. Don’t invest heavily in exotic or high maintenance plants; choose varieties that are disease resistant and can tolerate variation in climate. Try to wean yourself from buying and shipping in resources for your garden. Learn to make mulch and compost with what you have. Start eating seasonally and from plants that thrive in your region. Learn about caring for your soil. Learn about the microclimate you are working with.

The best part of all this is it turns out all the things that decrease the carbon footprint of your garden and make it more resilient and abundant in a less certain future also make it cheaper and less work. Who’d’ve thunk it? 😉

 

 

 

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