Gardening in an Uncertain Climate: Technology and Scale

The latest long-term weather prediction that I heard yesterday was for a warmer than usual summer everywhere in the country except perhaps Vancouver.  Here’s hoping we’re included in the heat!  Come ooonnnnn Tomatoes!!

On the other hand, this has been a much colder than normal spring.  Farms around here are announcing that they are 3 weeks behind schedule, and that veggie sales won’t start in earnest until June.

Bottom line: in food production, weather trumps everything, and our weather is more unpredictable than it used to be.  (I read a great British garden book last year where the gardener told newbies not to be afraid, because in a good weather year, even the worst gardeners can’t go wrong, and in a bad weather year, even the master gardeners can’t do well!)  So what to do?  We are prioritizing more and more our food security, and the weather isn’t making those steps easy.

I’ve noticed, though, that those best equipped to deal with unpredictable weather are home gardeners.  By virtue of being smaller and therefore more carefully tended, the home gardener has all kinds of options for mitigating weather issues that the farmer simply doesn’t have the time or money to put into place.

I shared the story a couple of months back about talking to the farmer as I was ordering my seed potatoes.  She solemnly told me that they had lost a huge percentage of their potatoes last year because of the August and September rains.  For a moment, I didn’t know what she was talking about.  Then I remembered that we had grabbed a tarp and covered our potato patch, saving our harvest with little effort.  I mentioned this to the farmer; her response was, “we have 200 acres!”

This week, a local farmer was writing about last year’s tomato harvest–they had lost hundreds of pounds of tomatoes (and consequent income) in those same late summer rains last year.  I can’t imagine what it must have felt like to watch those plants nurtured from seed rotting in the fields.  When the rains started threatening here, I panicked about blight and ripening, and the Skipper promptly rigged up poly covers for all the tomato beds.  Despite a lousy tomato year, we still had lots to eat through November, and we’re still eating our way through our home-canned jars.

On the other hand, I wonder sometimes about how we home gardeners are really adapting to this uncertain weather.  Laura, over at the Modern Victory Garden, has pacific northwest vegetable production down to a science.  She recently blogged about her tomato process, influenced by her very short growing season.  She starts pretty much everything “ultra early” under grow lights inside–tomatoes in January!–and then plants out as the weather allows.  As a result, she gets unbelievable production out of a modestly-sized and modestly sunny space.

I’m learning from her experience–and those of many others–but I have this niggling worry about whether this kind of self-sufficiency really equals resiliency.  There seems to be a paradox for me that in order to produce the foods we want to eat in the climate we’re living in, we need to use high levels of technology and a lot of plastic: row covers, greenhouse film (plastic hoophouse covers), plastic heat-reflecting “mulch”,  heat cables and mats, grow lights, pvc pipe or metal conduit, plastic irrigation tubing, drip tape, timers… Clearly few of these technological advantages will be ours in a low-carbon future.

Now, just because we won’t have these things down the road, does that mean we shouldn’t use them now? I’m not sure.  I’ve tried to stay fairly low tech.  I don’t use grow lights, and I’m learning to use the unheated glass greenhouse that I inherited on the property.  I’ve switched to soil blockers from plastic cell packs, which is wonderful, but, in fact the cell packs were all recycled anyway.  But I did use a heat cable in a sand-covered tray this year, rather than starting all my seeds in the house (we don’t have a great south-facing window space for setting up everything I’m starting) that’s already being kept warm.

And then there’s the reality of the technological advantage!  Last year we bought a Costco-sized bolt of row-cover fabric that we never used.  A few weeks back I was transplanting out lettuce, spinach, etc, and decided to try a row-covered hoop-house over one of the beds.  The difference in size and maturity between those planted in that hoop-house and those not is amazing!  Yet again, I was ready to cover the whole raised bed section of our garden in a giant greenhouse!

When I start talking to the Skipper about germination temperatures and days to maturity and minimal night temperatures and nutrient balances, his eyes start to glaze over.  He shakes his head at me and says, “we just used to put seeds in the ground!”  He thinks I’m way over-complicating things!  And remember, this is from someone who grew up in a very short growing season, one complete with “Fogust”.

His mom’s rural garden in the 60s and 70s would have been pretty low tech.  They started seeds in the window.  They mulched with seaweed and buried their seafood shells.  Whatever they grew in that short summer season supplemented a pretty simple staple diet of fish and potatoes.  And his mom grew up down the road in what would have been a pretty self-sufficient world by necessity–they were pretty remote, and had lived pretty much the same way for several generations.  They raised some sheep and used the fleece for wool clothing.  They used horses for their woodlots and other heavy lifting.  They fished for themselves and for some cash, and did a huge variety of other things for themselves and for the income they needed for those things they couldn’t provide on their own.  And generally–except for the smoking!–they lived pretty long and healthy lives.  I’m sure many of us have similar stories in our family history–we all do, I guess, if you go back far enough.

What’s not in the Skipper’s story and memory, though, is all the local knowledge that would have allowed them to live like this.  He remembers a lot, but mostly about the things he cared about: fishing, his uncle’s mill, anything with a motor, using the horse in the forest.  But all the knowledge that I suspect went into his mother’s garden?  I think that’s where “we just put seeds in the ground” comes in!  I’ll have to ask her on this visit!   When to plant what, what crops not to bother with, did they save seeds, what to start early and what to direct sow, what grew well, did they cover anything, etc, etc.  I suspect there was a little more going on than the busy boy remembers!

So if the low-carbon past is also our future, and if we need to produce as much as we can because of industrial food insecurity, where does that leave all of this high-carbon technology?

Well, personally, I’m not boycotting it just yet.  As a new gardener, I need to gain experience and knowledge, and using technology is helping me to understand important relationships between plants and temperature, pests, days to maturity, and more.  If I didn’t use any fossil-fuels right now, I’d be pretty limited in what and when I could grow.  I could experiment with varieties, and I could use my south-facing window as best I could.   I could try to create micro-climates outside through permaculture design instead of with plastic (which I should be doing anyway!).

But the technology is allowing me to really understand the difference that warmer night temperatures and soil temperatures make.  And my hope is that understanding that principle means that when I can’t justify using the fossil-fuels, I will get creative with manure and water sinks and all the other ways that might be available to get the same effect with less technology.

Of course, Sharon Astyk writes convincingly that right now we should “Do it Anyway”; that we should be trying to live “as if” the low-carbon future was here.  We have flexibility, we can still go to the store.  We should learn to garden the resilient way while we can afford to make mistakes–before our survival depends on it.

So what do you think?  Are we fooling ourselves that we can produce food in abundance as long as we’re relying on fossil-fuel technology?  Or is the technology a tool to build security and knowledge in the short-term?  Are you taking advantage of the scale of the home garden to do mitigate things that farmers couldn’t?

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s