Growing your own food can be a way to increase the security and health of your family in a world facing the multiple challenges of peak energy and resources, unpredictable and more severe climate, and financial uncertainty. At the same time, gardening may become more difficult due to the strange and shifting weather and uncertain consequences of peak oil. You can increase the resiliency of your garden in order to help deal with rapid changes in the economy, environment, and energy landscape.
In the first installment of this Resilient Gardening two-part series, I discussed two ways to increase resiliency in your home gardens - diversity and localization. In this part, we'll cover feedback / knowledge and backup plans (redundancy).
Feedback / Knowledge
Knowledge of design systems like permaculture can help us create gardens to be resilient and less prone to failure, and knowledge of local gardening can help us create gardens that are well-adapted to our particular conditions. Tight feedback loops can help us respond quickly to changing conditions in our weather, economy, and environment.
A good start to resilient design is observation. Have you observed your property to find the best places to site trees, raised beds, the chicken house, pond, rainwater tanks, and the herb garden? Build resilience by choosing locations for these elements of food production where they are less likely to fail - out of the way of harsh winds or flooding or too much shade. You can also build resilience by arranging these elements so that they form relationships. Let nature do the work, reducing your level of effort so that any key maintenance is not neglected. (See Toby Hemenway's book Gaia's Garden for more).
Expand your information gathering to the wider community. Consult with the local long-term gardeners, and native/indigenous people in your area. What methods have they developed to bounce back from garden adversity? What weather extremes have they seen, and what were the results? What changes have they noticed recently compared to past conditions? Are there vegetable or fruit varieties they've noticed which do well under all kinds of conditions?
After your garden is designed and built, be sure to develop effective feedback between you and your garden / orchard. A gardening aphorism is "The best fertilizer is the gardener's footsteps." Your attention can help develop your understanding of the best way to improve / change your garden as time goes on as well as catching pest/disease problems early so that you can deal with them.
Information and feedback can assist in adapting to changing conditions. No one really knows what to expect as the effects of climate change become more apparent, but the Arbor Day foundation has shown that our traditional zones have already moved North; and more severe weather is expected as a result of climate change, hence the term "global weirding". This type of rapid change will be difficult to adapt to, as planting dates will change, some fruit trees won't get enough chill hours and will stop bearing, and plants will be subjected to new harsh conditions.
Noticing weather changes as early as possible will help you adapt your techniques to the new reality, instead of sticking by your tried-and-true methods. This means constant observation, along with monitoring and tracking data about your garden and the weather so that you can identify changes early. Start a garden journal, and record weather conditions, dates of planting, blooming, and harvesting, varieties planted, amounts of the harvest, pests and diseases. Record how you dealt with challenges and how well your strategies worked. This will help you identify changes as they occur, effective responses to change, and which varieties adapt well.
Another way to adapt to increasingly warm and weird weather is simply to learn about gardening in other, warmer zones. What do/did they grow there? What are their usual planting dates? What will you have to do to weather the harsher summer temperatures? How can you take advantage of the milder winters? This could help you adjust to gardening in a different zone.
Backup Plans / Redundancy
Redundancy is often seen as inefficiency in our efficiency-worshipping culture. In many cases, with cheap energy-dense oil easily available, the most efficient food option (although not the most tasty or healthy) is just to buy pre-packaged food from the grocery store or fast food outlet. With quickly changing conditions, peaking oil, decaying infrastructure, and bankrupt governments, it may not pay to rely on the system that provides high-fossil fuel density food that is grown, processed, packaged, and shipped from far away.
A backup plan is something which is not necessarily used all the time, or relied upon completely, but which we already have the infrastructure, tools, knowledge and experience to use - and hopefully, which has been practiced and tested. Backup plans can be both within and outside of your garden.
The idea (but not practice) of "having a garden" is a backup plan for some people - but keep in mind that gardens and fruit trees take time to grow. For a garden to function as a backup plan, the soil should be built up, the seeds and tools available, and the gardener should have a ready knowledge of planting dates, gardening techniques, and the rhythm of gardening. Ideally, a garden or edible landscape would be designed, planted and observed for several years before it was really needed as a food source.
A simple, but not necessarily easy, form of garden backup is to just plant extra. An old farmer saying goes something like this: "One for the birds, one for the bugs, and one for me." In a large garden, it requires work and seeds to plant extra, but in a small garden it also requires a lot of ingenuity to plant extra of this when you need space for that.
One strategy for planting extra is to use the permaculture principle of valuing the margins. Is there a 2x2 sunny spot where you could fit a container on your patio, or could you fit two tomato plants up against a fence? Could you espalier a fruit tree against the wall? You can fit a lot of additional plants by tucking them in here and there. Gardening books about using small spaces help with this principle - even if you already have a fairly large garden, it can help you optimize your growing area.
What's your backup plan for total plant destruction? Some people grow extra vegetable transplants just for this purpose - to replace plants that have been killed by pests, weather, etc. You can also keep some seeds in reserve, instead of planting all of them. In many years, the effort of growing extra transplants may be "wasted" - although you could give or sell the plants to neighbors - but in other years, you will be glad you bothered. If a fruit tree is severely damaged by the weather and appears to be dying, you might try to preserve the variety by grafting branches onto another tree (for example, to ensure healthy pollination for your other fruit trees).
Having several months of food storage creates resilience - not only to crop failures, but also many other kinds of disasters (job loss, illness or disability, supply chain breakdowns, hyperinflation, etc.). When all else fails, the fruits and veggies from last year have been dried, fermented, canned, frozen, and stored in the root cellar, and the bags of wheat, beans, and rice are still there. Which brings up a related topic - resilience in cooking and food preservation - which I won't get into here, but which you can investigate through Sharon Astyk's extensive website.
Another form of backup plan is having a way to get cheap food if your garden is doing poorly and you have few funds. Freeganism - urban foraging from dumpsters - has gained attention in recent years, with some people pronouncing it to be disgusting, while others think it's simply good sense to use perfectly good food that will otherwise be wasted. Novella Carpenter, in her book Farm City, describes how she uses dumped food from restaurants to feed her urban pigs. Other people arrange to pick up the vegetable waste from restaurants, or used grains from breweries, to feed it to their livestock or turn it into compost.
There are plentiful books, videos, and classes available to help you learn how to hunt, fish, and find edible "weeds." There are even online resources in some cities that point out the locations of fruit and nut trees. A lot of nutrition (if not calories) can be had from lambs quarters and dandelions, and bamboo is both a food and a great trellis system.
Outside of your personal garden, what does your neighborhood "foodshed" look like? You could benefit from having more people in your neighborhood who are growing food and who can share seeds with you, and who have the ability to ramp up their own production if needed. Gardeners often naturally exchange produce - butternuts for watermelons, peaches for plums - helping gardeners with little space. Starting or supporting community gardens, school gardens, church gardens, and hyper-local food production like CSA's can all be ways to develop the foodshed in your area.
It may be worth your while to develop resilience outside of your nuclear family and personal property and in your community. How are your relations with your neighbors, friends and family, a church? Have you helped them start a garden, or given them some excess produce? Are you on good terms with them? Have you established a foundation of trust and reciprocity? Community help can be invaluable in helping a family deal with hard times or disaster, especially if that family is seen as a valuable asset to the community. (See Dan Chiras and Dave Wann's book Superbia! for ways to create sustainable neighborhoods.)
Relocation is another, more final, backup plan, and is worth thinking about for many reasons. If you realize that food production in your area is ridiculously difficult, or even outright unworkable, you may want to have a secondary home in mind. This may seem extreme, and there are definite downsides to relocation, but knowing when to hold 'em - and when to fold 'em - will be a key skill in a rapidly changing environment.
A resilient garden would not be complete without a resilient gardener. In order to recover after a catastrophe, you need the will to go on - to replant, to rebuild, to try again after poor results or failures. But a resilient attitude is one in which you not only have the tenacity to persevere, but also have the ability to notice and discard what is no longer working, and start experimenting instead.
So notice what may be prone to failure as peak energy occurs - our oil-dependent, industrialized food system and our growth-based economy. Prepare for change as our climate gets weirder. Re-localize your food production into your garden and local foodshed, use diversity and redundancy in your gardening, pay attention to conditions as they change, adapt and adjust your techniques, and have a backup plan (or two or three).
I hope these ideas to increase your garden resilience will help you weather the storms that are coming. Please contribute to the effort by adding ideas and thoughts from your own experience, and may your garden bounty become legendary!
Special thanks to the authors whose ideas inspired these posts.
Rob Hopkins - The Transition Handbook
David Holmgren - Permaculture Principles
Richard Heinberg - Food and Farming Transition
Sharon Astyk - Casaubon's Book, The Chatelaine's Keys, A Nation of Farmers
Toby Hemenway - Gaia's Garden
Eliot Coleman - The Winter Harvest Handbook and Four Season Harvest
Sally Cunningham - Great Garden Companions
Novella Carpenter - Farm City
Ben Sherwood - The Survivors Club
Dan Chiras & Dave Wann - Superbia! 31 ways to create sustainable neighborhoods