by Shira Lynn
“If you don’t like the weather, wait a minute.”
The old adage has never seemed more apt.
When I was growing up in Boston, we could count on an early spring heavy snow, a wet spring, and a dry August. The air was crisp and cold by Halloween. Common practice was to plant the annual garden Memorial Day weekend and to put it all to bed on Labor Day. Snow covered the ground for the winter and throughout the sugaring season.
That was the expected within the unexpected.
This year in the northwest corner of Massachusetts, we had a dry early spring with sustained high temperatures that caused most trees to leaf out early. A frost then zapped the tender leaves of the late awakening trees as well as the blossoms of the early awakening ones. So much for favoring late-awakening varieties to insure against late frost.
Just as our grapes and peaches were successfully replacing their damaged leaves, we had a localized hail storm that shredded the regrowth as well as some of the young annual vegetables.
Cycles of haze from the Canadian fires set in next, cleared by welcomed rains that turned into flooding. Leaves have regenerated. Plants are lush, but the ground is saturated. We’re back to hot and hazy. What will August hold?
As growers, we know that each year is different and that what excels in any given year varies — within a range. Our permaculture design principles set us up well. Our toolkit for working with predictable variability has included:
For water, from drought to flooding — swales, berms, terracing, trenching, water bars, rain gardens, water features, rain barrels, greywater processing, cultivars, varying rooting types within a soil community, drip lines, pervious surfacing, container planting of various heights and permeability (raised beds, boxes, pots).
For temperature highs and lows and sun exposure modulation: greenhouses, cold and hot frames, black plastic, mulching, compass and slope facing, thermal mass (bodies and tanks of water, rocks), growing in multistoried communities, coppicing.
For physical protection from hazards from above and from below: row cover, greenhouses and tunnels, wind breaks, misting, growing in multistoried communities, infrastructure that allows coverage to happen quickly (posts, hoops and frames for affixing coverings).
For soil creation and structure: amendments, cover cropping, avoiding compaction and bare soil, no-till, scything, mulching, hugelkultur, humanure, composting.
How are we simultaneously designing for drought and flooding, heatwaves and frost, wind and hail in an overlapping fashion that is responsive to short but significant timeframes? How much leeway might we have in terms of space, materials, finances and labor to allow for experimentation? Are mature food forests in fact faring okay?
It seems that our most dependable strategies for the present moment rely on perennial shrubs and herbaceous plants for a better chance at recovery, a redundancy of similar plants in various locations, multistoried diversity, experimenting with cultivars, and embracing what is flourishing with a forager’s mindset. Furthermore, we are fortunate to be part of a community that relishes experimenting and sharing.
I’m curious if we might additionally try amplifying microclimates. When I lived in Montreal, we would visit the Biodome indoor zoo in the winter. They support five large ecosystem rooms: rainforest, coast, sub-arctic island, maple forest and gulf. What if we looked to our driest microclimate and planted for drought? What if at the same time, we looked to our wettest microclimate and kept it flooded for example? Would that increase our chances that something would survive each month, or are the durations of events and quick changes such that the middle path is still a better option? What gambles can and must we take?
What are you trying in the face of swinging weather? Write in and let us know.