This is what climate change looks like.
Here I am at our small market garden weeding and thinning the few parsnips the slugs have left us. It's been a diabolical growing season so far; rain and more rain, night time temperatures that kept dropping into single figures and very low light levels, due to ever grey skies, panicking lots of plants into survival mode. I've never seen so many onions and shallots go to seed and the peas are throwing out an large batch of flowers all at once and then sit and sulk for the next four weeks. Before July was out, potato blight arrived, the earliest we've ever known it. The apple trees stand bare of fruit, the raspberries are mouldering and we lost all our strawberries to rats. In other years the polytunnels hum with insectlife, but I haven't seen a bumble bee on the borage for days.
It looks like the situation is no better in the East of this island, as Charlotte writes on the Transition Norwich blog:
“Another favourite shoreline plant, the sea holly, is bereft of its usual visitors: the small copper and the small blue. In the garden the huge buddleia now in full flower has yet to see a single painted lady or peacock or tortoiseshell. The apple and greengage trees in the orchard are without fruit. Down the lane I have seen no sloes either, or damsons. It's been a tough and topsy-turvy year for growers - battling with drought, heavy rain, cold, too few pollinators, and way way too many slugs. “
Elsewhere on the planet, growers are battling the other side of the climate coin: extreme heat and extended, severe droughts, which might yet destroy this year's corn crop in the US. And it's not just our food production that has been affected by the weather, the whole of our infrastructure will need adaptating as well. Slowly the climate chicken is coming home to roost, revealing ever more effects that we haven't anticipated yet, showing us what it means to live with climate change.
It's been a few years now since we've had a decend summer in Wales, but this year's certainly takes the biscuit, with it's 8°C at night during the second half of July! It is strange that even though I have known for many years that unstable and unseasonal weather would become the norm for the rest of my life, the reality of the situation still manages to upset me. I realise that deep down I was still holding on to the hope that “it might not turn out to be all that bad” and I wonder how many other people nurture a similar expectation. I am fortunate, in a way, that by living and working in the countryside, I am confronted daily with the evidence that our “normal” weather patterns are no more. There is no room for denial here, unless you are deaf, dumb and blind.
When we started up “Einion's Garden”, we decided to make it a resilience garden, growing essential food for our family with a minimal input of fossil fuels and external resources. Basically, this meant that we worked work as if the proverbial had already hit the fan; as if anything that needed money or transport would be hard to come by and weather patterns would be chaotic. So we plant most crops inside as well as outside, use Hugel beds, (as they are more resilient both in droughts and floods) and grow the widest variety possible of crops. There have been successes and failures, but mostly we've found out how little we knew about growing vegetables and consequently learned more in a shorter space of time than we ever have. We have learned that we can grow all the potatoes, onions and carrots that our family can eat on less than a quarter acre of some of the most piss-poor, stony, waterlogged clay soil you can imagine. We also learned that for now, it makes little economic sense to do so. I'll explain: since the economic downturn, both my husband and I have had increasingly less work and therefore less income; this means that the “little bit of pocket money” that we made by selling excess plants and veg on the local weekly market has grown into the mainstay of our self employed income. Potatoes and onions take up a lot of space for a long time and are, in effect, quite cheap to buy. Now that we know how to grow them and have discovered which varieties do well on our soil, we don't need to grow them anymore. At this moment in time, it makes more economic sense to to grow something more valuable instead, like peas, beans and salads which we can exchange for cash, eggs, fish and bread.
We've also come to the conclusion that now is a good time to make mistakes, because in the end there is still plenty of food in the shops, there are still state benefits, such as housing benefit and tax credits. Crop failures today are merely dissapointing, but in years to come might make the difference between subsistance and outright poverty.
For all of you who are or thinking of growing your own, my message is: don't delay! It takes time to get good at growing food, especially with dodgy weather and waiting until it's a must might see you go hungry. We need hundreds of resilience gardens in this country , especially in urban areas, as climate chaos and economic factors conspire to make our food a lot more expensive and harder to get. Start by building good soil and an ecological balance of pests and preditors, experiment with different crops, find out what you are good at and soon it might not just fill your belly, but your purse as well.
Vegetables are also an excellent barter currency and the “unofficial economy” is growing. But more about that in a next post!