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Ee, the weather's a bit funny at the moment!

Last Thursday we had cars floating on Morecambe seafront, the promenade feet deep in lumps of rock and small boulders hurled up from the flood defences and the everlasting lines of flotsam and jetsam left not in their usual high tide place but across the coastal road.

We were in the wood panelled hallows of the town hall that evening, four of us being trained to present more effectively, speak more slowly, use pauses, drop the ums and ers.  The wind was merely a whisper beyond the heavy drapes.  One of my fellow councillors, ever in touch with a multitude of her residents and friends through her phone and Facebook, was drawing up picture after picture of what had happened in Morecambe during the day, showing me in fascination, the damage done by wind and sea in a few short hours, She looked kind of enquiringly at me,

"Ee," she said, "the weather’s a bit funny at the moment."

Indeed it is and no she is not a Green Party councillor.  You could feel intensely depressed that someone with responsibility for the conduct of local government, someone competent, caring, hardworking and ambitious to do her best for the district, should not understand the way it is threatened by climate change.  Yet another part of me felt strangely exhilarated – she’s noticing and she is open now to explanations of extreme weather events.  I wonder where to go next with that little moment – there’s some thinking to be done with the key strategic people of Lancaster and Morecambe about how we turn growing concern into positive action, rather than deep depression.

three volunteers diggingLast Thursday brought some more welcome news too; the planning permission for the growing project I am setting up with Joy, my fellow Transitioner, will go to committee on 6 January.  No-one so far has objected and there don’t seem to be any insurmountable problems.  Joy is working indefatigably with her team of volunteers to create the hard standing for the shipping container which will store our tools (currently left under the hedge) and it is arriving mid-January thanks to some funding from our partners at LESS.  The field itself is growing a good crop of grasses and clovers, as advised by our friend and mentor Alan Schofield from Growing with Nature.  We dug another little pit to look at the soil; since the deep harrowing we have seen a bit more worm activity but there is still a lot to do to improve fertility.  For this, our farmer tenant James Park has promised loads of manure so Joy is pursuing stakes and pallets to create a clamp for it.  Apart from an invasion of sheep from the adjoining field, things have been going well.

Yet, dare I say it, the events of last week are beginning to make me wonder whether this growing project, with its expectation of teaching people how to grow the annual vegetables that we expect to see on our plates after so many centuries of annual, seasonal agriculture is fast becoming  uncertain, if not irrelevant.  Unpredictable weather, cold when it should be warm, droughts, rain and wind destroying the pollination periods, too much water leaving crops rotten in the ground – we’ve seen it all in the last few years. There are ways to reduce the effect of the weather.  Naturally, we plan to have a few polytunnels but it will clearly be a struggle to keep them intact on an exposed windy field.  People are not going to survive if they are dependant on the vagaries of the kind of annual harvest we have round here.  It seems like we need a whole different kind of food production that will be far more resilient to the weather.

new style farm lines of trees growingInevitably it seems the situation has brought me back to permaculture, an idea that both fascinates and annoys me in turns.  Fascinates because on the ground, in amongst things growing according to permaculture principles there is nothing but wonder about the way plants interact and thrive.  It annoys me because you need a lot of knowledge to do it properly and I confess I have made no dent in my ignorance partly because all the courses I have come across require large applications of time and quite often money. I feel a New Year Resolution coming on … Recently I have been reading and listening to Mark Shepard on Restoration Agriculture.  As befits a visual learner I was first fascinated by a picture of his farm that you can see here. From the air you see lines of trees in slow curving rows – I wanted to know what and why.  In the face of extreme weather the hardiness and adaptability of perennial plants, especially trees, seems hugely important.  You find them in cracks in walls, in gutters and on filthy train sidings, seemingly undeterred by the conditions.  The importance of trees as perennial sources of food seems to have been utterly forgotten here – a neighbour to our allotment orchard came over last week and said, “Can’t you just cut the tops off them all?” She doesn’t like trees – apples come from the supermarket.  

If our growing project is to make a real contribution to the resilience of our immediate neighbours on the Ridge Estate and to others in our district, it is going to have to adapt to extreme weather here and now and offer something relevant to a future predictably unpredictable.  We have allies with the knowledge and experience – maybe we need to give them a little more influence and elbow room in the design of our project.  It’s an edgy, uncomfortable place for me to be – moving out of the neat, orderly lines of Mr McGregor’s potato plot and vegetable bed into the secret forest garden, yet exciting too.

During the course on effective speaking last Thursday night we were warned severely about the perils of using clichés in our presentations.  Just to ensure we knew what to avoid we were provided with a list of twenty clichés never to be used.  Number one on the list? Climate change!!

Pictures: Claver Hill diggers (CJ) Mark Shepard's farm (from Organic Connections)

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Ann Owen's picture

Resilience gardening

It's a whole new ball game when you can no longer count on predictable, seasonal weather or plentiful supplies of diesel. It's those challenges we had in mind when we created Einion's Garden. You're gonna need polytunnels with sidevents, coldframes, hugel culture beds, frost fleece, John Jeavons's style three stage propagation and most of all, double up your crops, have some early, some late, some inside, some outside and have spares ready.

Don't hedge your bets on "forest gardens", but apply the principles on fat hedges. Remember that fruit needs pollinators and when it rains or is too cold, the bees don't fly, which is what happened in the summer of 2012. No bees= no fruit. Fruiting hedges are brilliant though, to protect from the wind, to channel frost, for wildlife, foddage and a place for all your animal garden helpers to live. I hope to see your project one day, I'm sure it will be grand!

Anni Kelsey's picture

Resilient food growing

Hi Caroline

I hadn't realised that your area had been hit so badly with the weather recently.

It is good to hear that your project is progressing apace.  I agree with you that ideally incorporating perennials into the system will enable it to be more resilient to the vagaries of the weather.  As you know I have been experimenting with perennial vegetables for some years now and they are proving to be versatile and hardy and my book about all this (Edible Perennial Gardening) will be out in March after a long time in the pipeline!

However I would encourage you and anyone else reading this not to think that you necessarily have to have lots of knowlege / experience to grow perennials as I certainly didn't when I started and they have always been much easier in my experience than annual vegetables which I am pretty useless with (although I am now starting to incorporate some annuals in to my polycultures, albeit in uncoventional ways).  I have no formal training in permaculture, so I learned what I know from experimenting and reading books and blogs.  

My experience is entirely based at a garden level - small areas in a normal suburban patch - not in a field or area of any size, but I am sure what I have learned will translate into larger spaces.  If it would be of any help I am happy to assist your project with a trial patch / patches of perennials next year.  Just let me know if you would like to discuss.

Good luck and happy Christmas

Anni Kelsey

Jo Homan's picture

nice one Anni

congratulations on the book! Caroline, I'd take her up on the offer if I were you as it's definitely the way to go. Here's what we're eating that's growing outdoors right now and has received pretty much zero maintenance: Allium triquetrum (three cornered leek), Leucanthemum superbum 'Becky' (Shasta daisy), Claytonia sibirica (Siberian Purslane), young Achillea millefolium (Yarrow). With those deeper, perennial root systems you can be sure they have plenty of nutrients. And the Purslane and Three Cornered Leek will grow in the shade.  Also loads of Sea Beet is around but needs to be cooked. Bring on the new tastes...

Caroline Jackson's picture

resilience and perennials

Thanks for all the encouraging comments and for the reassurance that experimenting with perennial veg is the way to go, Jo.  I planted up the seeds and plants you sent me last year Anni, with varying success probably due half to the endless rain in 2012 half to my ineptitude.  Rocket and onions all flooded out.  Sea beet grew quite well then gave up in the rain. Had some beautiful perennial brocolli from seeds which left a lot of elderly gents on the allotment shaking their heads at the idea of cauliflowers in the spring!  but I seem to have killed half those plants off because I let them flower later. Perennial kale great this year, is better than the annual i think and survived the chickens attacking it.  Would love to have some help translating to field size growing - it will need a think on how to manage perennial beds, which will be good for us. Might get some interest from our university friends as well.  Will email you in new year.  Have a good, peaceful Christmas everyone.

John Mason's picture

I've been into finding

I've been into finding resilient things to grow and one of the best so far is Swiss Chard. A good bed of that will provide a person with daily greens in summer, autumn into early winter if it is mild, and again in the spring and early summer. The multicoloured varieties look good too!

Living near the coast you could do what I do and gather seaweed washed up after storms. Surface-mulched around the plants (careful not to actually have them in direct contact) it gives lots of nutrients and it appears that slugs dislike it as this year I've had little damage to my plants :)