Article: Drought, Garden Lessons & Gratitude

A Hard Summer in the Garden

green tomato pickles and salsa

I was appalled to see how little food we grew this summer. Our gardens showed us that we were not ready for extreme and changing climate conditions. It is an unpleasant lesson, and hopefully one that will help us be better prepared going forward.

We look to Mother Nature as our teacher. We “listen” to the plants and try to understand their messages. In our area (in Eastern Ontario), our local conservation authority recorded 28 days over 30C this summer (compared to 10 days last summer). Combined with severe drought conditions (the main reservoir lakes were 20 to 35 cm below target), the plants were protesting loud and clear. It was a hard growing season for many farmers in our area; indeed, they have seen drought, floods and freak storms before. For us, it was our first big “let-down” of a growing season and an important wake-up call.

Since we left California about nine years ago, we've been making progress slowly and surely towards growing more of our own food. In the last five years, we've gone to the farmers' market mainly to visit and support our friends; not because we needed vegetables. We'll be breaking the trend this autumn, because our harvest is significantly smaller than usual.

We started our seeds and planted later than usual this year. Sadly for us, when we got the seeds and seedlings in the ground, we were in the midst of a heat wave, and it was a summer of ongoing heat waves.

We started our curcubit seeds in pots and fewer came up. Then the seedlings were stressed from the drought and extreme heat, and got attacked by insects. Last year we had over 180 pounds of winter squash; this year we had harvested two small and shriveled up squash.

We sowed carrot seeds in June and none came up; I resowed carrots in July and less than half of the seeds germinated. The potato plants looked scraggly and the potatoes themselves were much smaller.

We had very few fiddleheads and asparagus. The mulberry tree almost died. The elderberry and raspberries only gave a handful of fruit. Most of the unripe fruit on the plum tree and potted peach tree fell off. On the up-side, the pawpaw seeds germinated (did the weather remind them of warmer climes?).


Lessons Learned & A Permaculture Perspective

intensive home garden, zone 1

One could say that “we win some and we lose some” in life, and if we depended 100% on ourselves to grow our own food, we'd really lose big this winter. So while the larger food system is still relatively intact, it's a good time to make these mistakes and learn how to be better prepared for changing and chaotic climate.

It would serve us well to be present, observant and as flexible as possible. We cannot assume that normal or past climate trends will hold true in any given period. For example, in our region, we tend to start planting our annual veggies after the May long weekend. Last year, we got a killer frost right after the May long weekend (which killed most of our tomato plants), so it would have been better to wait. This year, in early June, it was already hot and dry, so it was getting to be too late.

We think a lot about inputs and outputs of energy. In our six previous years of growing gardens in Perth, Ontario, the energy we put in gave us abundant harvests; we've usually had enough for ourselves and some extra to share with neighbours and friends. This year, we put more into our gardens than usual and got a much smaller harvest.

In permaculture, we often talk about “zones” on the landscape to help us be more efficient with our energy. We try to place things that need more attention closer to home (or the centre of activity), while things that require less attention can be farther away. It is more efficient to put things that need our attention several times a day in “zone 1”, closest to home.

Usually, we grow a lot of our winter veggies – like potatoes, carrots, beets and winter squash – at our second garden which is about 3 km away from home. This garden is part of our “zone 3 or 4”, as we visit it a few times a week or weekly when the plants are getting established, and then we hardly go back until harvest time.

“Normally”, this works well for us. Except that this year was not a normal year. Due to the drought, most of our annual veggie plants were needing regular watering, sometimes daily, just to keep them alive – and they were not thriving. Basically, the drought made it so that most of the plants, even trees that had been established two or three years prior, were needing more care than normal.

This was harder though do-able in the gardens around our home; our lot is small, so areas that we are used to visiting a few times a week were easy to access daily. However, with the second garden being 3 km from home, our “normal zone 3 or 4” wanted to be part of “zone 1 or 2”, and it was too far away for this to be manageable.

One thing that became clear to me was how zone planning in normal conditions is not the same as in extreme conditions. I also realised that a size that normally seems very do-able, can seem very overwhelming when things require more care. This year makes us want to maximise space even more in our home garden and to scale-down our second garden. That being said, it's a tough call, because having different growing conditions also gives us more flexibility in the face of unexpected climate conditions.  Our home garden is shadier and the rain tanks are 20 steps away; our second garden is sunnier and windier, tends to be water-logged after heavy rains and the tap about 200 m away.  There are benefits and challenges to both.


Abundance & Gratitude

lupin blooms in the sunlight

All of this has been a humbling experience. It reminds me about acceptance, because there isn't any more I can do right now. I can be grateful for what we do have. Even though we grew less food than usual, the tomatoes were productive and tasty. The red and white currants were as generous as ever. Our garlic harvest was beautiful and our beet harvest was good. We have a reasonable amount of small potatoes and dried beans for the winter. The chard, kale and some turnips are still in the ground and doing well. The kale in the greenhouse reseeded itself like crazy and is looking great for the winter!

This is where we are in this moment. It is different from what we expected and surprises will happen again. And we're okay right now. We have food, shelter and warmth, and we saw family and friends this week. These are all precious gifts that we could easily miss, if we didn't pay attention.

I also see how much abundance I can find when I am forced to look. Our home garden tends to overflow with more perennial greens, herbs and “weeds” than we can eat. This year, I have made more pesto and been more pro-active with drying better-quality herbs earlier in the season.

Mother Nature offers us plenty of food and plenty of opportunities to learn. Every year is potentially different. Part of adapting includes learning more about how to garden in the face of extreme conditions, knowing how to deal with droughts and floods, extreme heat and cold. Part of it is looking to a diversity of plants, perennials and annuals, and being adaptable in the kitchen (and in life) with what we are given.

Finally, as I learned last winter when 51 cm of snow fell in one day and our neighbours helped me out (read more in my “Lessons from Water” article in the Permaculture Design Magazine), one of the biggest sources of resilience is our social networks. This spring, we had extra squash seedlings and gave them to friends. One friend heard that we didn't have any squash, so he brought us several from his garden. And actually, it seems that most folks around here had more apples than they knew what to do with, so we also received free apples from four different places.

So when I said that we had a small harvest this year, I remind myself that I'm being narrow-minded. We received a lot – just not what we expected. We harvested some food, some important lessons from the garden and some generosity that we had “paid forward” to friends and neighbours.

If you are scared of scarcity, I'd say: find and share the abundance that you do have – be it extra time, skills, tomatoes or seeds – and pay it forward to the people around you. It's free to share our surplus. And it may come back to you in surprising ways.

fruit and flowers in the palm of my hand


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