I’m prompted to write this post to alert growers to the publication of the revised USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map (often incorrectly called the Cold-Hardiness Zone Map). Canada and Mexico are now included. Most areas are a quarter-zone warmer in winter than in 2012.
Click this link for more on the history of the USDA Plant Hardiness Map. Note that the original intention of this map, which shows the average annual minimum winter temperature, was to indicate which perennial plants (such as fruit trees or shrubs) would survive the winter in each location. It does also indicate which biennial and annual plants can successfully overwinter (on average). There are lots of things it was never designed for, such as indicating how long the winter lasts, or how many days will be below a certain temperature. It is very valuable for its purpose: showing which plants will survive in an average winter.
Zones 10 and 11 were added in 2012, and Zones 12 and 13 are added to the new 2023 map. Zones 12 and 13 are presently only found in Hawaii and Puerto Rico, where the average annual minimum temperatures are above 50°F (10°C) and 60°F (15°C) respectively. The new interactive map has closer definition between neighboring areas than previously, and can be examined at a finer scale. A city or town with heat-absorbing concrete, can be seen as warmer than surrounding countryside.
Comparison of plant hardiness zones mapped for the 11 largest Metropolitan Statistical Areas [MSAs (U.S. Census Bureau, 2003)] in the 1960, 1990, and recently revised Plant Hardiness Zone Maps.
This technical article by Widrlechner and others in HortTechnology in 2012 gives a short history of the Map, and explains how it can be used to predict winter-injury to plants, and avoid damage by changing shipment dates or adding plant protection. It explains how freeze injury can occur during three stages in the annual cycle of plants: firstly, extreme cold occurring during the fall, before plants have adapted to such temperature levels; secondly, during mid-winter when extreme cold can still overwhelm the plants’ adaptive survival mechanisms; thirdly, during late winter and early spring of plants “deharden” after satisfying their minimum physiological rest requirements, in unseasonably warm spells.
The article also discusses attempts in various regions to add in the effects of other weather features such as cloud cover, wind speed and snow cover. It also discusses the 1997 AHS heat zone map, and shows graphs correlating the Plant Hardiness Zone Map and the Heat Zone Map for three parts of the US. Note the date of publication: references to the “updated” map refer to the 2012 version, not 2023.
For summer weather, the American Horticultural Society in 1997 created a Heat Zone Map to show how many summer days are likely to exceed a certain temperature. It is not the mirror image of the USDA Plant Hardiness Map – it does not show the yearly average hottest temperature. I think an update of a heat zone map is due!
According to the AHS map, I am in Zone 7 for summer temperatures (61-90 days a year reaching 86°F (30°C) or more) — right in the middle of the range. According to Weatherspark.com, from June 11 to August 30, our average daily high temperature is 86°F (30°C) or more. Summer nighttime temperatures are also an important feature of the weather, for us and our crops.
Twin Oaks is in USDA Plant Hardiness Zone 7a. (our zone remains unchanged after the November 2023 update, but we did move 5 Fahrenheit degrees milder from our 1990’s 6b to 7a in the 2012 revision). The average annual minimum winter temperature in zone 7a is 0°F–5°F (–18°C to –15°C). I have noticed that our local climate has changed on average, over the past ten-twenty years, to become drier, with milder winters and hotter summer nights.
Here are other features of our weather at Twin Oaks, Louisa, central Virginia:
Our average rainfall for a year is 37″ (100 cm), fairly evenly distributed throughout the year, at 2.2″–3.6″(5.6-9.1 cm) per month. February is the driest, May the wettest.
Our average daily maximum temperatures are 49°F (9.4°C) in December and January, 89°F (31.7°C) in July. The average night low temperatures are 29°F (–1.7°C) in January, 69°F (20.5°C) in July.
Our season from last frost to first frost is around 211 days. The average date of the last spring frost is April 24 (later than May 7 only happens one year in ten); the average date of the first fall frost is Oct 14 (earlier than Oct 1 only happens one year in ten).
Our climate is controlled by three weather systems, mainly by moisture from the Gulf of Mexico, but also by the Bermuda High Pressure area in summer and the recurrent waves of cold Canadian air in winter. Due to the erratic movement of thunderstorms, some parts of our area may experience long periods of drought. September–November is the dry season but also the hurricane season.
Our latitude is 38° N, which is very relevant to onion growing and to daylight length.
Our period when daylight length is less than ten hours and little plant growth occurs, lasts from Nov 21 to Jan 21.
Note: I edited this post in September when I found I was mistaken in believing barley was less cold-hardy than oats.
Focus Cover Crops for August: Oats, barley and other winter-killed cover crops
In August we are looking ahead, thinking about how our cover crops will be impacted by future cold weather. In JulyI wrote about hot weather grass cover crops, including Sorghum-Sudan hybrid (Sudex), and the millets, which are not frost-hardy.
German/Foxtail and Japanese millets are day-length sensitive. Growth is considerably less if they are sown after the summer solstice, so they are likely to be of limited use as cover crops once we reach August.
Browntop Millet could be useful in August in the mid-Atlantic. Proso/Broomcorn Millet I’m not so sure about. Pearl/ Cattail Millet is not day-length sensitive. To winter-kill and avoid seed formation, sow 60-85 days before your expected first frost.
See Working with the time you have left in the post Cover Crops in Summer. See No-Till summer cover crops in that same post (Soy, southern peas, foxtail millet). Also there, see Five Easy Summer Cover Crops that Die with the Frost (buckwheat, sorghum-sudan grass, soybeans, southern peas and sunn hemp.)
Buckwheat can be sown up to 28 days before the first frost. See my article about buckwheat. Soybeans can be sown up to 45 days before frost. A mix of sunn hemp, soybeans or southern peas and other frost-tender cover crops can be grown during August (60-80 days before frost) before planting garlic in mid-fall. This method will work more easily if you mow the cover crop around your frost date, so that it is easier to make furrows in the soil. Forage radish, lab-lab beans or bell beans sown now will die back and leave almost bare soil. This is a boon for the very earliest spring transplants or sowings.
Or, instead of sowing a cover crop now, you could sow a fast-growing vegetable crop. Kale, spinach, Tokyo bekana, radishes, chard, lots of salad crops, senposai, mizuna, tatsoi, or land cress. Try Eat-All Greens, an idea form Carol Deppe. Patches of carefully chosen cooking greens are sown in a small patch. When it reaches 12″ (30 cm) tall, Carol cuts the top 9″ (23 cm) off for cooking, leaving the tough-stemmed lower part, perhaps for a second cut, or to return to the soil.
Winter-killed, not frost-killed, cover crops
In August, we can sow winter cover crops to be winter-killed for easy soil cultivation before early spring vegetables. Oats and barley are in this category. Oats will be killed by three nights of 20°F (-7°C) or a single night of 6°F (-14°C). Sow oats 5-8 weeks before your average first frost to get good size plants before they get winter-killed. We sow in late August and early September in Zone 7a. See Cover Cropping Your Garden by Chris Blanchard in 2002:
“Inexpensive and easy to grow, oats are a standard early fall cover crop in the northern and middle sections of North America. A quick-growing, non-spreading grass, oats will reliably die in Hardiness Zone 6 and colder, and often in zone 7.”
It used to be nine years out of ten, here in Louisa County, VA, but our climate is shifting to be too warm in winter to reliably kill oats. This past winter (2022/2023) oats did not die. They were cold-damaged, and set back, but definitely not dead.
Fall-sown Barley (Hordeum vulgare), grows even faster than oats, although not as fast as winter rye, and it won’t die as early in the winter as oats. Barley dies at 17°F (-8°C). It usually will die in Zone 7 and colder regions. The dead barley residue protects the soil through the winter, and dries into what Barbara Pleasant calls “a plant-through mulch” in spring in cold zones.
See Planning Winter Cover Crops. If the area has been fully harvested of food crops by 60-80 days before frost, sow a frost-killed cover crop or even a fast-growing food crop. In central Virginia, it’s a mistake to sow rye as early as August, as it can set seed.
Winter-hardy cover crops to sow in August
Not all winter cover crops can be sown as early as August in the mid-Atlantic. Don’t sow winter rye, or it may head up before winter and drop seeds. Only sow oats or barley if you are sure you can get them turned under or killed by cold winter weather before they seed. They will not mow-kill. Be careful buying feed-grade seeds (rather than seed-grade), as they can contain weed seeds including GMO canola.
Clovers can be sown in August (provided you can supply enough overhead irrigation). September is a better time to sow clovers here, if you are sowing them in bare ground. They will make some growth in our climate before winter, and then a lot more once spring arrives.
Secondary Cover Crops in August: Undersowingfor more cover crops
Choose vigorous food crops, but cover crops that are only moderately vigorous.
Timing is critical: Sow the cover crop late enough to minimize competition with the food crop, but early enough so it gets enough light to grow enough to endure foot traffic when the food crop is harvested. Often the best time is at the last cultivation.
The leaf canopy of the food crop should not yet be closed. With vining food crops, sow the cover crop before the vines run.
Ensure a good seedbed and a high seeding rate.
Irrigate sufficiently. The food crop will have good roots by then, but the cover crop seed will be just below the surface and will need some help to germinate.
Green fallow (Full year cover crops)
Our main use of clovers is to undersow fall brassicas such as broccoli and cabbage, with a mix of Crimson clover, white clover and medium red clover in August, to form a green fallow crop (all-year cover crop) for the following year, replenishing the soil and reducing annual weeds.
2 weeks after transplanting the brassicas (August), we hoe and till between the rows, or wheelhoe.
We repeat at 4 weeks after transplanting, and broadcast a mix of clovers (late August-early September): 1 oz (30 g) Crimson clover, 1 oz (30 g) Ladino white clover and 2 oz (60 g) Medium red clover per 100 sq ft (9 m2)
In March, we bush hog the old brassica stumps and let the clovers flourish, mowing once a month to prevent the crimson clover and the annual weeds from seeding.
If you have difficulty getting even coverage when broadcasting clovers or other cover crop seeds, try seeding half the crop walking in one direction, and then seed perpendicularly across your original path
In mid-August, we undersow our last sweet corn planting with oats and soybeans, as the winter cover crop, which winter-kills, leaving a plot that is easily worked up next spring. Our 6th sweet corn is sown 7/16. 4 weeks after seeding, we cultivate and sow oats and soy. In mid-March we follow with our spring potatoes. Both oats and soybeans have some tolerance for shade and for foot traffic (harvesting corn!).
Sweet corn can be undersown with clover rather than soy or oats in some climates. We tried clover but found it harder to germinate in hot weather, and harder to keep the tiny seed damp. Buckwheat can be undersown in corn as a short term summer cover, but according to Sue Ellen Johnson, (co-editor of Crop Rotation On Organic Farms: a planning manual, it grows rather straggly in the shade of the corn. Soy has the advantages of tolerating shade as well as foot traffic.
We tried an idea from NY State, or undersowing winter squash with buckwheat and tilling it under just before the vines run (that was June), but here in the south, the vines ran too fast. We ended up having to wade in among the vines to pull up the buckwheat by hand!
The Home-Scale Forest Garden: How to Plan, Plant and Tend a Resilient Edible Landscape, Dani Baker, Chelsea Green Publishing, May 2022. 325 pages, 8″ x 10″, full color photos, $34.95.
The Home-Scale Forest Garden provides plenty of detailed information to help others succeed in creating small-scale resilient low maintenance edible havens. Dani Baker started creating her forest gardens over ten years ago on Wellesley Island in the St Lawrence River, between New York and Canada (zone 4). She and her partner raise certified organic produce, grass-fed beef and goats. She tells of her successes and failures, and the strategies she developed to overcome the challenges of very wet soil, deer attacks, climate chaos and more.
The first third of this book covers planning and planting a small forest garden. The main part of the book is a directory of plants, to help you choose plants for every level, (or “story” as the permaculturists call them). Everything from canopy trees to vines and fungi and the full range in between. The last part of the book helps with creating compatible plant groupings. Appendices give a table of nutrient accumulator plants and which nutrients each accumulates; a chart of blooming and harvest times, and a calendar of monthly maintenance tasks.
Forest gardens are modeled after nature, rather than farms: low maintenance, mixed plantings, permanent soil coverage, continuously increasing carbon sequestration. This kind of garden is regenerative: the ecological state improves each year as humus builds up. Yes, some of the plants take a long time to reach maturity and provide harvest. But herbs, berries and perennial vegetables can be harvested from your first year.
Dani and her partner David Belding bought 102 acres in the northern US, close to the Canadian border, when they retired from full-time careers, thinking to dabble in landscaping and keep a couple of horses, not to farm. The land was formerly a dairy farm, more recently hay ground with a small vegetable market farm. In their first spring, they planted a small vegetable garden, as Dani had done as a teenager. They sold all they grew, so the next year they doubled the size of the garden and bought two pigs. Retirement wasn’t boring! The garden increased to ¾ ac (0.3 ha) and the farm gained chickens, ducks, goats, beef cows and more pigs. Dani focused on the gardens, David on the livestock.
In their seventh year, Dani attended a permaculture workshop, inspiring her to create her own forest garden, fenced to keep the livestock and wild predators out. They did not want to reduce the pasture, so they chose a scrubby 100 x 200’ (30 x 61 m) area near the road. Your forest garden might be as small as 25 ft2 (2.3 m2).
They cleared the brush and designed a garden including an events space, a pond with a bridge, a patio and various plantings. Quite a bit of hardscaping (paths) was involved, meaning that long-term planning was important – no tilling everything up in November anymore! Three years later they doubled the size of their forest garden, and also expanded into the adjacent woodland, to plant under existing trees. This wooded area had standing water a lot of the year, so Dani created hügelkultur mounds, which are fully explained in chapter 4. Basically they are piles of wood trimmings that become raised beds.
For those already thinking they would miss tomatoes too much to do this, be reassured that both are possible for people with enough land. Dani has an area of market garden beds near the house. It’s also possible to integrate some annual crops within a forest garden in the early years when trees are small and plenty of light can reach the lower levels of plants. Ultimately the two kinds of gardens do better apart, as their needs and cultivation methods are different.
This is a book applying various methods, including some found in permaculture books, but it’s not a permaculture theory book, and Dani does not consider herself a permaculturist. There are none of those diagrams of the concepts of guilds, swales and redundancy in functions. You don’t have to be a believer to find value in these practices.
The six principles the author values and uses are:
maximizing solar absorption,
maximizing water conservation
designing for sustainability,
building-in redundancy and
minimizing human labor into the future.”
Her hedges and ground cover areas all have diverse species, and you can read which ones. By including wide paths and a patio area, Dani has created lots of edges allowing sunlight in.
Using all the vertical space increases the plants absorbing the sunlight. The seven plant levels include
the overstory of trees to 30′ (9 m) or more
the understory of fruit, nut and other short trees, 10-30′ (3-9 m) tall
the shrub layer of berry bushes and other plants, 3-12′ (1-3.5 m) tall
the herbaceous layer of perennials that die back and regrow annually, 2-10′ (60 cm-3 m) tall
the ground cover layer close to the soil, including strawberries and leguminous cover crops
the root layer of plants with edible roots, such as sunchokes
the vining layer, with height depending on the available supports
A fungus layer can be added, but fungi aren’t plants, so you might consider them off-list.
Those creating very small forest gardens, even in a container, will have to select some layers and not others.
To maximize water conservation, create a lot of leaf canopy, keep the soil covered, choose appropriate plants, collect rainwater and runoff and increase water-absorbing mulches. At the beginning, you can cover the soil with wood chips, improving conditions both immediately and longer-term. Notice where water collects on your land and match water-loving plants with damp locations. Ponds can collect and store water, to be used as needed for watering plants, as well as increasing the habitat for more species of small and larger creatures.
Design so that you do not usually have to actively water plants–the goal is a self-sustaining garden. Be sure to include nitrogen-fixing plants, some deep-rooting plants that accumulate nutrients, some that attract beneficial insects and some “aromatic pest confusers” to make pests unwelcome.
The concept of redundancy is to provide multiple ways a need can be met, (and multiple needs met by any one function). This increases sustainability and reduces the chance of the garden failing. Water can be provided by rain, ponds and a hose. Ponds provide other functions too, increasing the network of support.
All of the above contribute to reducing future human labor, which is a fine goal for anyone, but especially those creating gardens during their retirement years. Setting up a forest garden and getting it firmly established can be quite a lot of work, depending on the scale. After that, it will provide for you, and the rest of the ecosystem.
It is very important to plan your forest garden before planting anything, or making any changes to the space. You are creating long-term changes, not an annual garden that will be tilled up for a fresh start every year. Not all your plans will work out as expected, but not to worry: those who have a plan are best-placed to understand when and even how to make a change. Dani has examples, including how the dog changed the access through the hügelkultur area.
Part of your plan might be to try out plants that haven’t previously thrived in your climate. You can do this by finding the best microclimate in your garden for these crops, and improving those microclimates to suit the crops better. You can experiment on a small scale somewhere else on your land that has a suitable microclimate, to see if it will work. Assuming you don’t have huge financial resources, you’ll want to mostly grow plants you know will do well. Nut trees take a long time to provide a harvest, and who knows what the climate will be like by then? You might rather stick with berry bushes.
The first practical step, after dreaming, is to closely observe the land you plan to use, throughout every season and every type of weather. Pay attention to soil types, drainage, slopes, shade, microclimates, shelter or not from prevailing winds. Make a sketch of the various areas within your site and indicate the flows of water and wind, the sun and shade. Check the USDA winter-hardiness zone and soil types (ask your Extension agent). Dig holes after rain to assess how quickly the soil drains, and note where the rivulets run. Decide if you need to install culverts or drains. Decide if you want to include a pond, and if so, where would be the best spot.
Next, make a scale map, with accurate measurements of lengths in all directions. Mark existing trees, stumps, shrubs, slopes, rock outcroppings, flow of surface water and any human-built structures. The book explains how to triangulate distances from two known points. Add contour lines. Check the map against the territory, ensuring its accuracy.
With an accurate map you can start to pencil in your ideas, balancing all the factors already discussed. Site the big trees, ensuring you give them adequate space. Fill in with the next tallest plants, and work down by height. Make sure your taller plants won’t shade smaller ones that need good light, or ponds that benefit from solar warming. Site windbreaks where you need them, and plants that tolerate wet soil in the dampest spots.
Dani offers planning tips, like cutting discs of paper for the large trees, and moving them around your map to get the best configuration. She quotes from Martin Crawford, who wrote Creating a Forest Garden. He suggests:
Choose fast-growing species that will serve their ultimate purpose
Plant trees and shrubs close enough to create a continuous dense mass when mature
For windbreaks, plant a line of trees perpendicular to the direction of the wind, then plant smaller bushier plants downwind
Don’t expect other plants to thrive close to a windbreak, because roots compete
Reduce weed competition to speed forest development
Dani chose hügelkultur beds for the places that often had standing water. It was a good solution for making raised beds that would keep the plants’ roots out of the water. You will need to accumulate lots of resource materials, (unless you are making a tiny forest garden). Where possible, get the heavy piles of organic matter delivered to the high point of the land, so you only ever move it downhill!
If you need heavy equipment on the land to construct walkways, ponds, bridges, gathering areas, or install culverts, do all this before any planting. Next, do any slow-change techniques like sheet mulching to kill weeds, or grazing, or rooting with pigs (who love quack grass). Land prep before planting is explained: build raised beds, make hügelkultur mounds on a base of dead logs and branches, build swales and give them an initial planting of annual vegetables to provide roots to stabilize the mound until time for a permanent planting, and how to frost seed. Implement your deer and livestock exclusion plan, before planting a single perennial. Later, consider adding bird and bat boxes and insect hotels.
Planting large perennials is different from dealing with annual vegetables, so be guided by this experienced author. Make yourself a nursery in a separate, shady area, where you can heel-in trees and shrubs that arrive before you are ready to plant them, store “extras” and where you can propagate from plants you already have.
Here in the book you’ll find step-by-step instructions for planting bare-root trees and shrubs in the dormant season. For perspective, there is a photo of a large number of metal nametags from perennial plants that failed in Dani’s forest garden! Some failures stem from poor decisions by the gardener, others from mislabeling by the seller, or a poor or damaged specimen, or injury in transit, or bad luck (sometimes known as insufficient or faulty information). There are also instructions for planting containerized trees, transplanting, pruning, fruit-thinning, weeding and watering. And dealing with pests. Wire trunk guards can protect young woody plants from girdling by rodents, which can kill the plant.
Once you have a certain woody plant in your garden, you can propagate from that to provide more. For berry bushes, this might only add one or two years before the new plant fruits too, getting good value from your initial purchase. The book explains layering, hardwood cuttings, division and seed.
In Part 2 you can browse and select plants that seem a good fit for your forest garden. The section on nut and fruit trees explains grafted trees, “southwest injury” where bark splits in spring due to expansion and contraction of the trunk on sunny south-facing afternoons, only to get very cold at night. This is why tree trunks are sometimes painted white. Chilling periods are explained: a minimum period of cold temperatures required during dormancy for successful fruiting. Allow for global heating when you decide which fruit trees to buy!
In the plant directory, each of the descriptions includes a summary of the plant’s native range, mature height, width of canopy, soil conditions, sunlight needs, and hardiness range. A system of icons indicates some of the key functions or benefits that plant provides. Dani adds some notes in her personal observations. These sidebars include things that went wrong; extra benefits and how to take advantage of them (wild groundcovers); extra needs (such as cross-pollination, stratification and scarification) and how to provide for them; or when to forego them (blueberries, because they require acid soil); practices that can work even if you expect them to fail (transplanting shrubs in the fall in zone 4, planting shrubs with fine fibrous roots in dry locations); particular pests (raspberry vine borer, plum curculio);
There are 13 tall trees, 21 shorter trees, 27 shrubs, 38 herbaceous plants, 16 ground covers, each with a beautiful photo. Each section has some species you will likely be familiar with and some unusual ones, such as Korean nut pine, hazelbert, shipova, buffaloberry, New Jersey tea, Good King Henry, saffron crocus, water celery and cinnamon vine (air potato).
The chapter on successful groupings of varied plants will give you plenty of ideas, and tips for calculating how to include enough nitrogen-fixing plants to supply all the other plants in your garden. With plants for pollinators, rather than calculating, just go for diversity and spanning the growing season so you have something in flower all the time. Plant elderberries on the edge nearest your potato plants and they will attract beneficial wasps that parasitize Colorado potato beetles. Plant groupings are suggested for sites in full sun or partial shade. There are tips for planting orchard rows and hedge-lines with shrubs and smaller plants in between the biggest trees. You can even save time and plant a (carefully chosen!) group of nine plants in one hole!
If you become enchanted by the ideas and the photos in this book, you can start to make a plan, and maps, and a plant list, and turn your dream into reality. Even if you only have a large planter on a patio.
Our mid-Atlantic weather mostly comes from one of three directions,
mainly from the Gulf of Mexico, (wet, maybe windy)
the Bermuda High Pressure area in summer, (hot and dry)
recurrent waves of cold air from Canada in winter (from a disrupted polar vortex).
Due to the erratic movement of thunderstorms, some parts of our area may experience long periods of drought. September–November is the dry season but also the hurricane season.
Find a weather station that is a good match for your area, and learn how to adapt it
We use Wunderground.com for Louisa Northside, but subtract 5F° from their forecast night lows, and mentally downgrade the chance of rain by 10%, as rain often passes us by as it scoots along the river valley north of us. I use the ten-day forecast to get the general idea, the hourly one when planning tasks, the Roanoke animated radar on the daily page to see what’s on the way and when it’s likely to arrive, and the alerts, watches and warnings. The forecast for the month is under the Calendar tab, although the further out the forecast is, the less reliable it will be. In hurricane season I check the Severe Weather tab with the Hurricane and Tropical Cyclones information.
Make yourself a Frost Alert Card of conditions that are likely to lead to an early or late frost, so you can quickly take avoiding actions without dithering.
Learn about recent average weather at your location.
I recommend Weather Sparkfor browsing on a rainy day, or a too-hot afternoon. “The weather year round anywhere on earth”
I rechecked our area on Weather Spark recently and realized how much has changed since I started quoted information from our Extension Service twenty or more years ago.
The climate in Louisa County, Virginia, is changing on average in the past ten years to drier weather with milder winters, hotter summer nights.
Twin Oaks is in USDA Winter Hardiness Zone 7a: the average annual minimum winter temperature is 0°F–5°F (–18°C to –15°C).
The average rainfall for a year is 37” (100 cm), fairly evenly distributed throughout the year, at 2.2”–3.6” (5.6-9.1 cm) per month. October is the driest, May the wettest.
The average daily maximum temperatures are 49°F (9.4°C) in December and January, 89°F (31.7°C) in July. The average night low temperatures are 29°F (–1.7°C) in January, 69°F (20.5°C) in July.
The season from last frost to first frost, is around 211 days. The average date of the last spring frost is April 24 (later than May 7 only happens one year in ten); the average date of the first fall frost is Oct 14 (earlier than Oct 1 only happens one year in ten).
Weather SparkOn Weather Spark you can study artfully-made colorful charts of temperature, precipitation, cloud coverage, humidity and tourists (!) month by month. There is a chart of average high and low temperatures over the year, and one showing the average hourly temperature over the year (we are currently in the big red blob of hot afternoons). There’s a grey and blue chart of cloud coverage, and a green one of the daily chance of rain (with touches of blue and purple frozen precipitation). The average monthly rainfall chart is all greys, as is the snowfall one. Our greatest chance of snow is February with an average of 4.2” for the month.
You can compare your nearest city to another you might dream of moving to.
There are charts of hours of daylight and twilight, sunrise and sunset, the solar elevation and azimuth (for those planning greenhouses); moon rise, set and phases for a choice of years; and – oh – humidity! Color-coded from a comfortable green, humid yellow, tan mugginess, pink oppressive and orange misery (over 75%).
There’s a chart of average wind speed over the year; wind direction, which shows my wrong belief that most of the wind here comes from the west (true in July, December and January only). There’s also (keep scrolling) a chart about the growing season, by which they mean the longest continuous period on non-freezing temperatures, although the chart provides a very visual bigger picture of periods in various temperature bands.
There’s a Growing Degree Days chart! We’re on average at 2000 F GDD at this point in July. Next is a chart of solar energy (average daily incident shortwave solar energy), with kWh peaking in June at 6.9 per day.
There’s more details, but I’m moving on.
Check extreme weather
For when you need to know, check outReal Time Lightning Maps.org. On the map, enlarge the area you are concerned about., and watch for the activity sparking, or click for sound. There’s an explanation of how the data is gathered and what the various color dots mean.
Windy.comhas a colored map with streaming arrows, and other settings for rain and thunder, clouds, temperature and more. For those at seas, you can check the waves and swell.
AirNow.gov has a quick-to-read dial of air quality, fire and smoke maps, ozone, fine particulates, lots of information about air quality
Not exactly weather, but if you experience an earthquake, go to Did You Feel It? And register your experience. It helps USGS build a clearer picture of earthquake events in your area. You can see maps of recent earthquakes globally or a world map to give understanding of tectonic plates.
We are about to transplant our eggplants, so I can tell you all about it. I’ll skip over the details of sowing, assuming you’ve already done that. After the growing info, I’ll summarize our variety trials in case you are considering which to grow next year. If you already grow more than one variety, I encourage you to track how each one does, to refine your future plans.
Eggplant Crop Requirements
Eggplants benefit from fertile, well-drained soils high in organic matter, with a pH of 6.0-7.0, with 6.0-6.5 ideal. Average moisture with plenty of warmth and sunshine are needed. Ideal daytime growing temperatures are 70-85°F (21-29°C).
Care of Young Eggplant Starts
You may have sown in plug flats or pots, or in open flats. You will probably have potted up the plants into 3-4” (7.6-10 cm) pots. We keep ours away from doors in the greenhouse in the cozy south-west corner. Protect the seedlings from flea beetles, as well as drafts, either in the greenhouse or on benches outside. Flea beetles cruise at low altitudes, so setting your flats 3’ (1 m) above the ground may be all you need to do to keep them away. Or you may need netting. Johnny’s Selected Seeds has 6.9’ x 328’ ProtekNet for $375. They say:
“ProtekNet netting keeps insects as small as flea beetles and thrips off tender crops while providing maximum ventilation to prevent heat stress on hot summer days. Fine synthetic knitted mesh is UV resistant and lasts 1–3 seasons. Easy to see through, so crops can be inspected without removal. For best results, use over Quick Hoops or Wire Support Hoops, bury the edges, and ensure foliage is not touching the net, so insects can’t lay eggs through it. 0.0138″ x 0.0138″ (0.35 mm x 0.35 mm) mesh. 89% light transmission; 62% porosity; Weight: 0.74 Oz. per sq.yd. NOTE: Cut netting longer than needed to accommodate shrinkage.”
Gardeners Edge(AM Leonard) has 6.9’ x 32’ of the same mesh size for $58.94
The Dubois Agrinovation US website offers several nets with mesh small enough (0.0138″ x 0.0138″ /0.35 mm x 0.35 mm) to keep out flea beetles: 25g, 47g, 56g, and 70g. Some are more durable than others, naturally. 164ft rolls cost from $198.32. We have found ProtekNet to more durable than rowcover.
Plant spacings of 18-24” (45-60 cm) in-row and 30-36” (76-91 cm) between rows are usually recommended – or more to accommodate machinery. We used to grow two staggered rows in our 4’ (1.2 m) wide beds, aiming to have the plants 30” (76 cm) apart. This created crowded aisles, so we now plant a single row in each bed, with in-row spacing of 20-24” (50-60 cm), creating a “hedge” and leaving the paths more accessible. This fits with the approach that considers the area each plant has, rather than the intensive planting approach that favors equal space in all directions.
To harden off for planting out, reduce moisture rather than dropping the temperature, as this crop is easily stunted by cold temperatures. Ideally, keep eggplants above 55°F (13°). Transplant the 8-12 week old plants 1-2 weeks after the last frost date, in a warm spell. The transplants should be 6-10” (15-25 cm) tall, without any buds, flowers or fruit. We leave our eggplants to be one of the later crops set out, after tomatoes and peppers. To help warm the soil, you could spread black plastic mulch two weeks before transplanting. This will also deter flea beetles. Avoid organic mulches at planting time, as they cool the soil. In cool climates, rowcover on hoops is a good idea for new transplants, to keep the plants warm. Fine mesh netting will keep flea beetles away.
Our technique for minimizing flea beetles while transplanting is to set out hoops, and sticks to hold the netting down on either side of the bed. The rolled netting is at the ready. One or two people transplant, and a third person with a hose and spray-head gives the plants a strong spray, directing the flea beetles out of the bed. A fourth person follows close behind, unrolling the netting and battening it down quickly after each plant.
Caring for the Eggplant Crop
Once the soil is fully warm, you can cultivate and spread organic mulch. Because the plants will be in the ground for a long season, and organic mulches break down, we use our eggplant beds as convenient places to drop off finished crop residues or weeds – only healthy, non-seeding material of course. In hot dry weather, weeds can be pulled from the mulch and laid on top to die.
Any stress from cold weather, disease, or low fertility will cause eggplant skins to thicken and become bitter. If your soil fertility is low, feed monthly with fish emulsion, or side-dress with compost. Don’t overdo the nitrogen or you will get lots of leaves but few fruit.
We don’t usually stake ours, but if your area is windy, you could stake tall varieties, with 3-5’ (1-1.5 m) stakes every third plant around the perimeter and twine every 12” (30 cm) up the stakes to corral the bushes. Upright bushes may produce better shaped fruit. When the branches threaten to take over the aisles, snip them off as you harvest.
Some growers pinch out the growing tips to encourage branching, although ours branch just fine without, and I hate removing bits of healthy crop plants. Conversely, growers in cooler climates sometimes prune low branches and leave just two main stems to be sure of getting some ripe fruit. In the fall, if rowcover is used to keep the first few frosts off, the big plants can ripen existing fruits. No new fruit will set once the temperature drops below 70°F (21°C).
As with most crops, the critical time for irrigation is during flowering and fruit formation. Insufficient water during this stage can lead to blossom end rot, misshapen fruit and reduced yield.
The above information is from my book Sustainable Market Farming. In the eggplant chapter you can find more about sowing, crop rotations, pests and diseases, harvesting, storage and seed saving
Eggplant Variety Trials
Most of my prior posts about eggplant have been about the years of variety trials we did from 2013 to 2016.
Back at the beginning of the 21st century, we had tried lots of different eggplant varieties, and found that Nadia consistently did best. After the hot summer in 2012 when our Nadia eggplant refused to set fruit in the heat, I started looking for heat-tolerant varieties. For a while in early summer 2012 the Nadia didn’t grow at all – no new flowers, never mind new fruit. We chose large purple-black tear-drop shaped eggplant because that’s what our cooks want.
We didn’t include any green, striped, long skinny, orange, fluted or other unusual kinds. No judgment about people who like those! I looked at growing some combination of Nadia (67d, good set in cool conditions) with of
Epic F1 61-64d (early and huge!). Recommended in Florida and Texas.
Night Shadow F1 68d, (size claims vary from “similar to Epic” to “smaller.
Traviata F1 (variously recorded as 55-60d, 70d and 80d), small but good flavor. Recommended in Florida.
Irene F1 (mid-early). Large, shiny purple, traditional-shaped fruit 5″ x 6-7″. Great flavor, big plant, productive.
Classic F1 76d, heavy yields, high quality, does not perform well in cool conditions. Recommended in Florida and Texas.
Santana F1 80d, large, continuous setting. Recommended in Florida.
Florida High Bush OP 76-85d, reliable, large fruit, drought and disease resistant. Recommended in Florida and Texas.
Florida Market OP 80-85d, large, excellent for the South, not for the Northeast. Recommended in Florida and Texas.
In 2013, alongside Nadia, we trialed: Florida Highbush, Epic and Traviata. Ironically, the summer of 2013 was not hot. One of the coolest we’ve had in a long time. We did a final harvest in preparation for our first frost, Sunday October 20/21, and I crunched the numbers. We planted 38 Nadia, 10 Florida Highbush, 10 Traviata and 12 Epic. Harvests started on July 25, later than our usual July 10, because of the cool weather. We harvested three times a week until 10/17. I was surprised how few fruit each plant provided – about 6. Initially, Nadia was providing by far the largest fruit, with Florida Highbush the smallest. Traviata doesn’t claim to be big. In the first week of harvests, Nadia produced most per plant, but this leveled off pretty soon. Final figures were 7.3 fruits/bush for Traviata, 6.3 for Florida Highbush, 6.1 for Nadia, and only 4.4 for Epic. We realized that we had stunted the Epic unintentionally by planting it at the stony end of the bed, near the road.
In 2014, we grew the same four varieties, to test them in a hot summer. But again it didn’t get hot! All four varieties have similar-sized fruit. We did better record-keeping, and found that the size and weight of each fruit was very similar across the varieties, varying only from Epic’s 0.61 lbs to Traviata’s 0.64 lbs per fruit average. Nadia yielded best per plant, at 13.4 fruits over the season. Epic was next at 12.5 fruits, then Traviata with 11.7 fruits. Florida Highbush was a poor fourth with an average of only 6.8 fruits per plant.
In 2015, we still did not get a hot summer! We had added a fifth variety for 2015: Florida Market, (like Florida Highbush, this is also open-pollinated.). By late august, Epic was winning, at 4.1 fruits and 3.4 pounds per plant, with an average of 0.84 pounds per fruit. Traviata was running second, at 3.1 fruits and 2.4 pounds per plant (average of 0.79 pounds per fruit). Nadia was third, at 2.3 fruits and 1.8 pounds per plant (average 0.75 pounds per eggplant). Florida Highbush (yes, it is a tall plant!) was beating Nadia on tonnage (2.1 pounds/plant) but losing on size (in other words, more, smaller eggplant). Florida Market was trailing, with many days providing no harvest. Our final figures for 2015showed Florida Market’s fruits were smaller and rounder, and it had a lower yield. It was at the dry stony end (so unfair!) Epic did best, both in number of fruit/plant (10.7) and weight per fruit (0.77 lbs). Good thing we didn’t give up on it after 2013! Traviata provided 8.9 fruits/plant, Florida Highbush 8.2, Nadia only 8.0 (we did get a lot of culls too), and the Florida Market just 7.5.
In 2016, we actually had some hot weather! We dropped the OPs and planted only the higher yielding Epic, Traviata, and Nadia. The September assessment showed of the three, Epic was winning! From the first harvest on 7/18, up to the end of August, Epic had produced a staggering 287 eggplants, averaging 0.9 pounds each; Nadia, 125 eggplants, averaging 0.76 pounds each; Traviata, 124 averaging 0.72 pounds. That year we also logged the cull rate: Nadia was best (least) at 21%; Epic was close at 22%, while Traviata produced a surprisingly high proportion of culls at 29%. During September, Traviata produced the largest number of saleable fruits (145) compared to 138 Nadia and 135 Epic. Probably not statistically different from each other. As I’ve noted before, the eggplants are all a similar size, and so it’s no surprise that Traviata’s 145 fruits totaled the highest weight (112.5 pounds), with Nadia at 98 pounds and Epic at 95.5. Nadia had an 8% cull rate, Traviata 9% and Epic only 6.8%. Clearly, all three are good varieties.
Adding September to the figures for August and July, Epic was the winning eggplant in terms of total yield, saleable yield, low cull ratio, and weight per fruit. That impressive leap off the starting blocks that Epic made was still holding it ahead of the pack. The ripe fruits got a little smaller, and there was been a noticeable drop-off in yield since the equinox.
After that, we grew Nadia and Epic, to cater for both types of summer. Recently some cooks developed an interest in Ping Tung Long, so we have been growing that as well as Epic.
Those who start early in “spring” (late winter) might get earlier crops, but when is it worth it?
Some crops are just not going to thrive if you start too soon: cucumbers, peppers, and even tomatoes, for example. Make sure you can provide conditions that meet the minimum temperature requirements for these tender crops. See my book Sustainable Market Farming, for all the details. We used to start these tender crops earlier than we do now. March conditions have become more unreliable, often colder.
If you already have a place to grow protected crops, or you are experienced with rowcover and have plenty on hand, then the signs are good. Crops can be started earlier in a greenhouse or hoophouse (or even on a kitchen windowsill) than you can sow them outdoors. When the plants reach a good size, harden them off and then plant them out in a mild spell, with rowcover for the first couple of weeks. Pay close attention to weather forecasts.
“Hardening off” is a process of acclimating your plants to colder, brighter, breezier conditions, so that they won’t suffer when they are transplanted. If you have only a small number of plants, or of flats, you could actually bring them back indoors every night and set them out every morning for 10-14 days. Growers with lots of crops to harden off will make use of a coldframe. Depending on the actual temperature (or the expected night-time low) we might leave our plants uncovered, use rowcover, top the rowcover with transparent lids (“lights”) , and if it’s going to be really cold, quilted covers, weighted down with wood beams if it is the least bit windy.
After two weeks of hardening off, look for a few days of mild, calm weather to plant them out in the garden. Water the plants well the day before transplanting, and again one hour before transplanting. This allows the cells of the plants to fill up with water, enough to tide them over the period of “transplant shock”.
Even the most skillful of us end up doing some damage to the roots of transplants, and that means the plants have to regrow some lateral roots and root hairs before they can pull in water at the rate they were doing before your ministrations. As you transplant, avoid touching the roots of the plants. Our fingers damage the root hairs.
A way to minimize the root damage is to use soil blocks or Winstrip plug flats. These methods are more expensive in time or money than open flats or bare root transplants, but they allow the roots to get “air-pruned” as they grow. When the roots reach the air at the edges of the blocks, or at the vertical slits on the sides of the Winstrip cells, they stop growing, rather than circle around the cell, causing the plant to get root bound. Secondly, these tools work by helping the roots and compost form a coherent block, one that holds together as you pop it into the hole you create in the soil.
Speedling flats are styrofoam flats with tapered cells, and it is possible to slide the plugs out (or gently pull them out) with little damage. Regular cell packs (4-packs, 6-packs etc) can be encouraged to release their transplants by squeezing them at the base of a cell, while holding the pack sideways. Then spread your fingers over the compost around the pant, invert the pack and hopefully the plant and its compost stays as an item, with your fingers either side of the stem.
Hold the plant with one hand by a seed leaf, or if you have to, by the stem. The seed leaves are disposable, stems and roots are not! Hold the plant at the right height, usually with all the stem below the leaves in the ground and all the leaves above ground. Once the plant is in the ground at the right height, hold it there and use the other hand (maybe with a trowel) to push in soil to fill the hole. Firm the soil down quite well, pulling in more soil as needed to leave a level surface. You don’t want the plant to be in a divot, where water can accumulate.
About the degree of firmness: you are aiming to make good contact between the soil and the plant roots, so the roots are not in air pockets, but rather can suck in water from the between soil particles. Don’t firm so hard that you expel the air from the soil and make what feels like concrete the next day. With cabbages, I was taught to firm enough so that if you then grasp a leaf and pull, the leaf tears off, rather than pulling up the whole plant.
Plant for 20-30 minutes, then pause and water in each of the new transplants by hand. Some people will bring a watering can along the row and water each one, one at a time. I prefer to do little batches. At the end of you transplanting session, water the whole row or bed again. try to avoid having piles or dishpans of plants with roots exposed to the air. Definitely don’t take a tea break if you have exposed plants.
Cover with rowcover if needed, or shadecloth if the weather is very bright and sunny. This will just be for a few weeks, helping the plants recover from the transplant shock, and biding time while spring warms up.
If it doesn’t rain, water again the next day (day 2), then on days 4 and 6, then twice a week, then once a week forever after that, until harvest is completed.
The January newsletter of the Piedmont Master Gardeners (The Garden Shed) has this sobering article about Invasive Jumping Worms by Cathy Caldwell. The article includes the all-important information on how to distinguish an invasive jumping worm from any other kind of earthworm (it’s not hard!), and what to do if you find one.
Book Review Farming on the Wild Side, The Evolution of a Regenerative Organic Farm and Nursery, Nancy and John Hayden, Chelsea Green, 2019. 258 pages, $29.95.
This is a lovely, thoughtful, well-illustrated book, telling how Nancy and John Hayden changed their farm (formerly a conventional dairy farm) over three decades into a regenerative farm, now specializing in perennial fruit trees. Their focus has been on stewarding the land mindfully, restoring and increasing biodiversity. In these uncertain times, there is much we can’t do alone, and we worry if enough people will make enough of the necessary changes. We can, instead, focus on positive changes we can make to improve our world. Growing and nurturing plants will benefit you, the plants and the planet.
The Haydens have an 18-acre farm in northern Vermont with undulating land, and a wide range of soil types. Very different from central Virginia, where I live! Both moved to Syracuse, NY to study biology and ecology, and after meeting at university, they worked in the Peace Corps on opposite sides of the African continent. Nancy worked in Kenya, supporting small farmers installing fishponds. John was in Mali, helping market gardeners and farmers, especially in dealing with millet pests. They both grew intellectually, emotionally and spiritually, with broader worldviews, awareness of white privilege, and deeper understanding of solitude and loneliness.
After Peace Corps, they reunited, married and began graduate school at Michigan State U, studying entomology (John) and environmental engineering (Nancy). John hankered to start a farm, so when Nancy was offered a post at the University of Vermont, they packed up the family and moved. A few months later, they bought their farm. It was a well-manicured conventional dairy farm with a cathedral-like barn built in 1900. The lawns are now orchards, and the stream banks host fruit bushes and small trees. The focus these days is on biodiversity and a regenerative food system, not on “pretty”. You can see before and after photos, and sketch maps of their farm (The Farm Between).
The book includes a valuable chart summarizing their practices and events during each of the three decades of their farm life so far. This shows how changes can be made as interests and focus shift. Long-term sustainability for aging farmers!
In the initial years their goals were to feed their family high quality food (hard to find to buy in the 1990’s), treat livestock humanely, regenerate the land for long-term health, and generate income from farming. They grew organic annual vegetables and raised grass-fed poultry, rabbits, sheep and pigs for a meat CSA. They also raised young children, and a family cow. The farm hosted field trips from local elementary schools, and Nancy became an associate professor.
John and Nancy got inspiration from Holistic Resource Management, as well as many small-farming pioneers. HRM led them to learn and practice management intensive grazing. This involves carefully matching stocking density with the health of the pastures, leading to continuous improvement. Paddocks just large enough, and no bigger, encourage livestock to graze all the plants down, leading to lush and nutritious regrowth. Initially their pastures were overrun with reed canary grass, and just one year of intensive grazing management with sheep started to bring improvements.
They also raised chickens and rabbits in moveable pens (chicken tractors), and quickly devised improvements to the pen design and the choice of breed. They trained all their livestock to come running when they heard grain shaken in a bucket. This good habit saved them from problems when livestock got loose onto the busy state road.
In the middle decade (roughly the 2000’s), the children grew up and left home, John became a lecturer on Plant and Soil Science, the field trips included special needs children and summer camps for middle-schoolers. They became more focused on resilience, biodiversity and pollinators. Keeping livestock makes it hard for a farming couple or family to vacation at the same time, and well-trained farm sitters are worth a lot!
Raising animals in confined spaces, feeding mostly corn and soy and antibiotics, while exploiting workers and degrading the environment is a disgrace to our society. Slaughtering animals is tough, and where possible, the Haydens opted for on-farm slaughter, as less stressful and more humane. The Haydens cut back on meat production and expanded perennial and annual food crops.
After 20 years of learning and practicing with draft horses during visits to working horse farms, and after 10 years at The Farm Between, John bought his own team of two Clydesdales. This helped them successfully expand their vegetable and small fruit production. From 2004-2011, they put up five hoophouses, initially for tomatoes and other valuable vegetables. They could pay for the structures and the wages in one year by growing cherry tomatoes in each new hoophouse. This increased their resilience in the face of extreme weather of various kinds, and in 2009, they planted a few rows of fall raspberries in one of the hoophouses. These did so well that the next year they planted one whole hoophouse full.
The third decade (after serious flooding from Hurricane Irene in 2011) brought a forceful introduction to the reality of climate change. Their focus on improving the soil has included a major composting operation. The Haydens have succeeded in doubling the organic matter in their soils from 2.5 to 6% over the years. Initially John collected food scraps to feed their chickens and then compost. But the heavy lifting and the rats got to him.
It takes 500 years or more to grow an inch of soil, which is all too easily lost to wind and water erosion. Growing cover crops holds the soil in place while adding organic matter. While they grew mostly annual vegetables, the Haydens used at least one-third of their land for growing cover crops, usually including legumes, to add nitrogen to the soil. Growing annual vegetables is stressful. Everything is urgent and important, all season! Perennials allow more flexibility, for example in the timing of weeding and pruning.
They committed more to perennial polyculture, retired the horses and bought a tractor. Fruit planting had expanded every year, with perennial vegetables and annual hemp in the alleys between the rows. Other alleys are left unmowed to encourage milkweed (selling seeds and floss). All the while, the edges and hedges have provided biological diversity for insects, birds and other creatures.
They repurposed all their hoophouses to grow fruit, protected from the elements as well as pests and diseases. They have dwarf apple trees (blemish-free no-spray organic apples!), cherries, peaches, plums, apricots and raspberries. Outdoors they grow hazelberts, elderberries, aronia, honeyberry, gooseberries, blackcurrants, red and white currents, and many blueberries. The increased fruit production led them to work with cider producers and market other fruit products including selling at the Burlington Farmers’ Market. They started a retail nursey of fruit trees on the farm, alongside fruit sales. Operating a fruit tree nursey at the farm enables the farmers to attract customers who are very interested in what they are doing, and will encourage and support them in growing their own fruit. Nancy retired from UVM. They expanded on-farm workshops, field trips and classes for all ages.
They were able to provide free housing for their employees and pay them above minimum wage. Despite the obvious success of their farm stand, farmers’ market, meat and produce CSAs, restaurant and grocery accounts, they were not quite satisfied. The family were eating well, and Nancy’s off-farm income kept them afloat and allowed them to build up the farm infrastructure. John was working 60-80 hours a week on the farm, but not producing much net income for the four-child family they were now raising. John calculated he was earning half minimum wage, and the only way that was being “successful” was that the 80 hour weeks made two half-minimum wages! Their aging bodies had also become a factor to consider. Also, Nancy and John developed interests that vied for their attention, much as they were still committed to the farm.
They had noticed their soil structure was deteriorating, even though the organic matter content was increasing. They studied approaches to deal with soil loss and degradation, climate disruption, water and air pollution, declining food quality and loss of biodiversity. The book includes a valuable chart listing stressors in the categories of environmental, social, economic and personal stresses, and resilience strategies to tackle each.
The Haydens committed to be more proactive in benefiting the land, and becoming more economically resilient. Their approach was a synthesis of:
resilience (ability to bounce back from stresses and shocks),
organic farming (nurture healthy soil to grow healthy crops and healthy people: it’s about the soil, not about the certificate),
regenerative organic (rebuild soil organic matter, increase biodiversity, improve water quality and slow the pace of climate change),
agroecology (approaching agriculture by combining ecology, biology, agronomy, plant physiology and more, improving soils and water, biodiversity, species conservation, carbon sequestration),
permaculture (“permanent agriculture”, integrative perennial-based systems, working with the natural environment, providing for the needs of people locally),
agroforestry (intentionally incorporating trees and shrubs into farming systems for the benefit of the environment, the community and the farm,)
biodynamics (considering each farm as a unique integrated organism, raising crops and livestock synergistically)
wabi sabi (finding beauty and value in the impermanent, the natural cycles of growth, death and decay.)
rewilding (letting banks, ditches, shrubs and trees grow back, providing shelter and food for many more insects and birds; planting orchards in place of lawns,
personal spiritual traditions (focusing on nature and natural cycles)
As a result of considering all these approaches, Nancy and John found themselves drawn to wholesaling fruit, particularly to local wineries. They wanted no-spray organic fruit, pointing out that organic fungicides and broad-spectrum insecticides are toxic to pollinators and other beneficial insects, as well as the pest species.
In August 1995, a few years after John and Nancy moved to the farm, the summer drought was broken by three days of rain upstream of the farm. The river overflowed, flooding the low fields and the barn three feet deep. The water level receded the next day, leaving a big mess, including dead chicks and destroyed equipment. The house was on higher ground, and was not affected.
In 2011, they got a 500-year flood in April and a repeat with Hurricane Irene in August. They lost their potato and corn crops, and noticed that the perennial fruit bushes and conservation shrubs recovered just fine when the water receded. They decided not to grow annual crops in the low-lying Field Six any more, but instead plant elderberries and aronia, which tolerate some flooding.
As they transitioned to growing mostly perennials, they also stopped tilling. They sheet mulch around newly planted fruit trees and berry bushes, with either cardboard and woodchips, or with landscape fabric rolls with “seam-lines” along the planting rows. This means they can open the overlapping pieces in spring or fall to add soil amendments. They’ve also used this technique to grow pumpkins, sunflowers and CBD hemp in the alleys between young fruit trees. They also employ a “grow, mow and blow” in the alleys to deposit home-grown mulch around the trees.
Transitioning to more perennials in polyculture orchards led them to incorporate agroforestry practices such as hedges, biomass trees, and riparian forest zones (next to streams). Hedgerows act as windbreaks, as well as enhancing biodiversity, and reducing soil erosion and offering sanctuary to many kinds of wildlife.
The apple orchards provide scion wood for selling and for grafting to make new trees. Between new fruit trees, in the rows, they plant blackcurrants and other fruit bushes, nitrogen-fixing small trees and perennial wildflowers. These infill plants will be chopped or lopped for mulch when the apple trees need the space.
Perennial vegetables also have a place on the farm. Asparagus and rhubarb have been there for over 20 years. Sea kale and Jerusalem artichokes are more recent additions, in the alleys between apple trees. Remember this book is written in Vermont, where rhubarb ripens in June, blueberries in July and elderberries in late summer. Follow the concepts, not the details, if you are in a very different climate zone.
Climate change in Vermont has, so far, meant warmer, earlier springs, which can cause trees to break bud, risking crop death by frosts in May. Using hoophouses for fruit can reduce risk. Leave the hoophouse open all winter, but if a spring frost threatens during or after bloom, close the house up for the night. “Fruit trees can break your heart,” the authors warn.
The section on rootstocks, scion wood and grafting explains how to propagate trees. Growing polycultural orchards reduces dependency on any particular variety or type, and makes organic production much more viable, as pest or disease outbreaks are rarer and other crops compensate for whichever is taken down. There’s a nice list of the ten best apple varieties at the farm, and one of stone fruit cultivars. Again, remember this is Vermont, zone 4a.
The farm also grows many less common cold-hardy berries. Blackcurrants do well in Vermont, but I know from experience that they do poorly in the South. The yield is plentiful, but the harvest slow. Their target rate is ten pounds an hour. The variety Tatania is their highest-yielding, at 4.7 pounds per bush. A useful tip is to stand still and move the branches towards you, rather than moving yourself a lot. There are tips on good varieties of berries too.
Elderberries and Aronia have already been mentioned as flood-tolerant. Both also require full sun. they are high in anti-oxidants, and attract wildlife, unfortunately including Spotted Wing Drosophila, which cause the berries to drop before the whole panicle is ripe. The solution is to pick every few days, removing the ripe parts of the clusters. Note that American elderberries need to be cooked or fermented before eating, as they contain cyanide-inducing compounds.
The farm has an area of boxed propagation beds where they raise hardwood cuttings to grow bushes for sale. They have a space where customers can see full-size plants in a natural setting. This area supports many pollinators, as does their willow labyrinth. There is a mowed walking path around the pollinator sanctuary, where visitors love to observe plants, insects, birds, and other wildlife. The riparian zone is part of a contiguous wildlife corridor connecting the woods and the farm, and providing edges with meadows and cropland. Common milkweed in the orchard alleys is promoted by mowing the grass early, before the milkweed emerges.
The chapter on pests and diseases invites us to rethink these life-forms. Weed management is necessary. Birds can be “pests” on fruit crops during the harvest period. Netting the berries at this time and then removing the nets to let the birds in to clean up the dropped berries helps reduce other pest problems, such as SWD. At the time the book was written, their way of dealing with the SWD was to net individual panicles of elderberries using nylon “footies.” Crop diversity reduces potential crop losses and pest outbreaks.
The Haydens dispute the myth that pests on a plant show the plant is unhealthy or that the soil conditions are wrong. Having a diversity of insects shows a natural balance. If the number of pests increases to the point of causing economic damage, that’s a pest outbreak, and needs action. Having a low level of pest insects keeps predators and parasites provided for! Always look for parasites, such as the white fly eggs on the thorax of the Japanese beetles. Everything may be being taken care of! Wiping everyone out with pesticides causes imbalance, and the pest populations can come back faster than their predators. The true parasites are the pesticide companies, say the authors!
Attention is also paid to pollinators, providing nesting habitat as well as pollen and nectar sources. Native bees are perhaps in greater peril than (imported) honeybees. They just don’t have as good PR, despite flying earlier in the year and in colder, rainier, windier weather! There are 275 native bee species in Vermont (4,000 in the US). Most of us didn’t know that! There is a table of when various pollinator flowers start blooming in Vermont, to help anyone seeking to provide bee forage more of the season.
As Nancy and John produced more value-added fruit products for sale, they noticed an interesting thing: people would pay for the jam or syrup-topped snow cones, but balk at the price of the actual fruit! It’s time to move away from our expectation of cheap food (which likely derives from the history of enslaved people doing most of the farm-work in the US in the past).
Another change for the farm is to selling fruit wholesale, to wineries, breweries, cideries and soda makers. They like the big “over-and-done” sales, although selling retail direct from the farm is important for staying in touch with the public and diversifying income streams. Nancy and John point out that they could not have done all they’ve done without off-the-farm income. This is the reality for most farmers, particularly small-scale farmers. Nancy and John were fortunate in finding off the farm work that they enjoyed.
The book wraps up with an appendix of common and scientific names of plants and arthropods mentioned in the book, and an impressive twelve-page, triple-columned index. This is a book by people who really want to help us navigate our path through farming for the long haul.
Book Review From The Ground Up, Columns from the Princess Anne Independent News, John D Wilson, Pungo Publishing, 2022. 124 pages, $15.00.
This slim volume is a treasure trove of short writings (600 words each, says John), from his first five years writing a farming column for a Virginia Beach local newspaper. Local newspapers and local farmers are all to be valued and supported. This collection of about 40 articles has been chosen and reorganized by topic, rather than date, to follow a path, making for a pleasant and thoughtful stroll through topics such as sustainability, healthy soils, gardening, nutritious plants and small-scale chicken-keeping.
John’s writing is concise, encompassing political and lifestyle passions, cheery humor, and poetic turns. It makes for easy ingestion, but not like marshmallows. We’ll be jolted into considering “heck, we do waste a lot of food in the US, and we really need to change that.” We need to do better in promoting and increasing every kind of organic, regenerative and sustainable farming practice, building up our soils, and being part of providing better food for everyone. That’s serious work. And then, it’s not every farmer-writer who thanks their washing machine!
John Wilson serves his community as a farmer, a consultant, a writer, and a volunteer board member on a couple of foodie and farming organizations. He describes his stories as “mostly personal with some science added.” That seems about right. John’s fascination with soil science, microbiology, soil food web, microbes, is infectious. We can have a voice in the world, and we need to stand up for what we believe in, even when we must step outside our comfort zone, as John has done by putting his thoughts into print.
The book starts out with a column setting out the benefits of a local food system, in terms of fresh food, support for local farmers, food security, and enjoyment of local chocolate cakes at the Fayette County Free Fair. There is a discussion about the travesty that is Industrial Organic Ag, and if you didn’t understand the “input switching” game, you soon will. This is where a farm simply replaces their old herbicides, pesticides, fungicides and all the other cides with Organic ones, but continues their same-old extractive, soil-destroying practices. Far better is to regard the soil as the valuable resource it is, and learn how to farm the soil in ways that help crops grow, by providing the right conditions and nutrients.
And if your appetite for science is small, right now you’ll appreciate John’s observation that “When you mow grass or anything, the smell you get is the nutrients going back into the atmosphere.” Your reminder to capture those nutrients for your next crop. We need to conserve our soil, our greatest national treasure.
John hastens to point out that he has the utmost respect for all farmers, even those making choices different from his. Farming is hard work, physically, mentally and emotionally, and it’s undervalued. We’ll need to tap into the vast experience of all farmers to manage the necessary transition to a sustainable system.
We all do wasteful things, we could all do better at recycling, making compost, not buying stuff we end up not using. Look to the soil, and see how everything eats and gets eaten, absorbs water and nutrients and then passes them on. Apparently we throw away 40% of the food we get. Considering how hard farming work is, how few Americans want to do it, and how our governments try to keep out immigrants who would willingly do the work, it’s clear this needs to change. “Farmland needs to be re-peopled” as Wendell Berry says. We need to help those who want to farm, and make farming attractive to more people.
Perhaps understanding the soil food web biology, and some history of farming (such as production of terra preta in the Amazon), and some back-yard experimentation making biochar, could lead more people to farming. You can read more about these things in this book.
John frequently points out the soil-saving (planet-saving) advantages of sustainable and regenerative farming, such as how it can prevent water run-off, soil loss and soil erosion. I was interested to read that the collapse of societies is related to soil erosion – when desperate farmers try to get more food from the land by using chemical fertilizers that don’t add organic matter, or fail to use cover crops or put organic material into the soil. See David Montgomery’s Dirt: The Erosion of Civilization. Let’s appreciate steps such as the cost share program for growing cover crops. And the increase in research into sustainable farming practices. And, of course, the implementation of those practices by more farmers.
John tells us that the influences that formed his views include desire for optimum health and wellness for all; the hard work ethic from his childhood; soil science from recent research; joy in eating good food and appreciation of the beauty of a well-tended farm.
The author learned about gardening from his Grandpa, but took a detour while studying energy-efficient building and carpentry. By chance he was hired by Alan Chadwick’s horticulture program, and chose to trade his work for participation in the program. Later, after raising a family as a carpenter, he met George Leidig who sold compost turners and spading machines, and signed up for workshops, which inspired him to start a farm.
His first farm was a lease on 25 acres, for which he needed to borrow money and keep his day job as a carpenter for several years. He invested in farm equipment, and also in improving the soil, which was compacted and inactive (“grows too many buttercups”) when he started out. He saw positive changes even after simply sowing one round of buckwheat cover crop on 10 acres. Pollinators came back, and all manner of life-forms. And the water-holding capacity of the soil improved rapidly – no runoff.
John has become a worm farmer, with four home-made worm bins at the time of writing, producing enough worm castings and worms for sale. His other job in a micro-brewery provides his worms with a portion of the barley mash. Red wiggler worms consume food waste, and paper scraps, and John has no doubt we will make ourselves a worm bin after reading his article!
The days of cheap food are over. We need to reduce the damage we have been inflicting on the environment, and people’s health. The idea that farmers should “get big or get out” has cost us too much. Food systems need to be local and operated by people who understand the big picture of energy and global sustainability. Farmers need to earn a fair living for their work. Currently only 7 cents of the price of a loaf of bread goes to the farmer.
The injustices of cheap food affect African Americans particularly strongly. John refers us to Leah Penniman’s inspiring book Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land. He heard her keynote address at a conference of the Virginia Association for Biological Farming. John says “We need to hear her messages about farming, society, justice and our future.” We owe it to Black farmers to give them credit for their work in sustainable agriculture (CSAs, raised beds, cover-cropping, pick-your-own farms, and growing hot weather crops). And we must recognize that the US food system is based on exploitation, on stolen land, stolen people and enforced labor. That’s why food is cheap. And why there are food deserts and diet-related illnesses mostly where People of Color live.
The author is also a beekeeper, and a couple of the articles reflect this. Beekeeping these days is complicated by the parasites and diseases honeybees are dealing with, as well as loss of habitat and forage plants, and deadly assaults from pesticides. France has become the first country to ban all five pesticides that kill bees. We need to care for pollinators, native and imported (as honeybees are). We can plant bee-friendly plants, plant only unsprayed shrubs, trees and annuals.
Regenerative agriculture includes steadily building up soil organic matter, maintaining plenty of soil microbes, getting the right bacteria:fungi ratio for your crops, increasing biodiversity above and below ground, improving water filtration and water-holding capacity, producing nutrient-dense food, and bringing in a good profit. John recommends Gabe Brown’s book, Dirt to Soil: One Family’s Journey into Regenerative Agriculture. The Brown family farm 5000 acres in North Dakota, with diverse crops, no synthetic fertilizers, GMOs, fungicides or pesticides. They use minimal herbicides and no glyphosate (RoundUp). They also raise livestock.
This brings us to the topic of managing livestock in a healthy regional food system. Some people believe that eliminating all animal farming is the best way to feed the planet. We can probably all agree that confined animal feedlots with cattle raised on corn and soy, and no grass, is not healthy or sustainable at all. The global percentage of greenhouse gases from livestock farming is 14.5%, although the figure is less in the US (maybe only because we produce higher percentages of emissions from other sources!). Some people have shown that holistic management practices used to raise livestock, especially ruminants in a responsible way, on integrated farms, can benefit the environment, the farm, and the diners. Soil organic matter can increase dramatically on well-integrated farms. White Oaks Pastures in Georgia, has succeeded in off-setting at least 100% of their beef cattle’s emissions, by using Holistic Management grazing practices.
Meanwhile, in the home garden, we can care for the soil by keeping it covered with crops or mulch as much of the time as possible. Never leave the soil bare over the winter, as used to be recommended before we understood the importance of soil organic matter and feeding the soil food web. John’s system for beds with no overwintering crop, involves pulling up or cutting down weeds and crop residues, spreading them over the soil, adding ½-2 inches of compost along with any needed amendments such as trace minerals. Top this with tree leaves, straw or hay. In spring, you can ease apart the mulch to pop transplants in without turning over the soil, which disrupts fungal hyphae, microbes and worms. This method also solves the problem of soils that are too wet to till or dig over in early spring.
John is making compost at the rate of 60 cubic yards per windrow on his farm. This qualifies as a “mid-size” compost operation. He uses a hot composting method, and pays close attention. Compost feeds the soil and its inhabitants, adding micro- and macro-nutrients for the plants. Soil microbes create pores in the soil, improving the structure, and welcoming larger soil-dwellers such as worms.
Food security is a frequently heard phrase. It means having access to enough nutritious food at a price we can afford. During World War Two, many people grew Victory Gardens and were able to get a lot of their diet from their own garden, or trade with a neighbor. After the war, Community Supported Agriculture farms (CSAs) became more widespread. People could see the sense in supporting people to grow their food right nearby.
The author includes a three-part series on starting a garden, which is a masterpiece of economy with words. As in many of his articles, he takes the opportunity to give a shout-out to creators of other resources. Here he mentions John Jeavons’s How to Grow More Vegetables, and Eliot Coleman’s New Organic Grower. He adds three points from his own experience: improve the soil, boost the organic matter, encourage biodiversity. In part two he covers deciding what to grow and how much of it. Choose the size, method and plant selection so that you will enjoy it. Plan energy-saving methods (like mulching). Consider extending the seasons with shade cloth or rowcover, so you can enjoy the products of your labor for longer. Feed the soil, let the soil feed the plants. In part three he addresses pest control and choosing suitable varieties for the local area. Healthy soil grows healthier plants, that grow healthier people. Create a healthy ecosystem, learn about pest lifecycles. If you run into pest problems, look for organic pest controls in Peaceful Valley, Arbico, Johnny’s Selected Seeds and Seven Springs Farm in Floyd, Virginia. For locally adapted vegetable varieties, buy from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (good friends of mine). He does provide names of some of his favorites – get the book!
Plant trees on your land. Look for cost share programs from the local branch of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and look for young trees at the Virginia Department of Forestry nursery. Consider trees that provide fruit, nuts, flowers and nectar for pollinators. Grow yourself a windbreak. Trees sequester carbon, clean the air, hold water in the soil, and benefit bugs, birds, shade and anyone needing a rest.
Another article is about collards, a southern vegetable coming into new fame. Plant in the fall, eat them all winter. Plant some more in the spring, but don’t let them get big and bitter. You can eat collards from December to June. Season extension in the fall can provide a lot of extra food (not only collards), for not much more effort. Plan in August. Keep the summer crops as long as productive, by covering them with rowcover when it gets cold. After the first cold spell of fall, there is usually a few weeks of warmer weather.
Climate change is a hard-work topic. John suggests we focus on working for the change we want, rather than protesting loudly about the things we don’t want. Find ways to address specific issues. Plant trees, grow a garden, travel less. Go to City Hall with constructive requests: ask for an ordinance permitting backyard chickens, or a local composting program for food and paper waste, or an urban farm.
And talking of backyard chickens, John has a couple of articles about those. He started 20 years ago with 30 birds, primarily for eggs, and for their benefits on the farm. He still raises hens for eggs and also breeds them to supply others with small flocks. He recommends chicken tractors, coops on wheels, to move around the farm, to spread their benefits. Go into chicken-keeping with your eyes open. The responsibility is bigger than that of growing vegetables. Chickens need food and water; they need adequate housing; they need shutting in at night to protect them from marauders. You, or someone, needs to be home every night and morning to care for them. John recommends Harvey Ussery’s book The Small-Scale Poultry Flock.
John has a thoughtful piece on the wisdom of real experience. Keep an open mind, look deep and wide. He talks about a period in his 20s “following self-created trouble” when he lived alone in the mountains for a while. Contemplation of nature, and focusing on daily needs left him time to think. He also took seriously the maxim “Don’t believe everything you think.”!
And then, as recently as January 2022, John had a stroke. He got help from loved ones, friends and professionals, and learned more about gratitude. He took several months away from writing his column, and found two people to keep his farm going. He learned to accept help. He eventually sold New Earth Farm to Kevin Jamison, who grows ingredients for his oceanfront restaurant in Virginia Beach – Commune. The restaurant has a big commitment to using local ingredients as much as possible. 90-100% of their ingredients are farm-sourced at any one time. John has helped nourish the local food system.
Resilient Agriculture: Cultivating Food Systems for a Changing Climate, expanded and updated second edition, Laura Lengnick, New Society Publishers, May 2022. 352 pages, $34.99.
With climate change, we are facing horrible challenges and hard work with high stakes. We can feel hopeless at times, but Laura Lengnick helps us understand hope, and how it spurs us to search for solutions. Hope is an action word, meaning “to cherish a desire with anticipation.” Grounded hope includes the knowledge that to achieve the results you want you have to work with others. Grounded hope leads to feelings of personal agency, empowerment and acceptance of reality.
Laura Lengnick has rewritten her 2015 book, updating the science and adding new farmer interviews. Laura has been walking the talk, biking, carpooling, calculating her carbon footprint and helping craft an energy descent action plan for her local community. In her work writing a report with the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), exploring agricultural adaptation to climate change, the author became familiar with the language of resilience, including terms such as vulnerability, exposure, sensitivity, adaptive capacity, climate risk and climate equity.
Part 1 of this book explores specific examples of the unprecedented climate challenges across the US, how the weather has been changing, and what is likely to happen in the next 30 years, along with ideas of adaptation strategies to manage climate risk. We must come to grips with the fact that climate change adaptation is not about figuring how to adjust to a “new normal.” It’s about figuring out how to manage the risks created by more variable weather patterns that are likely to change at a faster pace and grow more intense through at least mid-century.
For ten years we have been warned that food production faces unique challenges due to climate disruption. But most people have failed to make any changes as a result of this information. Naturally it is hard to adjust to the reality that record-breaking weather is already becoming common. How do we design and implement systemic changes so that we can thrive as big changes hit us frequently? This is the field of resilience science.
Part 2 considers the principles and practices of resilience thinking in agriculture; the four kinds of resilience science and which is most useful when considering food supplies; resilient agriculture design principles; and some tools for cultivating resilience in food and farming systems. The concept of Vulnerability involves identifying damaging threats and choosing effective responses. Adaptive Strategy is aligning intentions and effects for increasing our resilience. Response, Recovery and Transformation Capacity is a concept to help us move forward, rather than expecting to return to a prior state.
Part 3 explores how resilience thinking can transform the global food system, and which actions we can take to contribute to resilient agriculture. The Rules of Resilience guide us to design, assess and manage resilient social-ecological systems. Rebuilding to previous standards (even “building back better”) could simply repeat the same mistakes we made before.
Part 4 provides the real-life stories from over 40 sustainable farmers and ranchers across the US, over about 100 pages. (I am one of the farmers interviewed for this book, just sayin’.) Some readers will go straight to this last third of the book, skipping the theoretical framework, learning from the specific towards the general. There are livestock farmers and ranchers, growers of perennial fruits and nuts, cut flowers, and vegetables on areas from 2 to 1000 acres, up to 3,200 acres when grain growers are added in. There are fourth-generation farmers, first generation farmers, those on farms they bought, those on rented land, those in intentional communities, urban, suburban and rural farmers. They farm across the continent.
Climate scientists observed a big change in the rate of climate change in 2000 and another in 2010. In 2021, we suffered historic winter storms in the northwest, central and eastern states, with temperatures as much as 40 F degrees below (what used to be) normal. With hindsight it turns out that the last 10,000 years (since our ancestors switched from being hunter-gatherers) was a period of very stable temperatures.
In the past few years in the US we have had record-breaking numbers of very destructive hurricanes, wildfires, winter storms, deadly summer temperatures and water shortages. 40 million people in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming have had mandatory reductions in water use because the Colorado River could not supply what everyone wanted. In southern Wisconsin, Richard DeWilde suffered not one, but two, one-thousand-year floods in 2007 and 2008. Less dramatic events such as hotter nighttime temperatures quietly disrupt successful farming.
Growing and raising food is a tricky, skilled business. Farmers have never controlled all the variables. Managing weather-related risks (one of the highest risk factors), is now much harder. The author interviewed farmers who had been farming in the same location since at least 1990, who were most likely to have observed weather changes. All have noticed changes in the weather that they have never experienced previously, although opinions vary about the causes. Farmers everywhere tell of challenges with too much or too little water, temperatures too high and too low, at all times of year. Their descriptions fit into climate science, and offer insights into the consequences of our failure to act in time on climate change.
But the changing climate is not the only disruption. Social forces are a threat to sustainability. Industrialization and globalization of the food supply, sweeping health, safety, environmental and labor regulations that disregard other aspects of a good life. The farmers on these pages recognize the value of healthy soils, diverse operations and high-value marketing.
Resilience thinking involves major shifts in at least six design principles. Listing from least to most challenging they are:
Abandoning myths of creating perfect conditions for production and consumption.
Moving away from the idea of maximum industrial efficiency, which ignores societal costs (pollution, public subsidies of unsustainable practices, some work undervalued).
Valuing local knowledge more than distant experts. Local conditions such as water supply and needs vary, and may vary more in future.
Shifting to working with local ecological design with the capacity to produce and recycle needed energy and materials.
Pivoting from imported to local resources, removing the need for large-scale networks which are vulnerable to collapse.
Moving towards a regenerative economy and away from an extractive one; no longer ignoring the real costs of industrial systems on human rights, the environments, and society as a whole.
Climate change vulnerability includes both the potential impact of a particular change and our adaptive capacity.
Impact depends on both our farm’s exposure to that impact and the farm’s sensitivity to that particular change. This is the part we are more used to dealing with. Assessing specific threats and reducing the worst of them as best we are able. This may include changes such as soil drainage or planting a shelterbelt, and also changes such as deciding to replace no-longer productive apricot trees (that break dormancy earlier and get frozen buds) with a different crop.
Adaptive Capacity covers not just our individual wits and wisdom, but also knowledge and what options are open to us; and the operating context: reducing damage by making changes. This moves us on from reducing risk to looking for better opportunities – this is cultivating resilience.
Using these approaches to think about climate change risks can help us find better solutions, nimbler responses. Learning more about expected changes helps us be prepared with plans for change. Here’s more about each of these aspects.
Exposure to Impact
A farm’s exposure to impact from a specific change can be obvious, or can be masked by, for instance, looking at averages. An average of 12” of rain from July-September could mean 4” per month, or a single storm dropping 12” in early July, followed by a drought until the end of September. Over the last 100 years, average temperatures in the US have increased, but not consistently across the country. Regional geographical and land use differences create regional patterns. The Southwest has severe droughts; the northeast has damaging floods. Global average temperatures have increased 2F degrees since 1900, due to human activities. This rise has led to a cascade of other changes, such as declines in polar sea ice and glaciers, and rising sea levels, and such changes will become worse, unless we reduce the level of greenhouse gases trapped in the atmosphere. We must adapt to a moving target.
I live and farm in the southeast. Sea level rises and heavy downpours in our region are already obvious. Dangerously high temperatures, higher humidity, new pests and diseases, are on moving in. Hot nights have increased more than hot days; the growing season is ten days longer than it was in the 1960s. We can expect a rapid pace of increasing temperatures, day and night; another 20 days’ increase in the length of the frost-free growing season; more rain in the fall; and water and heat stress leading to decreased yields. There are details of both observed changes and expected changes of each of seven regions in the US.
Sensitivity to Impact
A farm’s sensitivity to a particular change is the magnitude of the effect of that change. To assess sensitivity, look at increasing resource costs to succeed with a given crop, and the frequency of failure. Does continuing with a certain crop force you to buy expensive new equipment such as wind machines to reduce frosts in orchards, or does it require you to spend relatively little switching to varieties or breeds better suited to the evolving conditions? If you supply other farmers with plants, a switch to hardier types, or heat-tolerant types, might set yourself on a better path. Heritage breeds, heirloom varieties and landraces hold lots of valuable genetics.
A farm’s adaptive capacity is its ability to cope with the challenging consequences of changing conditions and to take advantage of new opportunities that arise as a result. This requires thinking about the farm as a whole and the interactions of the components in order to increase the adaptive capacity and reduce the vulnerability and risk from climate change. If your farm has managed 10, 20, 30 years of good yields, this shows you have a good degree of resilience. Healthy soils are a key to buffering variable temperatures and rainfall, and thus, climate risk.
Three characteristics combine to determine your adaptive capacity. The operating context is the name for the sum of the ecological and social resources that shape your options. The individual capability to act describes your ability to manage the changing conditions. Existing knowledge and options limit or inform your ideas on how to manage change. There’s a diagram to illustrate this, with a farmer puzzling the options in the center.
As Jamie Ager in North Carolina points out, weather variability has always been a normal part of farming. “Part of being a successful farmer is probably just your head space. . .” Constant worry is taxing on the spirit, so look for things to act on, rather than things to worry about.” Ultimately the success of farming across the world will depend on the willingness and ability of farmers to take action to minimize climate risk.
All the farmers interviewed come from a perspective of sustaining the soil, the crops, the workforce. They are not primarily motivated by profit, or achieving the highest yield at any cost. This chapter introduces the farmers one region at a time. Fuller stories are in Part 4 of the book.
Some farmers have purchased different machinery to cope with different conditions. Some have purchased more, so two tractor operators can go out at once and get the crop tended to quicker. Some have shifted to higher-value direct markets, certified organic production (with its premiums), adding annual vegetable crops in the mix with their perennial fruits. Some have changed to different cover crops, mulches and irrigation systems. Some have shifted to shorter season crops to give themselves a second chance each year, if weather conditions prevent planting on their previously-usual date.
Several emphasize the importance of building up healthy soils. Some have made a specific change, such as introducing more frost protection; others have made many smaller changes, such as faster-maturing crops, or ones more adapted to heat, cold or dry weather. Some have found value in a Holistic Planning approach, and a willingness to make big changes quickly, such as selling 70% of the herd for that season. Some have even sold their farm and moved to a farm on higher ground. Some have switched their work to a different time of year. Some have installed solar power to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels. Some have installed contour swales to capture rainfall.
Some have found high tunnels, shade houses and other forms of protected growing to give them better results and more peace of mind. Some have planted more shade trees and hedgerows. The use of tarps to reduce weed infestations has helped several. Livestock farmers have improved their rotation systems and some have added a mix of annual forages into their permanent pastures. Making value-added products and adding some agritourism events have helped others.
The approach of sustainable farmers is quite different from the large “get big or get out” farms that rely on bank loans, government subsidies, imported soil amendments and fertilizers, more and bigger machines, and whatever it takes to continue “farming as usual” in the face of a completely new situation. The inventiveness of these farmers and their willingness to pioneer new approaches and consider abandoning long-held principles (such as no plastic), will cheer us all, and provide much inspiring food for thought.