Growing Food in a Hotter Drier Land

Strategies for gardening in the midst of climate change and in the resulting harsher heat.

  • Photo courtesy
  • Grow your herbaceous annual and perennial vegetables in the partial shade of "nurse plants." By nesting them under or adjacent to the tree canopies in orchards or hadgerows, they will be better buffered from extreme heat, cold snaps and winds.
    Illustration by Paul Mirocha
  • The boomerang catchment demonstrates how to harvest rainwater for single-tree plantings on a slope.
    Illustration by Paul Mirocha

If you haven’t noticed the effects of climate change in the fields, gardens, and orchards around you the last few years, you’ve probably been hibernating.

In 2012 alone, droughts and heat waves desiccated 71 percent of the annual crops of grains and vegetables in the United States, but other countries such as Canada, Kazakhstan, Mexico, and Russia were just as hard hit. The heat waves of June, July, and August of 2013 broke temperature records across the West, but the East and Midwest also suffered. And yet, climate change is not just about hotter and drier conditions, it can also be expressed as catastrophic freezes and hailstorms, unseasonal floods, and crumbling rural infrastructure.

In short, adapting to climate uncertainty is the name of the game that farmers and gardeners must play with nature the next few decades, but just how does anyone adapt to increasingly unpredictable conditions?

Well, it is likely that you have held part of the answer to that question in your own hands within the last season: seed diversity, also known as food biodiversity. Ever heard that old agrarian adage, “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket”? It suggests that one of the best bet-hedging strategies gardeners and farmers have ever employed is the planting of multiple heirlooms, lines, varieties, species and plant growth forms in the same foodscape, rather than presuming that a single “climate-responsive” variety from Monsanto or Burpee will get you through the storm. And for less expense than it takes Monsanto to genetically engineer, evaluate, increase, patent and market and license a sole climate-friendly variety, seed savers have conserved, maintained and distributed more than 20,000 heirloom and old-standard vegetable, legume, grain and fruit varieties to American producers.

That’s right. When the seed-saving movement in the United States ramped up around 1985, only about 5,000 heirloom and old-standard varieties were in circulation among American food producers. Today, there are more than 20,000 being exchanged by seed savers and offered by small non-profit and for-profit seed companies and nurseries. Many of these have tolerance to drought, heat stress, alkalinity, or to cool, foggy conditions that are not found in many modern cultivars. Importantly, if these are taken to a particular locale, and further selected year after year for adaptation to the changing weather, soils, pests and diseases through common-sense backyard plant breeding, there is an even greater probability that these crops will weather storms of all kinds.

Agricultural Biodiversity

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