Thinking about planting, climate change, and resiliency

We just built a couple of cold frames this past week, which is what we will use until we can afford to build a greenhouse.  Cold frames are handy for starting little plants, keeping them protected and warm in the early spring months.  I can also pull the window frames up and out from the wooden frames, and plant lettuces and kale directly in the ground, letting them grow all through the season, and well into the winter.  If only I had made these over the summer . . . we could have a nice batch of greens in there right now.

The cold frames are part of a longer term plan to get our little homestead a bit more prepared to face the vagaries of climate change.  As much as possible, we are trying to create a place where we can be resilient in the face of power outages, extreme temperatures, massive precipitation, and drought.  Yesterday's hurricane didn't cause much damage in our immediate area, and for that we are very grateful.  But if we are going to experience, as Andrew Cuomo said to the President, "a one hundred-year flood every two years," there's no reason to think that we won't have another extreme weather event this fall, never mind whatever comes next year.  Last year, in western Massachusetts, we had a tornado in June, Hurricane Irene in August, followed four days later by a tropical storm that dropped four inches of rain in 24 hours on already oversaturated ground.  And then, of course, there was the 18" of snow we got right before Halloween.  So I'm trying to get it into my head that these are not one-time, or rare events.  These are periodic, and random, and I want to be prepared.

Among the things to consider:  Water, in floods and droughts.  In addition to buying rain barrels to hook up to our gutters, to allow us to capture rainwater whenever we can, I'm also going to be building up the soil's capacity to store water. This spring I'm going to dig shallow trenches a couple feet wide within the gardens, pile up old wood in the trenches, and then re-cover them with soil; when wood is decomposing underground, it acts like a sponge, able to absorb excess water and to release it in times of drought.  This technique is called "hugelkultur" (a German word).  We don't want to have to put a strain on our well in times of drought, so building up organic matter in the soil is key to storing water.  I also want to slow the flow of water down the slight slope of our land, so that when it does rain, the water can be absorbed into the soil, rather than just running off the surface, into the road, and into the nearby stream.  In order to slow the water, I am going to create swales and berms, or small hills and valleys, along the contour of the slope.  Imagine water running down a slope, then meeting up with a small trough right before a hill that extends 6 feet wide or more.  The water will pool here, get absorbed somewhat, and excess will flow around the hill and continue down the slope, only to encounter another hill.  Our greatest slope is located where our fruit trees are planted, so I am going to create berms on the downward-slope side of each row of trees.  You can see a picture of this technique here.

There's so much to do--build a greenhouse/hoophouse to protect plants from hail and keep them warm, plant a range of perennial fruits and vegetables that thrive in extremes as well as "normal" temps, figure out a way to heat our home during a power outage (we've got a pellet stove, which is dependent on electricity), build a root cellar to store food during the winter, switch to solar-powered electric and hot water, get a composting toilet . . . It's a bit overwhelming, and events like Hurricane Sandy make it clear that the faster we can implement these changes, the better.

I know that some people consider it unseemly to talk about politics in the midst of natural disasters, but, at least to me, politics and climate change events aren't separate things.  On the one hand, we have a political party, the GOP, that takes great joy in mocking efforts to address climate change (when they are not outright denying it even exists), and that has stated a desire to defund FEMA and leave rescue and relief efforts to private business and the states.  And on the other hand, we have a Democratic Party that has finally, finally, finally started to forcefully articulate the notion of the shared public responsibility we have to one another, the fact that we are a society not just a collection of individuals, that we are all in this together, and that we need each other--and public servants like firefighters and police and FEMA--in times of crisis.  Now FEMA and government programs are not perfect.  But their ability to marshal resources and coordinate efforts on a national level is unparalleled. Government has an important role to play in facilitating our common good--our public treasury, our infrastructure, our education, our disaster relief, our safety nets, our safety and security.  So the question, as related to climate change and disaster relief, is this:  Who do you want in charge--the people who believe in smart, effective government, or the people who think government should be so small you could "drown it in a bathtub"?  There are people across the country right now who need disaster assistance, and I am so very glad that FEMA hasn't been dismantled.  And if we are ever, ever going to do anything about climate change, it will have to happen on a national level, and with the international community.  It's not something we can just leave to localities and states. We've got to do what we can for ourselves, but we've also got to work together for the common good.