Coping with climate change pt 2

I contributed an article to Kitchen Garden, in 2009, on how we gardeners should be able to cope with most weather problems brought about by climate change. Mostly because we did so already! Though to be fair the probable increasing randomness and severity of the future’s weather will test us. The whole point however was that we already have tried and tested methods for dealing with unfavourable conditions. We know what we can do to mitigate late frosts, drought, flood, high winds and so on. It is all what to some extent we do already, though of course sometimes the difficulties may worsen beyond repair by any measures. However that article was dealing with our tactics and the ways we could cope with each challenge- all much as we do now anyway.

But there is another facet we need to consider- the effects of climate change elsewhere will affect what we want to grow, and store. You see I doubt many of you are entirely self sufficient, I make no such claim myself. My Norfolk crop of citrus is small, I once grew sufficient wheat to make one small loaf and no matter how hard I try good coffee still eludes me. The occasional pineapple is not difficult but cocoa remains a dream. We all buy something, maybe much, that’s ‘foreign’. In the longer term ‘food security’ may become an extremely real issue. But well before then ‘food choice’ may become much more limited than the cornucopia we have today.

It is not just the cost of importing when currency is devalued but whether or not other countries will be able to send the same crops in the same quantities. We already see reports of how imported winter asparagus is depleting water resources. Banana crops are too easily destroyed by hurricanes, more hurricanes=less bananas. One exceptional frost will write off citrus harvests. To say nothing of the possible effects of conflict and strife upsetting trade.

So could we not grow more of our own? Well with very few inputs I have raised many exotic crops. With few exceptions we can already grow many tender crops. Height is more of a barrier than tenderness, pineapples and watermelons are much easier than coconuts.

However there is a problem with home production, it’s not the feasibility per se, nor even the carbon footprint but the returns. For example; okra does not require very rich soil, nor temperatures much warmer than tomatoes and peppers, it’s just you get so few pods at a time that to make a meal you need a huge number of plants and thus in turn extensive covered space. Likewise you could grow your own tea, at least a few pots’ full - but not your entire year’s supply unless you really do own an estate, or at least a huge garden and leave no room for anything else. Your own oranges are no problem, your own orange juice daily is not realistic as the requisite number of trees is huge!

So although we could theoretically grow much more for ourselves, ground space is short, covered space much more so, energy increasingly dear and time limited. Most gardens are too small to grow enough; you just cannot feed your family with everything home grown. Already we have to choose to grow some and to buy other crops. Even with my huge garden I still buy some things rather than grow them, it’s not just space, time is limited, and it’s damn hard to have a fresh tomato between January and May.

We, as a country, just as with Dig for Victory in the forties, could without great difficulty, and actually remarkably rapidly, if we wished, provide many more allotments. Then we could grow much more of our own traditional vegetables and fruits without any complication. Indeed many of us are already doing so. Yet as you well know many popular imported fruits and vegetables will not crop outdoors here, they need cover, and most need heated cover, even tomatoes are on the margin. The most popular fruit sold is the banana- they’re possible here, I know I’ve grown them, tasty, sweet but hardly economic or practical. But even if we could afford the cost; it would be far more difficult, and way more expensive in carbon, to make and provide enough big greenhouses to grow even part of our current consumption of this and other tender crops. Individually it might make more sense- but then you get a huge number all at once.

Another facet this raises is the production of most crops is so lumpy and skewed to a short period each year, the tender ones even more so. We (as a society) have become used to buying most vegetables and fruits almost any day of the year as they are flown in from sunnier countries. If we return to home production then we will all have to accept much more crop seasonality than supermarkets now offer. Strawberries and asparagus for Christmas and tomatoes with Easter salads are not going to be as common as today. Bananas maybe, then no more for many months.

We are going to have a huge change forced on us. Not just more home production but much more storage and processing especially if we want to continue to enjoy some tastes for much of each year. After all as well as forcing early crops and cajoling late ones; it is possible to partially substitute fresh strawberries with their jam, juice, sorbet or frozen fruit. (However all this assumes we can afford to run a freezer, if things get really bad we will have to bottle instead.)

Now during the Dig for Victory campaign they sensibly concentrated on basics such as potatoes and roots, cabbages and onions. These are all relatively easy to store and with care can be had almost all year round. We may not want to grow exactly the same. These could be grown efficiently, locally, organically even, by our farmers and therefore it may be more sensible to plan on growing those they will not offer or where freshness is crucial. Particularly the more labour intensive or risky ones, but especially those with long lead times such as grapes, kiwis and top fruit.

I doubt much garlic was ever planted in the UK during the nineteen forties, now it’s almost a kitchen essential. Improved varieties as well as changing tastes mean chilli peppers are likely to remain popular as plenty enough for any household can be started on any sunny windowsill and grown on in pots. Basil, oregano and other tender herbs are also easy enough and compact enough to be grown likewise. We could easily grow all our own lemon grass, it’s no more than a weed and will crop in any frost free window. Storing crops will become more desirable- sweet corn varieties which can be dried for winter use, the winter squashes and possibly Jerusalem artichokes may all be worth considering where ground is not in short supply. Likewise drying peas and beans; haricots, and such as borlotti and soya beans may become more useful. Space hungry delights such as globe artichokes and asparagus may be pushed out of smaller gardens by ‘more worthy’ crops. Though of course in the epicures garden they will be the last to go.

But one major difference between the forties campaign and our future is they were in for a short run- we’re in it for a very long one. We may well be wisest to start planting more fruit and nuts. Back then soft fruit was seen as an indulgence and top fruit the same and far too slow to come to harvest. With our longer run and better understanding of dietary values fruit will be far higher up the roll in any new dig for victory. As imports become prohibitive our own fruit will be more valuable. Soft fruits, especially ‘wonder fruits’ with high vitamin levels such as blackcurrants, blueberry, maybe even Aronia and goji, could be very profitable especially when turned to fruit leather. Especially useful will be long keeping apples as simple storage ensures almost year round supplies, and these are most productive on larger growing trees than current dwarfing stocks. Other fruits such as apricots may be riskier but far more rewarding investments. Nuts such as hazel produce huge amounts of protein and fats and will become more desirable, walnuts even more so. But planting many trees requires much space.

The biggest problem facing us all will be that lack of space- most gardens are already too small to allow fully self sustaining production, or even for a big greenhouse. Therefore the wise gardener should already be looking to move to a home with a much much bigger garden. That will at least enable them to grow more if not all of their staples, and have space for hens and a tunnel or greenhouse for those luxuries.

However there is another solution- co-operative ventures. Several families get together to set up a productive garden somewhere convenient with their own labour augmented by a jointly sponsored gardener. Maybe between them they could even run and use a banana and pineapple house. Less intensively and much easier are fruit and nut orchards- a productive one, well fenced, can be made, and well maintained, for little outlay and effort.

But most cunningly; as long as no produce is sold to anyone outside the co-op then many legal complications and restrictions will be circumvented. In particular, one very popular and expensive import is wine. Our wines are now accepted as being potentially as good as any. Therefore my best advice; set up and run a private co-op vineyard because if the wine is solely for your own consumption then you will all enjoy all your own totally tax free. Now that should offset any depression caused by a deteriorating world situation.