This page reviews best practice methods for growing food at home during extreme weather and climate change. This aims to help give you semi-independence from the food supply system in times of a food supply or climate crisis.
In today’s world, if a global food crisis were to occur, we would face a major vulnerability in managing our food supply. This vulnerability exists because of our high degree of urbanization and our reliance on purchased food that is sourced from all around the world. By working for a salary and then buying all or almost all of our food, many people have forgotten how to grow and store food at home so that it is available during the dry and cold months.
I lived in a poor indigenous community in Guatemala for nearly five and one-half years, and I marvelled at how these impoverished people survived with little or no money. Their youth have basic survival skills that most developed nations’ kids (and adults) don’t have. They know how and when to grow food, and how the weather and seasons impact food production, and they understand the value of planting trees.
When I look to a future that will be marked by climate and food crises, one Biblical saying stands out above all, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” It is the poor, indigenous people, and those connected more with the land and less with the dollar who are the meek, for they still know how to grow food. Knowing how to grow food is an invaluable skill, and it’s very rewarding.
If you mock this point of view, then be reminded that during severe famines of the Little Ice Age cannibalism was an innate quality of people and in communities all around the world. This served to feed the survivors and depopulate communities.[i],[ii],[iii],[iv],[v],[vi],[vii]
For summer crops, the most important thing that we can do to grow food in colder climates is to select food types and varieties that will mature within the available frost-free period for a particular region.
The best bet for a homegrown staple crop in cold climates is the trusty potato. Potatoes can be planted directly after seeding, and are hard to beat when it comes to yields and energy content. If you grow them in costales, bags, or containers, you can carry them indoors at night if it’s really cold outside. In times of a food crisis this will also ensure your crop is not stolen in the night by the starving.
Turnips, parsnips, and carrots are definitely worth considering, especially in light of their energy content. These vegetables grow well in colder climates, and even in below freezing temperatures. The cold autumn and early winter temperatures actually help them sweeten, because the increased sugar content the cold induces makes them less prone to freezing, i.e., plant sugars are a natural antifreeze.
Cold-adapted maize, climbing beans, and winter pumpkins (squash) make for a three sisters garden, typical of North America, providing cold-tolerant crops with a natural resilience to climate risk. Collards (cabbage, broccoli, and kale), spinach, leeks, asparagus, brussel sprouts, and radishes are well adapted to cold weather, and some varieties are able to survive varying degrees of frost.
Hardy and resilient winter crops like potatoes, beets, carrots, cabbage, and onions have all proved well suited to the cold winter climate of Russia and Siberia, so keep these vegetable staples in mind for a colder climate.
These hardy vegetables can be planted four to six weeks prior to local frost-free dates, or can be grown through the autumn into the winter, depending upon the crop. Look online for growing information specific to your particular region, and pay attention to what the seed packets tell you.
This section reviews various means for reducing frost damage and winterkill. It also adds to the previous discussion on greenhouses.
In the Northern Hemisphere, land with a southern-facing aspect is the best choice for early crops, as south-facing slopes warm up earlier in the spring and gain more solar energy. A higher elevation site is much better than low-lying land, because it warms up quicker. Low-lying areas and valleys tend to be more frost prone because cold air pools there, and so should only be planted after the frost-free date.
In the spring, you can start vegetable seeds indoors, in a greenhouse, or under a cold frame, or by planting them directly into black plastic or organic mulch. Plastic mulch helps warm the soil and keeps it warm longer. Raised growing beds will also help warm up the soil quicker, and these too can be covered with black plastic.
Where crops are planted early in the spring, in order to minimize frost or freeze risk, there needs to be a mix of crop types and sowing dates (different maturities). In that way, only a portion of a crop is susceptible to frost at any one time.
Choosing later-flowering crops (to avoid late frosts) can be a double-edged sword, and result in lower yields if your area is drought prone. It is therefore important to know the expected flowering and harvesting dates for each crop relative to your local growing season’s climate, and plant accordingly.
Winter vegetables need to be planted by late summer so a root system can be developed before the autumn frosts and cold weather. Plants can be hardened to withstand frost by exposing the seedlings to varying temperatures and conditions.
Watered plants are more frost resistant; watering improves the conduction of heat stored in the ground. Likewise, application of proper amounts of nutrients can also help maintain plant vigor in cold conditions.
Gardeners and food growers throughout the centuries have learned to use available materials to produce crops earlier in the spring, maintain production well into the fall, and harvest crops throughout the winter. The key is to insulate the crop from the cold as much as possible with your available resources.
A variety of structures are used to extend growing seasons in the spring and autumn, by protecting the crops from frost and extremes of cold. These include low and high tunnels, cold frames, floating row covers, and frost blankets, or covering plants with organic mulch (leaves, straw, bark, etc.). You can even place buckets or big containers over your plants to protect them at night. These structures and covers give plants a few extra degrees of frost and cold protection.
The only sure method to prevent fruit and vegetable crops from being drought-stressed is to use irrigation and to select crops that are more drought-tolerant. A crop that needs fewer days to mature needs fewer days of irrigation before harvest.
If you own peri-urban land, then drought-tolerant cover crops can be used. Drought-tolerant cover crops provide food and help to manage soil fertility (i.e., fix nitrogen) and soil quality (release nutrients, provide organic biomass), and reduce surface water loss. The more drought-tolerant cover crops include legumes that can fix nitrogen (i.e., pigeon pea, cowpea, peas, beans), or non-legume cover crops like cereals (i.e., millets, sorghum, rye, and wheat).[viii] For garden use, planting short-cycle crops like potatoes, sweet potatoes, and drought-tolerant maize and pulses (i.e., pigeon pea, cowpea) will provide you with high energy-yielding food. Other short-cycle crops include leafy greens, tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers.
There are things that can be done to reduce the risk of drought stress. For example, you can start plants off in a greenhouse. Earlier planting helps avoid late summer drought. When transplanting seedlings, ensure they are planted into deep beds with a good quantity of organic material mixed in. This permits their roots to grow quickly down to where the water is stored before the drought season begins.
Covering the soil surface with plastic or organic mulch can be used to conserve soil moisture and reduce weed growth. Using mulch cover increases the interval between irrigations during the dry season. Weed control is very important, in that it reduces competition for water and nutrients. If you are using raised beds, you can line these with perforated black plastic to better retain water and reduce irrigation requirements.
If you live in a drought-prone area, then harvest rainwater at every opportunity and use house greywater for irrigation.
If your home is in a flood-prone area, there are things you can do to make growing food easier. Three main options are considered here. These are improving soil drainage, covering your food crops, and the use of vertical gardens. If you can’t beat the rain, then join it by raising fish (aquaculture) and coupling this with hydroponics to create an aquaponics system (see Chapter 11).
If you wish to avoid rain or flooding, then greenhouses, hoop houses, and covered beds, with suitable ground drainage, are your best bets. Raised beds are useful for managing flood-prone gardens that lack covering.
A number of things can be done to improve soil drainage. You can increase the soil’s organic matter content using compost, bark, leaves, or use sand and gravel. You can also dig to twice the normal depth when preparing ground, to improve the drainage of compacted soils that drain poorly.
If your garden is constantly waterlogged, then small canals, underground drainage tubes, and drainage trenches can be used to drain the water away. Land space permitting, floodwater or excess rainfall can also be diverted to a pond, reservoir, or swale. Minimizing concrete and other impermeable surfaces will limit runoff in your garden and improve drainage.
Vertical gardens are a simple and cheap way to adapt to climate change. Vertical gardens keep plants out of the water during flooding and excessive rainfall. This type of gardening is ideal for wherever space may be limited or unsuitable for ground-based food production.
Vertical gardening is suitable for growing vegetables, fruits, herbs, and other crops, giving you more food production per square meter of ground than normal food growing. Containers can be made from large costales (nylon sacks), plastic or metal drums, or wooden, wire, or bamboo frames. Alternatively, you can make vertical structures to plant your crops in. Check out Pinterest for ideas.[ix] Soil is pre-mixed with organic material (i.e., leaves, compost, old crops, etc.), and a variety of manures, and you can add some worms for releasing nutrients, aerating soil, and improving drainage.
Long-rooted vegetables such as potatoes can be grown on top of large vertical containers. Small holes can be cut into the sides of these vertical containers where short-rooted vegetables can grow. So far, I’ve managed to grow potatoes, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, watermelon, beans, small stature maize, tomatoes, onions, garlic, carrots, cauliflower, broccoli, herbs, sweet peppers, spinach, chards, and strawberries in vertical gardens.
Raising fish in ponds also makes sense, if stream flow or water is plentiful and you have the space. Hydroponics can also be used to grow food indoors and outdoors using wall surfaces (see Chapter 11).
[i] Edward Bryant, Natural Hazards. Second Edition. https://www.amazon.com/Natural-Hazards-Professor-Edward-Bryant/dp/0521537436.
[ii] Anthony J. McMichael, “Insights from past millennia into climatic impacts on human health and survival.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Mar 2012, 109 (13) 4730-4737; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1120177109.
[iii] David D. Zhang et al., “Global climate change, war, and population decline in recent human history.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Dec 2007, 104 (49) 19214-19219; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0703073104.
[iv] D. Collet and M. Schuh (eds.), “Famines During the ‘Little Ice Age’ (1300–1800) .” DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-54337-6_2.
[v] Geoffrey Parker, “Global Crisis. War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century.” Yale University Press. New Haven and London. British Library Catalogue Record, 10987654321.
[vi] Liangcheng Tan et al., “Precipitation variations of Longxi, northeast margin of Tibetan Plateau since AD 960 and their relationship with solar activity.” Climate of the Past, 4, 19–28, 2008, https://doi.org/10.5194/cp-4-19-2008, 2008.
[vii] Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. https://www.amazon.com/Collapse-Societies-Choose-Succeed-Revised/dp/0143117009/.
[viii] Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education. https://www.sare.org/Learning-Center/Books/Building-Soils-for-Better-Crops-3rd-Edition/Text-Version/Cover-Crops.
[ix] Pinterest, vegetable vertical garden. https://bit.ly/2Jg0FIO.