R.J. Ruppenthal  @  ChelseaGreen

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Growing food in freak weather

Posted on Monday, May 3rd, 2010 at 3:52 pm by R.J. Ruppenthal

I was just watching a CNN video clip of flooding in Tennessee. It shows an interstate highway turned into a river. A big house floats past a group of cars that are submerged (link below). Well, if it's not flooding in one area, it's a drought someplace else, or an earthquake, or volcano ash, or fires, ice storms, oil spills… the list goes on. Partly, we are noticing this because we have become a global society and we're living in the information age (insert your favorite cliche phrase here), so a problem in someone else's backyard is beamed live onto your computer or TV, whereas 20 years ago, maybe you wouldn't have known or cared.

Beyond that, there's no denying that global climate patterns have shifted, and will continue to shift. All the experts have warned us to get ready for more extreme weather. So what kind of a food garden do you plant if you don't know whether fire or ice will strike next? Here are several suggestions:

(1) Research what grows well in your climate and is adapted well to your growing conditions. Those plants will be more likely to survive even if temperatures are a little extreme. Look for disease resistant varieties also. Feel free to push the envelope and try to grow some things that are marginal in your location, but make sure to grow some safe, dependable ones also and you'll be much more likely to succeed if the weather is unpredictable. (2) Use plenty of organic matter in your soil, such as compost, manure, leaf mulch, charcoal, and the like. Mulch with organic matter as much as possible. If you don't have a lot of organic matter, you can mulch with just about anything: newspapers, cardboard, plastic sheeting, fresh kitchen waste (unfinished compost, but not in direct contact with edibles like carrots or lettuce), sticks and stones, etc. This cuts down on moisture loss from evaporation, so plants can thrive when moisture is scarce. Also, mulch serves as a protective blanket to hold in heat (during cooler spells) and it moderates soil temperature during heat waves (partly by allowing the soil to retain more water). (3) Keep some seeds on hand for short-season varieties of vegetables, and plant some along with your favorite long-season maturing vegetables. Look at the # of days to maturity that is printed on each seed packet, and compare these. For example, if there is an especially cold spring or winter that never seems to end, then when it finally does warm up, try some cherry tomatoes along with your gargantuan beefsteak tomatoes, since cherry tomatoes will produce bountiful armloads a lot quicker and continue to give you food over an extended period. It might take 80 days for one variety to mature and just 65 days for another comparable type. Try to fit in an extra fall crop of short season veggies like peas, lettuce, and turnips. For peas, go with the bush/dwarf types that produce a lot more quickly than the tall, vining pole types. Peas love cooler weather. Radishes, turnips, and anything in the cole/brassica family (kale, broccoli, kohlrabi, cauliflower, brussels sprouts) actually tastes sweeter after being exposed to a good frost or two. (4) Consider getting some row covers, cold frames, or a small green house to extend your season. If you use raised beds or containers, think about some ways to insulate or cover these or move the containers to a warmer or cooler location.

During a heat wave, you can use your patio or rooftop as a cooktop surface, while ice storms are great at shredding lettuce for your salads. Okay, I'm looking a little too closely for silver lining here, but you get the general idea. Plan for the unexpected and you'll have a flexible approach to gardening that may serve you well in this very uncertain future.



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