Photos are the property of Ed Szymanski and used with permission.
Our food is losing nutritional value. Are you surprised? When we talk about climate change, we talk about rising temperatures, more powerful storms, melting glaciers, rising seas, and habitat loss. We don’t talk about our food not feeding us well. With increasing storms and fire across the country, food production for people and animals has been disrupted, unavailable, or decreased in availability. This is reflected in cost increases for milk, meat, and bread. What we don’t expect is that the carrots, potatoes, or leafy greens we buy will have fewer vitamins and minerals than when our grandparents were kids. Floods, mudslides, fires, wind, and storms all change the landscape. Mass digging, chemicals, and non-rotated crops all change the landscape. Minerals and the viability of the soil changes so that the crops we grow will not have the same mineral draw as they did before the soil was disturbed. These are basic truths we learn in high school science classes. You may decide to stop reading this article; you may panic; you may get mad; or you may decide to take a different stance. I hope that you will embrace the latter.
What can we do differently? Try hugel gardening. I first learned about this type of gardening from my friend and farmer Karen Spillane. It involves placing downed logs and branches in an appropriate growing area and covering it with soil. The idea is that the logs will soak up the water from the ground as well as the air and retain it, thereby reducing the amount of watering needed. Air spaces between the branches allow for air flow and plant root positioning. Over time, the wood will rot and provide a rich humus layer. Fruits, herbs, vegetables and trees can be grown in this way. Huge berms are not meant to be created as they can change water and air flow from the natural surroundings, but rather knee to mid-thigh high berms that are a few feet long. Care must be taken creating a berm so that it doesn’t adversely affect the natural flow of water in the surrounding area. Two years ago I revised my raised vegetable bed. I went into the woods behind me and looked for trees that had fallen down. They had to fit the raised bed, not be too rotted, not be an obvious home to animals and plants, and I could carry it myself. Once I found some that fit, I placed the log at the bottom of the bed along with some dead branches to build up the “berm.” I then buried them in compost. I let the bed settle over the winter and then added more compost as some of the branches shifted above the surface. Despite summer temperatures starting late and then skyrocketing, my vegetables did very well. Occasional fungi fruit show up to indicate the logs are rotting below, but the garden remains strong and this will be my third year with this type of garden.
Another form of gardening is permaculture. Permaculture gardening is opposite of our ancestors way of farming when they moved here from Europe. When Europeans first came to this country, they were assigned tracts of land to farm. Most Europeans came from areas that had lost most of its forests due to over harvesting; hedges, stones, and wood fences kept cattle and food separate. Imagine coming to a country where forests were present as far as the eye could see. For them, it would have been intimidating and scary (personally, I like it, but it isn’t my story). To feel more “at home” they cleared everything and planted crops. There were no stores for shopping so what you grew was your food. Mishandling of the land and weather meant periods of starvation and even death. We continue this legacy of mismanagement by insisting on large grass-filled yards and single grain farming. Permaculture gardening means looking at the land you care for and growing a variety of plants suited for that area using organic practices. Soil enrichment, water flow, and looking at where light and shade occur at different times of the day is a large part of this practice. It sounds complicated, but really it is observation and adding nutrients (not chemicals). It is also allowing time for things to happen. Planning is important. Perhaps you want to grow flowers as well as fruit trees and vegetables. What flowers will bring in beneficial insects to your food? Are the flowers also edible? How can I make this beautiful as well as beneficial? My friends Marion and Ed Szymanski and Amina and Arif have yards that follow these principles. Their yards are incredibly beautiful (see photos above). They grow their own food. They have bees for honey, chickens for eggs, and flowers for beauty; all in a regular-sized yard that has full sun to full shade. Grass is a minor plant or none existent in their yards, but they have created pockets where people can sit, stroll and enjoy their time outside. Bees pollinate the plants, birds come to the yard to sip or eat bugs, and composted chicken manure is gold for nourishing the soil.
When we first converted our front yard into gardens, it caused quite the stir in the neighborhood. We did a lot of planning as well as talking with our neighbors. Our yard is sloped in one area while flat in another. Trees provide partial to full shade while other spots get full sun. Some of the yard is dry and others very wet. What this means is that we have several microclimates that allow us to grow a wide variety of plants. Our plants are a mix of fruit, medicinal herbs, and native plants. Each year it is a work in progress as the trees grow taller and the plants move themselves. Our winters can be fierce so sometimes plants are lost. Each year we add another plant variety to our garden. Our willingness to take our time means the cash outflow for new plants is reduced. Sharing and exchanging plants (my favorite) is another way to increase plant variety. My yard is not yet a permaculture garden, but it is organic and I aspire to permaculture as a goal.
Climate change and food nutrition is not just politics. There are things that we individuals can do to improve our own space. I encourage you to reduce your lawn. Grow food and flowers and embrace the organic permaculture or hugel garden yard. Large or small space, you and the earth will benefit.