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How Can Gardeners Cope with Climate Change?

When the concept of global warming first started to appear in the press and the public began to take notice, most gardeners in Britain were not convinced this would be a bad thing. After all, British summers have a reputation for not being the best, so hotter the better.

Climate ChangeUnfortunately, global warming is not the most accurate description for us in the UK, climate change is more appropriate.

We really don’t know what the weather will be anymore. One year it’s a scorching summer, another (and more likely) it’s warm and wet. Spring can come early or be really late and winter varies from mild and damp to arctic deep-freeze. Storms become more frequent and more powerful, with all-time records being broken every year it seems.

The reasons that global warming can cause a wet summer are complex but basically we have a lot more energy in the system. Warm sea water evaporates more causing more potential rain. The jet stream has stuck in its winter position in summer although nobody is quite certain why.

These problems don’t just affect the home vegetable grower, they also affect farmers and reduced supply means both price increases and more imports with higher food-miles adding to the climate problem Plus, the terrible affect on the British farmer and others who watch their business sink beneath the floods or die from lack of water.

The Worst Case Option of Climate Change

Some research will show you that the extreme predictions are terrifying. From rising sea levels flooding the country to extreme drought conditions lasting for months and storms of magnitudes rarely seen here. There is even talk of the water currents changing and plunging the UK into winters as they have in Canada at the same latitude.

Many of these extreme scenarios are unlikely to actually happen and if they do will be in many years time. Some we just can’t cope with and so we need to concentrate on helping the planet by reducing our carbon emissions. A garden under three feet of water is impossible to handle but there are things we can do when the waters recede or the drought breaks.

As the serenity prayer says

God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change,
courage to change the things we can,
and wisdom to know the difference.

What we can do to Cope with Climate Change

We just don’t know what will happen next year so we need to cover all our bases. Much of the answer is to follow good gardening practices anyway, things we should really be doing whatever the weather.

Warmer winters will mean that many of the pests and problems that are normally killed by cold weather will survive to plague us in spring. Accordingly organic methods such as providing habitats for predators will be of great benefit. When the pests are alive, so are the predators that keep them in check.

Good hygiene practices will help as well. For example when harvesting potatoes, ensure the travellers, those little potatoes that we miss, are dug up. They provide a reservoir for blight and other problems.

Improve the Soil with Organic Matter

Organic matter in the soil acts as a sponge and buffer to extreme water conditions. In the event of a drought there is a larger amount of water stored in the soil to help carry the garden through to the next rain.

In extreme wet weather, the organic matter increases the soil’s capacity to absorb water and the improved structure will allow oxygen to still get to the plant roots. Plants, like animals, can literally drown if no oxygen is available. So improved soil condition will benefit whichever way the weather goes.

Improve Drainage and Deep Raised Beds

If you have a plot or garden that holds water double digging and breaking up any clay pans that may lie below the surface will assist in wet conditions. Because you incorporate organic matter as part of the digging process you improve the sponge effect referred to above.

Properly constructed deep raised beds will raise the plants above a high water table helping to prevent flooding in wet weather and again providing a reservoir for dry spells.

With really wet areas you should consider putting in some form of drainage which will not benefit in dry weather but will help the soil in wet conditions.

Be Prepared

We tend to take action for the events that happened the year before, so after the drought we put in water storage systems. We know that the weather has become more extreme and a prolonged dry spell is likely at some point. We also know that if a drought comes then we are likely to have a hosepipe use ban. Buying water butts and providing storage will be a good investment but like any investment needs to be made before the benefits are reaped. When there is no rain it is too late to start storing rainwater

Consider how you distribute stored water. Irrigation systems based on weeping hoses are very efficient and long lasting, especially useful with deep beds.

Variable Sowing Times and Planting

The farmer is required to plant an entire field of a single crop at a time by the economics of the industry. As gardeners we have the ability to be far more flexible. We can vary our sowing times and sow back-ups in case the first sowing fails. Successional sowing can save the day if it the first fails utterly.

Different varieties will cope with different conditions, pests and diseases. The cost of seeds is relatively low and many will last for following seasons meaning we can sow three or four varieties knowing we have maximised out chances of survival.

Conventional rotation is good but the most important thing is to avoid planting the same crop in the same space year after year. Spreading the crop out can help avoid disaster. The pest may miss a patch or something may be planted in a dry area and avoid drowning when the same crop in the wet area survives a drought.

Conclusion

We can’t win all the time, climate change is bringing us challenges beyond those we have had to meet before but we can take steps to adapt to whatever change comes.

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