Resilience in the Garden

The spring and summer seasons just gone were a challenge in the garden for lots of people. Here in the Hokianga we seemed to veer from extreme to extreme – the spring was initially cold and wet but then it went quite hot and dry but still with cold nights, and then later wet again and very humid. The variability made for a challenging growing season which has had me reflecting on how resilient our garden is and if we really could feed ourselves if that was all we had and on what’s needed to develop resilience in the garden.

Healthy Soil

I think the first essential component of resilient gardening is the soil. If we have healthy soil we have healthy plants that are much more able to withstand pests, diseases and adverse conditions. It’s really important to have mineral rich, nutrient rich, carbon rich, water retentive soil. If we get that right the soil will be full of microbes and fungi, will provide everything the plants need to grow and be healthy, and the soil will resist drying out. To try to achieve this we’re using Nature’s Garden and other products from Environmental Fertilisers to improve the mineral balance (of course to be truly resilient we need to learn to do this without bought inputs but for now I’m trying to quickly raise the mineral levels as much as I can); are making heaps of carbon rich compost to which we’re also adding things like seaweed and burnt crushed bones and blood from our home kills; are making charcoal which we crush, soak in urine or compost tea and then add to the compost heaps or direct into the beds; are using well composted manure from our own animals, composted with a carbon source such as hay or straw if we can; and we mulch our beds using our own hay that has been left out in the rain to partially rot so it is less of a source for weed seeds. I also try to supplement all of this with foliar feeds, liquid feeds, compost teas etc. but keeping up with spraying and feeding is not my strength and is definitely in the ‘could do better’ category!

We must be doing reasonably well with our soil though. Despite the season and the fluctuations between very wet and very dry we had little in the way of pests – a few shield bugs and some white butterflies but not much damage. Early on in the spring when the weather was very wet there was a population explosion of slugs and snails. The plants stood up to the onslaught pretty well but we did collect bucket loads (literally!) each night to feed to the chickens. At first they would get excited and eagerly munch them but after a few nights the chooks (and even the ducks) were clearly outfaced so we took to killing them with boiling water and recycling their nutrients into the compost. It was definitely a learning experience as although the conditions were clearly right for slugs and snails to breed, the problem was made worse by messy edges around the garden and into the orchard with long grass where they were hiding during the day and then migrating in at night. Getting those edges under control will definitely help as will having ducks in the orchard. We did have a problem later with aphids on some bunching onions in beds that became very dry and the plants stressed so those beds will be cleared and prepared with extra compost and charcoal and I’ll use them for something that is more drought tolerant.

Diversity

My feeling is that the second most important thing is diversity, and diverse forms of diversity! By that I mean diversity of varieties (not growing just one variety of crops), diversity over time (successional sowing), and general diversity across the garden (lots of different types of food and supporting plants).

Tomatoes are a good example of the benefit of diversity in varieties. This year was very wet and humid for a large part of the summer and blight was an issue, but despite that we still had a reasonable tomato crop. The previous year, which was a good year for tomatoes, we had bucket loads from January through until May and also bottled about 75 litres. This year, a bad year, we had bowl rather than bucket loads from January to March and bottled about 35 litres. So clearly not great but we still had lots to eat and lots for over the winter.

Heritage varieties

Obviously choosing heritage varieties that do well in this area is important but then having a range of different varieties is also crucial. I know people up here who grew only one variety of tomato and ended up with none at all to eat. We grow 6 varieties of tomatoes and they all performed differently over the season. Almas were the star performers – they did get some blight but I’d remove the affected leaves and they just kept on growing and producing very heavily and probably did as well as the previous good year. Other varieties did well for part of the season but not all and at different times: Oxhearts were slow to start, cropped very well for a while and then finished quite quickly; J Walsh Yellow did more consistently with fewer tomatoes but over a longer period; Guernsey Island mostly weren’t happy at all but had a productive couple of weeks later on in the summer. If we’d just planted one variety then we could have had a very poor crop and even though Alma was very successful I wouldn’t plant just Alma because next season might be different again.

Diversity over time

Diversity over time helps too – successionally sowing over the season so that not all of a crop is lost if there are adverse conditions. I usually sow amaranth twice, once early in October and again in December. Normally I get two good crops from that and haven’t ever had difficulty drying the seed from either sowing. This year I was behind and didn’t get the earlier crop in and only sowed once in early December. Then we had a very wet spell around harvest time and I lost the lot.

Diversity of crops

General diversity across the garden is really important too. A large part of this is about making sure we plant lots of different food crops so that we always have something to eat even if some crops fail. Within this it’s important to have some staples that will provide bulk food. Our main staples are maize, pumpkins, dried beans, kumara and potatoes. So this year our pumpkins did fine, potatoes were poor but we have lots of kumara, the beans were amazing – the largest crop of drying beans we’ve ever had, the maize was okay but slightly weird as it ripened very variably so we had to do 3 picks over the season. Peppers were poor but aubergines prolific, rock melons just didn’t happen but a short season watermelon did slightly better, cucumbers and courgettes were prolific as usual but the pants didn’t last as long so I successionally sowed them.

Our allium harvest was great – the best ever for tree onions, shallots, garlic and ordinary onions like Pukekohe Long Keepers.  So although we didn’t have as much of some things we still have plenty of food to keep us going. Of course under different conditions we might end up with even less but the more diversity we have the more likely we’ll have some successes. As well as the annual crops I’ve mentioned there are also perennial crops. I love Jerusalem artichoke plants, they are stunning with their beautiful yellow flowers and it feels great to have them in the garden. I know some people really like them to eat but in honesty I’m not a great fan of them as food. I’ve had them and thought they were okay but would usually choose to eat something else. I’m very happy though knowing they are there and I would eat (and probably enjoy) them if I were hungry enough.

Support plants

Diversity of support plants feels really important too for the general health of the garden. Anything that supports the garden ecosystem will make it more resilient so we plant heaps of non food plants to bring in beneficial insects and to help get the balance right.

Harvesting and storage

Another issue is harvesting and storage. If we harvest and store crops well then we’ll have lots of food to keep us going. For some things that we eat as seeds that means getting them good and dry (having adequate facilities to do that) and storing them that way; for other things it means preserving them by bottling. Some people freeze their produce (although of course for most people that means being reliant on the power companies and the grid). Some produce just needs to be harvested carefully and kept out of the rain and away from rodents. I’m very particular about the way our long keeper pumpkins are harvested. I’ve seen people just pick them up by the stalks and my observation is that they don’t keep as well and tend to rot from the stalk. Ours are carefully lifted and moved to the pumpkin store which is a simple, rodent proof structure with shelves made out of old pallets and a tin roof to keep the rain off. Our kumara to be used soon is stored in sacks, but our good kumara for longer term keeping is stored individually wrapped in newspaper in boxes. This works really well and, in fact, just today (mid May) we found a wrapped kumara from last years harvest that was absolutely perfect.

Looking after the gardeners

The final aspect of resilient gardening that I want to consider is us, the gardeners. We need to garden in a way that is sustainable for us in terms of the time and the effort we need to put in, and we also need to be open to learning and modifying what we do. Design of our gardens and the systems within them is really important here. One of the challenges for us personally is to get the balance right in terms of our input into the garden, the amount of time and energy that we have, and our other commitments.

There are various ways we can try to get this right but the most obvious for us in our situation is to try integrate our animals more successfully into the garden and orchard so that they do more work for us. We’ve had chooks for many years and have successfully used them as compost makers but have been fairly inconsistent about using them to chicken tractor in the garden and have done it only occasionally so could do more. We use geese grazing in our orchard as part of the management there but need to increase the numbers that we have. We also want to try occasionally bringing the sheep in to graze under the trees if this can be done without causing damage.

So for us in a not very great year in the garden we still managed to produce lots of food which should get us through to next year even if we couldn’t buy anything. Some things we could definitely have done better. We’ve still a way to go in getting the the optimum mineral balance in our soil. We lost some maize to rodents and could probably have salvaged the amaranth crop if we had better drying facilities. Sometimes we miss the optimum timing for tasks because we’re stretched with lots to do but we feel we’re doing pretty well. It’s been a useful exercise to consider where we’re at in terms of resilience and we’ll continue to review our progress regularly. Of course none of us exist in isolation so the more we can do to encourage others to develop resilience by sharing knowledge and ideas, then the more resilient our communities will be.