There’s got to be a better way


Tracking agricultural productivity between 2000 and 2009, researchers found a global net decrease (red areas) due to regional drought. Photo: NASA Goddards photo and video.

One of the best things about being outdoors – bottom up, head down, hands in the soil – is the way glorious smells take you by surprise. You brush up against a plant, inadvertently step on a wildflower, or crumble the dirt in your hands, and suddenly your nose is in overdrive. As soon as it happens, you begin sniffing madly, hoping against hope that tiny bit of heaven hasn’t already left this world for the next. A satisfied sigh follows the sniff, and you self-consciously realize you’re knee deep in compost, your face wreathed in smiles.

Best to be Optimistic

Ahem. “Knee deep in compost” might be just the slightest exaggeration where my own gardening efforts are concerned.

I got serious about gardening Permaculturally last year, but didn’t quite have the serious compost to accompany my aspirations. Here are the layers that went into this year’s vegetable garden last fall: worm poop, newspaper, more worm poop, autumn leaves, pine straw, compost, and wood mulch. During the winter, I buried wood ash in random locations. At six to eight inches in depth, my growing medium was very plainly – how shall I put this – insufficient.

Since that’s what I had, however, that’s what I used.

Six months and 24 torrential inches of rain later, I had two to three inches of bedding remaining in most places. Undeterred, I planted lettuce seeds (two kinds), spinach, broccoli (I just wanted the sprouts), onion and garlic. The fact that I could barely cover the onions and garlic cloves didn’t bode well. What’s the saying? Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Oh yes, and I planted potatoes.

There’s always next year

That was in April. The lettuce really did quite well; I’ve left a few plants to go to seed. The spinach seeds simply disappeared into the mulch, never to be seen again. Repeat plantings have lured a few hardy leaves out into the open. The broccoli did fairly well, there just wasn’t enough of it. The onions and garlic were pathetic, but they actually played a major role in the success of the lettuce by keeping the bunny rabbits at bay. I intend to employ that strategy again!

My harvest of 20 Yukon Gold potatoes, while underwhelming, wasn’t awful, considering the depth at which the potatoes were planted. Goodness only knows, if there were a prize for foliage, my potato plants would have won it. In their place, I’ve planted cabbage seeds.

Tomatoes went in a while ago; so far, so good. Pickling cucumbers have just launched their assault on the fence. Up until recently, the rain was nearly constant, with the sun making appearances on a once-a-week schedule. It’s much more in evidence now, and the temperatures have skyrocketed. Yikes, it’s hot.

Not a Drop to Drink

What’s the hottest actual temperature you’ve ever experienced? Not the heat index; the actual temperature?

Vicki's Garden

The author's garden, increasingly inspired by Permaculture practices. Photo: Vicki Lipski.

We lived in Texas a long time ago, and during one never-to-be-forgotten summer, there were days when the thermometer registered 113 degrees. No exaggeration – I really mean “days” plural. It didn’t rain, and the high was never under 100 degrees, for 45 days. The cracks in our front yard were four inches wide, and we actually had to water the foundation of our house, an activity in which I had never previously engaged. It was hell.

The reason for bringing up this particular chapter of my checkered past is that the entire southern tier of the country is experiencing an historic drought right now. Farmers from Arizona to Florida – 14 states in all – are facing some grievous choices. Cattlemen in a number of states may have to sell entire herds because of their inability to feed their animals. While the initial glut of cattle could lower beef prices temporarily, the current global shortage of cattle is likely to drive prices up over time.

If you can’t grow it, you can’t eat it

Some farmers have planted repeatedly, trying to beat the heat with one crop after another. Even irrigation is not the answer this year; wells have run dry. For things to be this bad so early in the year is almost unheard of. In Texas, where all 254 counties have been designated natural disaster areas, wildfires aren’t the only bad news. Thirty percent of the wheat crop may be lost because of the drought. With wheat harvests in doubt in country after country, expect bread prices to escalate.

Because virtually every state in the union has overspent, the usual economic aid may not be forthcoming.

Then again, not all of the problems created by a dire shortage of water are agricultural. In Florida and Mississippi, fishing tournaments have had to be cancelled, with a commensurate shrinkage in tourism dollars.

Weirdest of all, some cities in Texas are experiencing blackouts because of the drought. Airborne particles of salt and chemicals (hmmm – where do THEY come from?) build up on power lines. Normally, rainfall would wash them away. Now, however, the buildup triggers power surges that shut down the system. In the absence of rain, crews are spraying the lines to keep them clean.

All it takes is money

In Georgia, farmers aren’t the only endangered species. Mussels need water, especially the Shiny-rayed Pocketbook* and the Oval Pigtoe Mussel*, both of which are on the endangered species list. For the time being, state wildlife officials have drilled a special well on one farmer’s 2,000 acre property in order to help the mussels through this long, hot summer.

The farmer, a Terry Pickle, could use some help himself. His bill for the diesel he’s burned to pump water came to $88,442.00 for May and June. This year, it would seem, will go in the record books for all the wrong reasons.

Time for a change

Is it possible permaculture might offer an at least partial solution to these pauperized, parched patriots? (sorry)

Permaculture was developed with resilience in mind; it endows the land with the ability to take whatever it’s given and put it to good use. Think of the layers of organic material that went into the makeup of my vegetable garden. Would it be reasonable to expect farmers to have access to organic materials that would degrade over time into a light, loamy soil? Things like manure, green manure, leaves, or straw? While it might take years to develop large farms ecologically, the benefit of growing crops in a fibrous soil that holds water far longer than bare soil would have to be worth the investment.

No one can grow crops without any rain, especially if irrigation is not an option. It’s possible that for some, however, permaculture might provide enough of an edge to make it through dry times.

I hope farmers are looking for long-term solutions to the problem of extreme weather, because climatologists tell us it’s here to stay. Let’s not just hope things will get better; let’s make them get better.

 –Vicki Lipski for Transition Voice

 *I want to meet the person who names mussels.

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  1. says

    Good points, Vicky, although you also need sunshine for good food production, too!

    Here in the Pacific Northwest, we’re dealing with the opposite problem as the rest of the country this summer…we have no sunshine. While our cool weather crops are doing well, the ones that require heat are hurting.

    Keep going on your permaculture experiments; your results will get better and better year over year. Our food forest is producing more this summer than ever before after fixing some water direction mistakes I made several years ago.

  2. says

    It’s interesting you bring that up; earlier in the spring we were awash in seemingly endless rainfall, and you are so right – things will grow, but they won’t flower or bear fruit without some sun. My sister lives in Tacoma, and has lived in the PNW for over 25 years. She tells me she really does think it’s getting rainier out that way.

    Yes, I shall march doggedly onward. I’ve already got all kinds of plans for what I’ll do “better” next year.
    I can’t wait to see my paw paw trees get bigger, mostly because I wouldn’t know a paw paw fruit if I fell over one. They’re supposed to taste marvelous, and I plan on finding out!

    Thanks so much for writing,

  3. says

    Hi, you made a beautiful picture of two hand forming the earth. i have it posted as my picture on a website that im on, wanted to let you know that im trying to change the world for the better and will need all the support I can get. If you dont want me using your picture I will understand but I do really like it and feel there is so much meaning behind it:)

    • says

      Hi Keegan –

      I confess to being perplexed about which picture you’re using, but please feel free. I’m proud of you for caring and taking steps toward making a difference. You’re exactly what this poor old planet needs!

      Keep the faith,

      • says

        Thank you, Trying to take it one step at a time, but there is allot to be changed. Someone is playing a game with us, getting us to work 5+ days a week when we should be with our kids and loved ones appreciating the beauties in life we take for grated. Its time someone stands up to say, this is not rite. People are starving and dying, people have no food or water, my gosh just thinking of having to pull water out of a well is sickening knowing we have to supplies and resources to run clean drinking water everywhere. money was great but it just has to go, Mother earth doesn’t charge a dang thing, she only asks to be taken care of. its sad. But I’m going to try my hardest to fight for her health and the love that could be spread.

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