Dig for Victory: Adapting to a new climate

climate change adaption food

Dig for Victory is a primer for the kitchen gardener. Every few weeks or so we’ll publish a new post to build on our technical knowledge of gardening. You’re under the capable hand of Steve here. Let me know what you think and if you’d like anything in particular to be covered. Enjoy!

I must say, this summery hot dry weather we’re having during Spring is proving quite a challenge. It feels more like living, working and growing in an arid climate rather than a temperate one.

Soils are drying out. They’re either falling apart if sandy or baking hard if clay. Plants are looking sickly and seeds aren’t sprouting; if they do manage to poke their head up, the wind or heat are cooking them. When the wind blows hard, as it has been, you can stand and watch the topsoil being blown away.

The prolonged dry period is having an effect on the soil and plant growth; we growers need to be able to adapt to this type of weather.

My usual method of growing involves dumping a lot of organic matter, usually in the form of compost, into the soil with the odd load of manure and crushed up basalt rock. Over the last few weeks we’ve had what seem to be stronger than normal wind; consequently my top layer of mulch has been ripped away, soils have been completely dried out and the garden looks like a dark coloured sand pit. Desiccated is the word that springs to mind.

In my home garden, and even at the farm, a crust has formed on the surface that absorbs all the water without any draining down to lower areas. I have stood there and watered an area for 20 minutes and then peeled back the wet crust to reveal dry subsoil only a centimeter down. While Australian soils can naturally be hydrophobic (water repelling) I think what’s happening is the organic matter in the soil is so dry that it takes all the water it can absorb, before releasing any to the soil below.

Soil health hinges on a range of elements: organic and inorganic matter; presence of micro and macro organisms; and water. Too much moisture and the soil can become anaerobic (without air) which gives off that “rotten egg” smell, while not enough water means that the relationship between living and non-living things is compromised and the living stuff either dies back or burrows further down.

It’s proving to be an interesting lesson. In a climate changed world, the seasons as we have known them are, perhaps, no longer to be expected. Apparently the frequency and severity of hot days will increase. This of course, affects world food security.

It all sounds grim, but what can we do?

I feel that the best answer is, as is often the case, increasing the organic content of soils. However, this raises interesting problems. Over the past few weeks I’ve put barrow loads of manure, compost and old lawn clipping onto the garden. However the wind and heat has dried and dispersed these and now I’m scratching my head; I’ve used up all my old compost and am waiting for the next batch to mature. I can’t afford to buy in more mulch and even if I could it would blow away. My water bill is steadily climbing and it’s downright depressing to see bean seeds not propagating.

How have you been adapting in your garden or farm?

cc pic by Tobyotter

In refusal of cheap fast food at university, Steve Fleischmann began growing vegetables. He is pragmatically organic with 20 years’ experience in Australia and overseas. Once a bush regenerator and project manager for youth environmental projects, he now works at Mamre Farm in Western Sydney with refugees, people with a disability and youths. Building soils, encouraging biodiversity and growing heritage varieties allows Steve the opportunity to feed his family, develop small scale enterprises and pass on knowledge and skills. Follow Mamre Farm on Facebook.

Dig for Victory
1. Soil I: soil type, improving soil and soil health test
2. Soil II: soil compaction and ph test
3. Soil III: nutrients
4. Plants and naming
5. Adapting to a new climate
6. Dig for Victory: Planning for the win

Related, elsewhere
Thistlebrook Farm Newsletter: Justin Russell, “Farming in a Changed Climate“, February 24 2014.
Bloomberg: Rudy Ruitenberg, “Climate Proofing of Farms Seen Too Slow as Industry Faces Havoc,” 20 January 2014.
ABC Rural: Cath McAloon, “Farmers ‘may not be able to feed Australia’ in 2065,” 3 December 2013.

3 Responses to Dig for Victory: Adapting to a new climate

  1. Fraser says:

    We’ve gone totally over to drip irrigation and started to double the lines on the beds. But we have access to plenty of water which is why we bought our place. It is an exceptionally dry Spring and as you point out the weather severity is predicted to become worse so it is going to get really tough. The early bud bloom and the late frost down here as set back all sorts of growers, pumpkin, cuc’s and zuc’s have all been burnt, the grapes and peaches have lost their flowers and the capsicums, tomatoes and eggplants are at odds and ends with hot dry windy days followed by a week of cold nights and no rain. And when the rain comes it has been coming so heavy that it washes everything out. It’s a hard gig to be in right now but we have to adapt, the horse has bolted and no-one seems too interested to go and try to get it back.

  2. steven fleischmann says:

    At the farm pretty much all our vegies are under drip irrigation and at home all of my fruit trees are now under drip irrigation as well. The prolonged dry and the October / November frosts basically destroyed my first plantings…

    I guess it has become about efficiency of water delivery, being selective of varieties, changing your timings, taking gambles on others (I live in the mountains and my figs are loving this weather when normally they look a bit sad) in the hope they will be appropriate and deal with the “new” climate. I’m thinking pomegranates,grapes, figs, earlier plantings of things like eggplants, etc. Also using a lot more mulches and, if you live in an area with sandy soil making more of an effort to get some more water holding clay into the soil.

  3. Dingo says:

    I’ve always found the hens manage to get into newly mulched areas, no matter how well I’ve tried to keep them out. They just love to dig and scratch! So, the answer has been to place squares of chicken wire over the top of mulched areas. Works a treat.

    I wonder whether that’s something you could try for keeping the mulch from blowing away. (I always water the straw in – it somehow seems to ‘set’ it in place.)

    Alternatively, old woollen underlay over the mulch layer could help defeat the wind. Maybe.

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