How to fight climate change on the veg patch this autumn
Ten easy ideas to repair and build greater resilience from leading climate change gardening expert and author of The Climate Change Garden book, Kim Stoddart.
What a few years it has been. As well as Covid-19 to cope with, the long-predicted greater extremes of weather are now hitting our gardens (and gardeners) hard. It’s no longer gardening as usual.
Our climate and weather patterns are changing and fast. Our gardens are suffering and many current labour-intensive practices leave gardens vulnerable in light of the whatever-the-weather volatility ahead. There is more risk of pest and disease overall and many plants have been struggling as the weather systems flit unpredictably from one extreme to another.
Here’s how to start building resilience from the ground up
Step 1 – Kick back and put down your tools
Resist the urge to meticulously tidy as you harvest remaining produce and, whatever you, do don’t dig. Let some non-evasive weeds grow even, certainly leaving bare ground is the worst thing you can do at this time of year as it leaves it incredibly open to the elements and risk of fertility erosion. Consider using green manures or leaving spent plants to die down naturally instead, wherever you can to help provide some structure to the soil (roots in the ground binding it together). This will enable the soil to better fare against winter rain, wind and cold.
Step 2 – Save seed
There’s still time to harvest seed from this year’s produce. Tomatoes, peas, rocket, lettuce, french bean, coriander are all especially easy to work with. The great thing about saving even a bit of your own seed is that you can choose to save from plants that have performed best that year, that have the best flavour, biggest crop, and which have fared well against extreme weather.
Step 3 – Get free planting
Put aside this image of growing crops in blocks. You might as well put up a sign saying ‘carrot fly come this way’. Mix and match (more free-spirited) planting, much more akin to the peasant gardens of yore, makes it much harder for pests and disease to spread, as it’s simply harder for them to find what they are looking for. Think companion planting, just on a much bigger, more free-spirited way with a mixture of flowers, herbs, fruit and vegetables. You just need to allow at least five ft between plants of the same family and can use light-on-the-soil tops like salad leaves as fillers.
Step 4 – Waste not, want not
Climate change savvy gardening is as much about boosting resilience (and confidence) in the gardener as it is the actual garden. Making your own compost is one of the most empowering activities out there, and this no frills, home-made material is one of the best soil improvers going. Especially when you super charge it with materials like comfrey, seaweed, and biochar, to boost microbial activity and plant benefit alike.
Just use a roughly 50/50 mix of brown materials (cardboard from food packets, pruning, wood chip, newspaper, leaves) with green materials (fruit and veg peelings and grass clippings). Everything from coffee grinds, to clothing with natural fibres, tea bags (check they are plastic free), egg shells and computable materials can be transformed to the benefit of your growing efforts.
Step 5 – Grow wild
There’s increasing awareness about the benefits of letting go on the tidiness stakes, even a little, to encourage wildlife in. In an eat and be eaten garden, it is much harder for one pest to proliferate if you garden in this way, so the rewards of encouraging biodiversity are rich.
At this time of year, your gardener’s little helpers are looking for protection over winter so leave some corners as wild as you can to create attractive habitats for them. Stinging nettles for example help encourage veg patch heroes such as ladybirds and lacewings which can hoover up hundreds of blackly and aphids diligently on your behalf.
Step 6 – Encourage wildlife in
Why not go that step further and go out of your way to welcome wildlife in with gusto.
Building a small pond, even a sunken washbasin will draw frogs, toads and newts in and be used by everything from birds to butterflies for a source of water. Also, allowing leaf litter piles, dead wood to remain on trees and not meticulously keeping everything spick and span, creates more naturalistic habitats for creatures you really do want around like solitary bees, birds and ground beetles.
Step 7 Reuse, recycle, repair
Learning to make something useful out of waste materials is incredibly empowering, as well as being good for the planet by preventing so many items being sent to landfill. Reducing single use plastics, by re-using plastic items like pots (which can last for many years to come), repairing and servicing old tools and making use of local resources such as stone or branches, all help build confidence and reduce our impact on the planet overall.
Step 8. Get water-smart
In the autumn and into winter, rainfall is most often in more than ample supply, so it’s a prime time to boost your collection of this natural resource for use into the following year. During winter, flooding is also a risk and backyard water collection can seriously help to slow the flow in urban areas. Even buckets and barrels strategically placed can be a big help.
Water butts can be easily fitted into small spaces fed from the guttering around your home and will enable you to use rainwater (instead of tap water) for indoor growing spaces like greenhouses, or on houseplants over winter.
Step. 9 Encourage microbial activity below ground
There are many ways to go about this. We are just at the tip of the iceberg in terms of our understanding about soil but not digging your loam is absolutely key to natural resilience and carbon reduction overall. I also now cut plants off at the stem, leaving their roots intact to avoid disturbing below ground and any Mycorrhizal fungi etc. therein. I want to keep it working to the benefit of my plants helping them to seek out and find food and water, which is what happens.
Biochar is an important ally in the climate change garden. It has long been made in the Amazon by indigenous tribes and used to improve the productivity of their soil; and enables soil microbes to shelter in the particles. Home growers can now discover the benefits of biochar in their own gardens. There are a number of biochar-based products now available, including Carbon Gold’s range of composts, fertilisers, soil improvers and its organic ‘rocket fuel’, Biology Blend.
Step 10. Think longer lasting planting
Perennials, with their deeper root systems, are lower maintenance and better able to stand firm whether-the-weather so use them where you can. As well as staples such as rhubarb, oca, Taunton Dean kale, walking onion, horseradish, asparagus, Jerusalem artichoke and sorrel, leaving plants in the ground for longer is also helpful.
From cutting back and getting repeated pickings from pick and come again salad leaves and herbs, to turning some brassica like chard and purple sprouting broccoli semi perennial by leaving them in the ground (by harvesting then cutting back), you’ll be surprised how long some plants can keep producing if given the opportunity.