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Climate Smart Food: Gardening in a Changing Climate – Part 1

If the past few months have shown us anything, it’s how precarious our supply chains are in times of crisis. From food and water shortages in bushfire affected regions over Summer, to scenes of empty supermarket shelves across the country during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, it has become glaringly obvious that our current food system is insufficient in meeting our needs in challenging times.

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While the coronavirus pandemic has been the focus of our news cycle and public conversation for the past couple of months, it’s hard to forget that just before that, our nation was devastated by months of unprecedented, climate change-fuelled bushfires which were made much worse by the preceding long periods of drought in many regions. In many ways, the past six months have been defined by crises, and have left many of us wondering how best to move forward in such turbulent times.

If the past few months have shown us anything, it’s how precarious our supply chains are in times of crisis. From food and water shortages in bushfire affected regions over Summer, to scenes of empty supermarket shelves across the country during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, it has become glaringly obvious that our current food system is insufficient in meeting our needs in challenging times; whether they be environmental, social or other.

This awareness has led to a boom in interest in home food production, as people are coming to realise the important role this has to play in growing localised, resilient food systems. Our three part article series ‘Cultivating Resilience: A Beginners Guide to Home Food Production’ provided some guidance for those just starting their journey in gardening, covering the basics necessary to get growing.

However, the unique challenges posed by climate change require us to delve a little bit deeper, and cultivate an adaptability in our gardening practices like never before. This article aims to do exactly that: explore the ways that climate change is impacting food production, and to look at ways we can both mitigate, and adapt to these challenges in our own backyards or community gardens so we can keep growing food now, and into the future. Bear with us, this next part is a bit heavy, but we’ve got to understand the issues before we can explore the solutions (of which there are many!)

Empty supermarket shelves during the coronavirus crisis have sparked a resurgence of interest in home gardening

The challenges of food production in a changing climate

Predictions for how climate change will affect the weather and therefore our food systems vary depending on your region. Here in Victoria, the current predictions are:

Decreasing rainfall is causing more sever droughts, putting agriculture at risk. | Image credit: Clare Benjamin

Eeeep…So what can we do about it?

The good news is that while it is difficult (but not impossible) for us as individuals to influence policymakers, governments and corporations who have the power to enact the changes necessary to address the causes of climate change, there is much we can do in our own backyards to safeguard our garden ecosystems against these challenges. And if one backyard doing the right thing becomes a whole street, which becomes a whole neighbourhood, which becomes a whole region…well, that is how grassroots change happens!

Before we get stuck into the nitty gritty techniques to address the challenges explored above, it is worth mentioning that while they are both possible, it is easier to design a garden or whole property to be climate resilient from the start, rather than retrofitting an existing space. So if you’re just getting started and have a blank slate to work with, or you’re keen on climate-proofing your existing garden, we can’t recommend enough doing a Permaculture Design course (or getting your hands on some of the permaculture books we recommend below). The skills you will learn will be invaluable in understanding the existing ecosystem and weather patterns of your site, and designing a garden that will provide food, shelter and nourishment not only for you but for the wildlife and insect populations that need it too. That being said, here are *some* of the basic principles for creating a climate-smart food garden.

Observation

Observation is the key to good design, and therefore good gardening practice. Observing which plants, animals and insects are already on your site, as well as which plants seem to cope better than others in extreme weather events or drought periods, will give you essential information when it comes time to deciding crop selection, for example, as well as understanding how different species are being impacted by our changing climate.

Before you can figure out how to use water more efficiently in the garden, it helps to know how much rainfall you get, where it runs to, and where you could divert it to. Likewise, to understand which heat-sensitive plants may fare best during hot summers requires knowing which areas of the garden have afternoon shade, or the best place to plant a tree to provide that shade.

Image credit: klimkin

Start by sketching up a basic map of your garden, and spend as much time as you can taking note of:

Now that you’ve spent the time observing your garden space and understand the ecosystem that already exists there, we can get stuck into the principles and techniques that will help us address the challenges that climate changes poses.

Read on in Part 2, where we will look at key strategies for mitigating and adapting to climate change in the garden, including:

This article is republished with permission from Melbourne Food Hub