I’ve been homesteading for about 12 years now, first in Michigan at a 3-acre homestead, and now with my partner here in Western Pennsylvania on five beautiful acres where we practice land healing, forest regeneration, permaculture, bioregional animsim, tend our flocks, herbalism, and grow lots of our own food. I also grew up with big family gardens, composting, and wild food foraging, so I’ve been doing something like this for most of my life. Our version of homesteading, also known as “smallholding” in other parts of the world, focuses on working in a reciprocal relationship with the land to create a place of healthy abundance where life can thrive and where we humans can also get a yield of food, medicine, and other things we need. Homesteading is a way for us to live closely with nature, to learn how to regenerate the land, and how to tread more gently upon the earth. And while this sounds very idyllic, in reality, it is all about hard work (like every day, we each devote several hours to homesteading, tending our animals, being in our gardens, tending our broader land, working on various projects) and also cultivating resilience and adaptability. It includes a lot of learning, struggles, failure, and trying something in a new way. And I would argue that it is more about both hard work and resilience than ever because of climate change.
One of the things that this lifestyle does is put you extremely close to the daily seasonal changes, the weather, and the other changes on the landscape. When people ask me my thoughts about climate change, what I tell them is that I see direct evidence of this with my own eyes on the cycles on our land. And I’m not going to argue with anyone in the comments here or on social media about the existence of climate change–you can look outside for yourself and look at the mounting scientific data and simple changes in everyday weather patterns. I know it is happening here because I am paying attention.
Thus, today, I want to talk about the changes that we’ve been observing and a number of ideas we’ve been exploring for adaptations to climate extremes for gardeners and homesteaders. This is because, hands down, the biggest challenge we face at present in growing food or doing anything directly with the land is trying to figure out how to create balance in a time of extremes. In this post, I’m offering a number of suggestions that can help us address climate change in homesteading and gardening settings. I will also say my suggestions and discussion here are rooted in my own experience in Western Pennsylvania, elevation 1400 feet in the Allegheny Mountains /Pittsburgh Plateau region, USDA Zone 6A. I would really love to hear your experiences and suggestions in the comments, so that we might be able to learn from each other.
A Proactive Mentality
One of the big mindset shifts we’ve tried to have in these last few years is shifting from a “responding to the situation” mentality to a “proactive” mentality. I think so many of us still are aligned with Holocene thinking, where things like the USDA zone still apply (for those outside the US, the United States Department of Agriculture puts out a map that helps us predict things like typical last frost and first frost date and the expected coldest temperatures it will get–the USDA Zones are hugely influential on people’s gardening practices). We now realize that these extremes will happen, and they will happen in ways, that are outside predictive normals. In fact, there are no longer any such thing as “normal” seasons While we have to be flexible and adapt, we can also work to design resilient systems and put systems in place before extremes happen so that we have less to do and are better prepared. And to me, that’s what resiliency is all about! I will also share that there is a massive emotional component to all of this–I talk more about that in the conclusion of this post.
Weather Extremes: Temperatures
So obviously to begin, one of the things that is happening all over the world is that we are seeing more temperature extremes. This happens during all parts of the year, but for us, we’ve noticed that the extremes manifest in different ways depending on the season. We live in a temperate climate where we do have four seasons, so I’ll share some issues by season.
Winter: Extreme Cold and Warmth
In winter, our two big concerns are having extremely cold temperatures that were previously uncharacteristic for our USDA zone. So in our Zone 6A, we should expect no colder than -5 to -10 degrees Fahrenheit (-20 to -23 Celsius). Last winter, right around the holidays, we had the bomb cyclone that dropped the temperature from 50 to -15 with a -35 windchill in less than 4 hours. This is a great example of a temperature extreme that can be really hard on animals and plants and that is now more common.
For us, this means two things: the first is protecting fruit trees and other perennials with mulch, burlap, and other sheltering techniques at the end of the season going into winter. We use a thick layer of fall leaves as mulch around each of our trees or perennials to help shelter the roots. We also may use burlap for certain kinds of trees. For other perennials, we use small shelters (such as an old set of windows folded at a 90-degree angle. This little bit of shelter can really help plants that are already hardy survive. For example, we have a Chicago Hardy Fig, and the fig lives in the greenhouse year-round, which offers insulation to the roots and helps the fig not die back to the ground each year (which impacts the harvest of figs).
For our animals, this means finding passive ways of heating and cooling coops, creating areas where they can shelter out of the extreme cold, and ensuring ample access to water and food. We put breaks up for the prevailing wind and try to make them as comfortable as possible. Sometimes, that also means having nine chickens in a tent in the spare bedroom and geese sheltering in the greenhouse till the cold has passed.
As you are thinking about addressing extremes consider:
- Spend some time considering the extreme heat scenario (if you haven’t already experienced it–if you have, reflect on it). What plans, structures, or systems need to change to make it more manageable?
- Spend some time considering the extreme cold scenario (if you haven’t already experienced it–if you have, reflect on it). What plans, structures, or systems need to change to make it more manageable?
Spring and Fall: Covers and Shelters
Spring and Fall are producing more temperature fluctuations and extremes, such that one of the things we seem to be losing are more moderate temperatures. By moderate temperatures I mean things like the wonderful 40-degree to 70-degree range–we used to get a lot of these moderate temperatures in late August through early November and then in March-April and May. But now, we seem to swing from cold near freezing into the 90s, skipping everything comfortably in between. This can trick plants into budding early, only to be frosted or have a quick end to a growing season. More and more often, we have one early low temperature or freeze and then 3-4 more weeks of prime growing season. Or we see extreme heat in times when we are supposed to be getting moderate temperatures (e.g. 90 degrees rather than 50 degrees).
My best advice for this is to have lots of options for sheltering and protecting your crops and to make this part of your standard practice. Greenhouses and movable hoop houses (even portable, small ones) can give you 10 degrees of frost protection. In a larger greenhouse, adding a second layer can give you up to 15-20 degrees of frost protection. You can also use any other number of things to cover–basic row covers that are thicker, you can use old bedsheets, old blankets, buckets, and the like. Having movable row covers can really help extend the life of your garden.
Another thing is to learn which perennials you are growing are more sensitive to frost so that you can focus your efforts. For us, PawPaws is the most frost intolerant, so I will try to give at least some of them some cover if possible, while I’m not going to worry about other small fruit trees as much.
So some points for consideration:
- What have been the patterns of heat fluctuation in the last few years, and how might you adapt to those?
- What options for shelter can you find that are free/repurposed/low-cost? (E.g. old window panes, scraps of plastic you dumpster dive, repurposed car-port greenhouse, etc)
- What are others in your area doing to counter some of these extremes?
Summer: Heat and Crop Stress
When we get into summer extremes, the heat waves are going to continue and grow in magnitude each year. Thinking about how to shift your homesteading practices to account for this is another important part of this equation. I think these drastic changes are based on where you are–we are still able to grow food through the hottest part of the summer, although this year, a moderate drought with temperatures above 90 degrees meant it was difficult to get plants planted and keep them alive.
Deep mulching is a technique that is very effective to lock in moisture when you have it, and then prevent moisture from escaping when you do not. Deep mulching has you adding at least 4-6″ of mulch around any plants (we typically use either leaf litter or straw mulch). We keep our beds always mulched and never bare, and that way, we can lock in the moisture. An un-mulched, bare bed will lose a lot of moisture and fertility. By mulching beds and keeping them mulched or under some cover crop year round, you can avoid them drying out, going too weedy, and also lock in soil fertility. I used to be a huge advocate of this by using a combination of our own leaf litter and locally purchased straw, but now straw bales are very expensive, so we are looking into switching to more living mulches in future years.
You can also use living mulches to help keep bare soil covered: white or red clover, Roman chamomile, buckwheat, and alfalfa may be good choices. These living mulches can enrich the soil, prevent moisture from coming out of the beds, and also attract pollinators.
You can work to plant more heat and drought-tolerant crops. I love the list present in Deppe’s Resilient Gardener–she outlines a number of crop varieties that can handle more temperature extremes. For example, we stopped growing spinach and primarily now grow heat-tolerant versions of lettuce, rapini, kale, and celtuce, all of which seem to handle the temperature fluctuations better.
Creating good soil fertility is one way to help create stronger crops that can handle these temperature extremes. Get a soil test, find out what your soil needs, work to create good compost, and add locally created amendments. Avoid tilling and fortifying the soil web. Building a good soil base can help you produce stronger crops that can withstand larger issues.
A final thing you can do is work to use crops themselves as shade–putting heat tolerant crops like tomatoes where they will get full sun, and tucking in crops that like a bit less heat like lettuce in between the tomatoes.
In terms of animals, it is always a good idea to have shades, multiple water sources, and places for the animals to cool off. I also like to provide some ice buckets and chunks of cold watermelon to the animals in the hottest part of the day. We let them free range early in the morning and/or later in the evening and keep them in their runs during the hottest part of the day where they have ample shelter.
So some suggestions in this area for a variety of different people:
- Consider an extreme heat scenario: How prepared are you now for weeks or months of extreme heat? How can you build this into your plan moving forward?
- How might you more effectively build soil fertility?
- How might you use mulches more effectively?
Weather Extremes: Water
I began sharing some thoughts about water as I went into mulching above. For us, we’ve noticed that either we have too much water (the second half of this season) or not enough water (the first half). There seems to be no such thing as just the right amount of water in this age of climate extremes. What does that mean? It means we must be ready for either end of the spectrum, sometimes in the same year–like this year. We went from a drought in April-May and part of June to getting rain every 2-3 days, often more than an inch, in the 2nd half of June through September. Each year, it is a new challenge when it comes to water.
Thus, we do a range of water management techniques: this year, we are working to put 750 gallons of water storage off of our gutters as a new addition; we also installed drip irrigation in a garden that is particularly hard to water and will save us a lot of time and energy–the drip system should last at least 10 years if we care for it properly. We also use a variety of passive permauclture techniques such as digging swales in front of beds on an incline, making use of all of the water from our animal pools (duck and goose), and using and building hugelkultur beds into many of our regular garden areas.
So you might think about the following:
- What sources of water do you have in abundance?
- Where does the water go when it rains? Could you catch and store some of it in some way (swales, rain gardens, rainwater catchment, etc?)
- How can you add things like mulching or hugelkultur to existing or planned areas?
- How can you address drought conditions?
- How can you address water abundance and flooding conditions?
Wildfire Smoke and Air Quality Issues
Another challenge we faced this year was not being able to even hardly get outside for several weeks due to the smoke from wildfires in May and June. This was a new challenge for those of us on the East Coast, but we also realized it won’t be the last. The smoke was so bad at times that the air had a horrible burning rubber smell, and it made your eyes water to even be out in it. One of our long-term solutions to this is to strengthen our lungs with various herbs that we grow here on the homestead. This includes growing and making medicines of Mullein (Verbascum thaspsus), New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), Elecampane (Inula helenium) and Pleurisy Root (Asclepias tuberosa). We make sure we have plenty of these four plants growing in our gardens and make regular herbal preparations of them (tincture, glycerate, and tea). For these, we use New England Aster as a lung strengthened and trophorestorative for the lungs. When the smoke gets bad, an expectorant like Mullein can be really useful. If things persist, I will add either Elecapagne or Pluersy Root into the mix to try to clear things up. At this point, I’m taking Aster every day to support my lungs and will do that in perpetuity. I’ve also put small bits of Mullen and Aster in the waterers of my animals during and after the smoke situation here in June.
Ceremonies for Balance
The final thing I’ll share is that adding some ceremonial component to all of this climate awareness and responsiveness work is a really good idea. The waterways, land, seas and so many other places are stressed and this is 100% caused by human beings and destructive systems we have been living under for centuries. To me, any climate change response is both physical (as I described above) but also metaphysical. Smoke from wildfires comes into the land–I send healing and soothing to the fires. If we have a drought, I do magical drought work to help support the ecosystem. In all ways, I am working to support the land, to tell the spirits of the plants, nature, animals, and everyone else that I am here to tend and support them–and by doing this healing work, I am also supporting my own growth, stability, healing, and resilience. Here is my framework for land healing. I’ll also direct you to AODA’s ongoing work in this area. I’ll write a lot more about this in the future!
Conclusion: Living in this World of Extremes
The last thing I want to share today is that there’s obviously a very serious emotional element to all of this. I find it really disheartening and painful to see the land go through such extremes. It is painful to see the land suffering, especially if I feel powerless to stop it. I have to keep reminding myself that this is part of the Earth responding to the terrible behavior of humans, and this is part of the lesson humans must now learn. I try to remind myself that these systems that have caused climate extremes need to come down and be replaced with something different–something that so many of us are working to build. In other words, these climate extremes are the earth’s response to unbridled capitalism, colonialism of both earth and her peoples, and narcissism that dominant groups of humans have inflicted upon this entire globe. This is Earth’s way of saying that enough is enough, and perhaps through these extremely tough lessons, help set humanity (or what is left of it) on a better path. That’s a path that so many of us are actively trying to walk and build. While I still deal with my own fair share of climate anxiety, I do have some comfort in these thoughts.
With that said, it still is hard and it still hurts. I’ve written about some approaches to dealing with climate anxiety here, and I’ll also direct you to AODA’s resource page for Climate Anxiety. Ultimately, to me, the most important thing I can do is to work to do something…and that something is often these physical things. Helping the land I belong to, the animals, and the homestead we are committed to, through these difficult times. This feels good, and it feels like I’m doing something. I’m learning and growing, and I’m learning how to wean myself off of these destructive systems and create a brighter future. I’m learning how to re-inhabit land in a way that is regenerative and holistic, healing, and growing. And that’s hard work, but it is work worth doing.
I’m happy to share that I am publishing a new series in Spirituality and Health Magazine on nature connection. You can check out the newest article here!