How climate change has changed me for the better.
‘Observe and Interact’ is the first principle of permaculture. What this means in practical application applies not just to land use, but to life.
One could follow the ancestry of this guiding principle back in time to the wisdom of First Peoples, ancient philosophers, history's great leaders and change change-makers, right up to our modern day proponents of restorative and regenerative land use as a catalyst for addressing the impacts and management of climate change.
Twice during the past few months, I was gifted with what I consider to be enlightenment in return for observing over time without judgement, what my unique experience in this world is trying to teach me, and also direct me toward.
First, leading up to my recent birthday, in the space of time in which I typically assess the year that has passed and feel some measure of anxiety about the year ahead, it occurred to me — gradually at first, but then suddenly and emphatically — to just step off.
Second, while walking alongside snippets of old growth on Vancouver Island this past week, I realized that I had already made the decision.
I had been observing, during multiple insights that, the anxiety about and expectation to continue along the path of conventional achievement was self-imposed. I realized also that, if I was brave enough to stay present and maintain enlightenment for a sustained period, I could future focus on how I wanted the no-regrets middle and final chapters of my life to look, and course-correct now to make that happen.
As I stood soaked to the bone in cleansing coastal rainforest rain, I felt an immense weight lift off my shoulders. Perhaps it was the energy of the ages drifting up through the moss-covered forest floor and down through the ancient cedars, or perhaps it was just time. I can’t say empirically, but spiritually it was absolutely clear to me that happiness is not a thing to achieve or chase. Happiness is here, right now. Cheesy perhaps, but true none-the-less.
It occurred to me too that, another permaculture truism, "Within the problem lies the solution" — based on the ancient Roman philosophy "The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way" — was showing me the way.
I believe that, the way to happiness and fulfillment in my so-called work life lies in gifting all that I have learned and am learning about applying rural permaculture and regenerative practices to urban life and land use, to as many people as I can, for as long as I am able, with no expectation of reward other than the work itself and whatever good may come of it.
We are not wealthy people, nor debt free, obligation free, or financially independent, but we are indeed lucky to live where and when we live, and to enjoy many privileges. Our healthy, capable young adult children have left our nest, and we now have the freedom to slow things down to a speed where we can enjoy the passing scenery while also working to make the world a better place.
Without a doubt we have enough. We have far more than most. We can step off.
As I watch our children and their contemporaries manage the excitement and challenges of university, new careers, and young families, I can see and feel the anxiety that accompanies adult responsibilities in the unpredictable world that they inherited from us and from the dozen or so generations that came before us. The uncertainty is palpable.
It is entirely unfair that we have enjoyed all that we have and have lived, without the preoccupying concern about climate change and food security that follows our children.
I remember what life was like with three babies, a career, extended family, community responsibilities, dwindling time and resources, and what felt like far too much to worry about. I recall the organic food revolution, the GMO and glyphosate media storms, the CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation) crises, Slow Food, Farm to Table, new vegetarianism, super foodies, the Inconvenient Truth, and hundreds of other food security related trends and revelations.
What I remember most clearly about growing a young family through all of that, was the chronic worry and underlying stress that accompanied each and every food buying, preparation, storage and preservation decision that I made, as the health and wellness gatekeeper for our family.
During these past few years though, so much more has changed and is changing at exponential speed. Who among us has time to keep up?
Perhaps I do, now. I am trying at least, to sort through the landslide of emerging data, policies, revelations, technologies, and practices regarding and related to sourcing, growing and preparing food, and synthesize complex information into bite-size, actionable, easy to understand posts and articles that may provide some measure of relief and inspiration to the younger generations to whom I am obliged.
Perhaps, if I commit the majority of my time to learning and sharing freely, with people who have no time, I can be part of a regenerative future and provide some measure of relief to young families.
So, from now until such time as I cannot, I will share what I am learning and have learned within my urban consulting practice, with anyone with whom it resonates — young people especially.
I will share local resources and actionable site-specific designs and ideas without expectation, based on a ‘pay if you wish to but I don’t expect you to’ model that I believe will help build a community of converts to and supporters of urban permaculture and regenerative living.
In return, I am able to step off of the endless road of achievement and administration, and onto the path of enlightenment and restoration.
I will be launching a new newsletter in which I will share my own summarized insights, and link to important and hopeful new resources and information that will help families, couples and individuals living inside or outside cities, jump into urban permaculture with both feet, or just dip in a toe.
I may not always get it right, and for certain I am no expert in this evolving field of study, but I will be honest and authentic, and for sure I will pass every recommendation through the same filters that I use for my own family. You can trust me on that.
If you would like to follow me on this journey, consider signing up.
For now, I am happy to share what has been going on in my garden and in my head these past few weeks, as I struggle with transitioning tomato and pepper seedlings during unseasonal, record-breaking cold weather. As I adapt to a changing climate.
*The above photographs are among my favourites taken over the course of 20 years, in and around old growth and ancient forests on Vancouver Island, the Discovery Islands, and coastal British Columbia.
Cold Weather Friends
Liven things up with microbes
Some years ago I heard a public radio show guest suggest that, the best time to plant out tomato and pepper seedlings is when you can sit on bare soil in your birthday suit, comfortably, for a minute or two.
Yikes! It isn’t time yet, clearly.
We had light frost earlier this week. For weeks now, as I’ve made my morning rounds, the thermometer on the side of the garden shed hovered stubbornly between 40°F and 45°F. This morning, a sodden 44°F.
I feel for plant nursery operators whose livelihoods depend, more-or-less, on just a handful of predictable gardening months. It can’t be easy, juggling truckloads of tender seedlings around, dodging cold, wet and wind. Climate change, supply chain issues and soaring energy prices have hit greenhouse growers and retail nurseries hard enough, and this cold isn’t helping.
I have trouble enough here at home, managing the short trip that my tomato and pepper seedlings take outside to a barely heated old greenhouse, and then keeping the soil chocolate cake moist but not wet, warmish but not warm, sunlit but not scorched, fed but not forced, until I can plant out.
I seed-started indoors three weeks late this year, confident that like children who start kindergarten younger than most, my transplants will catch-up and bear fruit at the usual and expected time. With this cold however, I am still too early, and after potting-up for a third time, have now run out of greenhouse bench space.
The living soils that I trialled with the intention of building climate change resilience, yielded too many plants. To maintain critical air space and circulation around the foliage of those plants growing quickly in the dampish greenhouse, I have moved several of the one-gallon tomatoes to a sheltered spot under the south-facing eaves of the house.
The location is strategically and beneficially equidistant between the dryer vent and the stove fan exhaust. I haven’t planted them yet, rather set the pots on the surface of a large mobile planter in which the soil temperature remains a bum-chilling and inhospitable 50°F.
Admittedly, the plants look far less perky than those in the greenhouse, but I am confident that the makeshift microclimate will see them through.
The wildcard this year, and moving forward as climate change lives up to its name, is unpredictability.
For non-native plants especially, be they (yes, plants are people too) food crops, annual flowers, perennials or trees, the creation and maintenance of hospitable environments will surely become more challenging and costly.
Nightshades (Solanaceae), a family of flowering plants primarily native to Africa and Central and South America, are particularly cold sensitive. My nightshade starts this year include Midnight Roma, Amish Paste, Sungold, Sweet Million, Strawberry Cherry, White Cherry, Early Girl, Yellow Peach, and Sunrise Bumble Bee, tomatoes; California Wonder peppers, Aunt Molly’s husk tomatoes (ground cherries), and Garden Huckleberries (Solanum melanocerasum).
There is sound microbiological logic to local gardening wisdom that advises a minimum soil temperature of 60°F for planting out nightshades, and an optimal range of 70-95°C.
Plants consume soil microorganisms as they grow (notice how soil disappears over time in a root-bound pot), and they drink in micronutrients.
This elegant, simple-in-principal process depends on complex relationships between mechanics, chemistry and biology, all operating at optimal seasonal temperatures. Because soil microbes thrive between 60-85°F and start tapping out at un-seasonal highs and lows, timing is everything.
In our gardens, living soils slumber somewhat during the winter, and they wake up again in the spring. Technically, soil borne microorganisms, or microbes, are invisible to the naked eye (fungi, bacteria, archaea, protozoa), but some tiny barely visible insects and nematodes are included in the mix.
These busy little guys cycle sunlight, elements and each other in a beautiful and crazy amazing waste nothing interdependent system of living soil — the soil food web — that supports plants and in turn all terrestrial life. It’s absolutely, bloody amazing!
Naturally, as a rule, native plants do best in their native environments, but absolutely there are things we can do now here at home to support non-natives and all plants. We can add organic composts, mulches, worm castings (poop), organic micronutrients, fungi, activated biochar, organic compost teas and foliar sprays, and other natural boosters and inoculants to feed and increase soil biology.
In my opinion, adding worm castings to soil at any ratio up to 20% by volume for starter mixes, and as a lightly incorporated top-dressing for beds and pots, is the quickest, most cost-effective hedge against climate change stressors.
Worm castings don’t smell like anything but dirt, so you don’t have to worry about offending family, friends or neighbours. The smallest amount contributes to soil health in hundreds of ways that we are just beginning to understand. To me, the most immediate benefit is evident even at the potting up stage in the body, sponge, or ‘stickiness’ of the soil. This body helps contain and retain moisture, grow and support complex biology, and accelerate the development of a healthy and extended root system, among many other things.
So then — consider sinking a very inexpensive DIY worm ‘bucket compost’ into your garden, raised bed or patio planter — see my blog post for a quick and easy how-to. Kids love making the vermicomposts and working with compost worms almost as much as they love talking about their poop.
When worms feed, they ingest bacteria, fungi, nematodes, protozoa, etc, and their super-charged poop is loaded with beneficial microorganisms.
Add them, feed them, keep them alive!
Worm castings and castings-enriched living soils are becoming more widely available. In Canada, Terra Flora Organics grows stellar artisanal living soils and mulches, composts, inoculants, worms, castings and more. TFO has small grower associates in the United States as well, so don’t hesitate to be in touch for a referral.
Use Promo code ‘upfront10’ for 10% off of your TFO order. I don’t receive a commission, I just really want you to get growing regeneratively! The really great soil/transplant thermometer can be ordered online from West Coast Seeds.
Until next time, happy gardening, growing and learning!