Looking to the equator - and the Arctic - for growing inspiration

If veg can grow in the world’s hottest and coldest spots, we should grow up a storm

Benjamin Vidmar  faces three months of total darkness, winter temperatures of -20°C and ferocious Arctic storms and blizzards while trying to grow in the Arctic

Benjamin Vidmar faces three months of total darkness, winter temperatures of -20°C and ferocious Arctic storms and blizzards while trying to grow in the Arctic

 

After a summer of 32°C highs in Co Clare, a winter of heavy snow and seven weeks of absolute drought it’s time to start looking at how others manage to garden in less clement climates.

For cold-weather vegetable growing the guru has always been Eliot Coleman of Four Season Farm in Maine, USA, where he grows an enviable bounty of organic vegetables year-round in unheated polytunnels, using cold frames and cleverly planned successional planting. His book The Winter Harvest Handbook will inspire you to grow an array of spinach, sprouts, leeks, broccoli, cauliflower, chillies and Jerusalem artichoke right through the winter, which as Coleman says, “actually thrive and are sweeter, tenderer, and more flavourful” in cold weather.

His ability to grow food through the long Maine winters, where the thermometer frequently settles at -10°C, made Coleman my ultimate inspiration for winter farming until last month I met Benjamin Vidmar in Svalbard in the Arctic Circle. His Polar Permaculture project has set itself the challenge of feeding all 2240 residents of Longyearbyen, the principle town of this Arctic archipelago, using organic food grown in geodomes and grow-rooms.

The hurdles he faces include three months of total darkness, winter temperatures of -20°C and ferocious Arctic storms and blizzards. While he is currently growing a limited array of vegetables, sprouts and microgreens for local shops and restaurants, the ultimate aim is to create a “circular economy” by transforming all of the community’s organic and biological waste that is being flushed in to the fjords into compost, capable of producing an abundance of nutritious, organic food.

He wishes to make this fragile and frigid landmass entirely self-sufficient and sustainable in terms of its food production, which will be all the more resonant in a region where the repercussions of our current unsustainable farming techniques are evident in the rapidly retreating glaciers and dwindling sea ice. Vidmar’s techniques can be learned at workshops and courses he runs on polar gardening practices throughout the year.

Create a bounty in an arid wilderness

With Ireland recording its hottest temperatures ever this summer, perhaps we ought to be looking south instead towards the equator for inspiration. People there have had lifetimes of coping with fragile plants like lettuces and spinach bolting in the heat, as so many of us experienced in Ireland this summer.

Australian permaculture practitioner, Geoff Lawton, has spent decades honing techniques for hot-weather farming and is focusing in recent years on bringing food bounty to drought-inflicted desert regions. His principle inspiration are the likes of a 300-year-old food forest he found in Vietnam and 2000-year-old food forests in the Morocco desert designed by nomadic tribes to ensure food security.

His website documents his work around the world, such as the food forest and permaculture farm he is creating in the Dead Sea Valley of Jordan, one of the lowest and hottest spots on earth. By establishing a complex network of water recycling, worm composting, foraging ducks and natural shading to protect tender crops from the scorching desert heat, he is managing to create a bounty in an arid wilderness.

Even more dramatic is the transformation he has overseen in the beautifully bleak valley of Wadi Rum in the Jordanian desert, which was used as the backdrop for some of the seminal scenes in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. Here, he has created a lush horticultural oasis in hostile, intimidating terrain within the space of 4 years by implementing innovative, but natural, water retention techniques and shading strategies, that should make us Irish gardeners ashamed to admit that we lost any plants at all this last summer.

The sheer bounty of potatoes, pomegranates, aubergines, tomatoes, squash and cabbage he grows in shifting desert sands with scorching winds blowing through is remarkable. His primary secret seems to be creating carefully contoured swale channels to capture every inch of water and then guiding it to where he needs it most, and away from where he doesn’t. He also plants crops beneath trees in a form of forest gardening, which offers shade, protects against desert winds and maintains moisture in the soil, while also preventing erosion from sudden downpours or floods.

Having experienced the most severe drought in 168 years this summer we shall have to re-appraise how we garden

All of these techniques would be beneficial in Ireland, and we might all start resorting to them more often. Having experienced the most severe drought in 168 years this summer we shall have to re-appraise how we garden. Currently, the gardener most attuned to the repercussions of Ireland’s changing climate and to potential solutions to the challenges we face is Mary Reynolds who won a gold medal at the Chelsea Flower Show for her wild Irish garden in 2002. Her book The Garden Awakening explores, in beautifully-observed and intuitive detail, the natural systems we need to implement to create a sustainable growing environment and to imbue the land with a resilience similar to what is found in nature.

Gardening in a changing climate is a challenge we’re all facing, but we can be reassured by the fact that others on this planet have already encountered and solved the problems we face. We just need to seek them out.

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