July 5, 2020

Letters to My Niece: ‘Be the Change’

Editor’s Note: Michael Zuck wrote several letters to his niece Lillie shortly before he died on March 7, 2015. His wife Gail shared them with Garden Maine. This is the third of five, ending with an essay and a poem. (Read the previous letter here.)

Dear Lillie,

That last letter was getting a little scary, wasn’t it? I tried to end it on a positive note, which is where I will pick up the train of thought.

Vermont’s premier climate change guru, Bill McKibben, has begun saying that it may already be too late to stem the tide of global warming. Not to say that we should go on burning fossil fuels endlessly, but it now also behooves us to begin considering how we shall adapt to major shifts in climate that are coming. Hallelujah!

I’ve been trying to say that global warming is actually mankind’s great and perhaps final opportunity to begin getting it right. Start with conservation, move on to technological innovation, and end up in the promised land of grow local/eat local sustainability. Our very survival rests on these tenets. Maybe if it gets hot enough or dry enough, we’ll all be forced to agree on what needs to be done, and just do it!

In the meantime, the back-to-the-lander is perfectly positioned to begin to “be the change,” as the current expression goes.

By taking charge of the entire food production system, you take on not just the responsibility for growing successful crops, but you also assume the ability to adapt your system to changes of all types. This is hugely empowering, this ability to adapt. And for the seasoned gardener it is actually nothing new. Every year is different and requires adjustments to the vagaries of weather. Climate change is just weather vagaries writ large.

I want to describe to you some very modest technological advances in gardening and farming that have led to vast improvements in what the small scale producer can hope to accomplish. Combining this new technology with the age-old wisdom of organic soil and crop management techniques can really bring the modern back-to-the-lander to higher ground, in terms of yield and labor investment. It’s a very exciting time to go a-gardening or a-farming. (It is also very helpful that the various food movements such as “buy local” and “eat organic” have generated tremendous demand and a willingness to pay the farmer a “living wage” as it were.)

Drip irrigation heads the list of truly cool technology for the back-to-the-lander. Plants need plenty of water to thrive and produce optimally. Drip tape and other types of drip irrigation make it incredibly easy and affordable to deliver water to your plants with a minimum of waste and very little effort. Of course you do need a supply of relatively clean water and a pump to do any sort of irrigating, and this is an important consideration when choosing your plot of land. Drilled wells and submerged pumps offer the most reliable system for obtaining irrigation water, but it is very important not to waste this precious water resource. Drip irrigation goes a long, long way in this regard, as compared with any sort of inherently wasteful sprinkler technology (50%+ losses to evaporation).

I’m not making this topic very exciting, I realize, which is too bad because when you actually see the difference that drip irrigation can make, it’s very exciting indeed.

For example, blueberry bushes are very responsive to water stress. Here in Maine what typically happens to an un-irrigated planting is that when July turns sunny and dry, the berries all try to ripen at once. This leads to smaller fruit, aborted fruit, lower sugar and flavor content, and greatly reduced yield. Add a constant moisture supply to the equation via drip irrigation, and everything changes for the better. The bushes “relax” and ripen their fruit gradually, allowing each berry to reach its optimal size and yummy-ness. It’s really a dramatic change. We are able to harvest berries into October, beginning in mid July, and we really enjoy the relaxed harvest schedule of an unstressed blueberry planting.

Irrigating blueberries doubles the yield or better, and it ensures that every year is a good year. Incidentally, bird netting will double the yield again. Another example of how modern small-scale technology comes to the back-to-the-lander’s rescue.

Cantaloupe vines like abundant water early followed by relatively dry soil for flower and sugar development. Almost any other crop you can think of benefits hugely from drip irrigation. It’s the simplest thing you can do to be a more successful gardener. The technology is cheap and durable, and made of black plastic that is easily recycled. Israel is a world leader in drip irrigation, not surprisingly, given their dry climate and difficult neighborly relations along the River Jordan.

A back-to-the-lander is more than likely a pacifist by nature, meaning that he/she prefers to avoid a fight wherever possible. In the garden such fights involve critters who threaten your crops. Deer, rabbits, groundhogs, raccoons, squirrels, chipmunks, and birds all pose imminent threats especially to newly emerged or freshly transplanted seedlings. Add in a variety of common insects, slugs and snails and some airborne diseases and it’s a wonder that anything ever makes it to fruition.

Here’s where technology comes in. Floating row covers to the rescue. For very little money you can purchase a roll of spun-bonded (non-woven) polyester fabric that nicely excludes all the potential pests listed above, except for slugs and snails. The fabric is very lightweight and allows sunlight, air, and rain to penetrate, while providing a nice protected microclimate for tender young plants underneath. After planting a row of whatever, one inserts hoops (bamboo, wire, plastic water pipe) in the soil at intervals of two to six feet to support the row cover. Bury or pin the edges of the cover to keep the wind from carrying it away. This system takes so little time and investment to install, and best of all, it allows you to avoid a whole lot of fights. By early- to mid-season your plants will be big and strong enough to be uncovered, and the row covers can be put away for next year. It’s hard to exaggerate how much stress row covers eliminate in the gardener’s life. Pacifism rules!

Related to the row cover revolution is something called high-tunnel gardening. Inexpensive pipe-framed greenhouses are erected in the garden and covered with one or two layers of polyethylene film. This produces a warm microclimate that is just right for certain crops (e.g., tomatoes) while also extending the frost-free growing season by many weeks. I see this technology becoming increasingly important to gardening and farming in a changing climate. High tunnels give us a lot more control over the vagaries of weather.

Well, I think I’ve proven, to myself anyway, that it’s hard to write about agricultural technology and make it come out exciting. Suffice it to say that it’s a really good time for the back-to-the-lander because of a lot of recent innovations in technology. Paralleling these many improvements is the steady march of plant breeding towards garden plants that do just what we want them to. Heirloom veggies are interesting and have their place in our lives but so do modern hybrids that resist diseases and insects while out-yielding their forebears. It’s just a fun time to be growing your own food, and it’s getting “funner.”



Next: Letters to My Niece: Refer to Nature, Defer to Nature