Wednesday, June 3, 2009


Something I've been meaning to post at that blog was that we had three nights of hard frosts around May 20th.

The picture posted is from a few years back, but gives a flavor of the late spring garden; and you might notice the Iris. When we first moved to the property my mother dug up a couple of over-grown clumps of Iris that were in the tangle of growth here. I live in an old farmhouse that had been occupied by three brothers and a sister, none of whom ever married. The last of the brothers lived long enough for the once tidy farm to become ramshackled and then the property was owned for ten or more years by absentee owners. All that was enough time for old flower gardens to become buried in native cover. The Iris my mother uncovered increased, at times it seemed the better part of valor would have been just to throw some of the rhizomes away, but there was always a bare spot to plant them.

Last winter was a hard one with an especially cold January. Warmer Spring days were slow to begin; one begun it's been an especially beautiful Spring because there was a rain deficit. May Day was splendid and May proceeded with bright warm days. In fact the freezes occurred because of radiant cooling on three of the clearest days imaginable.

Alas, the freezes happened just as the Iris buds were to unfurl. The limp stems were the first things I noticed. After the last night of frost I walked around taking inventory of the toll. The cherries on my little tree were made brown raisins, the tips of the fiddlehead ferns which had danced so elegantly in the woods were brown, my little seed bed of marigolds I'd been watering so carefully were black and dead. There are several mulberry trees I've never known not to bear fruit, stripped of their leaves, and the black walnut trees too. Many of the lily tops were touched and the Hosta leaves burned. As I walked along I could see there was a lot more damage than I thought there would be.

Late frosts are not that uncommon in Western Pennsylvania. The tradition is not to set out annuals until the Memorial Day weekend for that reason. Not everyone in the area even had frosts, we've got just enough altitude to make the difference. And the frosts had more of an impact because of the warm weather we'd had in late April and May. When the warm weather comes in the Spring it seems the cold is left behind. I suppose I wanted to post about the frosts as a reminder that late frosts are possible. That seems hardly worth writing about. In thinking about more significant lessons from the freeze, I thought of resilience.

There's lots of talk about getting "the economy moving again." People make the connection between a booming economy and energy resources. But we are so accustomed to cheap energy, that the prospects of energy shortages aren't often allowed to intrude upon our thinking. When it comes to climate change, again there's a strange disconnect; as if we're terrified of allowing any thoughts about energy use. This sort of denial doesn't seem very healthy to me. But practically I fall into the same trap. Take my garden: mowing occupies a lot of my time in the Spring making it an especially busy time. Mowing takes gasoline.

I have thought to make my garden less dependent on mowing. Permaculture is truly an idea for the ages. But figuring out the transition from here to there is the hard work, and the puzzle I haven't yet solved.

A couple of weeks have past since the frosts. The mulberry and walnut trees have new leaves and the succession of blooms continues. Rosa multiflora roses were once encouraged for wildlife around here, but the plant proved too willing and is now considered an exotic pest. The vicious thorns don't endear the plant to me, but right now everywhere along the way I smell the rose fragrance and see the tumble of white blossoms, almost redeeming them. Really the loveliness around is too much to catalog. So no cherries for me this year, but all is not lost. Natural ecosystems have resilience. Even my attempts at creating a garden from trial and error, have made a garden with the capacity to withstand shocks like late season frosts, or particularly hot and dry summers.

I wonder if our economic systems are similarly resilient? I fear they're not. Indeed, the deliberate denial of discussion of energy issues is troubling; it suggests we the only thing to do is to hope things keep keeping-on the way they've been. The work of Rob Hopkins and the Transition Town movement is a bright spot of realism. People in communities can come together to address the prospects of energy desent realistically and with optimism.

Recently The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience was published in the US. It's been available in the UK a little longer and is being translated into many languages. A free edit version is also available online at the wonderful Appropedia site.

Chapter three, Why rebuilding resilience is as important as cutting carbon emissions is worthwhile reading--it's short. Three features of resilient ecosystems are identified: *Diversity *Modularity *Tightness of Feedbacks.

Plodding away in my own incompetent gardening style, I really get diversity. I can't count the number of plants I've managed to kill, or the many crop failures. Perhaps not the most efficient way to learn, but it's taken that to find plantings that work and are useful. Three's plenty more diversity to explore!

Modularity refers to the way the components of the system are linked such that the parts of the system can self organize in the event of a shock. There are lots of ways this can play out in a garden. One simple example is in the flower beds is the presence of self-seeding annuals like Shirley poppies, feverfew, chamomile, larkspur, etc. that take up the slack if other flowers fail.

Tightness of feedback has many implications. One of them is that "permaculture" can't be just pulled out of a box and planted in the ground. It takes years to establish plantings, not to mention the time it takes for a gardener to learn.

The freezes this May made me think about resiliency, and encouraged me to redouble to my efforts to make my garden greener and less dependent on fossil fuels. I'm afraid I'm just muddling through. Still even small steps in a better direction make a difference.

How are you fostering resiliency where you live?