Growing Food in a Hotter Drier Land

Strategies for gardening in the midst of climate change and in the resulting harsher heat.

dry farm land

Photo courtesy www.RareSeeds.com

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If you haven’t noticed the effects of climate change in the fields, gardens, and orchards around you the last few years, you’ve probably been hibernating.

In 2012 alone, droughts and heat waves desiccated 71 percent of the annual crops of grains and vegetables in the United States, but other countries such as Canada, Kazakhstan, Mexico, and Russia were just as hard hit. The heat waves of June, July, and August of 2013 broke temperature records across the West, but the East and Midwest also suffered. And yet, climate change is not just about hotter and drier conditions, it can also be expressed as catastrophic freezes and hailstorms, unseasonal floods, and crumbling rural infrastructure.

In short, adapting to climate uncertainty is the name of the game that farmers and gardeners must play with nature the next few decades, but just how does anyone adapt to increasingly unpredictable conditions?

Well, it is likely that you have held part of the answer to that question in your own hands within the last season: seed diversity, also known as food biodiversity. Ever heard that old agrarian adage, “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket”? It suggests that one of the best bet-hedging strategies gardeners and farmers have ever employed is the planting of multiple heirlooms, lines, varieties, species and plant growth forms in the same foodscape, rather than presuming that a single “climate-responsive” variety from Monsanto or Burpee will get you through the storm. And for less expense than it takes Monsanto to genetically engineer, evaluate, increase, patent and market and license a sole climate-friendly variety, seed savers have conserved, maintained and distributed more than 20,000 heirloom and old-standard vegetable, legume, grain and fruit varieties to American producers.

That’s right. When the seed-saving movement in the United States ramped up around 1985, only about 5,000 heirloom and old-standard varieties were in circulation among American food producers. Today, there are more than 20,000 being exchanged by seed savers and offered by small non-profit and for-profit seed companies and nurseries. Many of these have tolerance to drought, heat stress, alkalinity, or to cool, foggy conditions that are not found in many modern cultivars. Importantly, if these are taken to a particular locale, and further selected year after year for adaptation to the changing weather, soils, pests and diseases through common-sense backyard plant breeding, there is an even greater probability that these crops will weather storms of all kinds.

Agricultural Biodiversity

Let’s put it this way: For all the crop insurance payments offered and all the federal and local investments made in food banks, soup kitchens and commodity food deliveries to buffer Americans from hunger in the face of climatic disasters, one fundamental form of crop insurance and food security was neglected or ignored altogether: agricultural biodiversity. Let me broadly define this term because it may remind you how much any successful strategy for dealing with climate change will be tied to wisely using these diverse resources as the surest form of “crop insurance.”

“Agricultural biodiversity is embedded in every bite of food we eat, and in every field, orchard, garden, ranch and fish pond that provide us with sustenance and with natural values not fully recognized. It includes the cornucopia of crop seeds and livestock breeds that have been largely domesticated by indigenous stewards to meet their nutritional and cultural needs, as well as the many wild species that interact with them in food-producing habitats. Such domesticated resources cannot be divorced from their caretakers. These caretakers have also cultivated traditional knowledge about how to grow and process foods; such local and indigenous knowledge—just like the seeds it has shaped—is the legacy of countless generations of farming, herding and gardening cultures.”

Adapting To Climate Uncertainty

So just how to do we begin to employ that seed diversity and associated knowledge gained from traditional farmers to adapt to climate uncertainty? That is the topic of my new book, Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier Land (Chelsea Green Publishing) which distills my four decades of work in the field with indigenous and immigrant farmers producing food in the deserts of the world.

Among the insights I have gleaned from desert farmers are the following strategies:

Grow your herbaceous annual and perennial vegetables in the partial shade of “nurse plants.” By nesting them under or adjacent to the tree canopies in orchards or hedgerows, they will be better buffered from extreme heat, cold snaps and winds.

Grow on the same patch of arable land a diversity of perennial and annual crops, each with a different shape, height and texture, so that they may collectively provide structural diversity to suppress pests and diseases by slowing the spread of the crops’ natural enemies.

  • Grow multi-line mixtures of the same annual crop for further disease suppression, since pathogenic fungi and viruses will not have a uniform target that they can quickly vanquish. 
  • Multi-line mixtures also provide a better buffer against the vagaries of climatic variability, in that some genetic lines may produce a greater proportion of the total yield in drier years, while other will perform best in moist years.
  • Gradually shift your crop mix to a greater proportion of herbaceous and woody perennials with deep roots which sequester more carbon in the soil, and require less tillage per season than annual crops.
  • When you do plant annual crops, choose quick-maturing “short cycle” varieties that can mature before the rainy season ends, and which do not require several more irrigations as later-maturing varieties might do.
  • Wherever and whenever possible, make good use of harvested rainwater and grey water to grow your crops, and try to maximize the percent of water directly delivered to the plant roots to ensure that water (and energy for pumping it) are not wasted in your foodscape.

Think of yourself as a “co-farmer” working in alliance with crop diversity, soil microbes, pollinators and other beneficial insects. You are not alone in your efforts to adapt to climate change and assure greater food security for your community.

We are all in this together; that is why I suggested that everyone at the 2013 Seed Savers Exchange Campout in Decorah, Iowa, stand up to renew their vows to be a good partner and steward to the seeds that can help us survive such unpredictable times. Here are those vows, so that you too may renew your covenant with this blessed earth:

I, (name), a gardener, farmer,           

seed saver, and eater,

wish to renew our sacred vows

to take care, love and serve

the astonishing diversity of life on this earth.

Through sickness and in health [I bet you knew that line was coming],

in times of crisis and times of joy,

to sow the seeds of food justice,

to sow the seeds of food security,

to sow the seeds of food democracy,

to sow the seeds of true food sovereignty,

through our own actions and our own eating patterns

so that we may all eat what we have truly sown.

I reaffirm our covenant with this earth,

to humbly be one more way that seeds themselves regenerate into more seeds to nourish all of us.

Love one another and go and sow in peace.


Gary Paul Nabhan’s newest book about adapting farms and gardens to climate change, Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier Land, is now available. Gary is a co-founder of Native Seeds/SEARCH, now in its 30th year.