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Cultivating Hope – Gardening for Greater Climate Resiliency
By Jessica Shepherd
In my earliest memories, I kneel beside my grandmother on a spring morning, poking speckled bean seeds into a garden bed with chubby fingers. The garden, with its rows of fresh-tilled soil, flourishes between a maze of raspberry canes and the ally that runs beside our house. I recall the warmth of Grandma’s hand atop mine as, together, we smooth fragrant soil over rows of seeds.
As summer progressed, we would harvest the bounty from this small wonderland and I would learn to make jam, shell peas, and can tomatoes, peaches, and pickles. During the winter months, when the garden was blanketed in snow, buttery potatoes, green bean casseroles, and raspberry pies were our reward. We didn’t have money to spare, but we never went hungry.
Back then, we knew nothing about climate change. My grandparents simply passed along the gardening knowledge they learned from their parents a half-century before. Fast forward another half-century, and now I’m the one tending a garden, but with the uneasy knowledge that food systems around the globe are on unstable ground.
Thanks to the one-two punch of climate change and a strong El Nino, 2023 is shaping up to be the hottest year on record, nudging us ever closer to the 1.5°C tipping point climate researchers warn us about. Not only did the planet set new records during June, July, and August, but September reached an unprecedented 2.59°F (1.44°C) above the long-term average. According to NOAA Chief Scientist Dr. Sarah Kapnick, “Not only was it the warmest September on record, it was far and away the most atypically warm month of any in NOAA’s 174 years of climate keeping. To put it another way, September 2023 was warmer than the average July from 2001-2010."
In south-central Alaska, it was a different story. We were one of the only places in North America with below-average temperatures. Cool, rainy days made it easy to forget that the rest of the world was undergoing blistering heat, smoke from out-of-control fires, and crop loss due to drought, fire, heat, flooding, and, of course, war. Where we do feel it is at the grocery store, where inflation has affected the cost of everything from Granny Smith apples to Butter Ball turkeys. We are witnessing record levels of acute food insecurity on a global scale. In the U.S., 12% of households with children are food insecure (USDA 2022) and here in Homer, 1 in 10 families visit the Homer Community Food Pantry at least once per year.
Couple that with the news that the U.S. has lost more than 400,000 family farms in the past 40 years (an area equivalent to the size of Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota combined), and you have good reason to worry about food security. In addition, we are losing key pollinators, like bees, to what some are calling an insect apocalypse. Bees account for 35% of all crop pollination, including fruit, berries, nuts, and alfalfa - which translates to beef and sheep production. This summer Southcentral Alaska had virtually no fireweed blossoms – a mainstay of our honeybees.
AMAlaska imports approximately 95% of our food, and, as most people know, our grocery stores only carry three to four days’ worth of food at any given time. We’re acutely vulnerable to a dock strike or a natural disaster when it comes to food shipments.
The good news is that we, as humble gardeners, can increase our local food security one backyard at a time. Climate change favors Alaskans with a longer growing season (32 days a year so far) and an increasingly diversity of crops we can grow. Many of us have already figured out how to make the most of our colder soils and midnight sun through row covers and cool-weather crops like broccoli, Brussel sprouts, and potatoes. With federal assistance through the high tunnel program, we can nudge our growing season out another two to four weeks on either end.
Like the victory gardens during World War II, which more than equaled the amount of commercial produce grown in the U.S. and Europe, we can increase our food production as a way to offset inflation, reduce the carbon footprint of shipping food north, and set the stage for greater climate resilience.
But that’s not all. We can attract and nourish pollinators by interplanting flowers and shrubs that appeal to them, like mock orange, lavender, and yarrow. And you might allow a portion of your yard go wild for the sake of wildlife and pollinators. Dandelions and cow parsnip are a favorite nectar source for our native bees and flower or hover flies.
If gardening is your passion, share it with your kids, grandkids, or the kids next door. My Grandparents believed that introducing young children to the pleasures of gardening was an important part of their education. Even toddlers can harvest carrots and potatoes, and kids who grow up with dirt under their nails gain an appreciation for where their food comes from. Moreover, gardens are a buffer towards greater climate resilience. Together, we can tend these arks and make a difference.
There’s too much bad news to justify complacency. There’s too much good news to justify despair ~ Donella Meadows