Cyclone Yasi strikes Australia – this category 5 tropical cyclone hit North Queensland on February 3, 2011
Australia’s climate seems to have become quite chaotic. The El Nino and La Nina weather patterns governed by Pacific Ocean surface temperatures have been making their impact felt for quite a while now. The long, consistent summers we once experienced as children are long gone, even the winter temperatures now seem warmer. Recently, we’ve also seen floods and cyclonic activity in the north of Australia as a result.
The devastation left behind by cyclone Yasi was immense, so I consider ourselves very luck down here in the southern states, we don’t get tropical cyclones, all we lost due to the weather aberrations was a good part of our early harvests, which is minor my comparison.
So what did the weather changes do down here in Melbourne?
Consider that Melbourne’s climate is characterised by hot, dry summers, and cold wet winters. With our somewhat Mediterranean climate, the conditions are ideal for growing grapes, stone-fruit and berries. Now here’s a hypothetical question, what would happen if our climate suddenly turned “tropical” in the middle of Summer – yes that’s right, a hot, wet, humid summer, like the climate in the northern states of Australia?
Regrettably, we found out first hand what would happen in the Spring/Summer between November 2010 and January 2011… We experienced an unseasonably wet spring and an early summer, which has then made a reversal into cold weather, and then reverted back to summer heat. If that wasn’t bad enough, for the first time we’ve experienced what you’d call tropical weather, a period of very hot weather with continuous rain.
The result was pretty much a disaster for people growing food. It was reported in the news that the weather “…took its toll on cherries, table grapes, strawberries, stone-fruit and wine grapes, which have suffered cracking, splitting, marking, softening, fruit drop and disease outbreaks.”
In Victoria, commercial growers lost up to one-third of their early season stone-fruit and wine grape growers expect to lose one-fifth of their yields because they experienced the worst downy mildew outbreak in 20 years. they only managed to rescue their harvests by extensively spraying with fungicides!
Lessons to Be Learned – Time for Permaculture Solutions!
When you grow your own food, you come to really appreciate how our early civilisations were dependent of good harvests to stay alive. Natural disasters have the potential to devastate harvests and leave people starving.
If anything can be gained from such disasters, it is the knowledge of how to avert the food shortages that result, to learn to create a more resilient food production system, and to further food security initiatives.
Locally, everyone I knew lost all their grapes. Last year I got over 9kg of grapes, this year I would have got much more, but ended up with nothing! The weather not only wiped out the harvest, but also affected the leaves of the grape vines. The leaves didn’t survive the hot wet climate and the resulting fungus attack, so most of the green growth was impacted. Observation is the essence of Permaculture, and what I observed drew my attention. While the grapevines out in the open were devastated, the young and more delicate grapevines growing in a sheltered passageway that receives some north sun and full west sun under the cover of the roof eaves of the house seemed completely unaffected. They didn’t produce grapes because they were too young, but they weren’t touched by the weather change because they did not get hit by rain. It looks like it’s the rain striking the leaves that is the issue, so, the simple around this problem is to grow grapevines under cover! I now realise that if I grow the grapevines close to the house wall on the north and west facing walls, sheltered by the eaves from rain, they create a summer shading which cools the hottest sides of the house, creating natural cooling, they benefit from the “heat bank effect” of the walls, the thermal mass retains warmth later in the season and extends the length that they bear produce for.
In Permaculture, there is a saying, “the problem is the solution”, and this problem/solution I have just explained illustrates a case in point. It also fulfils the permaculture principle that all elements in a design serve more than one purpose.
Now, the stone fruit – I remember looking at my dwarf peach and nectarine trees, the fruit literally rotted on the branches, and it was full size fruit that was nearly ripe. Most people don’t realise that dwarf fruit trees produce full size fruit, not dwarf fruit. Only the height of the tree is reduced, nothing else. Anyway, I was heartbroken to count 52 full sized nectarines and 38 full sized peaches rotting on the ground under the trees! So let’s get into solution mode here. The observation, both my peach and nectarine were early season stone-fruit. All my friends with late season fruit peaches and nectarines fared much better. To build resilience into the garden, I would add some mid or late season bearing peaches and nectarines. This would extend my harvest period, and ensure that if one part of the season went bad, I would still get produce.
Berries were also affected, during that time all the raspberries rotted due to the hot, wet weather. Here, I already had a solution in place. Most people grow raspberries that fruit for a very short period, only a few weeks, either early, mid or late season. I use an ever-bearing variety that fruits from November till May, that almost 7 months of the years. So, my raspberry production had already started and was producing well, ceased for a few weeks, then resumed, and is still going as I write this article in mid April, into Autumn. Last year I harvested 3kg of raspberries (equivalent to 20 punnets) and this year I have harvested 4.7kg (equivalent to 31 punnets) and we’re still not finished yet. If I was growing a short season bearing variety, I would have got nothing. It really pays to use resilient varieties.
Since we had virtually no summer this year, expectedly, tomato yields reduced from 15kg last year to 8.5kg this year. Normally, I grow a large fruiting organic variety, the Australian Red. What I noticed as a result of inconsistent weather with sudden intermittent heat is that the tomatoes were forced to ripen very quickly before they reached full size. As a result, I got very few Australian Reds. My friend was growing a large variety of tomatoes hydroponically in a greenhouse, and observed the same problem. Luckily, this year I decided to plant a few varieties of cherry tomatoes also, and this paid off immensely. Cherry tomatoes have strong, vigorous roots, so much so that gardeners graft other tomato varieties into these rootstocks. These produced consistently for me and were quite unaffected by the poor weather and short summer. here, by chance, I increased the biodiversity, used different varieties of tomatoes, so where one variety failed, another thrived. Now I have my “insurance” variety that I can plant just in case the weather puts on a poor show next season!
We can look at disasters, mishaps and upsets as opportunities for learning, for it’s not all a loss or failure, we lose harvest, we gain knowledge, but only if we have the wisdom to see the solution in the problem!
By integrating what I’ve learned through these experience into my garden design, I can create an even more productive and resilient garden.
Hopefully now people realise why I stress the importance of practice and hands-on work so much – the world is a classroom, and the perceptive student learns, and let’s face it, we’re always learning, that’s what makes it interesting!