Ultimately, no matter how many times we go over it, it seems that the greatest ecological difference we can make in pushing towards a more sustainable future is to bring our food sources back home. Whether that’s with a community garden or a backyard food forest depends on your location, but for the most part, we can all agree that the key to fighting resource consumption, topsoil erosion, and rampant pesticide use is by taking back control of our food sources.
Sounds empowering, doesn’t it? It’s not a popular thing to say in these circles, but I’m a capitalist, and so for that reason, I believe if you really want to make a change in the world, you need to hit unsustainable businesses where it hurts — right in their wallets.
There’s no way we can ever hope to break away from industrialized food production though if we don’t start taking into account that not everyone lives in the most accommodating climate for growing food.
So how do we solve this problem? How do we make it so even people in hardiness Zones 5 and below can realistically (without tons of electrical input or expense) grow enough food to sustain themselves year round?
Solutions abound — it’s more than possible, no matter where you are, to take control of your food again, and bring your supermarket home. Here are some simply brilliant solutions to challenging climates, so that everyone, everywhere, can start producing their own food.
If you live in a particularly cold climate like I do, it’s time to get really familiar with this term: passive solar energy. This is the concept of capturing the heat of the sun in a way that makes internal climate control unnecessary in many scenarios.
With greenhouses, this concept is a game-changer. An earth-bermed greenhouse is either built into a south-facing slope, or is built free-standing, with earth piled up on the north side of the structure (much like Paul Wheaton’s wofatis).
This is a slow-working method of maintaining stable greenhouse temperatures, but one that is incredibly effective once you get the ball rolling. Paul Wheaton also talks about the theory of annualized thermal inertia — one that has yet to be tested, but is presumed to effectively make the earth a heat storage device on the scale of a full calendar year, rather than just days and nights.
Building an earth bermed greenhouse (walipinis as they’re sometimes referred to) is fairly straightforward, but I always err on the side of caution when it comes to shoring up earthen walls. If you’ve never built a structure like this, there are a lot of excellent resources that can show you how start to finish.
The Greenhouse of the Future is a total building package for precisely this type of design, with a lot of specific detail into the options you can utilize to create an earth bermed greenhouse. Bonus - it’s on sale now through December 31st for 15% off. Read more about it here.
Rocket Mass Heater in a Greenhouse
Okay, so it’s no secret that over at Permies.com, we are absolutely bonkers for rocket mass heaters. These interesting wood-burning stoves aren’t your typical cast iron wood stoves, though - a rocket mass heater is up to 10 times more efficient than a rocket mass heater, and provides heat for your entire home on 1/10th the wood of a conventional wood stove.
What’s really interesting about a rocket mass heater is that it also burns clean, so you’re not even polluting the air to use one for your house. The chimney gets so hot that it actually burns up the particulates in the smoke, so that essentially what comes out the other end is clean steam — cool to the touch, and almost invisible.
Putting a rocket mass heater in a greenhouse can get a little dicey though — these wood stoves operate by sinking the chimney in a large thermal mass and using that for a gentle, gradual release of heat. Because of this, you have dampness to contend with in a greenhouse, and not properly balancing your design can mean both your plants and rocket mass heater suffer damage.
If you’re curious about building a rocket mass heater in your own greenhouse, I definitely suggest doing your homework first. The Rocket Mass Heater Builder’s Guide by Ernie and Erica Wisner is an invaluable resource, and they even have plans specifically for building a rocket mass heater in a greenhouse - tried, tested, and approved. Check out their wet-tolerant rocket mass heater plans here.
This isn’t something you hear a whole lot about, but sun scoops can be a useful way to create what’s known as a microclimate on your property, and manipulate where cool air flows. Basically, a sun scoop is just a horseshoe-shaped berm that holds heat, blocks out wind, and creates a natural “edge” on your property, where plants preferring a variety of growing conditions can thrive and create some natural biodiversity.
Sun scoops are an easy thing to build on your own, and you can also incorporate hugelkultur into this style of garden bed, for even more bang for your buck. In his World Domination Gardening DVD set, Paul discusses how sun scoops in conjunction with hugelkultur can virtually eliminate irrigation in almost any climate.
Speaking of hugelkultur, this gardening technique on its own, even without incorporating the strategy of a sun scoop, is a great way to extend your growing season. Simply put, hugelkultur is just soil on wood - you create a mound sort of garden by piling your compost and soil on bit of old, rotted wood.
As the wood rots and decomposes, it enriches the soil, and acts like a sponge, holding onto water and keeping the plants nourished. Additionally, since the soil is raise, hugelkultur creates a thermal mass, and can give you a place to put plants out of reach of frost pockets that might settle on your property.
You can learn more about hugelkultur in this podcast.
This is definitely one of my favorite ways to bump up year-round food production in cold climates — my fantasy dreamhouse is an Oehler-style home with an entryway greenhouse. Mike Oehler is renowned for his book, The $50 and Up Underground House, but in addition to this cost-effective, energy-efficient house design, the home layout also includes an entryway greenhouse.
These houses are typically built into hillsides, south-facing, ideally. In the front of the home, there is a large section of windows, with a door on the side that would function as your front door. When you walk into the house, you essentially enter through the greenhouse, with this front part of the home taking full advantage of the southern exposure to put those rays to work growing food.
Not only does this design include an in-home greenhouse, but as the sun beats down on these plants and the earthen walls and floors, the solar energy is absorbed in these thermal masses, and slowly redistributed back into the surrounding air, keeping both plants and people warm and comfortable.
I’m in love with Oehler’s work - this great author and innovator departed this world a couple of years ago, but left quite a mark on us. His books are easy to follow, instructional, and complete game changers.
You can read more about The $50 and Up Underground House here, and be sure to read up on Oehler’s Earth-Sheltered Solar Greenhouse Book here.
Polycultures for Rotational Harvesting
Another thing that often gets forgotten about when troubleshooting the ultimate goal of the year-round harvest is simply planting a diverse selection of food staples that are ready for harvest at several different intervals.
Gardening with a variety of plants in a shared space as part of a symbiotic growing system is called polyculture, and it’s a great way to not only provide yourself with a more fruitful harvest, but also to better simulate how nature grows foods. Polycultural garden systems are naturally more resilient to pests and disease, and also help to create microclimates, with a storied structure that allows shade loving plants to thrive beneath taller, full-sun varieties.
Many people enjoy polycultural food-raising with a food forest model, which is exactly what it sounds like. This is a large-scale polyculture setup, with trees, bushes, climbing vines, groundcover, and many practitioners also run livestock through their food forest to manage overabundance, pests, and add to the health and aeration of the soil.
Ianto Evans has an interesting method to this type of gardening, featured in this article, Start a Polyculture Today - Toss Salad Tonight, in which a planting of cabbage, radish, dill, parsnip, calendula, and lettuce are scattered about a garden bed. As you harvest, you make way for other plant varieties to continue to grow and thrive, rather than obliterating the whole plot at the same time.
There are lots of great published works on polycultural style gardening, which many believe to be the foundation for permaculture food growing. You can check out Toby Hemenway’s book, Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture, for a thorough breakdown of polyculture and other core concepts to the permaculture methods of growing and raising food systems that also balance care of the earth.
The Keys to Year-Round Harvest: Thermal Mass, Polyculture, and Rocket Mass Heaters
There are so many hurdles to pushing through the modern way of living we’ve become so heavily dependent on to a more sustainable way of living - everything we do has to essentially be reevaluated and redone. Our waste production, our consumption of natural resources, our reckless erosion of topsoil — these are all things that we can address by bringing our food production closer to home.
Saving the world is an overwhelming challenge, but if we all start with one small thing, and get really incredibly excellent at it, we might just make the difference we need to send those ripples of change further and further, and before you know it, our neighbors are noticing, and start asking curious questions about ‘that great big mound’ in our yard.
If you’re grappling with a challenging climate or other set of variables and struggling with how to move your food production from seasonal to year-round, come visit us in the forums at Permies.com — we’re a friendly bunch, and we talk about permaculture, greenhouses, and growing things all the time.
Destiny Hagest is personal assistant to Paul Wheaton, founder of Permies.com and RichSoil.com, as well as a content curator and freelance writer. You can catch Destiny hanging out in the forums at Permies.com quite regularly, and visit her LinkedIn profile, and follow her on Twitter. Read all of Destiny's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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