The Call, Column 101 – Designing for Resiliency in the Urban Farm

12 08 2018

(August 12, 2018)

The Urban Farmer

Designing for Resiliency in the Urban Farm

How important is it to design a system to be resilient, as opposed to working to avoid the worst stressors that might test its resiliency and cause it to fail? This was the central question of a particularly interesting conversation in our last meeting of Climate Action RI, the environmental group that I am a part of.

That conversation really focused on the effects of climate change, asking whether we put more effort into infrastructure and other projects – projects that will protect our coasts and people from the worst effects of climate change – or instead, more effort into legislation and other changes to prevent those effects preemptively.

We reached a sort of consensus, somewhere in the middle of the two extremes. But I think this discussion is useful in a broader sense: we can apply it to climate change, but also to urban farming and life in general. That’s what I want to do today.

So what does it mean for an urban farm to be resilient?

To answer that, we first have to figure out what stressors an urban farm might face. A stressor is anything that would challenge the short- or long-term health of the urban farm system, testing the limits of its design and possibly causing it to fail. Pests, plant and animal diseases, neglect, and weather-related stressors (torrential rain, heat waves, drought, frost, etc) are all good examples of these.

There are a set of generally good gardening practices, all of which help to create some level of resilience against the above.

Keeping the soil well-mulched prevents a lot of soil-born diseases, makes it harder for pests to take hold, and creates a sort of time-water-buffer, so the soil doesn’t dry out due to high heat, lack of rain, or neglect.

Installing a basic irrigation system (drip or otherwise) definitely protects against neglect by ensuring the garden gets watered, even if you can’t make time or forget; also, well-watered plants are healthier and more able to fight pests and diseases.

Keeping perennials (and some annuals) well-pruned makes it harder to pests and diseases to proliferate.

These are just a few examples of practices that lead to resiliency in the urban farm. There is a basic distinction that I like to make, between elements of system design on the one hand, and constant inputs from the urban farmer on the other.

Things that are done infrequently, or just at the beginning of the season, like mulching or installing a drip irrigation system, are system design elements. You trade some overhead cost or effort for a higher level of resiliency throughout the life of the system (i.e. one layer of mulch can last for months, and improves the soil while protecting it from the above without constant attention on your part). These are the best types of methods to use (better than others, which require constant input from you), because they, themselves, are resilient against the worst stressor on an urban farm: neglect.

And that sort of brings me to the more general point in this column. In urban farming and beyond, it’s important to try to design our systems to be resilient to our own neglect. I am by no means good at doing this yet, but it is always on my mind when I make decisions and take on projects.

It is oftentimes the case that we are busier, or more tired than we anticipate, and that can mean our urban farms and other projects falter if they rely on our constant input. That’s why things like mulch are great, because they significantly reduce weed growth, pest and disease proliferation, and watering requirements, all of which make the garden more resilient against not only those problems, but against the urban farmer’s inability to monitor those problems.

As you continue caring for your gardens and animals, I urge you to give some thought to what types of methods you can employ to make those systems more resilient. I would love to hear about any specific ideas that you use, or come up with, that I haven’t mentioned here, so please shoot me an email. Until next time, enjoy the much-needed rain.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.

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