Sustainable Farming in the Face of Climate Change

temperature extremes at Okanagan Lavender and Herb Farm

The sustainability of farming is constantly challenged and we are actively incorporating better farming practices as we learn to navigate extreme temperature fluctuations. I often marvel at the stamina of a plant that is able to grow, produce and survive when confronted with temperature extremes.  

Farming has always been subject to the vagaries of the weather, and climate change is exacerbating this. The Okanagan Valley has a semi-arid climate and is situated at the northernmost tip of the Sonoran Desert. Hot dry days have always been part of life here, but over the past decade, we have been experiencing consistently hotter summers, colder winters and devastating wildfires. 

August 2023 Okanagan Fire
On August 17, 2023 the McDougall Creek fire in West Kelowna crossed Okanagan Lake during high winds. 
We found burned debris at the farm during the fire.
2023 Okanagan Wildfire

As the incidence of extreme weather increases, our growing techniques need to be agile and work within our environment to keep our farm sustainable. Wildfires and extreme heat impact a plants growing cycle and yields, and create problems that need to be swiftly addressed. 

One of our best assets at Okanagan Lavender & Herb Farm are the avenues of linden and birch trees we planted in 2010. These tall specimens provide filtered light, reduce heat units and add a layer of winter protection to plants grown in their vicinity. 

Allee of birch trees  whose shade helps with sustainable farming

As we change where and how we grow our plants, we have also learned to mulch the soil around them with layers of thick un-printed cardboard, sawdust and leaf litter to suppress weeds and retain moisture.

mulching plants and underplanting near trees to improve sustainability of the farm

We compost and make a considerable amount of the soil we use at our farm, and our trees provide many layers of leaves to amend soils. Around our plants, we add a top layer of Sea Soil, this nutrient rich organic matter is created in Port McNeill, BC. 

Two UK gardeners, Huw Richards and Charles Dowding have been a tremendous resource for us and influenced our new herb garden in 2023. This area is situated east of a double row of linden trees, and north of a hedge of witch hazel and hydrangeas and a green house. We use and reuse landscape fabric (over decades) to suppress weeds. These raised beds were built of untreated 20cm cedar boards. The landscape fabric was cut open and stapled to the inside of the beds. Each bed got a thick layer of leaf litter, 4 wheelbarrows of our soil and 3 bags of Sea Soil  were blended to create the top planting layer. 

Raised garden beds in new herb garden

We learned a lot from our first year with these garden beds. The plants benefited from the filtered afternoon sunlight during the excessive heat of August and gave us dependable harvests - our beans were amazing! The consolidated planting used much less water and we were able to use shade cloth when the temperatures soared. Plants were easier to harvest and we employed traditional companion planting techniques.

In 2024, we will move the squash to the Hugelkultor Beds we created when we cleared some areas of the farm that were in decline. The most valuable lesson we learned was how important it is to carefully select the site where we cultivate plants to ensure they are protected during extreme weather events.  The areas of our farm that are wide open have become the most susceptible to damage from heat and cold, many of our solutions lie in the wisdom of ancient Forest Gardening techniques. 

Raised beds in herb garden planted with sage, basil, savory, thyme, spearmint, rose geranium, calendula

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