Plant the Water, Then the Tree
Here in Alberta our weather woes typically involve cursing our frozen fingers as we scrape icy windshields or groaning when May rain showers turn to snow. You don't so often hear us griping about being too hot.
But this summer has brought a whole new climatic concern to the fore with a streak of heat that's made many of us uncomfortable in every sense of the word. High temperatures, lack of rain, and smoke-saturated skies have defined much of our past two months - enough so as to have me craving the cold and crisp of winter. Or wondering if there's somewhere more amenable to live. But we can't all cram into the few Canadian locales that appear less heat-prone - nor do we necessarily want to, this being our home.
So the question becomes: What is an intelligent response? How do we maintain habitability into the future without just throwing more water or electricity at the problem? Beyond the broader actions required to curb climate change, a few home-scale strategies come to mind that could help us adapt to this new pattern of heat.
HOME DESIGN - As citizens of the "Great White North" we're understandably focused on how to efficiently heat our living spaces through the year's many frigid months. Less of a concern has been how to efficiently keep them cool. Sure, air conditioners are an option, but they're huge energy draws*so it makes sense to rely on them as little as possible. Luckily the same insulation that holds heat inside our homes in the winter helps to keep it outside in the summer, but it's not enough. Many of us still saw our interior spaces hit the high 20's (ºC) as temperatures soared relentlessly these past two months - a suffocating atmosphere, especially for sleeping.
Passive solar design can work well if done right with overhangs to block incoming sun and thermal mass to absorb and buffer much of the heat. Deciduous trees planted strategically to shade south and west-facing windows will maintain coolth (yes, it's a word!) in the summer without impeding winter sunshine in their leafless state. And we can create a natural siphon effect with carefully thought-out window placement, hot air exiting at a high point and drawing cool air in from a low, shady area.
No doubt much can be learned from traditionally hot climates as well; desert civilizations, for example, are adept at passively cooling their dwellings through smart design. None of this needs to cost more - it simply requires a little forethought and a shift in our standard building paradigm.
WATER - Capturing rainwater seems like a no-brainer at this point. Alberta, like many regions, is forecast to see longer dry periods, especially in the heat of summer when we need water to grow food, among other things. So let's capture the rain when it comes and make best use of it when we dispense it. "Plant the water, then the tree" is a maxim I learned in my permaculture studies. Meaning, in essence, we must first determine what we're capable of watering and how we'll water it with the rain available to us, then place plants (for food, shade, beauty, habitat, medicine, fibre, etc.) accordingly. In this way we reduce our labour as well as our need to draw on precious and increasingly limited freshwater supplies.
We can design for best use of captured rainwater through a dry spell, but we can also plant and mulch with the goal of maximum moisture retention. For example, simply planting trees and shrubs on contour**puts them right in line with the natural flow of rain down a slope (and unless your land has been laser levelled it will have some slope!), thus boosting their ability to slow it and soak it deep into the ground.
PLANT CHOICE - One thing I've observed acutely this past summer is the advantage perennial food plants have over annuals. Berries of all kinds, rhubarb and perennial herbs thrived in our yard without additional water, while our lettuce, peas and carrots demanded regular dousings to get through the dry heat. I think it makes a lot of sense, then, to expand our repertoire of perennial foods. Their deeper, more established roots give them survival power when the annual veggies are grasping for moisture in the surface soil. But some annuals are real troopers, too - borage that reseeds itself readily or arugula that grows lawn-side when even the grass is parched. Or so-called "weeds" - plantain has made itself comfortable throughout our yard from the garden to the lawn to the gravel driveway. Why fight it? Young plantain is a salad green and older leaves are a useful tea herb (an ally to lung health, as it happens, in this year of wildfire smoke!). Let's embrace these hardy types that are showing us they can handle whatever the climate throws at them.
Of course, we can look to the wild for guidance as to what will grow through heat waves with only the water from the sky. And we can also look to climates analogous to where ours is headed - what thrives in regions even more arid than ours? We may even want to gamble on a few perennials suited to a half or full growing zone above ours - they might just pay off and produce exciting things if we do inch into the conditions of their liking.
Clearly we need to adapt our homes and surrounding spaces to increasingly hot summers in such a way that doesn't lean more heavily on earth's resources, thus exacerbating the situation. We don't necessarily require breakthrough technologies, though - just the creative and wise application of existing systems we can find by mimicking nature and cultures for whom living with heat is old-hand.
One day of rain and one day of crisp, sunny weather and already the sharp immediacy of this season's oppressive heat with its pointed lessons is softening in my memory. The trick will be to remember what we've learned even in the teeth-chattering cold of February when the notion of being too hot seems positively alluring and summer itself seems a far-off dream!
*Even an energy grid powered by renewables requires significant disruption of land, extraction of resources, etc.
**A contour line is made by maintaining a constant elevation between several points across a distance