Microclimates are those areas around your home and garden with distinct temperature and moisture variations; exposure or protection from winds; and access to light. They create unique opportunities for variety in your garden plantings and the use of your home. In part I, we looked at the factors affecting microclimates (latitude, elevation, temperature, moisture, vegetation, and soil composition).
In this section, we’ll look at identifying microclimates. Then we’ll look at options to adapt to less than desirable microclimates or how to enhance positive areas.
1. Observe and interact. The first principle of permaculture according to David Holmgren comes into play here. Observe and interact with the microclimates in your space.
2. Once you’ve identified your microclimates, match those spaces to their best use for your home economy. Here is a simple worksheet to help you do that.
In the home:
Growing or producing items can improve your home economy (turning old t-shirts into quilts? Or some other craft). Do you have space for a workshop or sewing corner? Gardens? Mushroom logs?
Right behind production in the home economy comes the question of storage. How much storage do you have in your home? With the growth of the consumer society in the 1950’s space for storage in the home decreased. In recent years, home designers increased the amount of storage. This is not because we are more productive in the home economy, but because we consume more. Some savvy people are using that space for storing away their harvests, materials and other resources.
I often have my permaculture design students sketch a map of their homes. Then I ask them to put the pencil down in their bedrooms—pretending to move around as they would in a typical day. They discover the areas they use the most often. Many identify a cold or hot room or a room they almost never use—and why. Use cold rooms as cool storage for items that need to be dry (root veggies through the winter?). Mitigate overly hot rooms (next to a stove or furnace?) to be useable by increasing ventilation and shading (from the inside or outside). They also might be helpful spaces for drying herbs or veggies in the summer. Insulated curtains or a spread of indoor plants to absorb the sunlight and humidify a room can make a huge difference.
Dry, warm rooms with good air circulation are excellent for storing tea, herbs, and other smoked or dried foods—like the mint or basil from your Garden Tower! Or dried tomatoes. [For a treat, dry slices of tomato with basil and a diced garlic on a cookie sheet in the oven or in an electric dryer. Stack them in a glass jar and use in winter sauces and stews—or just as a yummy snack!]
Cold and cool dry rooms are good places for winter squash, potatoes, and apples. Old-timers (and some savvy younger generations) use cool bedrooms (which are better for sleeping) for keeping produce in crates under the bed!
When you observe these areas and begin to match need to use, your home economy improves dramatically.
In the garden
Microclimates are everywhere! They are a secret to the theoretical unlimited yield mentioned by permaculture co-originator Bill Mollison.
Microclimates affect the placement and success of gardens. Situate your garden where plants can get 6-8 hours of direct light. This is the amount of light needed for most annuals and perennials to bear fruit. If your garden area gets less than the minimum amount of light, don’t despair! Play with plants that bear in partial shade or even deep shade. Use Plants for a Future to help you find good options for your space. Try greens, potatoes, and anything in the brassica (broccoli) family. These are more likely to yield a harvest in a shady spot. You might want to consider thinning the tree canopy if that’s your limiting factor.
The second generation Garden Tower is fantastic because the rotating design allows you to turn the tower and even out the amount of light each section gets. If the tower is on casters, then you can move the tower into just the right place for what is growing.
If you live where there is too much light saturation—where intense light negatively affects plants--you need to change your growing area. They are usually areas with higher temperatures. Sometimes we find them at higher elevations (where the thinner atmosphere hits plants with more intense UV light). In these areas, light shade can improve your yields. An awning or a light over-story tree with dappled shade can be the easiest way to create a shade house. Shade cloth or placing your garden on an eastern wall can also help to get the right amount of light to your garden. Shading your garden has other benefits, too. It lowers temperatures. It limits light. And it eases the soil evaporation and transpiration sucking water away from these tender plants.
As ozone levels continue to change in our atmosphere and UV light intensifies, these strategies (common in the southwest US) will become more common throughout the continent. More of us need to experiment with growing under light shade. Your plants will tell you as they drop their leaves or slow productivity in the hottest parts of the summer.
Vegetation and buildings (and landscape features) also determine how wind moves throughout the landscape. Excessive exposure to wind tends to dry out the soil and place stress on the plants. Plants like being in a sheltered, sunny spot. Windbreaks make a big difference. At the same time, a light breeze can confuse or discourage pests. To create a windbreak, try to install something (a perennial planting or wall) that gently lifts the wind over the area you are using and sets it back down. To direct wind, use perennial plantings in a V shape with the V pointing towards the window or garden area you want to cool and the wider part of the V pointing toward the direction from which wind tends to come.
I’ve mentioned keeping plants cooler with shade, but keeping them warm enough to be productive is the other side of temperature and microclimates. It is THE key strategy for season extension in spring, fall and winter. The keys to passive heating are: (1) to create a barrier that traps warm air (like a hoop house or greenhouse); and (2) to use thermal mass to warm an area through the night. If this is not enough, you are looking at using a heater, which requires expense, maintenance and fuel of some kind. It is much simpler to insulate the greenhouse well and use thermal mass to absorb the sun’s energy from the day—re-radiating it out at night. You’ve all enjoyed a warm stone or brick ledge on a cool day. That is the one way of benefitting from thermal mass.
In greenhouses, people use stone, brick, gravel, and tanks of water to store away solar energy. Usually the tubs of water are black to be the most effective. With the Garden Tower, a wonderful thing happens as the core mass of compost and soil (which is also moist) absorbs a good deal of solar energy and stores it away—just where the plants want it. This is a win, win, win when the tower is in an enclosed area in the cooler months.
As you practice observing microclimates; become more familiar with the techniques to modify them; and learn about different productive plants you can include in your garden, your system will become more resilient and unique to your interests. Enjoy discovering your microclimates! Don't forget to put a hammock or other relaxation spot in your favorite microclimate! Please share what you learn with other gardeners on the Garden Tower Facebook page!