How Do You Know What You Can Grow?  Building a Climate Analogue

How Do You Know What You Can Grow? Building a Climate Analogue

Here are the top 3 ways I  answer the question,  “What can I grow here?”

1:  Existing Local Practices

In more developed areas there are lots of ways to know what people are already growing. Garden clubs, nurseries, seed-saver clubs, permaculture meet-up groups, etc, are all great ways to find out what’s growing in your area, and even to get some local seed that could be better adapted to your place.  Especially in more developed areas of the world, where you can find organizations with a click o’ the internet, this is an easy and probably the most common way to find out what you can grow.

But what if you are somewhere  you don’t have those associations, and where the internet gives you very little information? One method is to drive around neighborhoods or public buildings and look at the gardens they are growing. Especially at public buildings, these will often be maintained by immigrant workers, who tend to import practices and crops from back home if they are from a similar climate.

For me working in Saudi Arabia, I’ve visited some gardens run and maintained by Philipinos, who have brought moringa and sweet potato here.  Initially I wouldn’t have thought to plant Moringa Oleifera here, because its native climate is more tropical and much more humid.  However, i’ve observed some succesfully grown here, so I integrated them with my guild at work, in addition to the local Moringa Peregrina.  Immigrants are a cultural edge and their introduction of exotic food plants can lead to innovative tries in your guild.

2:  Local Historic Practices

Before industrialization, everybody except for a very few ate local.  Traditional peoples and their food practices, whether currently existing or not,  can point you in the direction of some plants that will be useful, and perhaps largely forgotten.   Acorns, for example, were a staple of the pre-colonial peoples of New England, though I would venture to say that very few New Englanders consume them now.  There are thousands of plants that can provide food, fiber, and medicine, that are almost entirely unknown to modern people, though in the past that was only sometimes the case.

3: A Climate Analogue

Latitudes are a reflection of solar patterns

Latitudes are a reflection of solar patterns


A climate analogue is a catalogue of other areas on the planet that share key characteristics that are similar or identical to the characteristics of the land you want to design for.  Through a climate analogue, you can find nearly-identical climates across the globe, and then by researching plants in those areas, find all kinds of cool things you didn’t know you  could grow.  Here’s an example:

Take a look at the middle of the west coast of Saudi Arabia in the map above.  It’s just inside the sub-tropics; now follow that latitude across the globe and note where it hits a western coast.  Then do the same for the same latitude south  of the equator (so if you’re looking at 20 North, you’ll want to look at 20 South as well because it’s the same solar pattern, just with the seasons flipped).

For my area in Saudi Arabia, following those latitudes, you hit the following areas:  Coastal Namibia, Western Australia, A part of the Atacama in Chile, Mexicali, Mexico and the southern regions of the sonoran desert, Mauritania, A chunk of India, and Bangladesh.  Those are the areas in my climate analogue.  By researching traditional food plants from these areas, i can construct a guild of useful plants that are already growing somewhere with identical solar & in many instances climatic circumstances.  In my own situation, every location on my climate analogue except for 2 are coastal deserts, just like the region I work in.

So that’s a very simplistic example.  Here are the 6 characteristics you ought to look at when constructing a climate analogue:

A: Latitude

B: Elevation

C: Distance and direction from the nearest ocean, sea, or large body of water.

Those are the 3 most important.   If you get a match on those 3, likelihood is that the next 3 will be comparable.  These are:

D: Precipitation–if your analogue matches are the same on precipitation, then you know you can meet water sustainability by planting those imported plants.

E: dominant winds

F: major geographical features that would affect climate–mountains, rivers, seasonal storms, etc.

Bear in mind, none of the 6 characteristics above need to be identical, and you could eliminate the latter 3 altogether depending on the geography of your land. The more similar the matches you find in your climate analogue, the more succesful you will be implanting members of your guild from those areas.

If you are fortunate, after you build a climate analogue you will find 3 or 4 areas whose climates are very similar to yours. Then it is time for research. The same techniques you used in finding out already existing practices where you live, are the same you will use for these other areas that you have identified through your climate analogue.

Here are some plants i’ve adopted into my guild that I wouldn’t have thought to plant otherwise, or didn’t even know about when I started:

1:  Moringa Oleifera can be found in Gujarat and Rajasthan, India, both of which match the climate analogue.  This, combined with seeing it nearby in Jeddah led me to planting it out in our desert.

2:  Pithecellobium dulce and honey mesquite (prosopis glandulosa).  Both of these trees are native to Mexico, including the range on my climate analogue.  The pith is pictured above.

3:  Mongongo –this is the staple crop of the Bushmen in the Namib desert. I haven’t been able to plant it yet, but it should grow in Saudi Arabia because Namibia matches on all 6 of the above characteristics, and even has matching soil types.

4:  Watermelon.  Watermelon grows wonderfully in Saudi Arabia, and many people grow it here by flooding fields off of flash floods and sowing with watermelon seeds.  Watermelon also happens to be native to Namibia.

5:  Agaves (native to Mexico and the Sonoran Desert)

A Final Note on Natives vs. Non-natives

Just because you can grow something doesn’t mean you should.  Know your goals for what you want to grow, consider the surrounding context and community, and bear in mind that people have moved plants all over the globe for a long, long time.  It’s true that if we only ever grew natives, Italy would have no tomatoes, Ireland no potatoes, India no curry, Thailand no chiles, and the USA no wheat.  However, that doesn’t mean you should throw caution to the wind, either.

A climate analogue can open up your eyes to lots of possibilities about what you can grow. If you combine that with a knowledge of local historical plant usage, you can come up with some wonderfully diverse guilding.


Permaculture Voices 2:  Reflections

Permaculture Voices 2: Reflections

We’re two days off from when I left the Permaculture Voices Conference in San Diego, and perhaps the greatest thing for me was the immense, pervasive, encircling mass of positive energy I felt from a huge number of people there.  Everybody there is working on solutions, and the optimism and hope and community-affirming feelings of the whole conference was a tremendous pick-me-up.

I found this to be true not just on the conference level, but also on an individual level.  I do not often meet a person who makes me feel so comfortable that I can be completely open even though I don’t know him/her, and that happened to me multiple times in a 4 day span.

With that being said, here’s a quick breakdown of some things I wanted to get out there:

Learning to Read Cultural Landscapes

A lot of folks in permaculture are great designers for things on the ground.  We have a huge comparative advantage that comes solely from our ability to read landscapes, integrate those landscapes with climatic information, and to let the land reveal to us what kind of design will facilitate the greatest efficiency and gain in fertility.  This advantage is big enough that folks are starting to notice–hence Ben Falk’s post a while back about his presentation to people at USAID and their desire to acquire people with this climate literacy.

What we have not done as well in the permaculture community is to gain the same literacy on a social level.  Just as landscapes have keypoints and keylines, human society also has leverage points, geographies, and patterns that we ought to use to tailor our strategies.  Inevitably as we design for bigger and bigger problems, we bump into human organizations–boardrooms, congresses, clubs, institutions–that we need to approach and work with, and by and large we don’t know how to do it.  This is what I addressed in my presentation, which was called “Culture as Climate: A model for reading social landscapes and increasing the adoption of permaculture.”  The other title I was considering was, “How to use culture to instigate cultural change.”

I’m not an expert designer at this point–my experience has been deep, but narrow.  What I do know is culture, and I see this as a gap in our collective expertise, so I hope that the folks who attended and who listen in the future can find utility in my approach.

My Takeaways from PV2

1.  More Appreciation for the Purples

I came away from PV2 with a greater appreciation for purples.  Some of you folks might know Paul Wheaton’s purple-brown scale of permaculturalists.  I’ve always considered myself more of a brown.  But I got to rub shoulders and meet with some people that I think of as way more of a purple, and I found them to be impressive, and I learned a lot from their experiences.

It is true that permaculture needs more peer-reviewed studies, more science to back it up and to confirm what is largely anecdotes, and more experimentation on a bunch of land-based models, from the urban up to the broadacre scale, and I’m not sure it’s going to come from the purples.

That being said, it is crystal clear to me that people systems are much more difficult than natural systems–and this is where the purples excel.  The ones who know what they are doing know how to help people get along with other people, how to facilitate decision making, and how to keep community cohesive.  That is a desperately needed skill in a society where we would rather text than make a phone call because peoples’ voices are too personal for us.  So one of my takeaways from PV2 is a greater appreciation for the purples.  I’m not into your woo but I am into your social skills.

2:   Capitalism (the system now) vs. Anarchy 

Toby Hemenway’s Keynote talk was on anarchy–not on building a society without laws, but a society without rulers.  I can appreciate aspects of the vision he put forward; there are examples of functioning anarchistic villages where the people were quite happy and had a good community going–particularly in Italy post WWII (Thanks to Erik Ohlsen for pointing out those historic examples to me).

However, hanging onto that anarchistic vision directly contradicts my point from above–which is that just as climate and geography determine how we approach the land, the social and invisible structures (that are a direct result of our culture) should dictate how we approach making change happen on social and political levels.

I’ve got a much more extensive post to write on this, but my concern from Toby’s talk is it will encourage people to disengage from the society we have, which in my opinion is the exact opposite of what we need to do to build a sustainable civilization.   After some mulling in a couple conversations with Chad Stamps,  Grant Schultz, and a few others, I think there may be some useful tension in this conversation.

3:  Admiration for Many and Moving Ahead

I’m blown away by the caliber of people who showed up to this conference.  There was very little fanboyism or hero worship that I could tell, and a lot more of problem-solving, model-comparing, networking and business development, and a lot of potential for collaboration.  I’m determined to try to keep the new relationships I made with a lot of people substantive.   It would be really easy to turn a conference like this into a good time where we met cool people, but without following up and taking action it’ll just turn into happy memories.

Finally I want to thank Diego for putting on a fantastic conference.  I’m excited to see what he does next year, and hope to be a part of it.


Permaculture Voices:  A Preview and Liveblog

Permaculture Voices: A Preview and Liveblog

Today i’m headed to the Permaculture Voices Conference in San Diego.  I’ve been looking forward to this for a year.  Last year I couldn’t make it–in part because i didn’t want to pay the money it would have cost to attend and stay at a hotel, and in part because i couldn’t get away from work.

About 8 months ago I wrote Diego, who runs PV, and said, “take a look at what i’m doing–maybe you’ll think it’s interesting.”  I was hoping that he’d invite me to speak at this year’s conference so that I could afford to come.  It lead to a podcast and a speaking invitation.  I’m tremendously excited to be going.

While at PV2 I plan to do some liveblogging of the talks I attend, so stay tuned.

Here is a preview for my own talk:

A practiced permaculturalist can look at a landscape, and integrate the climatic, geographic, and hydrologic factors, as the basis and context of a fantastic design.  These conditions are the starting point of how we approach earth care.

In my experience, people systems are much trickier than earth systems, and I think the permaculture world needs to develop models for how to approach them in a systematic and intelligent way.  There are corollaries to climate, geography, hydrology, and keylines in the social realm, and those need to play a major part in how we should approach people care.  My take is that just as climate is the starting point of design for earthcare, culture is the starting point for people care, and should be the main determining factor in our strategy for creating and approaching invisible structures.

As part of the model, here is a preview for what you need when approaching a foreign culture, whether that culture is in another country, or in the boardroom of a company or organization you want to approach. You need:

1:  A Guide

2:  A Sheikh

3:  To Sing the right song

4:  Trust

5:  To Solve a Pain

If you come see my talk, you will learn how to use culture to expand your circle of influence, to develop the right approach to people care for your context, and to increase the adoption of permaculture wherever you may be practicing.