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Cold Climate Design: Challenges or Opportunities?

February 26, 2012

The snowy landscape of Vermont's Green Mountains; inspiration for this post.

Last night, moist air condensed somewhere in the atmosphere above my roof and gloriously deposited a thick layer of trillions of tiny ice crystals onto the Green Mountains.  It’s a wonderful thing.  I witnessed the hardy mountain folk as they donned their wool and down, and flocked to the hills. With shaggy dogs and skis in tow, one can follow their caravan of Subaru’s up the snowy roads and to the trailhead.

I myself participated in this wintery affair, and felt kinship towards other who have an affinity for the winter season. There is something about being in a silent forest, blanketed in snow, that conjures unique emotions and thoughts: both the grounded and the romantic, the peaceful and the adventurous.

It was in this mindset that I got to thinking about these people of the mountains, and why it is that they remain, despite the challenging climatic conditions. From a permaculturist’s perspective, regions with minimal seasonal variations and lengthy growing seasons don’t impose the design challenges that other regions do. But then, are these characteristics of cold climates actually “challenges,” or just poorly understood opportunities?

Yes, cold climates lack a long growing season, and winter conditions without protection are severely inhospitable to humans and tender plants. But, regions of high latitude also enjoy several key benefits, including extended sun exposure in the summer, amongst others. Understanding the challenges as opportunities unlocks a creative process that sees systems as whole, where outputs of one component can meet the needs of another component.

One very important aspect of cold climate comfort is warmth. To accomplish it, you must design for maximum energy capture and containment. Douglas Barnes describes his home design in southern Ontario, and like so many others who see the potential in this climate, use what resources are offered in an appropriate way so as to passively gain heat.

For productive cold climate landscape design, the key seems to be this: microclimates. Microclimates take advantage of nuances in the landscape, thus form their own little climate. In this area of Vermont, landscape designers alter locations of  wind breaks, building aspects, colors, materials, plant locations, and vertical masses to harness solar energy into a specific area, say, the southern wall of a home. This little microclimate can be the difference between a successful growing season and a failed experiment. Either way, its a good lesson.

Unfortunately, you may not have luck growing kiwis and plantains on your snowy landscape. But, that does not mean that the food yields of the native plants of these northern regions aren’t plentiful. There are many resources to discover native plants that provide you with something useful; food, medicine, nitrogen, habitat, material, windbreak, screening, wood, etc. EarthFlow Design Works came out with the Useful Species List for Cold Climates, which can be a good start from which you can design a hardy garden to match your hardy lifestyle.

I’ve come to understand this: living in a cold area is not inherently unsustainable. However, the way in which many have come to live in cold areas is unsustainable, as they are products of incomplete design. Living in a cold climate, or any climate really, just requires better, whole design.

Bill Mollison made a nifty little video on cold weather permaculture, and tours several different sites and case studies. Worth the watch, not to mention the fantastic Australian accent.

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