Food Independence Day

Gardening is a pleasure and a labor of love, and it’s also part of a bigger picture of resilience. I think about resilience a lot these days, on every level from national and international to personal. Much of the time there is little or, arguably, nothing that I can do for those larger systems, but on any average day I can attend to my own household system. I can make reasonable plans for the future and remain as flexible as possible about things that can’t be predicted.

One thing that can be predicted is aging. We can do a lot toward aging well, but *spoiler alert* we will still age. I realized this when I had a few years of orthopedic issues that made it painful to walk and impossible to dig. It made me start shifting toward a permanent mulch system in part of my yard, so that as long as I can kneel to plant and can spread some straw around, I can harvest food. I started the mulched beds by heaping animal manure and bedding a foot thick over the whole area, but this was a one-time job and the labor involved can be hired.  Straw bales can be delivered and set where you need them for a small extra fee, and spreading them is light work. Let the whole setup mellow for several months if the manure was fresh, and start planting the following spring. Straw breaks down quickly and has to be replenished a few times a year, which is great because it builds the soil and creates an incredibly active layer of worms and tiny critters of all sorts. It also holds water tenaciously, which is critically important in my desert area.

Some perennial weeds come up through thick mulch, so there is some pulling to do. In my area, silver nightshade is the chief invader. I have started letting it flower before I pull it, because bumblebees love the flowers.

Other perennial weeds are far more delightful. Common milkweed was my favorite perennial wild edible when I lived in the Northeast, and I’m creating a few patches of it here to feed us if there are years that I can’t plant annual vegetables. As the seedpods mature I’m moving them to new parts of the yard. This spring I noticed that some seedlings struggled up through thick mulch, saving me the usual labor of weeding around the tiny plants for a couple of years while they get established, so this fall I will try just “planting” seed pods here and there under mulch to see if I can start new clumps that way. Once well established a clump of milkweed takes care of itself, and it’s pretty hard for other weeds to get a foothold. The delicious shoots emerge late in the spring, so be careful not to dig them up by mistake  when the early-spring digging fervor hits you.

Nettles are a perennial vegetable that I have yapped on and on about until there’s little left to say. So all I will add here is: site them where you can control them and not get stung, cook them in spring when young and tender, whack the plants back aggressively to keep them in place, and harvest more shoots later on. I freeze the young leaves in large quantities to eat all year.

I’m always experimenting with things that may save work later on. I don’t eat potatoes very often but do like a few treats of new potatoes in season. I’m trying out the Chinese yam or cinnamon vine, a robust perennial vine that has sprays of cinnamon-scented flowers and then, on established vines, a large crop of tiny bulbils borne from the leaf joints that are said to taste like new potatoes. My vine is three years old and hasn’t formed any bulbils yet but I am hopeful that next year will be the year. The vine also forms a huge underground tuber that I can dig up and eat if I ever get that hungry. I understand that it tastes good, but digging is no longer my favorite thing.

Old established hops vines produce huge quantities of edible and delicious shoots in spring. They are much less work than asparagus, which tends to need a lot of weeding, but they are big heavy vines that want to romp away 20’ high if they get a chance, and require a really sturdy fence. I don’t brew beer anymore because we no longer drink much of it, but if you brew, there’s another clear advantage to growing them.

A deep permanent mulch creates a living and lively ecosystem and you can watch its capacities change over the years. I’ve tried for years to grow blackberries, but in my very alkaline clay in broiling sun they were a no-go. Now, in mulch with some shade, they are thriving.

European elderberries, Sambucus nigra, are another desired plant that I was never able to grow until the mulch provided a more hospitable habitat.

My fruit trees appreciate the even moisture under a deep mulch. In our hottest summer so far, after our driest winter in memory, my apricot tree was loaded. I had to fight my local squirrel family for them but I don’t mind a little healthy competition. I made Indian pickles out of some of the unripe fruit, rather like the ones made from green mangoes, and they were good enough that I wish I had made more. I also roasted a lot of apricots for use in savory dishes. They are very delicious in this form, and freeze pretty well. Below, they harmonize with roast chicken in saffron cream sauce.

My old friend lambs-quarters is still everywhere. There is no leafy green that’s any better or any easier to grow or any more nutritious. I wish that some ambitious breeder would get to work on it and create a form that held longer without shooting to seed, but it’s just fine as it is. It can be seen somewhere in nearly every photo taken on my place, and is my living daily assurance that I’ll never starve. If I can’t grow anything else, I’ll rake the mulch off a patch of earth, add some water, and reap the resulting harvest.

Perennial onions are another food that will never desert me. In fact, I’m having to weed some out to make room for other things. Besides the usual ways to use scallions, they are awfully good sliced finely, stewed in butter with some salt until they sweeten, and eaten as a vegetable.

Animals can add greatly to your resilience and they help “close the loop” in keeping nutrients on your property. It’s amazing how much garden waste and food scraps they will eat and relish, and their manure passes on the left-overs to your plants in a form that they can use. If legal in your area, a rooster increases resilience by making it possible for you to grow your own chicks if you ever really have to, or want to.

I am no survivalist and don’t want anything to happen to society. We need each other. But if our current overly lavish food supply should be threatened, the ability to grow something to eat might once again become a necessary skill. And even with every grocery store crammed with food, growing your own is satisfying on a far deeper level than shopping.

A happy and healthy Independence Day to all.

 

 

 

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