Saturday, December 13, 2014

Preplanned foraging

Once upon a time, all humans got their nutrition from foraging, or as it is called when the food can see you coming and can run away, "hunting".  Somewhere in between foraging and hunting lies "clamming", the art of digging a clam out of the mud before it realizes what you are up to.  Some of them move pretty fast, and easy gathering turns into active hunting.  If you are not a very good clam hunter, then maybe it is better to go collect mussels; they don't move and can also be used to make a tasty chowder for dinner.

Domesticated animals make 'hunting' a lot easier, and domesticated plants take the effort out of foraging.  In the days leading up to actual planned agriculture, the care and domestication of wild plants must have occupied the attention of tribal leaders of the day.  Living near a grove of fig trees took a lot of the effort out of mid-summer foraging with maybe a three month season of ripening fruit.  Winter in sub-tropical climates brought out the slow growing greens, chicories and mustards and cresses and lettuces that could be clipped again and again.  In a good foraging environment, there is always something ready to eat, whether it is actively growing like a chicory or whether it is dormant and waiting for the next growing season, like a cluster of sumac berries. 

Through selective encouragement of various plantings then, it should be possible to plan the foraging throughout the year.  This is the idea behind the "food forest", a new term for a very old idea.  Rather than have a vast expanse of one plant, something like the typical 80 acre grove of navel oranges, why not mix up the plants in order to have fresh fruit every month of the year?  Citrus can stay on the tree six months or more, so maybe I have not started off with the best example, but what do you do for the other six months?  Plums and cherries for early summer, figs for mid-summer, apples and pears for late summer into fall, and finally persimmons and pomegranates to finish out the year until the citrus are once again in season.

The idea is easy to explain and easy to implement with fruit trees, but leafy and root vegetables require attention, they need to be picked at just the right moment for the right flavor.   Or do they?  Instead of growing carrots as a row crop and having a big harvest where they are gathered and stored, how about just continually throw out carrot seed into the garden beds?  Have your carrots in all stages of their life cycle, from little sprout to the "baby carrot" stage to soup pot size and then to old and slightly woody and gone to seed.  My garden has all those stages of carrot, and consequently I never need to buy carrots from someone else's larder (the grocery store) and I can pick whatever I need the day I need it. By putting attention in on the front end, i.e., continuous plantings of carrot seed, I don't have to put a lot of attention into weeding, spraying, cultivating, etc. on the back end.  I can do that with celery as well.  By growing celeriac varieties, one plant can provide me with celery cuttings for a couple of years before it completes its life cycle. 

When I go out and walk the rows between my hugelbeds, there is wide variety of food plants that can be clipped to put either into the salad bowl or the soup pot.  By having a wide variety of plantings in my 200' of hugelbed, I have guaranteed food security right outside my back door.    How much would it take to keep one person supplied?  That's not really the right question to ask.  If there is more there than I can eat, I can  give it away/feed my animals/chop it for green manure/let the wildlife graze it, it's not going to "go to waste".  This concept of "go to waste" is the product of an economic system that puts a price on everything and know the value of nothing except the almighty dollar. 

If you are going to plant a garden for food security, then you can't evaluate it by the economic value of the produce harvested from it.  The way to evaluate it is by asking the question "can I pick enough to satisfy my hunger?".


Saturday, December 6, 2014

Regreening, reforesting, reorcharding

My street has been selected for a road widening project.  There was plenty of talk for three years or so, but when the state actually sliced some real estate from the front of the lots and paid the property owners, it became apparent that it was no longer just talk. The first project was to clear away all the vegetation that was in the way of the roadway-to-be.  After a few disruptions with cable and water lines, we are now left with a knee-high erosion fence and nothing screening the road traffic.  Slowly the big piles of oak and pine are being disposed of (in a perfect world, that would all be turned into biochar) as we wait for the next step, which is probably the arrival of an army of road graders. 

But among all this horticultural mayhem, there is opportunity.  My neighbors and I have frontage behind the erosion fence that needs to be planted.  There is no time like the present, so I have taken it upon myself to start a neighborhood tree planting program, and maybe in the time it takes them to complete their project, the trees of my tree project will have grown up enough so that the semis passing by on the road will once again be screened. 

I've been ready for this, what with all the seedlings and cuttings I have started.  I still have 4 bald cypress in pots from the 300 that I started in 2012, and now that I know how to get good germination from them, I should try another mass start for 2015.  I also have volunteer crepe myrtle, sweetgum, juniper, and Bradford pear, along with the usual pines and oaks.  While everything is dormant and the ground is wet, I will get busy and move these volunteers from where I don't want them to where they are needed. 

This is also a good time to be taking cuttings and getting them to root in preparation for spring.  If I give my fig and plum and pomegranates a good pruning, I can come up with plenty of cuttings to try and root.  One of my apple trees even has a sucker at the bottom, so I will have to see if I can carefully coax it into a life of its own, away from the mother tree. 

One thing I won't be doing is paying $20 a pop for bare root trees from the garden center of a big box store.  That may be an alternative for busy working people who have no time to invest in tree propagation, but if you have the time and inclination, it is much more rewarding to do your own tree propagation.  If you don't know how to propagate the tree you are interested in, a good place to start learning how is the Purdue University horticulture site.  They cover a fairly wide selection of trees, and if you check them and a couple of other agricultural extension sites, you can come up to speed on propagation pretty quick.  Give it a try and don't be discouraged.  I took a dozen cuttings last winter from a Krauter-Vesuvius plum, and only 3 of them actually rooted.  But that's better than zero!  This winter I am going to try that trick again, but maybe try some new tricks to see if I can up my average.  I've already got spots picked out that could use a nice purple plum tree.

In a few years, my neighbors and I will once again have a green, forested road frontage, only this time with a lot more variety and edible fruit.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Food security means food diversity

In my daily review of the articles at Climate Progress one paragraph in one article stood out from the others:
In Latin America and the Caribbean, these heat extremes and changing rain patterns could lead to a 70 percent fall in soybean crop yields and up to 50 percent for wheat by 2050 without further adaption efforts. In the Caribbean, tropical storms and sea level rise will impact everything from tourism to security.
The immediate solution to the predicted problem is "don't depend on 4 crops for 80% of your calories".  The human population of the planet has become far too dependent on corn, wheat, soy, and rice.  Each one has major problems in store if the predictions of the climate scientists prove right.  Much of the rice crop is grown on land not far enough above the high tide line; a couple feet of sea level rise is going to take out a lot of rice acreage.  Although corn is a warm weather plant, it can easily get too warm and too dry and then that crop will fail as well.  Wheat has been grown on land in dry areas, just a little bit drier, and down go the wheat yields.

Much of the effort of the Green Revolution was to improve these crops to be able to solve the problem of world hunger.  It was a great success of the 20th century, but it may have set humanity up for a catastrophic fall in the 21st.  We need to be diversifying our food sources and learning how to grow new crops in new places.  For example, potatoes in Greenland.  A couple of decades ago, there wasn't enough of a growing season in Greenland to make a potato crop, but climate change has changed that.  The potato harvest in 2012 was 100 tons, double that of 2008.

My own project in this area is to grow sorghum.  This spring I got a 7 gram packet of sorghum seed, enough to plant three 40' rows.  I don't have an exact number for the yield, but it was a few pounds, at least 700 grams, of that I am sure.  Sorghum is not like corn, where you have one harvest at the end of the season and can then weigh the crop.  I cut my first sorghum heads in August, and they continued to send up new seed heads until the first frost in November.  The choice seed heads get saved for grain sorghum uses and what doesn't pass muster becomes chicken feed.  I thought about cutting the stalks and trying to extract juice for making syrup, but for that you need to have a large amount of stalks to get a small amount of syrup.  It would have been too much work for me to come up with a pint of syrup.  But all those sorghum stalks didn't go to waste -- they make great guinea pig fodder.  Dry them and shred them up with the lawn mower and the pigs can snack on them all winter.

I got a bag of jowar flour -- milled sorghum -- at the Indian grocery store and have been experimenting with it in the kitchen.  It makes good tasting pancakes and crepes, but I haven't tried using it in any bread recipes.  If I had to subsist on a large sack of grain sorghum, I think it would be eminently possible given all the tortillas, crepes, pancakes, and rotis you could make with it, let alone cooking it up whole as a rice substitute.

The closest most Americans get to sorghum grain is when they buy a sack of birdseed to stock the bird feeder.  I think this may change in the coming years, especially since sorghum will succeed in producing a crop where corn will fail.   

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Not all nitrogen is the same

I came across this excellent video of how to use a refractometer in the garden, and it confirms what I have been finding out in the garden without the use of any scientific instruments. 

First is that ammonia nitrogen is far better for plants than nitrate nitrogen.  He suggests that the ammonia to nitrate ratio in fertilizers should be in a ratio of at least 3 to 1, which means that if you are going to apply one measure of ammonium nitrate, you had better add to it two measures of straight ammonia.  But my practice has been to cut out the nitrate altogether.  I use only manure, manure tea, or urine in my fertilizers.  I apply them as root drenches and as foliar feeds, and that along with copious amounts of wood chip mulch is all that I need to keep my plants green and healthy.  Well, they look healthy, but I won't know if I have achieved that 12 degrees Brix level that he refers to until I get a refractometer and start juicing up some leaves. 

I can understand why reduced nitrogen (ammoniacal) is better for plants than oxidized nitrogen (as nitrate): plants, just like us humans, need anti-oxidants to stay healthy.  Proteins, the building blocks of life, all contain nitrogen in reduced form, so the nitrogen has to enter the anabolic process as ammonia, and if it shows up as nitrate, well, that adds another step (reduction) before it can be utilized. 

Nitrate seems like it should go in the same class as other strong oxidizing agents, such as bleach and peroxide -- a little goes a long way.  While organisms, plants included, use such strong oxidizing agents to defend themselves from bacterial invaders,  it is probably best to generate them in situ at the site of an infection, than it is to be drenched in them.  If there is no infection for the nitrate to kill by oxidizing, it is going to put that oxidizing potential to work in ways that stress the plant.

Another reason to prefer ammonia over nitrate is that nitrate is very soluble, meaning that it can easily leach from a field after a heavy rain, while ammonia will chelate with any metal ion it can find in the soil.  Much better to add nitrogen to soil in the reduced form, where it will stay until it is needed (and if need be, get oxidized to nitrate in the process), than to add it as nitrate and hope it won't wash off or burn anything while it is waiting to get taken up.

I'm glad he mentioned boron at the end.  I'm still working on the pound of boric acid I bought four years ago, that's how little it takes to keep the garden happy.  One gram in a 5 gallon bucket of compost tea is plenty to keep the boron levels where they need to be.  I'm glad that plants can tolerate this element in its oxidized form well; I can't imagine what it would be like trying to apply reduced forms of boron like diborane.  That would be some bizarro science fiction type world indeed!

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Hugelkultur coming around

I first got interested in hugelkultur in January of 2013 and immediately set about installing them in my garden.  You can do that in Georgia, the soil temperature in January dips briefly into the 40s, and there are all sorts of winter vegetables that can be planted while winter rages further north. I dug down to the bed of kaolin underlying my garden, about 8 inches or so, and piled up lots of oak, pine, and wood chips as the organic matter to build up the hugel (German for 'mound'), and then replaced the topsoil. 

I decided this would be a mirepoix hugel, taking the German gardening technique to raise the vegetables I would need for that French base of cooking, mirepoix, which is onions, carrots, and celery.  If a recipe calls for a mirepoix, all I need to is take the garden scissors to the hugel and collect what I need to get cooking. 

The first year was a bit hit-or-miss as the organic matter began to rot and turn into soil.  The Egyptian walking onions did great; they were on the sunny south slope of the hugel, close to grade, so they were able to take off right away.  The celeriac and carrots planted on top were a different story.  Not knowing what to expect, I did not water the hugel much (what I had read said that it shouldn't be necessary, that the rotting vegetation should hold adequate moisture) and I got less than spectacular results with the seeds planted on top.

In the fall of 2013, I planted some salsify on top as well, and these did quite well, better than any of the carrots or celeriac.  I harvested many salsify buds this April, about the same time as I harvested asparagus, and I was able to cook them in the same way as asparagus.  In early summer, the salsify put out a prodigious amount of seed, so much so that I knew I would have many volunteers this fall and I would not have to seed it.  So how does it look now, 22 months into this on-going experiment? Take a look:

This is taken from the north side of the hugel looking to the south.  The Egyptian walking onions are at top center, at the left is a clump of lemon balm, the spoons to the right are bok choi, the tall spiky plants on the right are leeks, and the low rosettes in front are creasy greens.  There are two celeriac in this hugel, and they were volunteers from last year's crop that went to seed.  Apparently the celeriac likes the cool north side of the hugel, because none volunteered on the south slope.  The carrots and cilantro are a little hard to pick out as they are hiding amongst all the other greenery.  Finally out of view on the opposite slope of the right hand side are kale and cabbage seedlings that I transplanted. 

The trench for this hugel was 30" by 8', and the top of the hugel is about 15" above the grade of the lawn.  Before this hugel went in, this was just lawn on my southwest property line, quite compacted and not really hospitable to the centipede grass that was trying to colonize it. Having the hugel has certainly increased the food security outside my back door. 

Egyptian walking onions provide scallion type onions for about 10 months of the year, the other two months they put their effort into making topsets.  The creasy greens, salsify, and carrots have all sprouted from the seed set last spring, and look like they are going to be prodigious producers through the coming winter.  I may have to adjust my mirepoix recipe to use less carrot and more salsify as the salsify volunteers are outnumbering the carrot volunteers by a good margin.

I think this hugel has matured to the point that I want it, and now the challenge will be to keep it mulched so that it continues to be as productive as it is now.  I am using a mix of one part biochar to three parts wood chips for my mulching mixture, and any time that I do any harvesting or weeding, I toss down handfuls of mulch mixture.  Yes, there are weeds, there is a good bit of oxalis scattered in there, but since it is also an edible it is welcome.  If I get any dandelions, prickly lettuce or other interlopers, when I notice them, I can pull them and toss them in for chicken salad. Er, let me say that another way: I can toss them in the chicken coop so the girls can have some salad. 

Oh, and one last thing.  This hugelkultur is home to a toad that lives in a hollow of one of the logs that comes up to the surface. Can you see him peeking out?

Friday, October 10, 2014

Confused vegans

Poor, confused vegans.  They think that they have the solution to climate change, if they could only convince everyone to adopt their ascetic dietary choices.  It is true, factory farming of meat uses lots of fossil fuel inputs.  But they miss the boat when they emphasize "of meat" instead of the "factory farming" part.  The eggs I collect from my backyard chickens require less fossil fuel input than the factory farmed broccoli that is trucked from California to their local vegan-friendly grocer.  Their broccoli requires fossil fuel in the form of fertilizer, tractor passes, getting laborers to and from the field, trucks to haul it to warehouses and distribution centers, and refrigeration equipment to keep it fresh.  My chickens, on the other hand, require no fossil fuel inputs; they eat what grows in the garden and provide me with a continuous source of protein and vitamins that are missing from the vegan diet. 

As the model of factory farming becomes increasingly untenable, what with Peak Oil raising farming costs, Peak Phosphorus, climate change, weeds becoming herbicide resistant and insect pests becoming insecticide resistant, the crystal ball gazers that come to the conclusion that it is time to ditch factory farming for sustainable permaculture are much more on target than well-meaning vegans.  Vegans who want to eat foods that are out-of-season and shipped in from the other hemisphere, or eat grains and soy products that are factory farmed a couple thousand miles away are also part of the problem, albeit to a smaller degree than feedlot carnivores. 

Instead of harping on the meat-eating habits of others, people that are concerned about climate change should be preparing to get all of their food locally.  Subsistence farmers are the ones that have the lightest carbon footprint, even if they eat poultry they raise themselves, milk from their own goats, and fish from the local pond.  Chickens, goats, and fish can turn biomass that is unfit for human consumption into valuable protein and necessary vitamins, like B12.  Chickens can eat slugs, and they enjoy them, while slugs can be reservoirs of dangerous protozoan infections if a human were to eat one.  Goats can chow down on poison ivy and detoxify a long list of plants that are better avoided by humans. 

If it sounds like I am advocating a return to the farming household of yesteryear, with a few animals that are raised for household consumption, that is exactly what I am advocating.  The population of Peru is about 30 million, and they raise (and eat) about 85 million guinea pigs a year -- which works out to just shy of 3 cuy consumed per capita. This is sustainable meat, raised on grass and forbs that would otherwise not make it into the human food chain, and no fossil fuels are required to produce it.

The next time a vegan lobbies you to give up meat and gag down an imitation yogurt made from soy juice, politely decline and think about local meats that you could produce. 

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Perennial broccoli??

How is it that American palates have been refined to demand the most transient of a plant's lifecycle?  Large, tight heads of broccoli with unopened blossoms; large clumps of cauliflower with snow white curds; tomatoes at the perfect stage of ripeness; much energy goes into getting these from farm to market at just the right stage, and if one small flaw is discovered, the trip continues on to the landfill.  If you are raising these in your garden, you can't be so fussy about appearances, if it's healthy, nutritious, and tasty, you need to be eating it.  So you look up recipes for what to do with green tomatoes and learn that careful clipping with garden scissors can get a continual harvest from brassicas, not the one-shot that commercial agriculture has marketed to us. 

I have come across an excellent source for Italian vegetable seeds: Pagano Seeds.  The Italians have a much broader definition of what makes for acceptable broccoli.  The yellowish fractal heads of Romanesco broccoli, the cut again and again florets of a raab type broccoli, and the leafy stalks of the Spigariello variety.  I've had some of the latter growing in the garden, and it has yet to produce a flower head.  It has taken the Georgia summer heat in stride, but the plant just gets bigger and bigger, with more leaves, but no blossoms.  I suppose it is remaining true to its biennial character and will form heads and go to seed next spring. In the meanwhile, I am left with how to use it over the winter. 

I tried cutting small branches and chopping up the leaves, stems and all, for the soup pot.  The only problem with this is that the stems are quite tough.  A 1/4" diameter spigariello stem requires a lot more chewing than a 2" diameter stem of store-bought broccoli.  I think I will put these stems in the same category as collard ribs: something to chop up fine and feed to the chickens.  But the leaves are a keeper, if you want some broccoli flavor to add to soups or other dishes.  Just chiffonade them up and toss them in. I can see where these could be part of a food-security kitchen garden. 

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Where to start building food security?

For those of us not raised on a farm (which is the vast majority of Americans), it can be daunting to think of where to start when remaking our homes into the source of our food.  You may have had a few vegetable growing experiences, the taste of a tomato fresh from the garden, or an apple or an orange right off the tree, but a few fruits here and there don't add up to much of a meal.  To get some real nutritional value out of your plot of land, you are going to have to have something growing that you can count on day in and day out. 

Which is why I am going to start in an unusual place -- those ingredients that keep cropping up over and over, like onions and peppers and herbs like parsley and thyme.  Maybe add carrots and celery to the list as well.  This combination of a few vegetables and herbs is the starting point in many cuisines.  In French cuisine, a mirepoix is some celery, carrot, and onion, chopped up and sauteed.  It is a start for soups, stews, casseroles, you name it.  If you have these growing in your garden, you can always at least get dinner started, then add whatever else you have on hand. 

Onions are a must have for the food security garden -- specifically the Egyptian walking onion variety.  Bulbing onions are too much work, you have to harvest them in the summer and then dry them and store them, why not just keep a stand of Egyptian walking onions going and clip them as needed?  They are fairly winter hardy, so unless you are in the frozen northland, a bed of them could keep you going through the winter.  The only time I have found them lacking is in early summer, when they are putting all their energy into making new topsets, most of which are too small to cook with.

Peppers are perennial plants, although most American gardeners think of them as an annual.  When I lived in coastal California (where it never freezes), I had a hedge of hot peppers outside the kitchen door.  Jalapenos, tabasco, serrano, and pequin at the ready any time they were needed.  With a little planning and preparation, you can lift your pepper plants out of the garden with winter approaching and keep them going if you have a sunny indoor location.

Carrots and celery are biennials, so they can stay in the ground and be harvested as needed.  I prefer the European celeriac to the American fondness for stalk celery; it is less fussy in the garden and you can clip the small stalks as needed while you are waiting for the root to grow to harvesting size.  Carrots can go anywhere in the garden.  They are good companions for every other plant, although there are some things that will cause them to come up stunted.  Parsley, if you get the kind that makes a carrot-like root is another biennial that can wait in the ground until needed. 

Think about the vegetables that you like to have on hand all the time.  What's sitting in your freezer?  A sack of broccoli and carrots that you put into stir-fries, casseroles, the crock-pot?  How difficult would it be to have those vegetables growing in the garden, ready to harvest any time?  For true food security, you have to quit thinking in terms of a big harvest and look at your garden space as one big pantry. 

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

What is food security?

I've been writing this blog for a while, but I've never really given a definition to  "food security".  I suppose it means different things to different people, but whatever it is, it's the opposite of being food insecure.  Agencies that track hunger try to monitor food insecurity, which they define as not having enough food today, or not having enough food to last out the week or the month.  Along that line, I will tentatively define food security as having available foods on hand to be able to cook up a meal.  Maybe not if a dozen guests drop in unannounced, but enough for the members of the household for the foreseeable future. 

And how do you ensure that there is enough food on hand?  I can think of two alternatives: (1) the warehouse solution, where your pantry is well stocked with grains, beans, pasta, canned goods, etc., or (2) the food forest solution, where everything growing around your residence is an edible plant of one type or another.  The Mormons are great boosters of the former solution, and recommend that each Mormon household have a year's worth of provisions in the pantry.  While I like to have a well-stocked cupboard, if it is stocked by trips to Costco or Sam's Club, it is not as sustainable as the latter solution, having food for the gathering right outside the door. 

If you want to evaluate your food security, you need to do more than to just count up the boxes of mac'n'cheese and packages of ramen noodles in the pantry.  You need to take stock of all the edible plants that are within foraging distance.  I've made a spreadsheet where I have taken account of all the edible plant species that I have access to.  At last count, I was up to 126 species.  Some are perennial crops I grow (figs, apples, strawberries), some are annuals (cilantro, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers), some are weeds that are naturalized here (henbit, dock, dandelions, chanca piedra), and some I don't even grow on my property. 

I have no kudzu, but there are plenty of places I can go and cut it.  I've been feeding it to the chickens and guinea pigs for a while, but today was the first time I actually tasted it.  With the rain we have been having, there were some nice, big, young leaves, and I had to satisfy my curiosity -- why is it the guinea pigs' favorite food?  It tastes like spinach, maybe a little blander.  I suppose you could cook it as you would any leafy green, but it is going to need something to give it some flavor.  The bottom line?  No one in the South should be food insecure, not with all the kudzu we have.  I know that Japanese cuisine makes use of starch obtained from the root of the kudzu, but I have not seen much in the way of recipes for the leaves.  Perhaps I should research this. 

Friday, July 4, 2014


Permaculture is not a plants only endeavor.  Animals are crucial partners in keeping an ecosystem healthy.  Here's a picture of one such partner, of a very tender age.  Let's hope he grows up big and lives a long life, chowing down on the insect pests in my garden.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Always a pot of greens on the stove

What gives a better feeling of food security than coming home to a house filled with the aroma of a pot on the stove?  Or a slow cooker filling the house with a melange of odors of all the ingredients dumped into it?  A pot on the fire, ready to dip into, has to be one of the big improvements that sedentary agriculture achieved compared to the lives of nomadic tribes. 

While nomadic tribes could subsist reasonably well on a diet based on milk and meat, the addition of carbs from plants is what really allowed populations of farming communities to take off.  And in the beginnings of civilization, plants were not as gentle to digest as our supermarket choices are today.  If you have ever gathered wild onions or garlic, you may have noticed that they were quite a bit more fibrous than store-bought scallions.  Or wild mustards with their stringy leaves and stems.  All that fiber and all those carbs in the digestive system moved people from a starvation type metabolism to a metabolism that could pack on the pounds.  This can be seen around the world when "aboriginal" people leave the hunter/gatherer ways of their ancestors and adopt a modern "civilized" diet -- the rate of obesity skyrockets as does the incidence of diabetes.  It takes a few generations to adjust to rich living!

To ensure the continuation of our rich-living lifestyle, we need to be able to have those high quality vegetables available at all times.  One way to do it is to take the advice of permaculturalists and plant a wide variety of fruits and nuts, trees and bushes that will start bearing early in the spring until late into the fall.  If you have enough of a surplus during the growing season, you can dry, pickle, or preserve the excess bounty for use during the winter.  In this post, I'd like to point out an alternative, having a large planting of one or two plants that can be the staples of a diet and that continually produce throughout the year.

A good example of this is taro (Colocasia esculenta).  A good sized plot of taro, and you will have an unlimited supply of leaves for the stew pot and roots to either fry into chips or boil up to make poi.  I'm still wondering if there is a good way to prepare the stems, or if they are best left as animal fodder.  Even in cold climates, the taro corms stay viable in the ground, so if you have to, you can always go out in the middle of winter and dig up some carbs.

In a tropical climate like Hawaii, taro would be the only thing you need, but in my temperate climate, I have to think of something that I can pair it with that I can continually harvest during the winter.  Collards.  There is a reason that collards are the quintessential Southern side dish -- they keep growing during our winters and a patch of them in the garden can keep the kitchen supplied while the taro corms sit in the ground dormant. 

A diet of just taro and collards could get pretty boring though.  That's where some perennial herbs and onions come in handy.  Rosemary, sage, wild garlic, mint, there is a long list of flavorings that can be grown in the kitchen garden to spice up these two staples. 

If you are reading this blog to get ideas on how to improve your food security, ask yourself what plants are the reliable producers for your area.  They may be weeds.  My last entry talked about salsify and upland cress.  I haven't given up on those two and I hope to naturalize them in the areas adjacent to my main garden.  They, along with the taro, have grown like weeds and haven't suffered any insect attacks.  I can't say the same for my collards, as they will on occasion be hit by a plague of harlequin bugs.  But that doesn't make for a total loss, at least the harlequin bugs are easy to shake into a container to then toss into the chicken coop. 

At one time I thought that Jerusalem artichokes would be a good choice for a perennial, always-available vegetable.  I tried growing them for two seasons, but I had less than stellar results.  I suppose if I had to, I could give it some more effort and make it work, but given how well the four that I have already mentioned do in my climate, I think I have settled on my staple greens.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Which vegetables offer 'food security'?

I've slowly come to realize that modern industrial agriculture has shifted the public's taste to vegetables that require value added industrial processing, which is not the same thing as having food security.  For example, while chicory is a leafy green available during the cool months of the year, Belgian endive is the same plant that has had some industrial processing done to blanch it of its bitterness.  This blanching process ends up increasing the inputs to the crop without adding to the nutritional value of the final product. 

Another example is broccoli versus broccoli raab.  Growing a large, dense head of broccoli requires a specialized climate, which is why most of the broccoli in the country is grown in the area around Santa Maria, California.  The raab version of broccoli, with multiple small heads, offers more in the way of food security because it can be cut several times over a longer period than the single cutting of the conventional broccoli crop.  It can also be successfully grown in areas that do not have the narrow temperature range of the central California coast. 

In planning a food security garden then, one has to discard vegetables with narrow growing requirements or industrial processing inputs and replace them with other crops that yield over a longer time period or can even be stored "in the field".  My recent experience growing salsify (Tragopogon porrifolius) has led me to consider it as a very good candidate for a food security vegetable.  Coming into last winter, I had a few salsify plants in the garden, and they handled the Arctic Vortex winter well, surviving the 12F low in January.  They are now putting on some spring growth and coming into flower, and I have been cutting the immature flower buds and cooking them like asparagus, which they are akin to in flavor.  In reading up on it, I've seen where it can be cut at all times of the year and that it doesn't increase in bitterness when it begins to flower. From a food security perspective, growing large heads of broccoli is a wasted effort, whereas keeping a patch of salsify well tended will provide a long-term harvest of flower buds, leaves, and roots.

Another good candidate is upland cress (Barbarea verna), also known as 'creasy greens'.  This was also one that came through the winter unscathed, and even seemed to put on some growth.  I've prepared it much as one would turnip greens, and to me, the flavor of creasy greens is preferable.  It's also a decent addition to salads, giving them a little kick, something that I would never do with raw turnip greens.  

Both upland cress and salsify are said to easily reseed themselves, but how they do that in my garden is still an open question.  I am hoping that I can establish them on my hugelbeds so that they will be sustainable in the truest sense of the word.  While these two vegetables receive little attention from industrial agriculture, I can see a definite need for them in a food security garden.