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.