What's in your yard?
Think of it as a new commercial: replace the tired image of a barbarian asking what's in your wallet with a perky—even sprightly—elf asking what's in your yard.
Could you eat off your land? What if you couldn't get to the grocery store... what if the trucks couldn't get to the grocery? Would you and your family have fresh food?
We all know there are no guarantees in life. Jobs are lost, freak storms happen, and much worse. Nita, the matron of husbandry from Throwback at Trapper Creek, demonstrates the hard way that not even the best laid plans can thwart mother nature. The trick is to cover several fronts at a time. In diversity there is security. Or, don't put all your eggs in one basket. (Going back to the land, so many cliches come clear.)
One of the reasons I wanted to break this topic into a series, besides just keeping it manageable, was to demonstrate the different facets of food security and the ways each complements the other. If all your food is coming from one place, then that should be a major red flag. And by "one place" I don't mean the Piggly Wiggly versus Super Wal-Mart. Sure, that's obvious to most of us, but maybe not so to others. Look around for a minute and assess how many others will be turning toward the same food sources in an emergency. Population density as well as the severity of the emergency will dictate how secure your food sources are. That's the advantage of the pantry: you're likely to be the only one shopping there. But the pantry is by no means your only resource.
Insulation from emergencies or hard times rests upon reducing dependence on outside systems. Not eliminating it, necessarily, which I riffed on in the self-reliance series, but reducing it as much as possible. But insulation also comes through having multiple resources that back each other up, the whole being stronger than the part. The freezer backs up the pantry which backs up the yard. Fall back and redundancy are key.
The yard provides valuable fresh food and can do so year round in many, many places in countless ways, but you'll need to how to take advantage of them. For instance, did you know that fir and pine needles contain loads of vitamin C and that the bark has medicinal properties? Can you identify which evergreens are nourishing and which are poisonous? Do you know what a yew looks like and why to avoid it? Don't just take my word for it; do the research. The point is that yards can nourish us in more ways than one, and while gardens are an obvious resource, landscaping can be just as important, as can weeds. Dandelion leaves are often available long into winter for a nourishing salad where I live. Common purslane and chickweed appear in the spring and provide whopping nutrition for their size, rich in vitamins, minerals, and even protein!
So, what's in your yard?
Beginning with just that simple question opens up so many possibilities for food security before ever even planting a garden. Assess what's already growing and stop applying herbicides if you haven't already—they're bad for the earth, bad for the bugs, and they're ridding your yard of valuable food both for you and the bees, among other creatures. Look at all tiers of your yard from trees to shrubs to weeds and try to envision an integrated and holistic system working at multiple levels, with the vegetable garden as just one part. Look into edible landscaping and forest gardening for starters. Then consider wildcrafting and herbal medicine thrown in for good measure.
A large yard isn't a necessity. Once you begin thinking of outside space as an extension of food security rather than strictly ornamental curb appeal, play space, or just wasted space, the number of options available even in the tiniest of yards multiply. Even apartment dwellers with access to the outside or renters can create container gardens that offer at least some food sources, and even a large sunny window presents the opportunity for an indoor herb garden. Of course, larger properties offer nearly infinite possibilities, and it may be helpful to separate bigger parcels into zones to make projects more manageable. That's one of the beauties of the forest garden: it can take quite a bit of work to set up an ecosystem, but the goal is a self-sustaining copy of nature's methods, allowing that system to do most of the work.
The Usserys of Boxwood, a 2.5 acre homestead in Virginia, offer one of the best examples online of forest gardening with limited space. If you haven't already encountered Harvey Ussery's articles in one of several publications, you'll be delighted to get to know him through his website, which is incredibly informative. Another excellent example of how much can be done in a really small space is the Dervaes family, homesteading on 1/5th of an acre in urban California. I've recommended both these sites before and have links to each in my sidebar resources in case you're looking for them later. They're the two best sites I know of for homesteading in small spaces, but please feel free to share other resources in the comments section.
Here at Touch the Earth farm, we have less than an acre in actual garden production, and I'm working to transform our 5.25 acres into a more integrated whole, an ongoing project that will take years. When we bought the property it was a horse farm, with a lovely 3-stall barn and several acres of pasture in dire need of renovation and shade. The first thing I did when we moved in was to plant some fruit trees close to the house because they take so long to get established. I planted 3 dwarf varieties of apple, 2 dwarf pear, 1 plum, 1 cherry, 1 fig, 1 peach, and 6 blueberries, making sure that the single varieties were self-fruiting. I got the majority of my stock from Edible Landscaping in Afton, Virginia, an excellent little company whose catalog is worth getting for the info and ideas alone. Last year I planted 50 saplings to provide shade for the pastures, food for the bees, and potentially, firewood for us.
Planning 10 or 20 years down the road can be difficult, especially in our nomadic culture, but true food security depends upon it. On the one hand, a person with large financial resources could certainly plant trees on a grand scale by simply purchasing them all at once. I, on the other hand, have opted to buy seed stock and gradually expand our plantings myself, requiring an even longer term point of view. I've been dividing and expanding my berries for the past two years, hoping to let them naturalize in different parts of the homestead. The first year I lost most of the plants to a severe summer drought, but I think last year's transplants took pretty well—about 350 strawberry plants and 50 raspberries. This year, I'm hoping to focus on grafting some of our fruit trees to begin creating a small orchard in one of the upper pastures, and we'll continue to divide our berries, planting on different parts of the property. (Matron of husbandry has an excellent post on grafting that's well worth checking out.)
Luckily, not all projects are so long term, and there are many gratifying ones that offer short-term returns. The most obvious is the summer vegetable garden. Lots of folks are already comfortable with growing a summer garden, so a great way to expand upon that is to consider adding an herb garden, a spring/ fall garden, and even a winter garden. Finding ways to grow fresh produce year round will make a huge difference both for the wallet and the environment, not to mention health since the fresher the produce, the more nutrients it has. While fresh, raw produce is nearly always preferable from a nutritional standpoint over preserved, growing your own also has the added security of knowing exactly what goes into the soil and onto the produce—no added chemicals, colors, waxes, etc. I've gotten so spoiled by fresh produce year round that I don't bother preserving certain things like green beans that never taste so great anyway. I spend my time preserving other things that offer both nutrition and taste satisfaction.
We built our first high tunnel for winter gardening in 2007 and just added a second in fall of 2008. After making the plunge, I won't be without some form of winter garden as long as I'm able. I'm still fine-tuning my winter growing, but having a dedicated space has helped tremendously because I'm not stuck waiting for summer plantings to give up the ghost before I can get winter crops started, many of which need to be in as early as July to really get growing before the days shorten. Some, like leeks and parsnips have such a long growing season that they need to be started even earlier to be ready by fall and winter. Starting plants in seed trays helps get a jump on the season if there are still things in the ground, and I've also found even with the crops I direct sow that having a back up seed tray allows me to fill in any gaps that may occur for whatever reason. The two photos above show our high tunnels after having endured temps in the teens this month. The bare looking areas have small lettuces that will do little growing over the winter, but will have a real jump on the spring season as the days get longer.
Growing cold-tolerant crops is key, and in our zone 6 climate I find I don't really need a double layer of protection for most of the crops I grow. Currently, I'm growing tatsoi, kale, chard, bok choi, spinach, several varieties of endive and lettuce, arugula, green onions, turnip greens, beet greens, thyme, citrus thyme, rosemary, cilantro, flat leaf and curly parsley, oregano, sorrel, chervil, carrots, and radishes. Outside the tunnel, I have broccoli, more kale, and several cabbages, and I just harvested the last rows of turnips, carrots, and leeks to bring into the garage. Winter produce often won't be quite as pristine as that grown in milder weather, but most blemishes can be cut out or worked around.
Gardening itself can be a steep learning curve, but so can learning to eat seasonally, which is truly the only way to eat locally. I've found food tastes so much better fresh that limiting myself to seasonal eating isn't very difficult at all. The hardest part for me was broadening my cooking repertoire, and a few choice cookbooks really helped on that front. Pretty much anything by Alice Waters will be invaluable because of her focus on vegetarian dishes; same goes for the Moosewood cookbooks. There are also several farmer's market cookbooks out now, which focus on seasonally available produce and the meals that can be built around it. Committing to trying a new dish at least once a week can quickly offer experience and familiarity with new vegetables. I've found that doing this during the summer when life naturally slows a bit makes it more manageable and less stressful.
I'm including some of my favorite books below. Please offer your own recommendations in the comments section—the more the merrier!
Four Season Harvest by Eliot Coleman, the winter gardening bible, this is a definite must have if you're considering growing year round. He has loads of useful info, tables, varieties, etc.
Fresh From the Farmer's Market by Jane Fletcher.
Local Flavors by Deborah Madison.
The Farmer's Market Cookbook by Richard Ruben.