Food Production and Self-Reliance
by Christopher Nyerges
One of the most common questions asked by beginning gardeners is “What should I grow?” and some variant of “How do I keep the bugs from eating my corn?”
These are understandable questions, and ones that I try to not answer. Rather, I try to bring the conversation around to the broader topics.
Always start from the beginning. If your goal is to become a bit more self-reliant and to produce some of your food and medicine in your own yard, let’s begin with what you already have.
START FROM THE BEGINNING
Take an inventory of what is already growing in your yard. Which are natives and which are introduced exotics? Is the yard carefully tended, or are these plants just growing wild on their own?
Hire a botanist or gardener to come to your yard and tell you the names of the plants that are already growing there, and find out as many of their uses as possible. Learn about the bushes, the trees, the ornamentals, the vines, the weeds. You might be surprised to learn that you already have useful plants in your own yard, already surviving well with whatever care they are getting.
Once you do a survey of what is already growing in your yard, you might be surprised to learn that what is right before you can provide some of your needs. Knowledge is the key to opening this door.
Also, if you are like most urban and suburban homeowners, you have a front lawn which is simply “wasted space” in most cases. The front lawn is one of those relics from a bygone era which most of us do not need. The maintenance of that lawn requires water, fuel, fertilizer, and lots of time all for the sake of having a green lawn.
I have noticed a trend in many urban areas where folks are foregoing a front lawn and planting roses, herbs, cacti, and otherwise turning that space into something useful.
SO WHAT DO I GROW?
You are ready to do some planting. How do you go about making the selection of what to plant.
Yes, there are entire libraries of books out there, telling you everything there is to know about gardening in great detail. The Sunset books are excellent. Everything by Rodale Press is excellent, from their Organic Gardening magazine, to their “Complete Book of Composting” and “Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening.”
These and more are useful references that will provide you with a lifetime of information. I also strongly recommend that you read Fukuoka’s “One Straw Revolution” for a philosophical underpinning to guide your choices.
So how do you select what to actually plant in your garden?
I have many times read these exciting accounts of some urban homesteader who explained why they planted each and every variety of whatever they planted, and they even provided a map for the ideal way to lay out your garden. You need to take such advice with a grain of salt. Keep in mind that what works for one individual may or may not work for you.
So, begin by ignoring every-thing you have ever heard about which plants should go into your garden. Start by making a comprehensive list of what YOU and your family like to eat. Yes, you can always expand your list as your food tastes expand. But for now, write the list of what you eat. Also, besides food, consider plants that will provide you with medicine, and other useful items (like the silk floss tree provides a downy material for pillow stuffing).
Additionally, your plant selection should take into account the fragrances you want in your yard, as well as those which attract birds and other animals you would like to welcome. Think of your yard or garden as your own biosphere with the possibility of providing all your needs.
Once you know what you want to grow, you could just get seeds and plants and start planting. However, if you are a bit more serious and have a long-term view of things, you might draw a map of your yard so you can plan out where to put everything. Draw in the plants that are already there.
SOURCES OF SEEDS AND PLANTS
You could just order seeds from all the catalogs in the world, and you could also drive to your neighborhood nursery and purchase all the plants you wish to have in your garden. There’s nothing wrong with that choice. And here is another option.
One of the principles of permaculture is to see how your own land can provide you with all the fertilizer and plants you need. Here’s how.
First, look at all the seeds you routinely discard in your kitchen. If, in fact, there were no catalogs in the world to purchase from, and no stores to drive to, you would use every one of those seeds for the next generation of your garden. We overlook many of our common resources because we don’t need to recognize what is before us.
Seeds from watermelon, cantaloupe, and all squashes (such as spaghetti squash and pumpkin) can be saved and planted. (You’ll think twice before buying any “seedless” watermelon). These are sprawling vines that require a large amount of horizontal space.
Grape seeds can be planted. Seeds from beans can be planted. Both these are vining plants that require vertical space (meaning, plant them next to a fence or trellis). Seeds from bell peppers and hot peppers can all be saved and grown.
Tomato seeds are easy to extract, and can be immediately planted. They tend to be some of the easiest seeds to grow. The plants grow under a broad variety of conditions, and will produce quality fruits better than you get at any markets.
Be sure to keep in mind that you will get the best, most consistent results from the so-called heirloom seeds, which means they are not hybridized seeds. It will take some work and diligence to buy only foods with non-hybrid seeds.
BUILD THE SOIL
I learned that — regardless of what you grow or where you live — the health of the soil is the single most important factor in producing plants that are drought-tolerant, bug resistant, and able to survive in the greatest range of temperature.
My next experiment in that small yard was to go to the grocery store and get boxes of old produce, dig a hole here and there in the garden, and bury the old vegetables so they would decompose and enrich the soil.
Simultaneously, I went to the local cemetery and obtained bags of grass clippings. I began to layer the bare ground around the base of the plants with liberal amounts of grass clippings. This was a thick layer, not a thin sprinkling of grass clippings.
The top layer would dry out a bit, but underneath, it stayed moist, softened the soil, and provided an environment where earthworms thrived as well as lots of other bugs thriving. With the layered grass clippings on the ground, I now noticed that the herbs and vegetables thrived and grew well, and the bug infestation was at a minimum.
Plus I didn’t need to water as much. I continued to get as many bags of grass clippings as possible and mulched the soil. And I continued to bury old vegetables in the garden. I produced onions, tomatoes, Swiss chard, zucchinis, and lots of herbs. I decided to skip the corn.
THE SQUATTER’S GARDEN
Just a few years later, I was a squatter in a house in a hilly part of Los Angeles. The house was empty and I simply moved in, had utilities turned on in my name, and lived there for a year and a half until it was clear I had to move on.
In this garden, I grew only the non-hybrid varieties whose seeds I could harvest and replant. These were the vegetables also known as the heirloom varieties. At the time, I was not aware of how today’s farmers are captive to the corporations which produce the hybrid seeds, the widely touted miracle of modern farming.
I was always disturbed about hybrids, whose seeds would not produce the same plant they came from. Wherever possible, I have always obtained and used non-hybrid, or heirloom seeds, and would save some of the seeds for the next season, just as small farmers and families have done for centuries.
Part of my garden was the famed three sisters of the Southwest — corn, squash, and beans, which David Ashley suggested I grow. Squash is planted, and allowed to sprawl on the ground as a ground-cover, keeping moisture in the soil. Corn is planted throughout the area, and once it gets a foot or so tall, the native beans are planted.
The roots of the beans fix nitrogen, meaning, you are increasing the nitrogen content for your corn by growing the beans nearby. And the corn provides a trellis of sorts for the beans. This “three sisters” garden is a common theme in arid Southwestern gardens.
I have gardened and worked the soil since about age 12 or so. And the most important thing to do is to improve the soil. And since every household produces kitchen scraps, and most yards produce grass clippings and various leaves, one of the very first steps in urban self-reliance is to set up some compost system so you can begin to produce your own compost from those items you are typically discarding.
You improve your soil with compost, with earthworms, and with some mulches. These are the keys to good soil, and good soil is the key to self-reliance.
This article is based upon Christopher Nyerges’ latest book, Self-Sufficient Home by Stackpole. He is the author of many books on self-reliance and conducts regular workshops. He can be reached at www.ChristopherNyerges.com or Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041.