Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Twenty-One Days - Day 7: Growing Food

I did not grow up in a gardening family. The only things that grew in the front yard of the suburban home of my youth were rocks.
**excerpted from Surviving the Apocalypse in the Suburbs: The Thrivalist's Guide to Life Without Oil

Thus begins the story in which I, at the tender age of fifteen, discovered that all green things are not created equal, and yes, indeed, there is a huge difference between a "weed" and my uncle's potato plant. The lesson I learned that day is that one should not pull the potato plant like it is a weed. Oops!

To say I've come a long way is to engage in a bit of understatement. I'm no where near being a master gardener. In fact, my garden is mostly trial and error ... mostly error ... and blind luck. Still, I manage to do okay with a good many things, like lettuce and peas and raspberries ... and I know you are all tired of hearing about the damned hubbard squash already!

When we think of growing food, most of us tend to limit our vision to annual vegetable gardens, and we tend not to consider some edibles that would actually be a better choice. In fact, there is one food crop that is a significantly better choice than an annual garden. It requires very little maintenance, and in fact, could be completely ignored and still provide a good lot of food. Unlike annuals, this perennial marvel actually improves the soil and the environment, as a whole, wherever it's planted, adding not only an incredibly valuable soil amendment every year, but also loosening the soil with its, often far-reaching, root system. It provides food and shelter for wildlife. In addition, it absorbs CO2, which can help slow climate change.

If you hadn't figured out what it was, that last bit should give it away.

It's trees, of course!

They're probably the absolute best crop, especially for small space gardening, and carefully selecting the best varieties for one's climate and taste can provide an incredible amount of food. In fact, according to this site one apple tree can give 80 to 100 pounds of apples, which is enough for winter storage for one family. This article about acorns included the assertion that acorns are one of the most important wildlife foods in areas where oaks occur and goes on to mention that acorns are also highly nutrition.

But not just for animals, for us too. As the article points out, acorns served an important role in early human history and were a source of food for many cultures around the world. Our culture has forgotten a wealth of information about the kinds of plants that are good eating, opting instead for a bland, simple diet consisting of only a few, select foods - many of which aren't even all that good for us, and as we're discovering (possibly too late) are difficult to grow and cause considerable damage to the soil and surrounding environment.

Ideally, we would all have enough space for both an annual garden and a small forest garden, but if I only had space for one, I'd have the forest garden.

Of course, a forest garden doesn't just consist of trees. There are a great many edible plants that thrive on the forest floor under the shade and protection of trees, but if you're like me, you haven't the foggiest idea of how to go about planting something like that.

Today will be a double giveaway.

I have a used copy of How to Make a Forest Garden, but also a new copy of Gardening When It Counts.

Two books - two winners. So, if you have a preference of one or the other of the books, please say so in your comment :).


The winner of the Sharon's book Independence Days is Greta. Congratulations :). Please leave a comment with the address to which you would like your book mailed. Comments are moderated, and I won't post your address.


  1. I have been slowly building my forest garden. We still plant annuals but we also enjoy jerusalem artichokes, french sorrel, elderberry, high bush blueberry, asparagus, rhubarb, egyptian walking onions, chives, apple and pear trees, day lilies and Maple tree:)

    This spring I will be taking a couple of wild foods classes. I can't wait to see how much food is right outside my door.

  2. When we were shopping for our home, one of the things I noticed about old farms was there was almost always and apple and/or plum tree, rhubarb, (occassionally over grown strawberry patch)and grapevine.

    Unfortunately, that had been all ripped out of the farm we eventually chose. We've been slowly adding these type of items back. Instead of flowers for Mother's day I receive fruiting trees, shrubs, or perennials.

  3. I had to start from scratch when I moved here. I now have peach, apple, pear, cherry and apricot trees. I have strawberries, raspberries, asparagus and different perennial herbs. Last year I planted rhubarb and chokecherries. This year I'd like to plant blueberries and jerusalem artichokes. These are all fairly young but this year I'm hoping for some apricots and apples and maybe peaches from my fruit trees.

  4. I'd love the Gardening when it counts book.

  5. I read Alla's comment with glee as we are moving to a property at the end of this month with an acre of grass. I can't wait to start planning a forest garden! Thank you so much for differentiating between the regular veg garden and the other endless possibilities.

  6. It is almost time for dandelions and fiddleheads and cardoons (SP?). Unfortunately, we only have one fruit (pear)tree and it did not do well last year. Here's hoping for a better year.

    We had a ton of acorns last year but we fed them to the chickens.

    I am enjoying the series.

  7. My list this year includes planting 2 apple trees in my back yard this year and I'm torn on elderberry or raspberry bushes. Ideally I would like to do both but with money being tight I can only do one. Leaning towards the elderberry.

    And please enter me in the drawing. Loving this series.

  8. Forest gardening is something I've considered working with on my parent's property, but yeah, not the foggiest idea how to go about it, really. I'm pretty sure I can't get permission to turn the park behind my own rental house into a grove. ;)

    I'll freely admit to being more interested in the forest book, but I rarely turn down resource material of any sort, and I'm a hopeless bibliophile.

  9. Lace - unless you want the elderberry for medicinal purposes, they don't really make good eating from what I understand. Apparently, they require a lot of sugar to make them palatable. We have both black and red raspberry, and my daughters LOVE being able to just go out, stand next to the bramble and pick and eat.

  10. I would love to have the gardening when it counts book. Things must be getting tough, our library's only copy was stolen!

    We have planted 50 some fruit trees using the guidelines from the dave wilson nursery website for backyard orchards. Planting 12' apart and keeping them pruned to 8' so picking and pruning can be managed without ladders. We have also carefully chosen fruits that will ripen over the whole season so we are not completely bombarded with one kind of fruit. If it all works out, we should have peaches from late May thru Oct.!

    I recently watched the DVD backyard food production, and she had a lot of ideas as well.


  11. I thought about planting a couple of fruit trees this spring, but decided against it for a couple of reasons.

    First of all, we rent. The landlord would allow it, but with finances as hard as they are already, I can't honestly see spending so much for a tree who's produce my family won't end up enjoying. Hopefully in about two years we will have a down payment for a home of our own, and then I will definitely plant several fruit and nut trees.

    The second reason is that this property already has fruit trees - eight of them, in fact. All crab apple trees, and all in a horrible state of overgrowth. The trees have spent so much of their energy growing new branches that several of them couldn't even produce fruit - the few that did produced tiny crab apples (about the size of a raisin). One tree produced full-sized fruit, but only three of them. It's going to take a couple of full days just to trim away the overgrowth this spring.

    Both books sound interesting - I would like to be in the drawing for either one.

  12. Lace - I picked around 2 bushels of elderberries last summer, when I decided I would like to make some syrup and found out who had a large shrub on their property. In the end, picking them was the fastest part of the whole thing - lots of work to de-stem them and prepare for cooking...it took me many hours. And they do need some sugar to sweeten them up, although I didn't add as much as recommended. But the flavour :D Yum. One of my favourite deserts is a bowl of my friend's home made yogurt drizzled with elderberry syrup and locally grown hemp heart seeds....think I might need to indulge in one now ;)

  13. Great post! Sometimes most people just think about veggies as food, but really, getting those perennials in now is a great preparation for the future. Of course, waiting for them to produce is the hard part....I don't like to wait! :)

    Wendy, are you going to Johnathan Bates' presentation on Edible Forest Gardening? He's also talking down in Durham the day before.

    I've been enjoying this series. Sometimes it's easy to get caught up in the day to day, but this reminds me to at least try and take one little step whenever I can.

    I'd love the Gardening When it Counts! If nothing else, to read and then pass on to my sister....

  14. Very interesting looking books! I'm especially intrigued by the Forest Garden book :) Someday when I'm back near trees this sounds like my kinda thing!

  15. Not sure if this would interest you or your other readers, but thought I would mention it anyway:

    I recently got the book "When All Hell Breaks Loose" from the library. I found the author's style interesting, so I did a quick google search for him to see if he had done anything else. I discovered he was part of the team on the new survival show "Dual Survival". I've watched the first episode and am intrigued - thought you guys might be interested as well.

    Here's a website with all ten episodes to date:


  16. We planted nut trees pretty early on. They haven't produced yet but eventually we'll have some. We also have a variety of fruit trees. We don't eat a lot of fruit, but there is nothing better than fresh picked when we do. I'd love to have Gardening When it Counts!

  17. I have Gardening When It Counts, have been wanting a forest garden book, so I've got that Amazon link up. Some extra $$$ is coming in Monday, so I'm going to do a little shopping. :D

    Like anything else, growing food is something that's not rocket science but can be done poorly or well. Acorns we got around here, but the effort in cracking a few thousand by hand means I'll wait until I need 'em. But they can be ground into flour. Not sure if it's gluten-free, though!