When thinking about how best to prepare any type of disaster, natural or otherwise, one of the first questions that always comes up (apparently after how much toilet paper do I need to stockpile), is where do we get our food? Say you’ve got a supply of some cans and non-perishables stored away… is there a way to ensure you will still have some noms if you aren’t at home, or your house is impacted, or you run out of edible supplies when disaster strikes?
Since I was young I have been in love with the idea of foraging and understanding ecosystems enough to know what different plants are telling us. I recently read The Hidden Life of Trees written by Peter Wohlleben, a German forester who started studying the trees in the forests he helped commodify. He figured out so many insights about how a forest is doing, what the natural age of trees and their progressions through life look like in various conditions, which ones play well with others and which ones bide their time until they can takeover. He addresses forest fires and moisture-loss, how and why trees grow weak and unstable when their root system is maimed (which is why you see so many felled trees have those huge horizontally spreading root systems!), and more. (Did you know most of the time moss is not a good indication of which way civilization is? It forms on the side of the tree where rainwater drips down, so only if civilization causes specific tree warping patterns would it really line up.) Anyway, it was a fascinating book that argued maybe we need to look at trees a bit more like how we see animals rather than just as firewood and lumber, and it gave logical reasons for why we shouldn’t clear old trees from forests. In general the book helped me start to think about different frameworks for how we can think about ecosystems, from forests to our local suburban landscapes.
It was after that book that I started back in on permaculture books, finishing up Paradise Lot by Eric Toensmeier and Jonathan Bates the other night. Though I have differing ideas on a few points, I’m pretty confident that I have found my people. I have been getting all manner of ideas and new knowledge that I am eager to try out in our backyard (and to some extent the front, depending on how much we can do without the HOA getting annoyed) from this book. With all these new plans swirling in my head, I started looking into how to be more self-reliant especially in a suburb. Most of the country lives in suburbs of some sort now and we tend to waste our resource spaces with grass and large houses, furthering dig ourselves into the mud should grocery stores shut down/online shopping go offline. And so began my quest on how to start to amend that trend, beginning with our own little family. In a future post I’ll talk about water conservation after I’ve learned more.
Since the weather has been warming, Figlet and I have been adventuring outside in our backyard often to figure out what’s already happening out there, sans human intervention. We have identified that we currently have a lot of ground ivy, hoary bittercress, wild onion or wild garlic (not sure which yet), and some specific scatterings of daffodils (Narcissus pseudonarcissus), mock/Indian strawberry, and wine raspberry, so I decided to start my permaculture/foraging research with those guys.
What I learned is that all but daffodils are edible, and also that the appearance of many of these plants in a yard can indicate signs about the state of the soil. I’ll go into each below.
Ground Ivy (Glechoma hederacea)
These pretty little guys are popping up all around our yard mostly around the center bits of our yard, and around the above-ground tree roots. Apparently these guys show up and prevent soil erosion (which supports one of our theories that the hilly nature of our yard means that soil has been getting washed down the hill, exposing the tree roots, what with their horizontal growth, over time). Ground ivy is a cool plant because it was also historically used to brew beer, predating hops! Their presence might indicate that there is a high level of organic matter in the soil, which bodes well since I was hoping to make a sort of mandala of vegetables grow around their areas, in between the tree roots.
Hairy/hoary Bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta)
This guy has edible leaves and flowers, that I’ve read one can use similarly to other cresses (like watercress!). I’m still working on learning more about this little guy.
Wild Garlic (Allium vineale) or wild onion (Allium canadense)
I’m not sure if we have crow garlic (Allium vineale) or wild onion (Allium canadense) but we’ll see when the flowers come up and/or when I get around to digging up some of the bulbs… (or if I just get better at identification). Either way they are the most prolific thing in our yard at the moment, and both are edible. There are also other edible types called Allium ursinum and Allium tricoccum… and basically the internet calls them all wild onion and wild garlic so this is where the scientific names (and photos) really help.
Wine Raspberry (Rubus Phoenicolasius)
This guy is a non-native from Japan. It produces berries similar to raspberries, but apparently are so good, you’ll have to be on the ball to beat the birds to them. They also have intimidating looking spikes and are showing up all in our woods. Peter Wohlleben would probably point out how they are able to take over so easily because the woods don’t have their natural level of fall trees and other debris to kill off such invaders.
Mock/Indian Strawberry (Duchesnea/Potentilla Indica)
I kept thinking these plants were wild strawberry… but the leaves were so weird, and the flowers were yellow. Google led me to Mock Strawberry. Apparently these berries are kind of bland, but the leaves can made into a potherb or they can be made into a poultice and used for eczema!!! HWAHHHH? HELLO FREE HOME REMEDY.
Apparently this is a huge sign that our yard has areas that are acidic and soggy (the latter which isn’t surprising since a lot of our yard is in the shade and was buried under full leaves for years).
Other familiar faces of the suburbs
Crabgrass (Digitaria sanguinalis)
This guy shows up in soil that is lacking nitrogen and calcium. It can also indicate that the soil is acidic, which might be good for some crops like blueberries, potatoes, and tomatoes, but won’t work if it too acidic. I’ll keep searching the yard to see if we have any and add a photo later if I should discover one.
Plantain (Plantago major)
Grows in compacted (heavy trampled) soil, that is often very claylike. Plantains are edible in their entirety (squeezing the juice out of them, or using the leaves) and have a rich history of being used for bladder and GI problems, skin problems, toothaches, you name it! Still looking for some in our yard, but so far I haven’t found any.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
The infamous yard weed of every traditional grass-growers nightmare. These guys show up in compacted soil, and their presence is actually a good thing because they grow long taproots that help pull nutrients from deep in the soil and help fertilize your yard. Also they are said to grow in places with low calcium but high potassium. Dandelions are also high in a bunch of nutrients and can be used to make tea, used instead of coffee grounds (baking the roots), and their leaves are edible as well for greens. I found this little guy on the side of the house… so many the foundation was made with potassium?? (I know literally nothing about housing materials).
Speedwell (Veronica hederifolia and Veronica filiformis)
I saw the purple version of this (V. hederifolia) flowering next to the sidewalk off the highway by where we live. I then found a different species of it with pink leaves (V. filiformis) in our backyard in one spot, so I might want to get some water-hogging, dirt-aerating plants for there as apparently these guys pop up where the soil has bad drainage and compaction.
My gardening direction
As I learn more, I find myself so excited to experiment with the land we are renting. I’m like a mad scientist, that ignores rhyme and reason and formal frameworks of established scientific directions to be like “BUT HOW CAN I GROW THIS WARM SEASON CROP IN THE TAIL END OF WINTER RIGHT NEXT TO THIS INVASIVE NATIVE WEED?!” I realized my style of gardening is pretty aggressively minimalist (and insane/defying convention and years of human cultivation strategies). I want to learn how to garden without any enhancements… no added soil, no external mulch, no buying lime or sand… basically only growing with the land and current ecosystem I have, general gardening tools (a shovel, an aerating fork thing, a smaller trowel), sticks and logs for fences, recycled things from the house (I used egg cartons to start some seeds indoors on window sills but am now trying to grow without that method as well), kitchen scraps for compost, and then my one caveat is buying seeds. My thought is that it would be interesting to see how someone could take whatever land they have, whatever the conditions, and really work with what they have to see what they could produce. I can take it to the extreme and say I’m curious to see how can we grow and make food when Home Depot, Lowes, Tractor Supply Co, etc are barren and we have to just know how to grow with those packets of seeds we stored long ago and nothing else but the land we are near. I want to learn how to tend to the land that has been completely overhauled by humans… de-forested years ago, landscaped down to the weirdest of conditions, probably with big ole trees erratically sticking roots up aboveground, or patches of dry clay near housing foundations. I want to experiment to see how one can really work with the remaining surviving weedy nature and see if humans can live off, and tend to that kind of land. Stay tuned to more adventures as the seasons progress, if I am successful or fail miserably.