Growing food in tough economic times

A friend of mine sent this to a local (San Francisco Bay area) mailing list recently, and has given permission for it to be reposted here. Her suggestions on prioritizing what to grow given limited space especially caught my eye (and I am now mumbling about growing strawberries in hanging pots, to elfin’s bafflement — Ambar)

Nadja, The Yakima Kid, writes:

I’ve been raising as much of our own food as I can since I quit working some years ago; vertigo and monitors don’t play well with each other. I have been seeing a lot on the various websites about people starting vegetable gardens to save money during the recession, so I figured I’d post here about our experiences. Also, if anyone wants to start a garden, I’m willing and able to assist you in finding choices that will help whether you have a house with a yard or an apartment deck.

Raised bed gardening is generally the most efficient – but it is important when gardening to use water wisely. A vegetable garden will consume far less water than a lawn. Other things to consider are dwarf and semi-dwarf fruit trees, berries of all sorts, and especially primocane raspberries and blackberries. Primocane berries produce on first year canes and will also give a second crop on the lower portion of the cane the following year instead of one having to wait for the second year for a crop; what I do to reduce disease and insect carryovers is I simply harvest the first year crop and cut all the canes to the ground in the fall after bearing. The soil in much of this area is a bit too sweet (alkaline), so some crops, like blueberries, don’t grow well without heavy amendments or specialized raised beds.

Using intensive techniques and summer pruning, we have two semi-dwarf apples, six dwarf citrus, a semi-dwarf nectarine and a semi-dwarf peach, a dwarf nectarine and a dwarf peach, a row of columnar apples, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, and a number of raised vegetable beds. We raise strawberries in hanging planters because otherwise the slugs destroy them; I prefer large Bloommasters and have them hooked up to drip irrigation which gives them about five minutes a day in mid summer which is very efficient, given that the large Bloommaster holds nearly two dozen plants; it is advertised to hold close to three dozen, but that intensity actually lowers production per planter. I raise potatoes in bags or buckets. Bloommasters are expensive, but with strawberries will pay for themselves within three years. They double as decorative hanging planters and can replace porch ornamental hanging planters with productive food.

It’s also a good idea to plant a few landscape plants to attract hummingbirds and other birds; hummingbirds not only sip nectar; but they are insect Hoovers. We grow the wild Pacific filberts primarily for the birds and animals but a little bit for ourselves. There are landscape plants that are low water use that also provide people food; one example is Oregon grape which provides fruits for pies, jellies, and jams. Be careful which plants you select; California Bay is a major host to Sudden Oak Death, and currants are involved in the life cycle of a blister rust.

Tomatoes can be grown in those cheap five gallon nursery containers which keeps them out of slug range. You can get some of the parthenogenic greenhouse varieties, put them in a room with daylight fluorescent lighting, and have year round production; we keep ours in the family room which gets southwest light and is often occupied so the lights are on most evenings. We replaced our ornamental houseplants with tomatoes and so we now get food for the inputs that used to go simply to looking pretty.

When choosing plants for the garden, grow the more expensive products as your first priority. We raise fruit instead of shell beans because split peas, and pinto beans are comparatively inexpensive while raspberries and strawberries are extremely expensive and cantaloupe isn’t cheap. Check seeds and plants for climate adaptations; some varieties that do poorly in this area are sold anyway because they are popular products; for example, Red Delicious apple really doesn’t like it down by the Bay but some places sell it because of customer demand.

Indian Runner ducks can reproduce without a pond and are also reasonable egg layers. They seem to enjoy eating slugs; but from time to time take an interest in berries and fruits, so you have to watch them. Chickens are very good and hens will lay whether or not there is a rooster in the area. Leghorns will kick out an average of an egg per day. Rabbits can be grazed in the yard and fed kitchen scraps as well; they’ll need protection from raccoons and cats at night just like poultry.

Farming in the future

A brief and thought-provoking article on the potential relationship between a country’s energy consumption and how agrarian it is.

I believe the broad vision of what needs to be done already exists—food that is more local, organic, produced, processed and distributed by renewable energy systems, and using cultivation methods that put the soil health first. Making that argument to those who are reluctant or suspicious, however, could use some better research that connects the dots credibly between energy depletion, climate change, food security, and demographics.

There are no firm conclusions, but some interesting questions to ponder.

Where do your shrimp come from?

I buy most of my seafood from local fishermen and a local shellfish farm. I’ve tried to buy domestic shrimp when possible (due to an allergy to a common preservative in imported shrimp), but this article shows how challenging that is:

Today, if you live more than a hundred miles from the Gulf Coast, the shrimp you eat most likely come from a foreign farm. You can tour these farms while standing at your supermarket seafood freezer and reading labels. The top ten importing countries are Thailand, Indonesia, Ecuador, China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Mexico, India, Bangladesh, and Guyana.

Links to: US marine shrimp farmers, US freshwater shrimp farmers

Introduction

This is my first post on the Magical Eating blog, so I want to introduce myself: I’m Matt. I live in a suburb of Detroit, Michigan, with my partner and two cats.

I also wanted to introduce my three chickens. After some deliberation and much planning, my partner and I acquired three Silkie hens last summer. We had two motivations for the chicken project: One, we wanted fresh eggs. Two, we wanted to have a sense of where our food comes from, and what is required to raise chickens for eggs. We were feeling that we didn’t have a sense of where our food comes from, or what it takes to get it to the table.

So we joined the growing “urban hen” movement. My father and I built a small coop and run for the ladies, and we purchased three pullets. (Chicken term for the lay person: a “pullet” is a female chicken older than a chick but still in her first year.) We chose pullets because we wanted to know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that we were getting female birds. It can be difficult to determine the sex of a chick, since they mostly are identical balls of fluff. Roosters are lovely, but they crow–and not just in the morning, either. Roosters are also not necessary: If you didn’t already know, hens will lay eggs whether a rooster is present or not.

I found that raising chickens is, for the most part, pretty easy. I check on their food and water at least once a day–usually when I gather whatever eggs they have laid. I usually pick them up a couple of times a week and give them a quick once-over, just to see if they are healthy.

Keeping chickens in the country is no big deal, I recognize. But we live in an urban area and my backyard is very small–about 25 feet square. And my neighbors have a clear view of the entire yard from their house, so they can see the ladies. And still, the chickens are no problem at all. There is no smell and they aren’t loud. If I can keep chickens in the space that I have, I really believe that almost any space is sufficient for a couple of hens.

Even though our girls are from a breed that isn’t know for being proficient layers, a good week means between 8 and 12 eggs, which is plenty for the two of us. And the eggs are fantastic. The chickens have also made interesting pets, which is something that I did not predict. One of them in particularly (“Thelma”) has become pretty tame, and will sit on my shoulder.

So, what does that have to do with magical eating? I believe that magic works through the building and tending of relationships–with Mysterious Ones, with the multiverse Herself, with my own soul. Magical eating, for me, is the tending of relationships through the food that I select and prepare. When I choose organic, or free-trade, or local food options, I am making a choice and tending my relationship with the Mysterious Ones of the Earth in a conscious way.

Each day when I go outside and check on the birds, I know that I am tending a relationship with the chickens–but also with myself and my partner because we are eating the eggs, and with my garden and the earth because chicken manure makes amazing fertilizer, and with the Earth because I am not requiring a refrigerated truck to bring me fresh eggs. This action builds a web of connection, and is part of a larger magic to build a sustainable life on this Earth. I remember once, during the creation of sacred space, being asked to call my allies, and I called my chickens. They feed me, and in return, I feed and care for them–they are my allies.

Keeping these animals solidifies my understanding of what magical eating is, and what “food activism” is. That is why I consider chicken keeping part of my magical life.

Blessings to you on this sunny Detroit morning.


All three chickens, eating.


This is Iola, right before she pecked at the camera. I believe that she thought it was some new kind of food.


Here is a bowl of eggs from the girls.