My latest article is appearing in the newest edition of Edible Vancouver, just released around Vancouver and online. The article is titled “Gardening Where the Sun Don’t Shine,” which is much more clever than I would have come up with, I’m terrible with titles — thanks to Debbra for editorial wizardry on that one. In it I talk about using native perennial edibles to get early production out of your edible landscape in this “hungry” time of year.
Everyone I’ve talked with lately seems to be starting to get some of the early spring jitters, that feeling that comes around this time of year that makes us want to do something, although we often don’t quite know what it is. I chalk it up to the earth waking up after the winter sleep, kind of like that feeling when you lie in bed awake but not quite ready to get up yet. As a gardener it usually manifests in the desire to put seeds in the ground way too early, inevitably leading to dissappointment, or at least far more work than it would have been if we’d simply been patient. I’ve resisted the temptation pretty well — the fact that it was snowing and sunny at the same time yesterday helped remind me to keep myself in check and save my energy for when the big spring push really starts.
But I did get out the day before yesterday and relocated our nettles, noticing the spiny little babies starting poke out of the mulch and knowing that we want to move them further away from our walkways now that they’re getting to be a sizable patch. Playing — carefully — with the nettles on a warm sunny day, bracketed on both sides by freezing cold and wet West Coast snow reminded me of what first inspired me to write the article for Edible Vancouver, which was my experience last year of eating from the forest in our horrible spring. South coast gardeners all shudder at the mention of it — try it, it’s kinda fun! Find your nearest gardener and say “Spring of 2010” and watch them cringe. No joke. But when my garden was underwater and all my annuals were struggling just to stay alive, the forest was full of food and kept me fat and happy and out of the grocery store. Fiddleheads, thimbleberry shoots, spring mushrooms, and all manner of superpower greens were on my table every day, so that even though I had nothing growing in the garden I still got to eat fresh food right out of the earth. The photo above is the produce of a couple of hours of wandering and gathering.
It got me thinking about climate change, and how important it is that we learn to work with what grows best where we live, and although that didn’t end up being what I really focussed on in the article for EV, that sense of how climate change will effect how we eat really stayed with me. A changing climate means that many of our familiar annual food plants will start requiring more and more work and resources to produce, and may become more unreliable. This isn’t really news to Permaculturalists, since annuals pretty much equal “more work and resources” in every respect compared to perennial polycultures. But as the effects of climate change become more and more pronounced, turning to native or naturalized wild edibles to keep ourselves well fed might become a lot more familiar to folks outside of Permaculture circles. I hope so, anyway.
So why is it that the forest managed to do just fine, thank you, when my garden was so hopeless? I’m sure there’s a seasoned forest ecologist out there that would have lots to say about that, but here are a few of my thoughts, filtered through a Permie gardener’s eyes:
Increasing diversity over time
A forest generally becomes richer and more diverse as it ages, adding more and more layers and niches for different kinds of plants and creatures. So since my garden was a first-year garden (and only year, it turned out, since I ended up moving), it didn’t have the diversity of different things happening to make sure that there was always something that I could eat. We design our Permaculture systems to have that feature as well, so that we get more out of our system for less work as it ages.
Annual vs. Perennial
This is the part that’s most familiar to Permaculturalists; established perennials will produce more, sooner, and in a greater range of challenging climates, than most annuals. Because all their supportive architecture is already in place — root systems, growth habits, etc. — they can sit tight until the right conditions show themselves, and then grow quickly. Make hay while the sun shines, as they say.
A forest moderates its microclimate in a thousand different ways, sheilding its inhabitants from the worst of the swings that we can expect with a changing climate. Overstory trees break the wind and rain, protecting the lower layers — where most of the things we eat grow — from wind damage, and distributing the rain slowly and evenly in ways that prevent sudden inundation. And because there is so much diversity of plant life, there’s a lot more happening to draw that water up and store it in the plant tissues, so it’s less likely to create waterlogged soil. Also remember that a tree generally grows just as far down as it does up, so a lot of water is stored deep in the soil in the trees’ roots, again keeping the forest floor from getting caught up in flood/drought cycles. The temperature inside a forest tends to remain more stable for many different reasons, not swinging from hot to cold and back again in ways that stimulate tender plants to sprout in a brief warm period and then die back when it gets cold again before they’re established enough to handle it.
I could go on, but you get the idea. Basically what I’m saying is, climate change is scary; perennial polycultures designed like forests make climate change less scary. Or even more basically, plant more trees. And then plant stuff with them that you can eat. Feast and be happy.