Want to Get Serious About Thrifty Eating?

Sunni's picture

Many people seem to be turning to gardening in anticipation of hard times and/or increasing state interference in what one is permitted to eat. Lila asked about good places to buy seeds the other day, and a friend’s answer was so good that it deserves more attention than it’s likely to get buried as a comment. So, Plug Nickel Outfit’s response is elevated to guest post, with some extra links and commentary added by yours truly. If you have good resources and/or ideas to add, please do.

PNO’s comment is as follows:

Get involved with seeds – which implies gardening (or farming). If I was going to save seeds (I do) – I’d want to get to know their properties – how they’re suited to my situation (soil, weather, pest and blight resistance). I wouldn’t want to go into a survival situation with only an unopened can of various seeds – even if they were labeled “survival”! Plants aren’t a one-size-fits-all matter – they’re very diverse and some can of generic seed sounds a bit dubious for all the growing conditions around the world. Also – as rewarding as gardening/farming can be – it can present a lot of challenges – so practicing with seeds (gardening) can only add to any skills one might need if they’re gardening for survival.

I agree with Sunni's mention of Seed Saver’s Exchange, that’s the kind of environment to formulate what you might need. I get some seed from a group local to my region – called Native Seeds/Search. The main reason I use some of their products is that the seeds themselves are gleaned from crops long acclimated to my region – often heirlooms cultivated for centuries within a couple hundred miles from my own growing location. One doesn’t have to always garden this way – but it’s more reliable if you’re trying to feed yourself.

If you have any farmer’s markets where you live – that’s a good place to meet local growers and engage them as to what works for them – most gardeners are fairly willing to pass along what they’ve learned. There’s also a lot of good information online – I find a lot of information at Garden Web Forums.

Having a lot of seeds in bulk – sealed tightly against the elements – is one thing. But seeds are part of a process – and I recommend a lot of practice with them so that you can find out what works for your situation. In lieu of practice – meet gardeners in your area through farmer’s markets or university extension services.

Somewhat on the subject – if I had a limited amount of time and wanted to be able to be more responsible for my food sources – I might put some time into learning about foraging within my own region. Often right underneath our own noses are the same plants that provided sustenance for less ‘civilised’ folks for centuries – already tended for by nature. Look at what ‘native’ people in your region used and follow their lead. If I had to survive in my own region solely on what I could grow vs. what I could forage – I’d probably put 80% of my efforts into foraging in terms of diet quality and time spent for value.

An aphorism I’ve always found useful in terms of gardening and seed saving – “the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago”.

And now, the beginning of Sunni’s blatherings ~

PNO is spot on about each point he addresses. I will briefly add a few thoughts.

If one wants to save seed, especially heirloom seeds, one needs to ensure that the seed stays true. Propagating true seed requires more care than simple gardening. Depending upon the crop, the size and configuration of one’s garden/farm space, and local weather patterns (among other factors), this might mean one can grow only one variety of corn or peppers a season.

If one is interested in turning some horticulture into an agorist resource, fruit or nut trees probably come to mind. Mark’s Fruit Crops is an excellent basic source of information which extends beyond the USSA’s shores. Another is from the University of Illinois Extension: Small Fruit Crops for the Back Yard. A number of places online sell mushroom logs, or larger-scale setups for growing those delectable [and often expensive!] fungi.

Foraging is wonderful not only as a source of food, but also of medicines. “Nuisance” plants such as nettles or dandelions can become part of tasty soups or salads, or go into teas and tinctures. An excellent blog for delving in to these subjects is Patty Neill’s Handmaiden’s Kitchen. Obviously, foraging is a more locally-restricted activity; finding someone with local experience—or a good reference book for the area in which one lives—will speed one’s learning. Steve Brill’s web site has vanished since I mentioned it in a Salon, but a limited preview of his book Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants would probably be a good general introduction. Since I mentioned mushrooms earlier, I feel obligated to point out that foraging for mushrooms, while fun, can have deadly consequences if one doesn’t know one’s fungi. Study up on the local flora, and if at all possible go with a knowledgeable local for your first trip or two.

In sum, and to emphasize PNO’s most important points, gardening is not an instant-on skill. Nor is it static; weather patterns and pests fluctuate across seasons. If you want to rely on producing and/or scrounging your own food come hard times, start practicing now, on whatever scale you can manage. The good news is that even though you may have worry driving your actions, the practice is often very enjoyable, and provides some good exercise—both of which will help reduce some stress.

Thank you

That was nice of you, Sunni, thanks.

For those interested in the foraging aspect of foodstuffs - a good general category of study is ethnobotany. For the southwestern US and northern Mexico there are a couple of books I've found useful - both written by Michael Moore. One is titled "Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West" and the other is "Medicinal Plants of the Desert and Canyon West". Though the title references medicinal uses - he also covers other traditional uses such as food. I took a minute and ran his name through a search engine and found his website - The Southwest School of Botanical Medicine. It looks like he passed away earlier this year - but there are extensive links to reference material on that website - many in PDF format.

You are most welcome.

I appreciate you sharing your knowledge and resources here.

And, as I expected, Mama has added some insights from her experience too. While “over-grazing” is easier to do in desert areas such as yours and hers, if enough people try to forage for food—not just casual use—it could become an issue even where plants are abundant at present. Understanding how a desired plant propagates, and harvesting it at a time and in such a way that the plant can accomplish that, is part of the responsibility that comes with foraging, in my opinion.

Wild food foraging

As an avid wild food/herb gatherer, I want to reinforce the caution to KNOW what plants you are getting before you trust them - either as food or medicine. There are other deadly pretenders besides mushrooms!

The only caution I would add is to consider just how much wild food is available in the climate where you are - both plant and animal - before you count on it much. In some areas it is abundant, but mighty scarce in others. Not to mention knowing the right time of year to even expect certain things.

In many areas, you would have to forage over vast tracts of land for much of the day to find enough plant material to eat for one meal. That's certainly the case here in eastern Wyoming, and even more so in more arid regions.

I was looking at the wild "parsnips" blooming in my yard this morning. They are tasty roots, much like garden parsnips, but very small. It would take digging every single one I can see on my entire property to provide enough of them for one meal - and then none would likely come up next year.

I have gathered seed, and will do so again this summer. I plan to attempt to grow more of them as soon as I have a place for them. In the meantime, I'll leave them alone. :)