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Thursday, July 8, 2010

A Perennial Food Supply, by L.H.

The end of the world may happen tomorrow or who knows when.  Hard times are happening now and may get even harder.  A food storage system and MREs act as a life jacket when times get tough.  But you need to have a plan for when things get even tougher or if your finances or food supplies run out.  Once established, perennials can be a simple, minimal labor answer to a permanent and reliable food source and first aid kit. 
Perennials have the advantage of being planted once and then being around to enjoy for many years without the limitations of weather impacting planting or the yearly time commitment.  They can be planted at a survival retreat and be allowed to fend for themselves or in an urban yard as a part of your landscaping.  One interesting advantage is that as more perennials are planted, less time and resources are needed to mow the lawn.   
After the initial cost in time or money, perennials will more than pay for themselves.  Annuals require yearly dependency on a supplier while perennials offer independence. Other than a few trees, perennials are less likely to be a Genetically Modified Organism (GMO). Perennials also show their value when it comes to trade.  It seems that everyone grows beans or tomatoes, but asparagus or raspberries, now that’s a treat.  See how much more value you can get when you’re trading with a bowl of asparagus or raspberries than a bowl of green beans.
Plan.  Do some investigating before you start to buy your plants.  You need to determine the amount of space you have as well as know your planting zone.  Choose local, heritage varieties over hybrids.  If you buy from an internet or catalogue nursery, be sure that you are buying from a nursery that raises the plants in your zone.  Northern folk need to be concerned about winter hardiness and southerners need to think about summer heat.  Just because a plant, in theory can survive a Montana winter, doesn’t mean that it will if its parent stock has never seen freezing weather for many generations.  There are lots of nurseries and seed companies located in the temperate areas along the coasts.  These are great areas for raising seed, but you want to make sure that your plants can withstand your local climate conditions.  We have been pleased with St. Lawrence Nursery in Potsdam, New York.  It is a nursery that grows trees and shrubs in a zone 3 location. 
The book Perennial Vegetables by Eric Toensmeier offers a great deal of information as you start your search.  Permaculture is a growing movement that uses perennials in landscaping.  Local groups are starting and can be good resources for local information.  More information about Permaculture is available at   Another resource that has an interesting selection of plants is
You don’t have to restrict your search to nurseries.  In the spring, gardening clubs often have annual plant sales.  Keep an eye out for the end of the spring rush when the stores start to put their plants on sale.  Just asking a gardening friend to share when they thin out their plants is the least expensive way to find good plants.
Some plants may be perennials in warmer climes, but are only annuals in the north.  Although it requires more work, this can be overcome by over-wintering plants in containers indoors.  We live in a zone 4 area.  If transportation shuts down, we would truly miss coffee and bananas so we are considering having a few plants.  Of course these could live outside all summer, but would have to come indoors by fall.  Chicory could be grown as a possible coffee substitute or for its greens.  In general, seeds take longer than plants to get established, but are considerably less expensive.
Trees.  Start with trees.  They will take the longest to get established, but they will also provide the largest amount of food as well as shelter from sun and wind.  Think of the fruit trees that will flourish in your climate.  Fruit gets expensive to buy and if anything disrupts shipping, there won’t be any available to purchase. Apples are happier in the northern regions and citrus trees need the southern warmth.  Since trees provide so much food, consider what you will do when faced with a sudden rush of bounty.  Many fruits dry very easily.  Just peel, slice and put in a food dryer.  Other preserving options include canning, fermenting and juicing.  Don’t limit your tree selection to fruits.  Nut trees provide protein and fats and nuts are easy to store.  Although labor intensive to produce,   syrup from maple or birch trees is a wonderful substitute for sugar.
Shrubs.  Shrubs or bushes have the added advantage of providing a privacy screen or low wind break as well as providing food.  Berry bushes are an excellent starting point.  They are easy to care for, nutritious and tasty.  Every home should have an elder bush to make elderberry syrup to fight winter colds and flues.  Hawthorn bushes provide an effective treatment for heart issues.  Since hawthorns have impressive thorns they were traditionally used as fences in hedgerows to keep out unwelcome visitors.  Rugosa roses are beautiful, winter hardy, and [their hips] are an excellent source of Vitamin C.
Vines.  The first vine that comes to mind is grapes.  But don’t limit yourself to just the fruit.  Grape leaves are used as a wrap in a number of dishes such as the Greek dolma.  Adding a grape leaf to a jar of homemade pickles will keep them crisp.  Kiwis and groundnuts, also known as the potato bean are two more examples of hardy perennial vines.  Chayote or vegetable pear is a pear shaped squash that is very popular in Central America.
Vegetables and Herbs.  Most people think there are only two perennial vegetables, rhubarb and asparagus.  But there are more. Artichoke is a perennial in warmer climates.  Jerusalem artichoke, also called sunchoke, looks like a sunflower but produces a tuber.  Sea kale of the cabbage family grows in climate zones 6-9.  Green leafy plants that add variety to salads include sorrel, New Zealand spinach and lambs quarters.  I like to include lettuce in with my greens since it so easily self seeds itself.  Lovage is an old plant that can be used in place of celery.  The buds, stalks and roots of the cardoon or artichoke thistle can all be eaten, although it is grown only in warmer areas.  The vegetable source of rennet, which is used to make cheese, is the stem of the cardoon. 
Herbs are more likely to be perennials in the southern states, but even the northern states have chives.  The mint family seems to survive almost anything.  In northern areas herbs are easy to dig up in the fall and winter inside in a container.  This saves the cost of buying seeds or new plants yearly. Walking onions will continue to grow and reproduce while providing for your family. Yarrow should be in every first aid kit to care for bleeding and bruises.  Aloe is another essential plant to have on hand for burns.   
Animals.  Perennials not only provide food for your family, they can also provide for your animals.  Pigs were traditionally fattened on acorns.  We have been hearing interesting things about the Siberian pea shrub and started growing our first batch this year.  This is a perennial shrub that is a legume.  It produces a podded “pea” that is 36% protein and can be used for flour, sprouting and animal feed.  Of course many animals will enjoy the leftovers of all of your fruits and vegetables.  Comfrey, which is very prolific, can be grown as a food supplement for some of your animals.  I also consider it to be essential to have in my first aid kit. 
Wildcrafting.  There are many wild growing perennials and self seeding plants.  Of course, rural homes have a larger area and variety available to them.  Nettles aren’t just weeds, but are a great spring tonic.  Urban homes still have a nice selection of plants available to use as long as no chemicals are used on the lawn.  No home should be without plantain, either fresh or as a salve or tincture.  It is an incredibly useful first aid tool for the skin and things that bite, itch or sting.  Dandelions used to be so valued for food and medicine that people used to save the seeds and bring them when they were pioneering a new area.  Mushrooms are another treat which can be wild crafted or seeded or inoculated in a given area.  Morels are easily identified, but hard to find.  In general it is best to learn how to find mushrooms under the direct guidance of a very experienced person.
Don’t limit yourself to a few traditional fruit trees.  Staghorn sumac, lingonberries, buffalo berries, nanny berries are all unique and wonderful sources of food that require little work on your part that allow you time to deal with other essentials.  Start to explore all of the perennial food options that will grow in your local area, your neighbors will think that you are landscaping, but you will know that you are adding a long term food supply.

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