Friday, July 20, 2012

The Resilient Gardener

Several months ago, I was browsing at Book People, an independent bookstore in Austin, because I had received a gift card for my birthday. I just so happened to run across an autographed copy of Carol Deppe’s second book, The Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times. I didn’t even know she had been there recently for a book signing, but I snatched that last autographed copy right up. It was like it was meant to be!

I had been wanting this book for a while since I enjoyed Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties so much, and it did not disappoint. She touches upon several things in this book that really hit home with me.

People have gardens for different reasons, but one of my main goals for having one is self-reliance. I actually want my garden to allow me to become less dependent on the grocery store, and allow me to save my money for things that I can’t grow myself.

As I may have mentioned before, I’m a victim of the Great Recession (though I agree with Paul Krugman that it should really be called a depression). I graduated with a Master’s degree in 2009 and haven’t had a full time job since. I was on unemployment benefits for 10 months in 2010, and other than that I’ve been doing only temporary and/or part-time work. Currently I am an adjunct professor, and would love to become a full time professor some day, but who knows when that will happen? If my husband were to lose his job, like so many other people have been losing their jobs, we wouldn’t be able to survive on my salary alone, and that is a worrying thought.

These are exactly the kinds of “uncertain times” that Carol Deppe is talking about, and the basic premise of the book is that your garden should help you through the bad times in your life, rather than being yet another responsibility or source of stress.

The first chapter is all about the various reasons why a person would want to become more self-reliant. Economic reasons are covered, which is my main problem. Deppe’s main problem is that she’s gluten intolerant, so she can’t eat a lot of the foods at the grocery store. The garden helps with that as well, so she can grow foods that she can eat on her special diet. She also tells of when she was taking care of her dying mother, and how her garden sustained her during that difficult time. I like that she takes into account the mental and spiritual benefits of gardening as much as the physical. I’m not sure if I really saved a lot of money by having a garden while I was unemployed. It’s not like I would have starved without it, but it sure helped my mental state. I would have been a lot more depressed without it, that’s for sure, and that’s not a trivial thing. Like in her last book, Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties, Deppe is very practical about things. You don’t need to grow all your own food or be able to live completely off the grid, you should just do what you can and learn as much as you can. You never know when those skills may come in handy.

The second chapter is titled “The Plant-Gardener Covenant”, and really reminded me of Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire. Deppe obviously agrees with Pollan that domestication was a two-way street. Humans and our domesticated plants are in a mutualistic symbiotic relationship that benefits both of us. We rely on them for food, while they rely on us to plant them in nice soil, protect them from predators and competitors, and save their seeds from generation to generation.

She also gives “The 33 Golden Rules of Gardening,” and I think some of these are especially important for modern gardeners to remember. Some of the rules should be common knowledge to anyone who’s ever picked up any kind of gardening book, but the more important rules that I think a lot of people have forgotten come first. The first rule is “All Gardening is Local”, and then the next few rules are about how you need to select the species and varieties that will grow where you live. I think in this one-size-fits-all era where uniformity is passed off as being the ultimate goal in agriculture, gardeners really need to remember that you just shouldn’t even TRY to grow the same variety of a crop everywhere. It reminds me of the chapter in The Botany of Desire about how all potato growers grow Russet Burbank because that’s the only potato that McDonald’s will use, even thought RB’s don’t grow as well as some other potato varieties in many areas. They grow RB’s and douse them in chemical fertilizers and pesticides and fungicides instead of just growing a potato variety that will do well there without all the added chemicals.

More than once I’ve had friends and family members tell me they've just given up on having a garden in Texas at all, or given up on growing certain things because “it’s just too hot here” or something like that, even though people have been growing tomatoes and squash here for hundreds of years, and have been growing things in even harsher climates for hundreds of years. So how did our forefathers and foremothers do it successfully? Well, for one thing, they didn’t expect that you grow crops here in Texas the exact same way that they would be grown in New Jersey, or Ohio, or Oregon where Deppe lives. And you shouldn’t expect to be able to grow the same varieties that grow thousands of miles away too. You have to grow varieties that are adapted to this climate. Yes, that takes a little bit more work to track down those varieties, but if it’s the difference between getting a bountiful crop of tomatoes and getting no tomatoes, I think it’s worth it.

It’s all about cultivating a sense of place. Everyone should do that, but it’s especially important for gardeners. Thankfully, I see more and more local Texas gardening information out there all the time.

The next chapter is about adapting to Climate Change, which I think also contains a lot of useful information, but I was a bit disappointed after reading the title and thinking that Deppe was going to treat Anthropogenic Climate Change as the scientific fact it is, but instead she says, "Global warming is happening, however, it's been happening since the glacial maximum 20,000 years ago, so it is nothing new. There is much argument about how fast global warming is happening and how much is caused by people; that's not a subject for this book." I don’t know, maybe she took that stance so she wouldn’t alienate any climate change deniers who might be reading the book, but the evidence that not only is the Earth getting warmer, but that humans burning fossil fuels is the direct cause, is overwhelming. Yes, the climate has changed before for natural reasons, but implying that we don’t know for sure why it’s changing this time is simply not true. At least, the scientists are not the ones arguing about it, just politicians. Not only is it bad to abdicate responsibility for a problem that we have caused, but saying we don’t know why the Earth is warmer amid hundreds of scientists saying they know exactly why is basically saying scientists don’t know what they’re talking about. Why is it ok to believe scientists that invisible viruses cause disease, but not that carbon dioxide emissions cause global warming? It's fair for her to say that the science behind global warming is a bit beyond the scope of this book, but I wish she hadn't implied that this is "nothing new" and given any credibility to people who argue that humans are not to blame.

That said, this chapter does give some very useful information about how a gardener can adapt as weather becomes more and more unpredictable due to global warming. Before the drought started here in Texas, we had one of our wettest summers on record. It happened while I was in graduate school, and it rained literally every day that summer. Global warming isn’t going to just make things warmer, it’s going to make all extreme weather events more extreme, worse droughts AND worse floods. If things were just gradually getting warmer, that would be much easier to adjust to, but climate doesn’t work that way. Also, like many areas of the country, our USDA hardiness zone has recently gone up a notch, from 8 to 9. Who knows? Maybe some day it will get warm enough for me to grow tropical crops like bananas, provided we don't run out of water first.

The next chapter is entitled “Diet and Food Resilience” about how it’s not enough to know how to grow the plants, you have to know how to properly harvest, store, and cook the plants. I think this is also very important. Cooking is a skill that is probably even more important for people to have than gardening. Even if you don’t have a garden, you can go to a farmer’s market, or join a CSA, and even if you don’t do that, you will at least save a lot of money on your grocery bill by knowing how to cook your own food instead of relying on prepared food for all your meals. This is especially important for people like Deppe who have severe dietary restrictions; though that’s becoming less of an issue as gluten-free convenience foods become more common. I've found it also comes in handy during food recalls. I remember when I was in grad school and there was that recall of contaminated spinach, and I just kept getting clean, safe spinach in my CSA. Every food recall makes the modern food system seem more unreliable to me.

This is why I post about cooking on this blog, because I think it ties directly into my gardening (which ties directly into my love of nature, which is why I post about that here as well). When I get a bumper crop of something, or I get a bunch of something from my CSA, or I find some great sale at the grocery store, it’ll do no good if I don’t know how to store, cook, and eat the bounty. I completely agree with Deppe that cooking, like gardening, is another essential survival skill that needs to be revived.

The next three chapters are about labor, watering, and soil fertility. These are all standard gardening topics. Things like whether double-digging a bed is worth the trouble, what tools to use, how to keep up with weeding, how to irrigate your plants, and ways to create and maintain soil fertility. The important contribution Deppe makes is how practical she is about all these topics. Frankly, many gardening books make gardening sound way too difficult. Deppe takes into consideration an audience of people who may have physical limitations so that they can’t do a lot of hard physical labor in the garden, or limited funds for fancy irrigation and buying lots of soil amendments, or people who live in less than ideal climates. These things should not stop you from gardening! Of course what works for her is not always going to work for you, so while she talks about the kinds of strategies she has for her garden, that doesn’t mean you can just copy it for your own garden (unless you live in the Pacific Northwest like she does). For example, she gets a lot more rain than I do, and it’s colder where she lives than I live, so while she doesn’t use mulch or drip irrigation, I think it’s a good idea here. After all, I really don’t have the problem of mulch keeping my soil too cold. Quite the opposite, I use mulch to keep my soil from baking in the summer.

The important part is how she figured out what strategies she should use. It all ties back to having a sense of place, and tailoring your labor, watering, and fertilization strategies to your own situation.

Finally, the next five chapters are about her five staple crops: potatoes, eggs, squash, beans, and corn. She makes a good point that most gardeners don't grow staple crops because they're so cheap at the store, and instead grow only things like greens, tomatoes, and peppers, but to be a true resilient gardener you should at least know how to grow staples, even if you never come anywhere near to growing all you need to eat. Fortunately, I think if you already know how to grow salad vegetables, moving on to things richer in calories and protein isn't too much of a leap. Like the chapters on soil and water, the value in this book for me is not necessarily copying her and growing exactly what she grows, but reading about how she decided to grow what she grows, and then deciding for myself what staple crops would grow well in my garden.

Previously in the diet chapter, she talks about how to choose staple crops, and why she chose the ones she did, and her reasoning makes a lot of sense for her, but she acknowledges that other staples may work better in other areas. For example, in the labor chapter she explains why she doesn’t grow sweet potatoes. She says that winter squash has about the same nutritional and culinary niche as sweet potatoes, and it’s a lot easier to for her to grow, and she doesn’t have to dig up squash, which saves her work.

Obviously she doesn’t have squash vine borers! Here, sweet potatoes are virtually pest-free, while squash gets borers. Sweet potatoes are also more versatile than most people realize. The one sweet orange variety at the grocery store is just one of the dozens of varieties you can get if you look hard enough (Sandhill Preservation Center has a great selection of heirloom sweet potato varieties). They range from sweet moist orange ones to dry, white, starchy ones. Sweet potatoes are an excellent and underrated staple crop for Texas and all of the South.

That said, I am still trying Solanum potatoes, trying different varieties that might be able to take our conditions. Deppe makes some good points about why it's a good crop to grow, especially for their cooking versatility and high protein content. True, they are cheap at the store, but one of my big concerns is how potatoes are one of the most pesticide-laden vegetables you can buy at the store. The chapter on potatoes in The Botany of Desire really got to me. Most of the nutrition of a potato is in its skin, but I often peel store-bought potatoes anyway, thinking of how the skin is soaked in toxins. There are hundreds of varieties of potatoes. There's got to be a couple that can make it here.

The next chapter is about her flock of laying ducks. She explains why she chose ducks over chickens, and of  course a duck would like the cold and rainy Pacific Northwest! I think chickens would do better here than ducks. Again, you have to match the species or variety to your climate, and there are many breeds of chickens to choose from, some adapted to hot climates, and some not. I would love to have some laying hens some day! “Yard eggs” as they’re called here are SO MUCH better than store bought eggs, even the “organic, free range” store bought eggs. Sadly, my CSA has stopped delivering eggs, and I miss them very much.

Next she talks about squash and pumpkins, and starts with the “three squash species”. Um, excuse me? There are four squash species! Yet again, I’m going to have to stick up for the cushaw. She mentions cushaws only in parentheses, saying it “isn’t widely grown, as it requires too much heat for most people in the United States.” Um, actually there are several cushaw varieties native to the United States. Has she never heard of the Tennessee Sweet Potato Cushaw? It’s mentioned in Gary Paul Nabhan’s book, Renewing America’s Food Traditions. She goes on to say that it has poor quality meat, and “In Mexico, however, there are many mixta varieties, which are grown primarily for their edible seeds.” It’s true that Mexicans love their pepitas, but cushaws are used extensively in the southern U.S. as well. She also neglected to mention that Mexicans eat cushaws as summer squash too, making them quite versatile.

Deppe’s favorite winter squash is Sweet Meat, a variety of Cucurbrita maxima. Now, I have nothing against maximas. They’re great for northern gardeners who don’t have squash vine borers! Here, they’re very susceptible to borers, while cushaws can handle them. I’m not forgetting my wheelbarrow full of cushaws from 2010 any time soon (especially since I still have some in my freezer!). I’ve yet to be successful growing maximas. The Jarrahdale I had planted in my garden this year just succumbed to the borers without so much as a single blossom.

Again, it all has to do with your climate, but don't listen to her about the cushaws. I recommend them to any southerner who has a problem with squash vine borers and excessive heat killing all your other squash. The only criticism that people throw at cushaws that I agree with is that the flesh is stringy, but that doesn’t matter in dishes where you puree the squash anyway, like soups or pies. I’ve found them to be quite sweet, but that may be from growing them under dry conditions, which concentrates flavor. Northerners say they're "bland" and "tasteless" and I really wonder if that's a climate thing.

One thing I was surprised that she didn't mention is the use of squash seeds as a food source. I’d like to figure out a way to hull large numbers of seeds. There’s got to be a way. After all, like she mentioned, Mexicans use cushaw squash seeds in lots of dishes They occupy the same culinary niche as nuts and sunflower seeds. Pepitas could end up being a great protein and fat source for us resilient gardeners, and if you grow winter squash, you always end up with plenty of them.

Next we have the chapter on beans and other legumes. Again, a gardener has a wide variety of species and varieties to choose from. In my climate, you can grow peas and fava beans in the winter, and common beans, lima beans, tepary beans, and cowpeas in the summer. I’ve successfully grown peas over the winter for years and am just starting to get into favas. Lots of people grow common beans for green beans, and very few gardeners think dry beans are worth growing. Like potatoes, they’re so cheap at the store, but the ones your grow yourself are so much tastier and healthier for you. I grew a good crop of dry beans once (the variety was Calypso), and I can vouch for how much better those fresher beans cooked up compared to the beans at the store that have been sitting in a warehouse for who knows how long. They were good enough that I'd like to try growing dry beans again some time.

Lima beans and cowpeas (such as black-eyed-peas) love the heat, but I’ve found that runner beans absolutely can’t grow here. They can’t take cold, so you can’t grow them in the winter like peas, but they can’t take heat either, so they die in the summer before you get a crop. They only grow well in areas with both mild winters and mild summers. I've heard they're very popular in England, for example. Fortunately some of the more heat tolerant common beans can fill their culinary niche.

Her last chapter is on corn, a plant I’ve never really grown successfully. I have tried a couple of times to grow hybrid sweet corn, but I don’t think I grew enough for them to pollinate properly, and they always got bad corn earworms. Deppe mostly grows grain corn to make bread and polenta with, especially since she’s gluten intolerant and can’t eat wheat breads. She talks about her efforts to find corn varieties that make good bread without added wheat flour.

Corn is just so important to American culture, going all the way back to the prehistoric native tribes that I just can’t give up on corn. I believe her that, as with beans and potatoes, homegrown cornmeal tastes much better than store-bought and is nutritionally superior, even though I've never had any. I already know that really fresh sweet corn is delicious, so maybe I’ll keep trying with that first, before even trying to grow field corn. Then again, what if field corn is easier to grow? Maybe I haven’t had good luck with growing corn because I haven’t been growing the right varieties. Well, obviously more research and experimenting is needed.

So overall this is a great book. I have a few minor criticisms, but I’ve already read this book over more than once, and it’s given me so much inspiration for my own garden. It also lets me know that I have a lot more work to do before I get to the point Carol Deppe is at, being able to grow most of my own staple crops in my own climate. But it’s certainly a worthy goal to strive towards. Even if I never reach that level of self-sufficiency, I will probably benefit from the effort.

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