Saturday, November 30, 2013

Temperate staple crops: plants (and critters) for a future

In my review of Carol Deppe's annual-based The Resilient Gardener, I expressed disappointment that no one has created a comparable blueprint with perennials. Now that I've moved to Hawaii with its abundance of well-documented perennial crops, I've dramatically eased my own task of synthesizing perennials, animals, and wildlife into production of a low labor, landbase supportive paleodiet. But I still want to see similar systems develop in temperate areas. I can offer some hints and glimmers of hope based on my experiments in Portland, for others to develop further. My previous post, Low-Maintenance Temperate Staple Crops, established a broad framework. This post gives more specific suggestions, heavily biased towards a Pacific Northwest climate with its winter rains and summer drought.


Small parcels

  • Most importantly, experiment with ways to integrate small animals such as ducks, chickens, rabbits, and guinea pigs into perennial gardens in such a way that the animals benefit the system, require minimal care, and produce high quality eggs & meat.
  • Keep bees for honey for moderate consumption. They'll gather incredible numbers of calories for the space required.
  • If you have a pond, try growing fish, even if just goldfish for slow-growing, very occasional eating by yourself or poultry.

Larger parcels

  • Keep grazers such as geese, sheep, buffalo, and cattle where the land wants to grow grass.
  • Keep browsers such as goats where the land wants to grow trees. Manage them carefully to ensure they don't make the land grow dead trees and sad scrub.

Tree crops

  • Plant nuts. Chestnuts, acorns, english walnuts, black walnuts, filberts, and ginkgos have all proven themselves as reliable abundant croppers in the PNW.
  • Plant fruits & berries. Figure out how much you can realistically eat, and how much is healthy for you.
  • Grow olives if you can, for low-PUFA, oil rich food. Our olives failed to grow, but others in the Portland area have had success. We may not have given our plants good enough drainage.
  • Use the seed kernels from Prunus and other fruit species as bonus seeds for your own or livestock consumption.

Herbaceous seed crops

  • Good King Henry (Chenopodium bonus-henricus): needs breeding work for increased seed production (larger and/or more seed.) We found it a very low maintenance and tough crop, though we didn't perfect a ground cover situation to eliminate the need for spring weeding. Seed yields never got very high for the land involved - perhaps partly from competition following our neglect in weeding, and partly from inadequate irrigation in the summer.
  • Scarlet runner beans (Phaseolus coccineus): try growing them as perennials. We never succeeded in growing them well even for the first year (slug pressure?), and the few healthy plants didn't overwinter. Someone in my neighborhood grew them as perennials on the west side of his house for summer shade, so maybe giving them a similar warm microclimate and/or heavily mulching would help. Breeding for hardiness may help. Supposedly you can dig up the roots and store them in a root cellar, then replant in spring.
  • Experiment with recently developed perennial grains for humans (assuming you can digest them OK) and/or animals.
  • Integrate minimal maintenance legumes like overwintered favas and early spring peas (we had minimal success with these - ducks to keep down our slugs may have helped). As with the grains, humans can eat these in moderation if they don't have bad reactions, and/or they can feed livestock.
  • Perennial flax (Linum perenne). We grew this on our ecoroof and got a few seeds the first year. We didn't stay long enough to know whether it produces well once fully established. If not, maybe it could benefit from breeding work. Like its annual relative, perennial flax oil is rich in omega-3, highly beneficial for us and for livestock.
  • Find other perennial seed crops for minor or major production. For example, we found fennel extremely easy to grow and harvest for ourselves and for the chickens, but we could only eat a small amount of seed each day because of its strong flavor. Perhaps a variety of minor seed crops could add up to useful caloric inputs.
  • Breed other perennial legumes for larger or more useful seeds for humans, or just plant them as livestock fodder - Lupinus perennis, Vicia cracca, Vicia americana, black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia), pea shrubs (Caragana sp.), and ...?

Root crops

See my notes on perennial and self-seeding roots for more information on specific species: part 1 and part 2.

  • Jerusalem artichokes AKA sunchokes (Helianthus tuberosus): Fantastic drought tolerant, persistent, low-to-no-labor abundant yielder. Due to high inulin content, these only work well as a staple crop if you can either:
    • Digest them OK with minimal cooking (many people ferment them).
    • Cook them long enough on a wood stove running in the winter anyway.`
  • Skirret (Sium sisarum): breed for increased root production. We found yields quite reasonable at 1/2 pound/year in good conditions, and 1/4 pound/year in shade or poor soil. We experienced enough variation in yields between different plants to warrant selecting for larger and more roots. Skirret also deserves experimentation with different lengths of multi-year growth before harvest to maximize its potential as a perennial; we generally found the roots larger and less woody if we let the plant grow for two or three years, but never quantified this precisely.
  • Grow mashua (Tropaeolum tuberosum), oca (Oxalis tuberosa), and yacon (Polymnia sonchifolia) as perennials, deep mulching as needed to overwinter them.
  • Where conditions allow, try aquatic crops like cattail, water chestnut, and wapato.
  • Develop and refine perennial polycultures such as my experiments with skirret/oca/potato and yellow asphodel/oca/lily.
  • Cinnamon vine (Dioscorea batatas): great potential as a no-dig staple carb from its aerial bulbils. Set up on a permanent trellis such that you can lay a tarp or sheet under the vines to easily collect lots of bulbils at once.
  • Creeping bellflower (Campanula rapunculoides): summer available root with mild flavor from an aggressive ground cover. May work well under jerusalem artichoke.
  • Yellow asphodel (Asphodeline lutea): summer-available root adapted to summer drought and intercropping well with many other plants. Try to breed it for larger roots (perhaps at the expense of its flowering, which though beautiful and providing tasty nibbles presumably diverts a lot of energy from the roots.)
  • Scorzonera (Scorzonera hispanica): experiment with how long to leave in the ground without having to dig too deep for the taproot. I tended to dig the top foot or so of the root, but snapped it off and lost it below that point. Experiment with replanting a portion of the tops instead of needing to resow from seed. I have successfully transplanted individuals with 6-12" of root, but suspect you could plant even less, and therefore get to eat more.
  • Asiatic lily (Lilium sp): I assume Asian growers bred these over thousands of years to select for larger bulbs from these gourmet crops. Seek out varieties with maximum food yield instead of showiest flower.
  • Camas (Camassia sp.): Another inulin rich root, requiring experimentation in a solar cooker to evaluate as a summer staple root. Otherwise it may not be justifiable due to the large amount of fuel required to make it digestible.
  • Garlic (Allium sativum): pseudo-staple (since you can only eat so much of it per day.) Super easy to grow and supposedly high in calories per pound, though I wonder whether the high inulin content means we don't actually digest all the calories.


Hughbert said...

Thanks Norris for keeping this discussion going, and continuing to share your information.

I am just reading Carol Deppe's book and live in a Mediterranean climate, am trying to grow perennials, and am eating paleo-ish... so the same questions come up! You've definitely given me some ideas.

I am also looking to fruits for some of my staple needs, particularly banana (now producing) and avocado (still growing.) These do well on my grey water and the fruits contain more than just sugar and vitamins.

Look forward to hearing more about your life in Hawaii.


DeepGreenGreenie said...

Can I Grow a Complete Diet? Designing a Tropical Subsistence Garden :