One of the early casualties of the Covid crisis was the food supply chain. The symptoms included spotty, and in some cases, bare grocery store shelves and farmers’ fields bloated with produce intended for a market that flat-lined overnight—restaurants, schools and corporate cafeterias.
Now imagine, as our planet continues to warm, the kind of disruption that more frequent and intense heat waves, droughts, fires and super storms will have on the food supply chain.
Today would be a good day to plant a seed.
The more food we grow ourselves, the less we rely on the corporate supply chain. As an added bonus, we can avoid the grocery store for longer periods during Covid and help slow the spread. Thanks to our foresight and hard (and sometimes not-so-hard) work, we’ll enjoy incredibly delicious, incredibly fresh fruit and vegetables. We’ll also save money.
I haven’t grown much food since my now-grown kids were little and I hope to change that. Below is a look at a handful of my recent micro-experiments in the soil.
The try-a-bunch-of-stuff-and-if-something-works-keep-doing-it school of gardening
Buried black gold
To improve the soil in Chandra’s raised bed/outdoor laboratory, I started burying food scraps there, such as the cantaloupe seeds and rinds pictured above. If you have access to a yard and don’t want to maintain a compost pile, this easy alternative will break down your food scraps while nourishing the soil. A couple of weeks after I buried these, I noticed several cantaloupe seedlings. Although it’s late in the season for cantaloupe, maybe we will get some melons next year.
I dug down about eight inches, dropped in the cantaloupe scraps and covered them with the soil. You can also chop your food scraps up outside, drop them around your plants and cover the scraps with mulch (known as “chop and drop,” a strategy I read about in Paul Wheaton’s book).
I noticed this hunk of sprouting ginger on Chandra’s counter about a month ago. It was too dried out for cooking so I dug a hole in the ground, tossed it in and covered it with soil. It has continued to slowly sprout and now hesitantly pokes through the surface of the soil. After I posted this picture on social media, a gardener on Instagram told me to plant rhizomes, such as ginger and turmeric, only few inches below the surface (which I luckily had done).
When I found a potato on the counter with some eyes sprouting, I purposely let it get pretty gnarly. After about a month, when its eyes had grown their own eyes, I cut the potato into a few pieces and planted those. A plant popped up almost immediately.
Sad and blue green onions
These had been very sad, past-their-prime green onions, many of which had been reduced to their white parts. Now they look fabulous and sport lots of new growth. If you don’t have a yard, you can replant green onions in a pot of soil in a sunny window. Snip off the green parts as you need them and they will regrow. Spread a layer of compost across the top of the pot occasionally to feed your food. They will also regrow in water but a few times only.
Buy-me-once (a season) basil
After trimming the ends from a bunch of basil sprigs, I placed the basil in water for a couple of weeks until hairy roots grew. I planted these sprigs in a few clusters in the soil. A pot set outdoors or in a sunny window indoors also works.
As your basil grows, do as I say and not as I do and pinch off those white flowers that you see here in order to keep your plant growing rather than going to seed. This basil, like me, is in dire need of a haircut. (Go here for a full blog post on propagating basil.)
A reader on Instagram told me that she used this method to grow a rosemary bush. Unlike basil, rosemary is a perennial, so you won’t need to replant it every season.
Speaking of perennials…
Volunteer Fruit trees: All of the food, none of the work
In the backyard of my house, several volunteer trees have popped up, two of which are fruit trees. One, a pomelo tree that no one had noticed even as it grew to at least three feet tall, began to bear fruit a couple of years ago. Last winter, I substituted pomelo juice for lemon juice. And perhaps this winter I will figure out how and when to eat these.
Hidden fig leaves
A couple of weeks ago, I noticed a volunteer fig tree in the back yard. How thrilling! I did not plant this. A critter must have eaten a fig from a neighbor’s tree and either pooped in the yard later or dropped part of its meal mid-chew. The spot on which Ms. Squirrel (or Mr. Skunk) deposited this gift receives only partial sun, so we shall see if this tree bears fruit.
While I wait for those figs to appear, I can use the leaves as a sort of wild, compostable, hippie parchment paper. I tested this trick out last year to roast a batch of savory spiced nuts (that recipe is in my cookbook) and it worked quite well. However, because a few bits of the (edible) fig leaves did cling here and there, I wouldn’t line a pan with them for a sticky recipe, such as brownies.
If you have space, live in the appropriate climate and plant nothing else, I highly recommend planting a fruit tree, or two or three. The largely neglected fruit trees I planted when my daughter Charlotte was a toddler continue to bear fruit 17 years later.
Volunteers in the compost
Thank goodness the heat waves seem to have ended here in fire-ravaged Northern California. The little buds on a volunteer tomato plant that sprang to life in the compost likely won’t survive the approaching cool nights but in the spring, something else will grow in here. Something always does. You can find comfort in a compost pile—and in a garden.
Options for homes without yards
If you don’t have access to a yard where you live, you still have options for growing at least some food. You can grow all kinds of herbs on a balcony in pots or in a sunny window—chives (perennials with pretty purple flowers), basil, parsley and more. Microgreens will also work. The simple act of sprouting beans, grains and seeds indoors will boost your self-reliance and please your tastebuds.
You may have a friend with a yard who will allow you to plant a few plants in exchange for some of the harvest. Some cities and community gardens rent out garden plots. The summer before I moved from Canada to the US, I rented one of these for next to nothing. I think it cost $40 for the entire summer. I started plants indoors from seed in March by the July, had an impressive little lush garden.
Much more ambitious food production
My daughter MK finished a post-graduate certificate program in waste management this spring immediately after everything hit the fan. She decided to work—and sequester herself—on a remote farm located minutes away from the shores of Lake Huron in Ontario. Mostly, she bakes in the farm’s commercial kitchen but she also pitches in to take care of the animals—letting the geese out in the mornings to roam the pasture, feeding the pigs food scraps and rounding up the hens at the end of the day. She also gathers eggs—many, many eggs.
The farm MK works for is a WWOOF, although she works as an employee, not a volunteer WWOOFer. The international WWOOF network connects small organic farms (or allotments, vineyards, gardens, woodlands and so on) with individuals who want to learn about organic farming. In exchange for their work, volunteers receive food and accommodation—and they learn life-long skills!
Moving away from industrial agriculture and back toward ensuring soil health through regenerative, emissions-capturing practices will play an important role in tackling the climate crisis. If you’re a recent college grad who can’t find work, or you’ve dreamed of starting your own small farm or homestead, you may want to look into joining WWOOF. Some WWOOFers move around to several farms to learn all they can before they start their own small operations.
When I’ve posted on social media the images that MK sends me from the farm, many people have commented that they had incredible, life-changing experiences while WWOOFing. A very small number of people—one or two—said they felt like indentured servants. So do your research and choose your farm carefully, just as you would choose a school or job.