These last couple of weeks I’ve been feeling a little low. This time of year does it to me: I get over-scheduled, over-committed, under-slept, and with most folk getting busy with family commitments sometimes I feel pretty alone. I’m tired, and some days it can feel like a bit of a struggle to keep going, but then the little things come along that lift me.
This afternoon I took myself on a fossick around the garden. You see that luscious-looking big, buttery potato there? I grew that. Or more accurately, I provided the soil and the compost and the seed potatoes and the mulch, and it grew itself.
I’ve never grown potatoes before.
Neither have I grown the beans, beetroots, chard, oca and numerous other things doing well in my garden. It kinda makes up for the disappointments, like having only 3 carrots come up, and discovering the self-sown peas I’ve been nurturing were pretty sweet peas and not lovely food. Then there are the strawberries: what fruit has survived the unusually hot and dry conditions of late has been pilfered by the blackbirds: I have had one lone ripe berry.
Tonight I’m going to steam up that potato, diced into little cubes. I’m going to dice and fry some divine local free-range bacon (payment for assistance rendered) and throw in some broadbeans (donated by a colleague with a surplus) plus some chopped up garlic greens and sage leaves I picked this afternoon. I’ll squeeze over a lemon, taken from my friend’s tree, and toss the lot on top of some lettuce leaves that have evaded the worst of the recent weather in a shady part of my garden.
Between my patch of dirt and my community, I’m feeding myself. Tonight I’m eating outside of the system, far removed from the supermarket. I’m actually doing this, with my sad little garden that the heat has burnt and baked the soil to clay. I’m doing this in a rental house, with a full-time job and a life that takes me out and about quite a lot. I am doing this, and if I can do it, maybe so can you. Maybe together we can build ourselves a food community, connecting eaters with growers and using the land we have to grow the food we need.
Imagine that: a world without dependence on the big supermarkets, with their demands for unsustainable farming practices and shelves stacked with pretend food. A world where we know our neighbours and trade our backyard surpluses, where we’ve met the grower who sells us vegetables, where we’ve gotten close and personal with the animals that become our meat. Lower emissions, more sustainable farming, connected communities. Grow, forage, trade, cook: do it.
Sometimes all it takes is a humble potato to remind me what it’s all about.
Over the weekend I spent a bit of time in the garden, weeding, composting and mulching. I’m preparing beds for the month ahead, keeping myself motivated through the hard graft (the gardens here are seriously neglected) by daydreaming about the harvests to come. As well as thinking about what will do well in my garden and what I like to eat I’ve been giving a bit of thought to biological and genetic diversity and wondering how my plantings might help to keep rare species and varieties alive.
So what’s the problem with food crop diversity? The limited types of plants we grow, and the few varieties (genetic strains) of those plants we do sow.
Modern agriculture promotes the growing of only a small sub-sample of possible food plants. The plants grown have been selected over the years for various reasons, including high yields, easy harvesting, long shelf-life, market familiarity and easy processing. As western industrial systems of agriculture have expanded across the world, western crops have moved with them, replacing traditional food plants. We’ve lost awareness of many alternative food plants along with the knowledge of how best to grow them, and along the way we’ve lost access to many of the food plants best suited to growing conditions in many parts of the world, and to the conditions predicted in a climate-change impacted future.
As farming has industrialised we’ve also become reliant on a small handful of the known varieties of the plants that have become our dominant crops. Where a century ago there were 400 known varieties of peas in cultivation, now there’s only 25 that are commonly grown and most of the original 400 have gone extinct. Although it might not seem important – after all we still have peas – this loss of genetic diversity is really quite worrying: genetic diversity is the thing that lets us adapt crops to changing conditions, environments and diseases.[1, 2] If we lose the genes, we lose the means to adapt our food plants to new growing conditions. This is a huge concern for food security, putting our agricultural systems at risk of collapse due to drought, climate change, plant diseases and even global politics – agribusiness is big business.
The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that 75% of crop biodiversity has been lost from the world’s fields – that’s how big the problem is. Some governments and science organisations are so concerned that they’ve established a secure seed bank to preserve rare seeds as best as possible, behind steel doors in a vault built into a mountain beneath the permafrost in the Arctic circle.[1, 3, 4]
Although it’s not only the lost biodiversity that’s the problem – there’s related issues about fertilizer, pesticide and herbicide use , as well as lost potential medicinal and biotechnological properties, farming knowledge and cultural traditions – it’s the part that I can do a little something about in my own back yard*. I can plant unusual crops and rare varieties of veggies in my little patch, preserving diversity when I collect seed for the next year and expanding my culinary world at the same time. I’ve taken my day-dreams of fresh greens and home-grown spuds and checked them against growing guides and seed catalogues, getting an idea of what plants and varieties will do well on my fine, claggy soil (I could spend hours looking through seed catalogues, dreaming of gardens that will never be…). I’m choosing for suitability, flavour and biodiversity, tracking down suppliers of unusual, heirloom and organic seeds. There’s a world of weird veg out there that I can’t wait to explore!
Backyard-friendly unusual veggies that I’m contemplating growing include salsify, skirret, salad burnet, oca, mizuna and elephant garlic. I’m also planning to plant unusual varieties of more familiar crops:
- blue sapphire potatoes - seriously, purple spuds that are tasty too – What’s not to love?
- Chioggia beetroot - it’s stripey!
- purple sprouting broccoli - I grew this last year and am hooked
- “Caspar” white eggplants – early harvesting, so hopefully I’ll have better luck than I did last summer.
…and whatever else I come across that’s just a little different.
I’ll find out what works, save seed from the successes and grow them again next season, slowly selecting the genes that do best right here, creating a garden with a genetic profile that’s all it’s own.
What usual food plants or rare varieties are your favourites? What’s the weirdest edible you’ve ever grown? Know any good sources for heirloom seeds or kooky seedlings? Let us know what makes your garden a little more biodiverse!
Sources for seeds or unusual seedlings (Australia):
In Tasmania and interested in food security? Public lecture: Food Security and Nutrition – The GM Question
- Who? former Chief Scientist of Australia and CSIRO Fellow, Dr Jim Peacock AC
- Where? Stanley Burbury Theatre, University Centre, Sandy Bay campus
- When? 10th July 2012, 6.00 – 7.30 pm
- How? RSVP by email to UTAS.Events@utas.edu.au
 Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (2010) Crop biodiversity: use it or lose it.
 Longyearbyen (2012) Banking against Doomsday; The Economist, March 10th, 2012.
 Altieri MA (1999) The ecological role of biodiversity in agroecosystems; Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment 74, Pp 19–31; Elsevier.
 Altieri MA & Merrick LC (1986) Agroecology and in situ conservation of native crop diversity in the third world; Chapter 41 in Wilson EO (1986) Biodiversity, Part 3; National Academy of Sciences, Smithsonian Institution, USA.
* I can also do something about it through my grocery shopping, steering clear of the supermarkets for my produce, buying meat from rare-breed livestock and selecting unusual veg from the farmer’s market and local grocer.