Six Letters Re: Gardening Lessons Learned

I just read [Chet’s article in] the blog on urban and suburban gardening. I wanted to suggest something because I’ve been seeing people want to be more self sufficient by growing their own gardens. I don’t want to come off as a salesman for these two products made by the same person. I’m not someone that sells these items. But to give credit where credit is due, I’m impressed with buying both of these items. I picked up a DVD from Linda Runyon about a year ago, and bought her “Wild Cards” card set for identifying wild plants. The latter were only $6 on Amazon!).Visiting YouTube and watching videos from Eat the Weeds (more than 100 episodes, all free!) got me going after reading a few survival books and wondering about food plants. Having either of these two products gives you an informational edge over someone who doesn’t know where the next meal is coming from and knows nothing of plant foods.

Linda Runyon’s deck of cards is 52 plants you can eat and all of them are really common. So, here is a little list of my top five:
1. Dandelion (all parts of the plant)
2. Cattails (all parts of the plant)
3. Lambs quarters (you can cook it like spinach)
4. Amaranth (again cook it like spinach/seeds make a mush/soup for high nutrition) [JWR Adds: Beware that Amaranth can get out of control, and Amaranth can become a pernicious weed throughout your acreage!]
5. Berries (strawberry, blueberry, blackberry, raspberry – eat the ripe fruit)

Did you know that the bull thistle plant is totally something you can eat? all of it? minus the thorns! I haven’t tried it so I would guess from cutting these down as a kid on the farm, carefully is the only way to eat them! You can eat stinging nettles too- just boil it first to remove the sting. Cook it just like spinach.

The first time you locate a chamomile plant (also called pineapple weed) and crush it up to smell the pineapple smell you’ll be amazed that you actually found this plant! If you make tea with it even better!

I also didn’t know that so many trees offer food until I watched the DVD and got the cards –

Maples -young leaves, seeds, inner bark, twigs!
Pine -inner bark, sap, twigs, needles, catkins, pine cones, pine nuts.
Fir, Balsam- entire tree!
Birch- black,white and yellow- inner bark, sap, twigs, buds and young leaves.

The DVD (Linda Runyon’s Master Class on Wild Food Survival) also has a lot of interesting ways to prepare the plant food, making mush from seeds, drying the plants in a car (the video was filmed around an Arizona summer), little tips and tricks. worth the time it takes to watch the video and take notes, and then you can search by plant also. It is $31 on Amazon. and worth the price to learn about what is good to eat or not.

I’m in no way suggesting going out in the field and trying every plant you find on my list because if everyone did it there would be no plants left. I also don’t suggest killing live plants unless you have a million of them around, besides it is better to pick and try a small amount just to see what it tastes like versus striping an area of food that you don’t really need right now. It’s better not to waste them, but if you take a few leaves off a living plant and don’t kill it they grow back so you can always sustain yourself better by not totally killing any plants- just take a little bit from a few in a patch. It’s the responsible thing to do, because next time your there and need food all those plants might be dead and gone if you ate them one at a time totally consuming them.

One thing I’ve recently done was on a hiking trip last weekend a friend and I pulled down handfuls of pine needles from a big pine tree and boiled them for about 25 minutes for an outstanding pine flavored tea. This is one of the best teas I’ve had in a long time.

The plants are plentiful and people shouldn’t have trouble locating food, even when meat is scarce there is something around to eat if your smart enough to look for it. Linda said it best that in places like africa where people are starving- 50% of the greens in that jungle could feed them with out farming anything. (hum no work involved just eat the weeds?! how about that?)
I would say that learning about edible plants has given me a peace of mind knowing that even if I lost a garden the weeds that would grow when the crops died would feed me anyhow! makes me a little happier, knowing that I don’t have to fight, struggle and die if the garden fails to yield a small crop or no crop this year. The weeds will always grow and life will find a way. – Fitzy in Pennsylvania

Dear Jim:
Kudos to Chet for writing about suburban gardening and to you for posting it! I have been a suburban gardener for the past few years and can concur that the first thing you learn is that there is a lot to learn, mostly by trial and error. There is no substitute for experience. I have a hint for suburban gardeners turning their lawn into a a garden bed. You don’t have to dig up the grass when you convert a lawn in to a garden. Just spray the proposed garden bed lawn area with Roundup® weed killer in advance and let the grass die. Then hoe just enough of the the dead grass in rows to plant seeds, or seedlings, and leave the remaining dead grass in place. The dead grass works as mulch, holding moisture and preventing weeds. Also, soaking seeds overnight in water before planting can help them to germinate.
All best, – John M. in Florida

I wanted to add a tip to Chet for his gardening adventures: In owning a horse ranch, I have many gardeners who come each spring and get pick-up loads of [well-composted] horse manure. I have a 20 year old composted pile of rich “Black Gold” as we call it. I’m happy to allow people to come get free loads for their gardens. I use it in my own gardens and you cannot believe the results! I recommend you check with any local horse farmers and ask if it’s available, most of them have a pile of it somewhere if they’re not spreading it in their fields, are happy to have it taken away. Make sure you get the old composted manure, not in it’s raw form. – Merry

Chet’s points about amending soil are important. For some readers in urban areas they may find that soil amendments are available for free. At my landfill the greens materials (lawn clippings, Christmas trees, and even clean wood) are recycled into mulch and then sold and even offered free to local residents. [JWR Adds: I urge caution when using wood chips for amending garden soil! Many varieties of wood chips will badly stunt a garden, by absorbing and locking up needed nitrogen. Do your research and inquire carefully on the exact composition before taking any free “green waste” for composting.]

I make it a point to take advantage of the policy which offers me up to two cubic yards of compost or mulch free per year. Extra material can be shared around so that friends/neighbors will be less needy in the future too. Find out if your local landfill has such a recycling program. If so take advantage of it. Put your cash into other preps which can’t be had for free. – Beth F.

Mr. Rawles,
I wanted to expand upon something mentioned in the above letter. The solution to the writer’s problem of buying soil amendments for his garden — at high prices now, and probably unavailable in a crisis situation — is raising chickens. A small flock of urban chickens provides a ready source of high-nitrogen manure for the compost pile, approximately 50 pounds per bird per year! And, beyond the obvious benefit of also providing eggs for the table, a free-ranging flock of laying hens can serve as garden helpers — as they forage, they dig and till the earth, and they devour insect pests. I refer interested readers to a most excellent book on this specific topic: “City Chicks: Keeping Micro-flocks of Chickens as Garden Helpers, Compost Makers, Bio-reyclers, and Local Food Producers”. Together, home gardening and chicken keeping can save you money and put more food on your table. – Lee in Michigan

I have been gardening here in Texas for a few years now, I have switched over to the square foot gardening method this year with great results. If you are considering getting into growing your own food for these uncertain times, now is the time to get started. Have your beds in place now while you have the gas and cheap supplies to prepare your soil for long term growing. All of my beds are raised beds and this year I have used ‘Mel’s Mix’ [as described in the book All New Square Foot Gardening] since I have good cheap access to the materials needed to make it. This is a maintainable soil after it all hits the fan. I use cedar fencing material for the raised beds and as I can afford it I will switch to Trex [synthetic decking boards] or a similar material. The raised beds with proper spacing makes it easier for this old back to weed and harvest. I can fence and cover with bird netting each bed if need be. I currently have most of it contained in a 5′ foot high fenced area to keep out my dogs and my free roaming chickens. All told I have 11, 3′ x 6′ beds, 4, 3′ x’ 3′ beds, and 1 6′ x 6′ bed. It is all in my standard corner lot suburban lot. I’m growing three beds of corn, one bed of spring wheat as an experiment, one bed of green peppers mixed with onions, two small beds of sweet banana peppers with strawberries mixed in low. Three beds of tomatoes (two of which are mixed in with potatoes), a bed of blackberries, a bed of watermelon, a bed of cantaloupe, and a large bed with five blueberry bushes and strawberries. The majority of my plants are heirloom [open-pollenated] plants so that I can save the seeds. Doing this now and having it in place and growing is much better than after the Schumer hits the fan. As Chet points out this is hard work without power tools and easy access to supplements. You too can do this, now get out and do it! – Ken L.