Growing Your Own Food in The Inland Northwest – Part 2, by D.F.

(Continued from Part 1.)

What to grow

I have tried quite a variety of plants, and have learned some that I like and others that I don’t.

The Heavy Hitter Plants:
Pinto beans appear to be the best bean variety for my situation. I tried black beans, grex, and navy beans. Routinely pinto bean plants look less robust than the others, but they surprise me with yields that are just as good; and they seem to get ripe and dry down for harvest sooner than the others. This is important if the fall rains are on time or perhaps slightly early. I have needed to pull up the others before they are really dry and store them in a shed in hopes that they will dry enough to thresh. This obviously won’t work for large quantities. Since I can’t discern much difference in taste between these bean varieties I am satisfied with pintos.

However, my experience with beans has also taught me why eastern Washington is best for grains, lentils and field peas but not beans. Grain, lentils and field peas are early crops. They germinate in the cooler soil in the spring and get ripe and dry down in summer. This is a perfect match for the climate which provides winter snow and spring rain, but the summer from mid-July to much of September is quite dry. Beans, however germinate later when the soil is warmer and are not ready for harvest until September when rains may interfere with the pods drying out. It also means irrigation is required during July and August because the beans are actively growing then. Irrigation is possible for a vegetable garden but it gets much more involved for quarter acre bean plots. In a survival situation this could be significant.

With this knowledge I plan to rely on wheat, field peas and lentils for the main source of calories for desperate times. They match the climate, and I have methods worked out to harvest them. However, significant issues exist for them that must be resolved. My yield of lentils is not good yet, and they require back-breaking effort because they are low growing plants that don’t compete well with the numerous weeds that outgrow them. Field peas are much easier to grow and harvest because they are relatively tall plants and yield better than lentils. Their problem is severe susceptibility to weevil. This needs to be solved.

Another surprise was the difficulty finding seed for grain, field peas and lentils. These are not grown by the average gardener in their back yard. Consequently, the normal garden stores did not have seed and usually did not even know where to get it. This was a surprise because these crops are widely grown on farms in Eastern Washington. Finally, the internet led me to Spokane Seed Company which deals with field peas and lentils. They were happy to do business with me and would sell small amounts (meaning 50-100 lbs) of seed that could be used for food preparation as well as seed.

Finding wheat seed was much more difficult. The internet plus several phone calls that bounced me around to various locations finally put me in contact with someone from the farmers coop who was pleasant and helpful. They eventually gave me about 100 pounds of hard red winter wheat seed. It was probably more convenient to give it to me than figure out how to charge me for this small amount that was not treated with fungicide. I wanted to be able to eat it as well as plant it so fungicide was not wanted and would have complicated the transaction as well. I should have just asked the neighboring farmers where to get wheat seed, but I did not want to look like a foolish city slicker. I had tried some packets of wheat seed from mail house seed companies, but it cost a few dollars for just a few ounces; and I was not really happy with the result. There is something to be said for the seed that is grown locally by the farmers. It is a variety that is known to produce results for the particular area. I now have hard red winter wheat and a spring wheat variety that was purchased in bulk from a big box grocery store.

Oat seed obtained by mail from Bountiful Gardens gave acceptable results from the start. This was fortunate because oats are not nearly as widely grown as wheat in my area so I don’t know how to obtain that seed locally. This variety was called “hull-less oats”. Regular oats have hulls that can be hard to remove from the kernel so “hull-less oats” are expected to be easier to thresh. This is nice because even this variety still has a small fraction that does not completely shed its hulls. Eating oats for breakfast sometimes requires using a toothpick afterward because of hulls.

Amaranth and quinoa seeds are so small that the only way I could think of to plant them was by broadcasting. This process requires some way to ensure they are just below the surface, and usually a cultipacker is needed to press the thin covering layer of dirt firmly. If this is not done they don’t germinate well. However, I wanted to use methods that required minimal special tools and did not have a cultipacker at the time so the results were minimal. Even when plants grew I did not feel confident with caring for them. Amaranth looks initially like common weeds so I was continually wondering if I should pull them up and discard them. Harvesting these two crops did not seem to go well so I did not pursue them after one or two attempts. Amaranth seeds obtained from the grocery store did not taste especially good to me so my motivation to pursue them was low. Their leaves tasted okay so they might be more useful in salads, but lettuce and kale were used for that so I did not pursue them further.

Buckwheat is planted for cover crop here, but growing it for grain occurs mostly in the upper Midwest only. Because buckwheat does not completely ripen all at the same time, harvesting it requires estimating when the highest percentage of ripe seeds exist. These complications plus a less than impressive yield persuaded me to abandon it after the first attempt.

Pearl millet was another totally unknown plant for me. It did not do well on the first try, and because I had no experience with harvesting it I did not persevere with it. This could be unfortunate since it is supposed to a crop for desperate times. It can be planted later after the “normal” other crop has failed to germinate. Supposedly this allows one to salvage at least something from a growing season that starts out as a failure.
Fava beans grew and produced nice big beans that could be picked as fresh beans, but I was not convinced they could produce dry beans that could be stored if grown in my area. Lima beans did not grow at all, but that was probably because of the drought that first year. Also, they have significant levels of a somewhat toxic phytohemaglutinen that must be removed by soaking and boiling so they were abandoned as a main source for survival.

I grew dry flint and flour corn with acceptable results. Its advantages are that significant quantities can be planted and harvested by hand. However, I have not used it in meals extensively, and it requires irrigation so it is less desirable than wheat.

Potatoes have been consistently productive. I now grow about 50-60 plants each of russet and red potatoes. They provide ½ to 1 pound of potatoes per plant which is acceptable. However, my taste for potatoes has declined over the years. Furthermore, potatoes are not as calorie-dense as most people think with only about 395 cal per pound compared to about 1,500 for dry grains and legumes. They also have recently been criticized for being easily digested into sugar—meaning they have a high glycemic index. They are low in protein. The russets store fairly well in paper sacks in the garage, but the red potatoes don’t store quite as well. I will continue to grow them and eat them but not expect to rely on them as the main sustaining crop.

Garden Vegetables Planted:

I have grown the usual variety: green beans, beets, green peas for shelling, green peas for edible pods, tomatoes, onions and carrots. So far as possible heirloom varieties are used so the seed can be saved.
For green beans I used the Kentucky wonder variety with some success, but last season they did not do as well as expected. Another gardener friend also had problems with his variety for unknown reasons. Probably a new variety should be tried along with varying their location even more radically. Perhaps disease has built up or perhaps the seed was old. Green beans can be stored frozen or dried in a food dryer. I prefer their taste when frozen, but dried ones are tolerable.

(To be continued tomorrow, in Part 3.)