Element Number Five: Permaculture and Perennial Crops
Annual crops may make up the bulk of your food and take the most of your labor when you are survival gardening. However, a critical part of our sustainable farm is the use of perennial crops, which actually give you more return on your investment than the yearly planting and production of annuals. The great thing about most perennials is that you plant them once, and they produce for several years. You don’t have to worry about what time of year the apocalypse starts; they are there waiting for you year after year. For that reason, perennial crops are an essential element for the survival gardener.
I’m not going to go into specifics, but perennial crops include some vegetables, like asparagus and rhubarb, as well as small fruits and tree crops. Producing tree fruit east of the Mississippi is tough to do, especially if you don’t have access to pesticides. Here, in the Mid-South, we have a lot of pest and weather concerns that the big fruit growers out west don’t have to deal with. These issues are why the big fruit growers are out west! Many people plant a few fruit trees in the back yard with high hopes of bushels of perfect fruit, only to be disappointed year after year. Let me save you a little trouble and give you a few recommendations that will produce fruit year after year with little inputs.
Blackberries are native to our part of the U.S., so they do well here with little help. We grow erect-thorn-less varieties, such as Apache and Ouachita, which come out of the University of Arkansas breeding program. They continue to release new varieties, so start with them, and you probably won’t go wrong. We trialed some of their primo-cane fruiting varieties last year, and they were great producers with large, sweet tasting fruit. They also have the potential to produce two crops a year or one late one, which really makes them great for the survival gardener trying to extend the season.
The other native berries that we rely on are elderberries and aronia berries. Both are native and do well with little care. The birds don’t seem to like them as much as blueberries, and they are much easier to grow. The aronia are too astringent to eat out of hand. (They are also called Chokecherries!) However, that astringency comes from their high levels of antioxidants. So along with elderberries, they are sort of like medicine on a bush, with both having noted health benefits. When combined together, elderberries and aronia berries make a great jam, and we concentrate them into a syrup, which is our flu preventative as well as our pancake topping.
Our other sure producer is the small-fruited Nanking Cherry (Prunus tomentosa). They produce their tasty fruit on bushes that are fast-growing and productive. Their fruit isn’t as large as that from a cherry tree, and they have a rather large pit, but they are easier to protect from the birds, which is the number one pest of cherries. They make a wonderful pie, jelly, or syrup, which is where most of our cherries end up anyway.
Pears produce well, and take less intensive care than apples. Ayers is a standard eating pear that does pretty well all over the south. Kieffer is an old–blight resistant pear that is a little gritty to eat but makes a good canning pear and reliably produces year after year. Newer, fire blight resistant varieties are available and they are worth planting. We have “Potomac” and “Shenandoah” in our pear orchard, both of which are also later maturing varieties and thus have a longer storage potential, extending the season.
We round out our lesser-known perennial favorites with greens, like Good King Henry (Chenopodium bonus-henricus) and French Sorrel (Rumex acetosa), both of which are available early in the spring when there is a lack of fresh greens. We also rely on a wide range of perennial herbs, which are important for adding essential nutrients and flavor. These nutrients and flavors should not to be taken for granted when you can’t buy your favorite junk food. Welsh onions and cutting celery are easy to grow in pots, and we can keep them year-round in the unheated greenhouse. Horseradish beds can produce a reliable kick to a boring diet, and you can dig the roots any time.
Diversity is key. Having a wide range of perennial crops helps insure that there is something to eat every year. Small nut trees (Hazelnut), deciduous trees with edible parts (Basswood, or Linden), and other beneficial plants can be incorporated around your property, even in your small backyard. Not every crop does well every year, but with a wide variety of crops there is generally something that you can round up and put in the pot to eat.
Element Number Six: Incorporate Animals
A truly sustainable, diversified farm will need to incorporate animals in some way. There is no better source of protein, and the benefit of animals on the farm is great. Farms used to be mixed systems that grew crops and animals that complemented each other. When we moved all the animals to concentrated facilities, we separated the two, making them as dependent on a food-supply chain as we are and creating a waste problem with their manure. Animals are worth keeping for their manure alone, as they take feed that we can’t eat, like grass, and turn it into milk, meat, and fiber while the whole time also producing a valuable organic fertilizer.
I won’t get into the details, but for the most part it is hard to beat rabbits for the perfect animal for the small, self-sufficient farm. Everything they need can be grown on a small scale by hand, and they don’t take a lot of infrastructure to get started. They multiply quickly, and they are quiet and easy to care for.
Chickens would be a second favorite, but they need to be fed grain, which if you can raise is no problem. They have the added benefit of a continual source of protein (eggs) and, if you have hens that can raise their own chicks, are quite sustainable. We keep dairy and beef cattle, goats, a horse, and sometimes pigs. However, for the small farm family that wants milk, I’d stick with a small dairy goat. It is possible to raise enough vegetarian protein to survive, but long-term you’ll probably want to think about animal protein as well.
There is a lot that we can’t cover in this article, but the whole of our farm’s sustainability is not just in what we do but who we are. Maintaining fertile soils and caring for the land and for each other is a big part of what makes our farm one that can continue to grow into the future. I think there is a certain amount of romanticism in growing your own food, starting with just a pack of seeds and a hoe. There is something wonderful about that, something in us that remembers Eden and looks ahead to something better. That is one reason I enjoy my job so much. However, most people get a good dose of reality the first time they try it.
Having the knowledge and experience doing something is worth a lot, and you can easily fall back on that when you need to. Growing a 1/10 acre garden is certainly different that growing a two-acre garden, but it’s mostly a difference in scale and the amount of hard work you’ll be doing. So learning how to do things on a small scale is a valid preparation for doing it in a larger scale. But you do have to do it. There is no substitute for trying it yourself. You can make a plan and start preparing and planting your perennial crops now.
Truly being able to grow all the food you need to feed your family is hard work and takes a high level of skill, which comes with years of experience. You’ll have setbacks and disappointments, but it can be done. However, in order to do it more efficiently, it takes a lot of help, whether that is labor saving devices, advances in plant breeding, or plastics and pesticides. Survival gardening is a different beast than putting a few tomato plants out in the backyard. On our farm, our family is in the midst of our busy spring planting season. There is no better time than now to start acquiring the equipment, skills, and experience to make that happen for your own family as well. Good luck, and may God bless your endeavors!