Notes from The Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times (2010) by Carol Deppe.
I read this book in 2013 with a permaculture discussion group. The gist of it is simple: The first half of the book is an overview of gardening/farming, with sections on dealing with climate change and wild weather, how to plant seeds and transplants, designing a diet around the seasons, how to preserve and store food, managing labor and exercise, water and watering, and soil fertility. In the second half of the book, she presents five staple crops that will get us through difficult times, going into some detail concerning the benefits of each crop, crop varieties, ways to grow and harvest each crop, how to save seeds, and diseases and pests. The five crops are potatoes, corn, beans, squash, and (duck) eggs.
I found the book useful, illuminating, and at times a bit controversial and personal in terms of diet, allergies and sensitivities, obesity, and health in general.
I guess I should admit that I don’t actually grow any of these crops except beans, and mostly green beans, not dried (shelling) beans, which is what she concentrates on, and summer squash (not winter squash and pumpkins). Ducks are tempting.
I’m going through the chapters one by one, bolding what I found especially interesting or useful.
Chapter One: Gardening and Reliance
Deppe — who lives in the Pacific northwest on a half-acre of heavy clay soil, and she also leases 2 acres a few minutes from her house for crops — talks about designing gardens for bad times. But she also says to plan for the future while living primarily in the present.
Her focuses are 1. contemporary personal survival – greater control over food supply. 2. surviving ordinary traumas and disasters, like drought, no water or electricity, injury, etc. 3 gardening in mega-hard times, things that might happen once in a generation: oil lack, pandemic, natural disaster, currency deflation, war.
Would your garden fail because you are dependent on electricity, irrigation, oil, or agribusiness?
She discusses celiac disease and the ubiquity of wheat, soy, and dairy in our food.
Interdependence is healthy and normal. We need skills so we can be valuable contributors in hard times.
You don’t have to own your own land; you can beg, borrow, rent land, and use containers to grow crops.
Chapter Two: The Plant Gardener Covenant: 33 Golden Gardening Rules
I won’t list all 33, but they include:
- all gardening is local;
- plant varieties that grow where you live, and plant varieties for different needs;
- resist the temptation to do unnecessary things: because of side effects, doing unnecessary things leads to more unnecessary things;
- you must thin;
- everything is connected;
- notice everything.
Chapter Three: Gardening in an Era of Wild Weather and Climate Change
Climate change is not about weather getting warmer; it causes irregularities in the patterns of ocean currents and winds, which can have major local effects.
Volcanic activity can trump and reverse warming trends and trigger minor and major ice ages, as 72,000 years ago when humanity was almost wiped out by weather change caused by a single volcanic eruption. No modern weather models include volcanic activity.
“Global warming is happening…. It’s been happening since the glacial maximum about 20,000 years ago, so it is nothing new. There is much argument about how fast global warming is happening and how much is caused by people; that’s not a subject for this book.”
The Younger Dryas Interval – a period of about 1,000 years (in the late Pleistocene, 12,800 to 11,500 years ago) when climate “snapped all the way back to the frigidity of the glacial maximum, after which temperatures rebounded to where the overall warming trend would have taken them if the Younger Dryas had never occured.”
The Medieval Warm Period was a time (950 – 1250) that was great for Europe, with famine and disease rare, but devastating for Mexico and the American Southwest, which had horrific droughts and probably contributed to the “vanishing of entire populations.”
Drought and aridity (associated with the period of global warming we’re in) is often more damaging than a few degrees of temperature change. Pollination can also get out of sync with erratic weather.
She recommends Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. In most cases, societies fail for multiple reasons, usually not just climate change. Collapse is exponential and can occur over just a few years.
Gardens need to be ready to deal with erratic weather. The last 100 years have been very stable with respect to weather and climate, very low levels of volcanic action. Any crop or growing method that’s very fine-tuned to the ecology of of a particular weather pattern is the most vulnerable if ordinary weather patterns don’t prevail. She argues for short-season crops and crops that are broadly adapted.
She goes through the devastating effects of the Little Ice Age, which affected North Atlantic Europe and non-western America from 1300-1850. In Europe in AD 1300, about 80% of the population were farmers and 80% of what they grew were grains, which are very vulnerable to wet weather. In Spring 1315, it rained sheets for week after week, topsoil was washed away, and this was followed by 5 yrs of colder, much wetter, and more erratic weather. Famine became common; people died from disease because they were weakened, and from violence associated with food competition. Black Death took 1/3 of the population (1348-1350 and every decade after for a while). Also cholera, dysentery, typhus. Wars became the norm, due to famine and overcrowding, which led to more famine, and armies burned crops.
Eventually, farmers developed a new model for maximising resilient farming:
- More diversity on individual farms, and regionally, including root crops, animals, fruit.
- Crop rotation.
- Animals more important, used on fallow land.
- Potato became important as source of protein with good yield for low labour
- Global markets and global transport were established
- Grain was still important but a diversified farm could buy it if local grain crops failed
- One or more family members developed other skills, like hunting, fishing, trapping, logging, weaving, etc.
Evaluate the resilience of your land:
Nature of soil; topography (“If wetland plants are growing all over your land, it means that the plants think you have a wetland”); limitations and marginality (e.g., short growing season, limited heat or water).
Think about: What is grown commercially here, and why? What did the Indians and pioneers grow on your land? Why have bad gardening years occurred?
How can you hedge your bets? More annuals, perennials rated for at least one USDA zone less than yours (if you’re in zone 5, plant perennials that can survive to 4 or 3), overseed, presoak seeds, staggered/successive planting, diversity of crops and varieties. Be flexible and opportunistic in your scheduling so you can do tasks when they need to be done.
“Now would not be a great time to plant a 1000-foot-long hedge of just one kind of bush.”
Chapter Four: Diet and Food Resilience
Keep a good enough supply of food (food that you like to eat) to last a few months, but none should be over a year old. Have 10 gallons of water in glass jars, 50 gallons in plastic containers. Use them regularly and restock.
We need to know how to use the food we grow. Reading isn’t doing!
Trading and swapping products, tools, skills builds network and resilient community.
Seasonal diet: Fruit and some veg in summer; potatoes, fall squash, fruit in fall; potatoes and winter squash in winter; corn and legumes in late winter/early spring; greens and duck eggs year-round.
Excellent high-calorie crops: potatoes, sweet potatoes, winter squash, fruit (undervalued as calorie staple), nuts, corn, beans and other legumes, wheat, seeds, meat, milk, eggs, fish. Corn, grains, some legumes and nuts (in shell) can be stored for years without electricity.
She talks about asthma, allergies, and omega-3 fatty acids. Grass-fed dairy –
the only way ruminants can produce good levels of omega-3s. Americans have a huge excess of omega-6 acids in our diets (in vegetable oils, meat, and dairy). Recommends Andrew Weil’s Eating Well of Optimum Health.
Section on “Can What We Aren’t Eating Make Us Fat?” interesting (pp. 73-76). Deppe herself has celiac disease. She also shares thoughts on obesity and the norm of feast and famine in the natural world. She says that the only safe way to eat sugar is with a fruit around it; otherwise, it’s like eating pure fat.
She also talks about salt, oils, vitamins and minerals, phytochemicals, fiber, dairy (she says that 3/4 of people are lactose-intolerant), and the vegetarian diet.
Preserving and storing methods: Natural (nuts in shell, dry corn, beans, etc); root cellar; canning, fermenting, pickling, freezing; drying in dehydrator.
She includes a chart (this is page 1 of 2) about how to store vegetables and fruits:
Some discussion of seed saving.
Chapter Five: Labor and Exercise
Optimise gardening to encourage healthful exercise and minimise inefficient, unnecessary work. Sometimes it’s all or nothing, as when harvesting has to be done all at once. But, “needing to plant everything at once creates an emergency,” and not just one emergency; it also causes us to have to water, weed, and harvest all at once. Go in stages, and slowly. Plant one bed every three weeks, as weather allows: E.g., peas one month (late March where I live), greens the next month or two (April/May), tomatoes, summer squash, and beans the next two months (May/June), brassicas the next (July), etc.
Says that restless leg syndrome is a sloth indicator, not a medical condition, caused by not walking every day.
Raised beds dry out faster, warm up faster.
Resist completionism, i.e., needing to complete one task all at once, like weeding. Vary kinds of labour; don’t do all one thing in one outing. Work bilaterally, e.g., change sides of the row, change your angle, use both arms, etc. She offers tricks for backs and knees, including tools with long handles, frequent breaks, squat and lift with knees. It’s OK to hire out.
“Most things that are worth doing are only worth doing sloppily.”
She talks to her plants and tells them to man up.
Chapter Six: Water and Watering
Get a soil survey done. Note amount and timing of rainfall, soil type and topography.
Best to water less frequently but deeper. Shallow watering encourages shallow roots.
Water in morning to avoid fungal diseases, but if you’re not watering leaves, it’s OK to water later.
Fruits and water needs: Figs, apples, grapes need least. Apricots, pears, plums need more. Cherries, peaches, nectarines need even more. Berries need a lot of water.
If drought is drastic and trees are dying, prune them back drastically (1/3 to 1/2); don’t prune it modestly, as that will just encourage growth. In intense drought, eliminate every other plant.
She thinks it will become illegal to water non-food producing crops and land. Make sure that your ornamental plants don’t need watering, or if they do, group them together.
Grass: We don’t need lawns but we do need some grass for visual openness, to walk on, and over septic drainage field.
Mulch is effective in reducing water use and loss. A 3″ mulch keeps the top 2-4″ soil from drying out.
She hates drip irrigation. She lists 11 reasons. Number 7 made me laugh:
“Plants look dusty and dirty and less lush with no rain or overhead watering. They don’t look as happy. Maybe they are as happy, but I’m not when I look at that. I’m depressed. I don’t garden in order to get depressed.”
Heirloom varieties of plants were expected to scrounge their own water.
Plowing or tilling, even once, can create hard pan. “Soil capillarity” is needed.
Chapter Seven: Soil and Fertility
Feed the soil and the soil feeds the plants.
Three ways to maintain soil fertility: Retain what’s there (don’t leave soil bare, weed as needed but leave most weeds, don’t overwater); grow cover crops, nitrogen-fixing legumes; add amendments to replace lost fertility (inoculants, manure, pee, leaves, grass clippings).
She doesn’t compost, because she doesn’t have the ingredients: food waste goes to the ducks, grass clippings and leaves go straight into the garden, etc. Practicality of composting depends on size of garden: under an acre but not tiny is best [I’ve got 3/4 acre and it works well, I think; I also practice chop and drop, cutting leaves like comfrey and leaving them where they lie to mulch and nourish].
She keeps semi-permanent debris piles of branches, vines, etc. Good wildlife habitat. [I do this, too.]
Chapter Eight: Potatoes
Benefits: most calories per square foot and hour of work; more protein than other crops except legumes; easy to grow. Don’t eat green potatoes (she goes into detail on this). Potatoes should not be exposed to light for more than a day.
She discusses potato varieties, how to grow them, harvest them, store them, and cook them, and potato diseases and pests and how to avoid them. Potatoes can keep for up to 10 months (don’t store them near apples).
She also talks about saving the best potato tubers to replant next year (“roguing” potatoes):
Chapter Nine: The Laying Flock
Benefits of ducks: They use parts of the yard that can’t be gardened; they eat grass; they give us nutrient-rich manure; they eat slugs and snails, which chickens don’t eat (she says). She is a “happier and more joyful person with ducks” than without them.
Why ducks instead of chickens? They lay better; they can range year-round in the northwest (not where the ground freezes, though); they forage for more of their diet; best for pest control; if you’re allergic to chicken eggs, you can usually eat duck eggs; they lay longer (more than 2 years); they are easier to control with a 2′ tall fence and they can be herded; the eggs are larger; they lay reliably from 4-8 a.m.; they love cold rain; they are hardier, more resistant to disease.
Downsides to ducks: They need bathing water (like a kiddie pool); they are vulnerable to predators; you can’t use a chicken tractor (which moves the flock around to reduce wear on the garden and to spread their manure around) on ducks; they need more space than chickens and want less confinement. She says that if she lived in a place with frozen ground or snow for many months, she would keep chickens, which can be confined. [But lots of people in Maine and NH keep ducks. Some of the ducks around here include magpie ducks at Steeplebush Farms, Limington, ME; an unknown variety of ducks at Wonderwell (Buddhist center) in Springfield, NH; and Blue Swedish ducks in a permaculturist’s garden in Nottingham, NH.]
Deppe also talks about how to choose type and breed, eggs vs. meat, how what to feed them in easy and in hard times, how to use ducks for garden pest control (don’t turn them loose in the garden or they will eat it — they are not scratchers like chickens), how to cook with duck eggs.
Chapter Ten: Squash and Pumpkins
The winter squash and pumpkin found in stores is often picked prematurely, immaturely, uncured. For prime winter squash, you have to choose the best varieties and grow them yourself.
Three major squash in the U.S.: Cucurbita maxima (need to cure for 1 month): Blue Hubbard, buttercup, pie pumpkin, Sweetmeat, etc.; C. pepo (need to cure 1-2 weeks, eat by end of December): summer and crookneck squash, zucchini, delicata squash, small sugar, acorn, spaghetti squash, Halloween (ornamental) pumpkins, gourds; and C. moschata (needs 1-2 weeks to cure; also needs warmer conditions — not good in northeast U.S.): butternut, “cheese” pumpkins.
Her favourite winter squash: Sweet Meat Oregon Homestead, Sunshine F, Katy Stokes ‘Sugar Meat,’ Buttercup-Burgess, Sibley and Flat White Boer hubbards (can weigh 50 lbs+; to open them, she suggests dropping them in the driveway from waist-height), delicata ‘Small Sugar.’
Her favourite summer squashes: Costata Romanesca, Golden Bush, Gold Rush F, and Zephyr F.
She also talks about growing squash, harvesting and drying squash, and saving seeds.
Chapter Eleven: Beans
Benefits of beans and other legumes: best source of protein in vegetable world; good low-glycemic carbs; fiber; easy to grow and harvest. She focuses mostly on dried beans.
Peas, fava beans, garbanzos, and lentils are all good cold-weather crops that can tolerate freezing temps. All the rest are warm-season crops.
She discusses bush vs. pole beans, interplanting corn and beans, bean strategies, and seed-saving.
Chapter Twelve: Corn
I skipped this chapter as I have no intention of growing corn again. I tried it for a few years when we lived in Maine and either the corn ears didn’t form well, or if they did, larval insects or deer got them first.
She talks about how “growing corn is just outrageous amounts of fun,” and she defends it as a worthwhile crop. She talks about grain corn, polenta, and saving seed. Gluten-free bread and cake recipes are included.
At the back are several pages of notes and references, and a two pages of seed sources.