If you’re fighting to grow food, it might be that you’re choosing to grow plants that aren’t especially suited to your region. Easy gardening is still within your reach, however. In this article, I’m going to give you a quick-start guide to figuring out what might grow better where you live by taking a look at how I pick out good potential food plants where I live.
If you drive across my (blessed and warm) home state of Florida, you’ll encounter a vast range of different environments. In one place you’ll find yourself beneath majestic live oaks, bearded with Spanish moss… in another, you’ll trudge through cattails in muck beneath open skies. A few miles away, the soil could be palmetto-covered rusty sand beneath a resinous pine canopy. Go down south and you’ll see mango trees as large as oaks… go up north and you’ll see massive pines still scarred by slashes created by turpentine harvesters now lost to history.
Some people think they lack green thumbs because their plants died… but their mom’s/friend’s/grandpa’s/accountant’s plants are doing great. How can this be?
There are failures that are your fault – but there are also failures that relate directly to your native ecosystem. Your yard is a piece of your climate and is influenced greatly by the soil beneath.
If you want to find what grows easily, get a good local plant guide book and go for a walk. I’ve been wandering my neighborhood for years and have gotten a really good idea of what will thrive and what will not. In every climate except for those too harsh to support plant life, there’s SOMETHING edible you can grow. Even in rocky deserts, life abounds.
Here’s how to open your eyes and see how the wild plants can influence your gardening choices.
Go For A Walk
Sometimes I like to go wandering off through the woods, looking for plants and animals rarely glimpsed in my suburban neighborhood. I’m rarely disappointed by what I find. I’ve spotted great stands of native pawpaws… stepped over pygmy rattlers… and watched tadpoles swim lazily through deep, spring-fed ponds in the middle of nowhere. On my walks locally, I’ve found hickories, wild plums, volunteer loquats, blackberries, elderberries, native persimmons, oaks, occasional pines and plenty of wild muscadines, to name a few. My native ecosystem is hardwood oak forest.
Armed with this information, I now know what will grow in my yard with less care. (For a pictorial list of edibles I documented on one walk, check out this post).
Pecans are a cousin of hickory, so I can plant those. Wild plums? I can plant cultivated types. Loquats? Check. Blackberries? I planted thornless types in my yard and they’re producing with little care. Native persimmons? Great – I can plant the improved, large-fruited Japanese cultivars and expect success. Oaks? They’re cousins of chestnuts… so I’m planting chestnuts. Pines? Well, pines like acid soil, generally… and so do blueberries. Wild muscadines? I planted improved types with large fruit… and they grow with almost no care.
Now obviously, since it supports a wide variety of forest species, my neighborhood has decent soil. But what if your neighborhood is in the middle of a patch of brutally hot, sandy scrubland? What if even the palmettos look like they’re suffering?
It may not be easy to grow what you want to grow… but chances are, there are still plenty of delicious plants that will grow under your local conditions. God has designed nourishing plants to grow under conditions that would kill the average cabbage.
Again – look around! I’ve had people say things like, “I live in swamp – nothing will grow here because it drowns!”
Not true! In a warm swamp, like here in Florida, you can grow malanga, taro, Chinese water chestnuts, elderberries, duck potatoes, etc. Further north, check out the native plants – can you identify anything with edible or useful relatives? There are plenty of edibles that will grow in wet or mucky, flooded conditions… you just need to find them. And quit trying to grow corn or apples in a place ill-suited to their culture.
In sandy and dry scrubland, I’ve seen persimmons, pawpaws, hawthorns, wild blueberries, spurge nettles and prickly pear thriving together. Why not plant improved versions or cousins of some of these plants? The native prickly pears are edible but hard to process because of the spines – plant their cousin, the thornless “nopale cactus” and you’ll be enjoying tasty no-work cactus pads. If you see wild blueberries, you can bet that cultivated types will probably do fine. Spurge nettles are cousins of cassava and chaya, two very good vegetables for my area. Pomegranates might be another option, since they love arid ground.
Now you may say “Great, Dave, you’ve given us plenty of easy gardening ideas for Florida… but what about here? I don’t live in sandy scrub or the swamp? I live in grassland/the mountains/the Pacific Northwest/dairy country/etc.!”
If you’re not all that familiar with plant families or what grows easily in your climate, then you need to do your homework. Much of my time has been spent in experimentation so I can share what I know and learn what grows best in my area… in order to survive and thrive, you need to do the same.
As a jumpstart, I recommend you do five things:
1. Research what the native tribes ate in your area
2. Take a class from a wild food forager
3. Ask a local farmer to tell you what grows easily
4. Go for walks with a plant guide
5. Web search every plant you find for edible (and other) uses… then look up its relatives
If you can find out what the natives ate, then look for improved versions, that’s a good start. Learning from foragers is also an excellent idea. Farmers are repositories of information, since their entire livelihood relies on knowing the soil and what grows. Plant guides are fun and handy until you get everything in your head… and the internet is the gardener’s friend.
Keep your eyes open and follow the design of your native environment, keep experimenting, and above all – keep growing your own food! It’s often a lot easier than you think.