Thursday, August 26, 2010

California homesteading

© 2010 Joshua Stark

My garden has not really taken off too well this year, partly because of the weather and partly because of the constant duck raids.  But, we've still done okay, getting a decent amount of our own food, much of it from foraging for berries, fruits, and greens, and also through the kindness of friends and barter.  These, I fully believe, are consistent with the spirit of homesteading.  Many folks lived off the land as they were preparing it, and when weather or pestilence (duck-billed or otherwise) impacted their crops. And, many communities were built and sustained through sharing food and other resources and skills, as people had little money but spent their time in trying to be useful to one another.

In California, I am blessed with an abundant variety of wild, feral, and invasive plants to eat.  California's Mediterranean climate, one of only six on Earth, along with its extreme geographies (highest point in lower 48, lowest point in North America, 800 miles of marine coastline, over 2,400 miles of inland waterways, 11,000 ft. trench off the Central Coast, etc.) create tremendous opportunities for all kinds of plants to make their home here.

Sadly, this isn't always good for California's habitats.  Giant river reed, the material I use to make my trellises, is a horrible riparian invasive that creates literal holes in the habitat - they provide no cover for natives, no food for fauna, no canopies for nesting, and their roots probably exude toxins that clear nearby plant species.

Others aren't as bad.  Himalayan blackberry and eucalyptus, while also terribly invasive, at least provide food and cover for some natives.  Eucalyptus may even be the reason for healthy monarch butterfly populations, as millions of them overwinter in Santa Cruz, and feed off the winter-flowering trees.

Of course, there are California's native plants, that tremendous cache of floral diversity with many useful traits.  California is blessed with more plant taxa than all other states, combined, well over 5,000, and many of these are varieties of familiar genera.    For example, the world has about 150 varieties of Ribes, the gooseberries, currants, etc. - and 30 of them are native to California.

This year, we've eaten nettles, mallow, a small variety of berries, morel mushrooms, and figs.  Knowing your places, your lands,and knowing what you can glean from them is an important part of homesteading, and is even important and successful in the city.  Many people plant fruiting trees and shrubs as ornamentals.  Others often take off in urban edges, the progeny of past plantings or escaped children planted by the wind, water, or birds and other animals.  Our local Lowe's, for example, grows a shrub variety of pomegranate in their parking lots.  Purple plums and mulberries abound throughout Sacramento, as do fennel, mustard, walnuts, and chicory in the edgelands.  Of course, nearly everybody grows roses, whose hips make great syrups and teas.  A person can acquire, for free, some pretty expensive sides and condiments.

Having good neighborly relations with folks who can provide you access to their wild-growing crops is also important to living off the land.  My friendships include folks around as long as I can remember, farmers who've provided access for hunting, fishing, and picking figs and river reed, and newer friendships like Hank Shaw, who just last week offered us some great meats, including a chinese sausage we'll devour in a couple of days.  In exchange, lately, we've been able to give eggs from our ducks.  Lots of eggs.  We've also been blessed with tomatoes, which is typically a reason to lock one's door in the Summer (to avoid more freebies), but this year, due to the weather, we've been able to give some away with glad hearts receiving them. 

I also give away non-food items, like flies tied from my ducks' feathers, and extra river reed I've cut for garden infrastructure.  I wanted to make a walnut stain from the inedible walnuts dropped, half-eaten, by squirrels, and I still hope to make a batch. 

Homesteading, even part-time in the city, brings a number of fun benefits.  And in addition to the expertise one gets from gardening, husbandry, naturalism, food preparation and preservation, a person also gets to share.


abby normal said...

The idea of urban foraging is really, really interesting. I read an article last year about all the citrus that goes to waste in Sacramento because the city has so many trees that also happen to grow fruit. What if we could put all that to good use instead of letting it rot in the gutters?

Josh said...

I've walked by many of those trees, in addition to the mulberries and purple plums that everybody ignores, too.

I would love to sell urban-foraged stuff at the farmers market.

There is a group that does some urban foraging, the Senior Gleaners. Good folks.