Foodsheds: Living on Local Food

As a gardener, you’ve probably considered where your food comes from. You know that most fresh tomatoes and cucumbers aren’t coming from local farms here in Appalachia in January and February. But have you ever considered trying to eat local throughout the year? Eating local has a host of benefits. It helps the environment decreasing the amount of energy used for transportation and refrigeration of good as well as benefiting local economies. Purchasing local can also help you save money and eat healthier. Local food typically doesn’t have a lot of processed ingredients and the produce is more nutrient-rich because it’s fresher than its grocery store counter-parts. 

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and other stories.

Barbara Kingsolver wrote and inspiring book about her family’s experience eating local for a year right here in Virginia called Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. During the year they got as much of their food as possible from their local community. They made exceptions for staples like flour, olive oil, and spices that they couldn’t find locally and tried to source these as ethically as possible.

To source their food they relied heavily on their 4000 square foot garden as well as fruit and nut trees and bushes they’d been adding to their property for several years like blueberries, hazelnuts, and peaches. They also foraged for a few goodies like morel mushrooms and had eggs and meat from their chickens and turkeys. They also purchased food from local farmers both directly and at the local farmers market. They bought some produce they didn’t grow as well as meat and honey.

Coming Home to Eat by Gary Paul Nabhan is another great look at eating local for a year. He sources his food from within 250 miles of his home in Arizona. Kristin Kimball’s memoir, The Dirty Life is also a great look at what it takes to produce food for a community.

Could you eat local for a year?

Kingsolver said that, “we hoped to establish that a normal-ish American family could be content on the fruits of our local foodshed.” While they may not have sourced all of their food locally they certainly made a big change and an achievable one. One that other families could make too. A large garden and fruit trees are an obvious bonus but one could get started with container plantings or a community garden plot.

Additionally, you can seek other local sources like the Kingsolvers. Visit farmers markets, purchase a CSA share, or take a wild food walk to get started with foraging. 

Living off the land.

While everyone can grow at least some of their own food (apartment dwellers with window boxes of herbs count!), what should you do if you want to live off local food? Here are some things to consider when planning your garden and sourcing food.

  • What does your family eat a lot of? Most families have limited space and time. If you only eat green beans a few times a year you may not want to grow a ton of them just because they’re easy to grow.
  • Check out what is readily available locally. If you’ve got a good source for local, organic sweet corn you may want to the space you could use for corn to plant more tomatoes instead.
  • Think about how long you intend to stay in your current space. If you’re renting you may not want to plant apple trees but strawberries will bare much sooner. 
  • Use succession planting and a planting calendar to make the most of the space and time you have. 
  • Start learning to preserve food while it’s in season. Pick up old skills like drying, fermenting, and cellaring. Grow storage crops.
  • Buy seasonal food in bulk from local farmers or visit PYO farms and preserve it yourself.
  • Learn to grow rice or other grains.

Pros & Cons of Raised Beds

Raised beds have become a very popular. Some people may use them because they’re attractive but they also have several advantages. However, before you invest in the effort of creating raised beds here are a few pros and cons to help determine if they’re right for your garden.

Pros of Raised Beds

There are many advantages to using raised beds.

They warm up quickly in the spring.

They’ll be ready for planting before traditional garden beds. They’re great for heat loving plants like eggplants and peppers.

They drain well.

Many people find raised beds work well for them in wet climates particularly if they normally deal with heavy, clay soil. If your area experiences heavy spring rains having well-drained raised beds can help you get crops in on time. They’re also well suited for crops like summer squash that don’t thrive with wet feet.

You can put them anywhere.

One of the best things about raised beds is that they can be set up in places you couldn’t normally garden. You can grow on rooftops, old parking lots, or just places with poor soil. Note, if you’re using them to grow somewhere with contaminated soil make sure you seal the base of the bed with something.

They can be more accessible.

For people who have trouble gardening in traditional beds, raised beds can allow them to garden. They can be built on sturdy legs to accomodate folks in wheelchairs or those who have trouble bending over.

They can help prevent weeds.

While raised beds won’t eliminate the need to weed entirely, they can help reduce them.

Raised beds are perfect for root crops.

If you live in an area with heavy clay soils or have heavily compacted soil, growing root vegetables can be a challenge. Filling raised beds with compost and soil can allow you to grow perfect carrots, radishes, beets, and more!

How to Build a Hugelkultur Garden Bed

Cons of Raised Beds

Despite all their advantages there are a few reasons that raised beds aren’t the best choice for everyone.

They dry out quickly.

In hotter, drier climates what seems like an advantage elsewhere can actually become a problem. Raised beds heat up and dry out more quickly. If you live in an area where you need to conserve water, a raised bed may not be the best choice. 

You’ll have to purchase/find materials.

Depending on your circumstances and what you want your beds to look like. You may need to buy materials like lumber, screws, and soil or compost. Alternatively, you could use logs from your own property or weave walls with flexible sticks.

They require maintenance.

Unless you build your beds from stone or brick, your raised beds will most likely require maintenance and repair over the years. Boards and logs will rot and metal will rust. While it may seem like a good idea to use old railroad ties or pressure treated lumber these can leach chemicals into the soil and should be avoided.

Most raised beds cannot what be tilled.

Unless you make very large beds you probably won’t be able to use a tiller in them. You can use a broad-fork or garden fork instead.

Take these features into consideration as you determine whether raised beds are the right choice for your garden.

The Importance of Sustainable Soil Management

Your garden harvest starts with healthy soil. How much produce you get, whether your plants are affected by disease, and even how many pests you have can be affected by how you treat your soil. But how you manage your soil can also affect wildlife and the environment.

Algal Blooms

On this blog, we’ve frequently discussed the importance of mulch and cover crops. They are two simple ways to help prevent soil erosion and nutrient runoff. While these effects are obviously bad for your garden they also have more far-reaching consequences. When soil and nutrients erode they contribute to algal blooms in streams, lakes, rivers, and eventually the ocean. 

Algal blooms can be green, red, blue, or brown. They affect both marine and freshwater environments and produce toxins that have a variety of negative effects. The toxins can sicken or kill people and animals, create dead zones in the water, raise treatment costs for drinking water, and hurt industries that depend on clean water. One way we can prevent these algal blooms is to practice good soil management.

Good Soil Practices

Sustainable soil management means using practices that build healthy soil, reduce erosion, and reduce the need for fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides. They include:

  • Planting cover crops, especially in the fall to prevent erosion and add nutrients and organic matter to the soil.
  • Using mulch around plants whenever possible to prevent erosion, suppress weeds, hold moisture, and add nutrients and organic matter to the soil.  
  • Rotating crops to disrupt disease and pest life cycles and reduce excess nutrients.
  • Reducing soil compaction which helps fungal and insect life in soil thrive. Whenever possible reduce tilling and using equipment. 
  • Providing habitat for beneficial insects like cover crops, mulch, wildflower patches, and insect hotels.

While small gardeners and farmers are not the biggest contributors to this type of pollution every little bit helps. Making these small changes can improve your garden, improve water quality, and help wildlife.

Saving the Past for the Future