Nov 032011

If we ever reach Peak Everything and the house of cards that is the world economy takes a hard tumble, it’s doubtful that we would be able to grow enough food in backyard gardens to fill the gaps in the food distribution system that would occur. Would it be prudent for islanders to find some land and recruit some young (younger than me) growers to Lummi Island? There’s lots of good property not being used and a few acres of well-managed land might make a huge difference in food security in the future. It would require some vision on the part of a group of people to come together with financial support and a commitment to purchase the output of any local operation. One obvious way to accomplish this would be to form an LLC and sell shares and offer a significant portion of shares to a land owner who would be willing to make land available in five to ten year increments. At the same time, we could form a CSA to guarantee a market for the production.

This isn’t a new idea as I found out recently reading an article on the website Automatic Earth (thanks to a tip from Lis Marshall).

During the New Deal there was a government program, an extremely popular one, that offered homesteads to applicants. These homesteads, often in an urban setting, included a house and outbuildings and enough acreage to grow food and have some animals. This is all detailed in a comprehensive article well worth reading from a recent post on the Automatic Earth. Interestingly, it was written by a Bellingham woman who after recapping the history poses a hypothetical proposition on how this could be done today without using government in an article titled, “Reviving the Department of Subsistence Homesteads.”

She offers the possibility of using local organizations (Whatcom Folk School, Whatcom County Extension, WSU-Mount Vernon Research Center, Country Living Expo, Sustainable Connections, Transition Whatcom, Bellingham Urban Gardeners, Washington State Grange, Whatcom Educational Credit Union, Whatcom Community Foundation, Kulshan Community Land Trust, Scratch and Peck Feed, Growing Washington CSA, Northwest Agriculture Business Center, Grow Northwest

It’s very interesting that one of the most successful subsistence homestead programs was in Longview, Washington which is detailed in this article .

I’m curious to know if there are others on the island who think it would be worth some time, effort and investment to help some young farmers get started here.

Nov 012011

How much knowledge have we lost about gardening? We can find part of the answer to this question in a popular BBC TV series  from the late 80’s called The Victorian Kitchen Garden which recreated a large kitchen garden in Wiltshire. The producers found an old gardener named Harry Dodson who became a celebrity as the result of this show. Harry Dodson didn’t claim to be a Victorian gardener but he had been trained by gardeners from that era and understood the techniques they used to force growth and extend the harvest. Three complete shows are available here and highly recommended. The first ten minutes of each program are available on Youtube as in this example.

Before the advent of the supermarket and imported food from around the world people grew their food in kitchen gardens. During the Victorian Era and particularly during the period 1850 to WWII, the stately homes of Great Britain all had walled gardens as did many middle-class dwellings. The largest walled gardens could contain many acres, might employ a staff of fifty gardeners and would daily produce food for dozens, even hundreds of people. When the glass tax was dropped in 1845 it became economical to build large greenhouses and cold frames. These were heated by  coal or wood-fired boilers allowing the gardeners to grow popular tropical fruit like the pineapple and to provide melons and grapes year round.

The tall brick walls were also often heated using fireboxes and flues. The walls served a multiple purpose of keeping animals and thieves from the garden and creating micro-climates beneath and against the walls. Sun loving trees were espalliered against the south facing wall while the north wall was used to retard ripening to extend the season. Cold frames filled with horse manure and some topsoil were used to get plants going early.

Hundreds of these gardens in the UK have fallen into disuse and disrepair over the years. With the renewed interest in vegetable gardening many of these are being restored by volunteers. The project at Croome Court is a good example of a current restoration has some interesting progress photos and description.

Googling around the web for “walled kitchen gardens” will show that there is a great deal of reviving interest in these gardens which proved that even in the English climate a tremendous variety of crops can be grown year round. The cost of brick walls is now prohibitive but we can still make use of many of the tools and techniques devised by the garden masters of the Victorian Era.