Rethinking How We Grow & What We Grow

Hosta – one unusual but high value edible for forest gardens.

Rethinking how and what we grow is about growing our own at home or in community spaces, and choosing fresh, organic, local, seasonal wholefoods. But that is not all. It also involves thinking more deeply about our society’s food producing systems, and which foods are most sustainably grown in our bioregions, using which methods. The answer to the question ‘What is sustainable food?’ will be different for different people, and different for different climate zones and bioregions. 

As I harvested and foraged in my garden recently, I found myself thinking more about the issues surrounding sustainable food. All too often, people tend to think that there is one ‘right answer’ when it comes to what we should be eating and how it should be grown. But as a designer or a grower, it is important to be adaptable, and seek solutions suitable to time, people and place. 

How We Grow: Food Producing Systems

Of course, sustainable food should be grown with a care for people, planet and fair share. But beyond this, there are a number of things to consider when we are thinking about the best food producing systems for where we live. First and foremost:

  • Land use.
  • Energy use.
  • Water use. 
  • The use of other resources (including human time and labour). 

Forest gardens or agroforestry systems are a top solution for many bioregions and sites. But while forest gardens can be incredibly productive, they may not always be the most efficient use of land. 

Should we integrate livestock? Is this essential to good land management? Opinion is divided. And again, depends on the particular area, and the needs of its inhabitants. 

For smaller spaces, such as city gardens, or even balconies or indoors growing, vertical gardening techniques can minimize land use while increasing yield. And we can also reduce water use through implementing hydroponic or aquaponics schemes. But in small, intensively managed spaces, what we gain in terms of land and water use we often lose in terms of extra time and effort. And when renewable power generation is not considered at the same time, energy use can also be a concern with such systems. 

What We Eat: Unusual Edibles

Forest gardening and agroforestry can often involve growing a range of less familiar edible plants. Often, an adaptive plan that includes both forest gardening and polyculture annual production can provide the highest yields and highest satisfaction levels. Since it allows for the production of a range of more traditional annual crops in addition to these more unusual edibles. 

But as we transition to a more sustainable and ethical future in food production, it is important not to always cling to familiar favourites. We cannot just choose foods because we like them. We need to think about eating things that grow well in our regions and, more specifically, in our own gardens. 

It is a good idea to start from what and how we grow, rather than with what we traditionally tend to eat.  Hosta, pictured above, is just one interesting edible. While I also grow traditional crops elsewhere in my garden, in the forest garden this month I am harvesting sorrels, Good King Henry, perennial brassicas, perennial alliums, chickweed, nettles, and more… a sustainable diet is a varied one. And one which adapts to the plants that can grow best in your area.

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