(Perma)Culture and Sanity
Throughout most of our evolution as a species, Humans as hunter-gatherers relied on a very large number of locally-available wild plants for food. This habit of using a hundred or more different native plants to meet our nutritional needs helped safeguard human survival in two important ways. By spreading our feeding habits among many plant species, we minimized damage which would have been caused by harvesting too often from a small group of plants.
Also, by not relying too heavily on any one plant species for food, we minimized the danger that starvation would be suffered during difficult seasons because of the failure of a single staple food plant. Modern investigation, in fact, suggests that starvation was extremely rare among hunter-gatherer peoples.
During the recent centuries of our agricultural existence, however, we've moved away from the ancient wisdom of relying on a large number of locally-plentiful native plants for food. At this point in our history, 90% of nutritional needs worldwide are being met by fewer than 30 plant species.
Often these modern-day food plants originated in very different climates from where we now grow them. Most require constant attention to thrive—many would simply vanish if subjected to a few seasons' neglect by their human stewards. Where we once were supported naturally by our local ecosystems, we have become slaves to the plants on which we ourselves rely for food—plants which have in turn become dependent on us for their own survival.
Thus in recent times we've both reduced the number of plant species which support us, and we've weakened the remaining plants and made them dependent on our care. This dependency has come about largely as a result of basing crop production on artificially-maintained, "idealized" conditions created by very high inputs of water, fertilizers, pesticides and other materials. In this way we have elevated yields to high levels, but at the cost of making our food plants dependent on intensive care.
As our food plants become accustomed to the treatment we give them, they require more and more from us, while returning proportionately less and less for each added input. This action of the "law of diminishing returns" has resulted in our present agriculture using far more energy than it returns—a situation made possible only by high fossil fuel consumption. Other costs of these high inputs include environmental degradation, waste and dependency.
Traditional farmers, on the other hand, created "ideal" conditions by working with natural abilities and characteristics of plants, and by planting locally-adapted mixes of plants which could take advantage of whatever climatic conditions presented themselves. Farmers used the inputs that were available, but these were often limited and so plants had to rely for survival on natural characteristics, such as aggressive root systems. Instead of working to counteract climatic challenges with higher inputs of water, fertilizers, etc., farmers worked to encourage and select plants which could overcome difficult conditions by their own abilities.
An example of this idea was Hopi farmers' way of planting corn in the desert where little water was available. The Hopi planted their corn seeds 8 to 12 inches under the surface, to take advantage of cooler, moister soil at this depth. The Hopi corns' seeds were able to send sprouting shoots through the 8 to 12 inches of soil above them, and so could take advantage of this planting method. Modern corn seeds planted this deeply in experiments by Gary Nabhan of Native Seeds/SEARCH were not able to make it to the surface.
Another strategy of traditional farmers is well-illustrated by their planting of Tepary beans in areas where there is normally too much rainfall for these desert-adapted beans. During years of normal rainfall the Tepary beans would fail, but in years of drought when other plants failed, the Tepary beans could be relied upon to produce a crop. For early farmers in harsh, isolated locations, the consequence of ignoring these types of safeguard could be hunger or starvation.
Modern gardeners can take advantage of these same approaches for growing food plants which are less dependent on constant attention and excessive chemical inputs. First, plant a wider range of plant types and varieties, experimenting with older, hardier heirlooms developed years ago when breeding priorities were geared more toward growing food, and less toward shipping and storing it.
Second, learn the old methods of helping plants cope with stress. Replace excessive irrigation with deep organic mulches, for instance, and replace expensive chemical fertilizers with legume crops (such as beans or cowpeas) grown on a rotational basis—or interplanted, as were the Native Americans' Three Sisters (beans, corn and squash)—in garden areas to provide nitrogen for following crops.
Instead of using pesticides to protect plants from disease and pests, select plant types and varieties which cope with these stresses naturally (Seed Savers Exchange is the single best resource for finding the old, tough-and-productive heirloom vegetable seeds). Plant habitat for beneficial insects, including Umbelliferous plants such as carrots, fennel and dill. If you find a plant which simply will not do well without constant pampering, question whether it is really worth the time and effort to grow in your garden—try trading produce with a distant neighbor whose growing conditions differ significantly from yours.
Carefully use timing to make the best use of rain during growing seasons, and plant heat- or drought-sensitive crops in the shelter of taller, tougher plants. Place an occasional small fruit tree in the garden and plant around its drip line to provide deciduous shade for greens during hot months. The ideas are endless... all that's needed is to discover—or re-discover—them, and put them to use!
Reprinted from (Perma) Culture and Sanity Website