Household Food Security? Every Growing Year Is A Rehearsal!

Winter melon, Benincasa hispida.
Winter melon, Benincasa hispida.

Do you grow your own food security?  “This summer’s bushfires were not just devastating events in themselves. More broadly, they highlighted the immense vulnerability of the systems which make our contemporary lives possible”, The Conversation (7.2.20).

“Towns running out of water helped after deluge of rain in NSW – but many miss out. Storms were ‘wonderful news’ for about 20 towns, but dozens more are still waiting for water”, The Guardian (11.2.20).

“Italians struggle with ‘surreal’ lockdown as coronavirus cases rise”, The Guardian (24.2.20).

“World Health Organisation mission director warns world is ‘simply not ready’ for coronavirus pandemic”, The Guardian (26.2.20).

Six days after drafting this blog, supermarket shelves are looking bare thanks to coronavirus.  Sure, we can grow our own food, but what to do without toilet paper?  My partner says that during the Great Loo Paper Crisis in Hue (Vietnam, 2009), guava leaves were good and bodhi tree leaves were better. Here we have The Australian newspaper, and in the subtropics, mulberry, canna and Tithonia diversifolia would suffice when  Murdoch’s newspapers run out. Best avoid taro; while their leaves look functional, the raphides within them are not gentle. Even Aloe vera won’t relieve that sting.

But I digress…

Australia has a first world society funded by a third world economy. That economy runs on cheap, abundant fossil fuel. The food surplus this produces, mostly meat and grain, depends on benign weather, on the seasons behaving seasonably. In a good year, Australia grows enough beef burger ingredients to feed an extra 40 million people. But good weather never was a given and it’s even less likely from now on.

It was 1985 when anywhere on Earth last experienced ‘normal’, ‘traditional’ weather. This month, Antarctica, the coldest continent, reached 18.3C. Tasmania’s kelp forests are dying.  When economists at JP Morgan, not known for their deep roots in ecology, warn the climate crisis is threat to human race, perhaps it’s time to remind ourselves that growing food at home is more than good for the soul, it provides a buffer against shocks to the environment, economy and society.

jackfruit Artocarpus seed
Jackfruit seed (Artocarpus heterophyllus) contains protein, fibre and carbohydrate.

Food gardens should always produce a surplus. Grow plentiful food so you can save money instead of shopping. Use your surplus to trade. I don’t keep chickens, but I do produce a surplus of food which means I never need be short of eggs.

Grow food for preserving, for surplus seed, surplus plants; products that can be traded for goods and services. I traded jam to produce three radio shows, and surplus plants for plumbing work. This summer I sold surplus herbs to a restaurant.

I’ve experienced what it is like living in England, a fossil fuel dependant economy, when there wasn’t enough fossil fuel to go around. Queues for rationed fuel, and queues for food. High inflation causing grocery price rises on bread, milk and butter to increase so fast shop keepers stopped changing their price tags, you checked this week’s chalk board. A three day working week, rolling blackouts, record mortgage defaults and high unemployment. One brief period of fossil fuel insecurity lead to a decade of social and political consequences.

I grew food in London, a first world city where during one memorable drought there was a total hosepipe ban. People had to queue to collect water for washing, cooking and drinking from a stand pipe down the road. We were allowed 8cm of water in a bath. I siphoned it off to grow food.

Through this, plus training by my grandparents in ‘Digging for Victory’, I probably know better than many Australians how easily society can sleepwalk into a crisis. And I’ve experienced how long it can take for society to recover from those disruptions.

One ‘Dig for Victory’ formula was that 100 square metres of good soil can grow a surplus of food for one adult for a year. My Brisbane household has 300 sq metres under cultivation. Here is one example of what that can produce in an average year in subtropical Queensland:

* 129 different food plants on the menu (grow a diversity; there’s always winners and losers);
* 12 types of jam, a total of 875 jars;
* 26 different types of packet seed, a total of 911 packets;
* 51 different types of surplus plant, a total of 1,800 plants;

I also nurture the soil in which my lawn grows. If ever I don’t need it as a working space/ meeting space, the soil is in such beautiful condition I could add a further 60 sq metres to my food garden.

In reality, it is access to water that limits food production in my subtropical garden. In ongoing drought, each 100 sq metres of food growing soil requires a minimum of 7,000 litres of stored rainwater to sustain the production of staples (Bellis won a national Save Water Award for this in 2009), but 10,000 litres of stored water per 100 sq metres would be ideal. That extra water would allow me to grow a thirsty corn crop. Thankfully, my wastewater system churns out a reliable 300-325 litres of treated wastewater a day and I have adapted what I grow and how I grow it to use no more than 1 litre of wastewater per square metre per day.

How might home food production come in handy in 2020? ‘Coronavirus: What happens when a COVID-19 pandemic is declared?’, asks ABC News (26.2.20).

First Dog on the Moon: coronavirus
First Dog on the Moon: coronavirus:

“Experts say preparation, not panic, is what’s needed now. “We need to think about whether you have enough medication and essential foods such as canned foods, some pasta or food that can give us fibre, carbohydrate and protein for two weeks, if things were to interrupt the supply chain of food,” Professor Mackay, a Virologist at the University of Queensland says.

“Don’t forget to prepare for pets as well, with extra supplies of dried pet food and flea treatments in case there are shortages.” But he cautions against panic-buying supplies or hoarding food. “We don’t want to see empty shelves,” he says. “We have time to prepare now by just buying a few extra supplies each time we shop, and set it aside.”

Here is a list from my garden – my living larder – and my store of home grown food that might serve my household if a lockdown occurs: protein, carbohydrate and fibre.

After 32 years as a vegetarian eating the protein equivalent of two eggs a day was really luxurious when compared to rationing in Britain during World War Two. That’s why my family dug for victory. Most Australians freak out at this amount of protein, yet somehow I survived. Humans need 0.7g protein per kilo per day, so two 66g eggs a day is plenty. I also coped with being vegan for two years and that experience helped me to realise that anything containing chlorophyll also contains a quantity of protein, albeit in small amounts.

In my home and garden I have:

* Soya bean, Glycine max, dried (36.49g protein per 100g);
* Sword bean, Canavalia gladiata. Mine are just seedlings, but they are perennials and I can get two years from one sowing (28.39g protein per 100g).
* Mung bean, Vigna radiata, dried and in the ground (23.86g protein per 100g). Their pods are approaching harvestable size, but the seed are richer in protein;
* Pigeon pea, Cajanus cajan (21.7g protein per 100g). Still seed from 2019 in store, my current plants have yet to flower;
* Sesame, Sesamum indicum, dried (17.7g protein per 100g);
* Bunya, Araucaria bidwillii. Foraged nuts. Frozen (11g protein per 100g);
* Chickpea, Cicer arietinum, dried (8.86g protein per 100g
). I sow  in mid-autumn;
* Snow pea, garden pea, Pisum sativum, dried (5.42 g protein per 100g). Warming, humid winter weather may cause mildew and bolting, but if sown on mid-winter’s day, I usually get a brief but decent return of fresh peas and dried seed;
* Sweetleaf, Sauropus androgynus, in the ground (4.8g protein per 100g);
* Chilean wine palm seed, Jubaea chilensis. Seed are produced all year round (probably comparable with coconut, say 3.3g protein per 100g);
* Lá lốt, Piper sarmentosum, in the ground (3g protein per 100g);
* Giant timber bamboo, Bambusa oldhamii, shoots produced after good rain in the warm seasons. Cooked shoots stored in fridge (2.6g protein per 100g);
* Monastery bamboo, Thyrsostachys siamensis (same as above);
* Jackfruit seed, Artocarpus heterophyllus, from fruit harvested in the warm seasons (unable to find protein content data);

Harry Oakman, Gardening in Queensland, 1958
Some traditional gardening advice needs updating for a changing climate.

In Brisbane, it’s always time to sow corn, Zea mays (3.27g protein per 100g). In 1958 Harry Oakman, a celebrated gardener, said in his book ‘Gardening in Queensland’ that corn may be sown any time between August and February. If you have followed me on Facebook, you’ll know that in 2017 I demonstrated how much warmer the climate is now by successfully sowing corn every month of the year. In certain instances like this, traditional gardening advice needs updating.

* Cassava, Seed Savers’ cultivar, Manihot esculenta;
* Cassava, Manihot esculenta ‘Variegata’;
* Christmas lily, Lilium longiflorum;
* Cocoyam, Xanthosoma saggitifolium;
* Jackfruit, Artocarpus heterophyllus, fresh and frozen fruit;
* Pawpaw, Carica papaya, either green or ripe;
* Queensland arrowroot, Canna edulis, rhizomes for human food, stems and leaves as protein rich fodder;
* Sweetpotato, Ipomoea batatas ‘Ace of Spades’, tubers;
* Sweetpotato, Ipomoea batatas ‘Marguerite’, tubers;
* Taro, Colocasia esculenta, stems and tubers;
* Winter melon, Benincasa hispida, juvenile or mature fruit;
* Yam, elephant foot, Amorphophallus paeoniifolius, tubers;
* Yam, winged, Dioscorea alata, tubers;
* Yam, African white, Dioscorea cayennensis subsp. rotundata, tubers;

Lactuca sativa var. augustana
Save seed from your best plants and eat the rest. Celtuce, Lactuca sativa var. augustana.

* Aloe vera;
* Aralia, ming, Polyscias fruticosa (four cultivars);
* Aralia, geranium, Polyscias guilfoylei (two cultivars);
* Bamboo shoots, Giant timber, Bambusa oldhamii;
* Bamboo shoots, Monastery, Thyrsostachys siamensis;
* Basil, camphor, Ocimum x kilimandscharicum;
* Basil, sacred, Ocimum tenuiflorum;
* Basil, Thai, Ocimum basilicum var. thyrsiflora;
* Bitter melon fruit, Momordica charantia;
* Capsicum fruit, Capsicum annuum ‘Bull’s Horn’;
* Cassava leaves, Seed Savers’ cultivar, Cassava manihot;
* Cassava leaves, variegated, Cassava manihot ‘Variegata’;
* Celtuce, or Timor lettuce, leaves, Lactuca sativa var. augustana;
* Ceylon spinach, leaves and stems, Basella alba;
* Chicory leaves, Cichorium intybus;
* Chinese celery leaves and stems, Apium graveolens;
* Chives, Allium schoenoprasum;
* Cocoyam leaves, Xanthosoma saggitifolium;
* Coleus leaves, Solenostemon scutellarioides (various cultivars);
* Cosmos sulphureus leaves and petals;
* Cranberry hibiscus leaves and flowers, Hibiscus acetosella;
* Cranberry hibiscus, dwarf (as above), Hibiscus acetosella ‘Red Shield’;
* Edible fern croziers, Diplazium esculentum;
* Eggplant fruit, Solanum melongena ‘Black Beauty’;
* Eggplant, Solanum melongena ‘Early Long Purple’;
* Eggplant, Solanum melongena ‘Listada di Gandia’;
* Elephant foot yam stems, Amorphophallus paeoniifolius;
* Fennel leaves and seed, Foeniculum vulgare ‘Purpureum’;
* Four season’s herb, leaves, Plectranthus amboinicus ‘Variegatus’ and ‘Bayside Beauty’;
* Garlic chives, Allium tuberosum;
* Guava, fruit, Psidium guajava;
* Kaffir lime, leaves, Citrus hystrix;
* Kang kong, leaves, Ipomoea aquatica;
* Kings salad, leaves and petals, Cosmos caudatus;
* Lebanese cress, leaves , Aethionema cordifolium;
* Memory herb, leaves, Bacopa monnieri;
* Mexican pepperleaf, Piper auritum;
* Mexican tarragon, leaves and flowers, Tagetes lucida;
* Mexican tree spinach, leaves, Cnidoscolus aconitifolius;
* Nardoo, leaves, Marsilea mutica;
* Okinawa spinach, leaves and shoot tips, Gynura bicolor;
* Old man saltbush, leaves, Atriplex nummularia;
* Parsley, Petroselenium crispum;
* Pawpaw leaves, Carica papaya ‘Southern Red’;
* Pineapple, ripe fruit, Ananas comosus ‘Mareeba Sweet’;
* Society garlic, leaves and flowers, Tulbaghia violacea ‘John May’s Special’;
* Society garlic, giant; Tulbaghia simmleri;
* Society garlic, variegated; Tulbaghia violacea ‘Variegata’;
* Spring onion, Allium fistulosum. Harvesting leaves, not whole plants, keeps this perennial in all year production;
* Spring onion, Seed Saver’s multiplier, Allium fistulosum;
* Sweetpotato leaves, Ipomoea batatas ‘Ace of Spades’;
* Sweetpotato leaves, Ipomoea batatas ‘Marguerite’;
* Talinum fruticosum leaves;
* Taro, leaves, Colocasia esculenta;
* Thai coriander, leaves, Eryngium foetidum;
* Vietnamese mint, leaves and shoot tips, Persicaria odorata;
* Vietnamese paddy herb, leaves and shoot tips, Limnophylla aquatica;
* Vietnamese parsley, Cryptotaenia japonica;
* Wall rocket, leaves and shoot tips, Diplotaxis tenuifolia;
* Winter melon, flowers and leaves, Benincasa hispida;

What to grow?

Initially, I  used my favourite vegetarian cookbook: Oxfam’s ‘Community Aid Abroad Vegetarian Cookbook‘ (still available) to decide which globally significant crops could be grown in my humid, sub-coastal subtropical food garden. I linked recipes I can cook to meals that I like eating to food I can grow.

Seed Savers Manual
The Seed Savers Manual is vital to home food production.

The Seed Saver’s Manual is an essential guide to growing food security. Not only does it tell you how to grow over 100 food plants and how to save their seed from year to year, by using it you can adapt your crops to local soils and conditions as our climate changes. This is Australia’s leading guide to proactive food security. It is based on what a household, a commercial market garden, or a community garden can produce.

Those kinds of garden have two things no industrial farm offer society:

1. Diversity in what we grow: no season will ever truly repeat in a warming world, so every season there will be crops that win and crops that fail;

2. Flexibility arises from diversity, not monoculture: why risk all your expectations on one crop if during the season unfavourable weather changes everything? A diversely planted plot can be more responsive, unlike a factory farm that churns out one product, seed saver gardens tend to be nimble and quick: they are sustainable.

Go to our website to find your nearest Local Seed Network (LSN) to help build community resilience. Our website includes ‘how to’ manuals for year to year management of a school or community garden. It provides practical lessons for young gardeners to learn.

Today, an Australian expert advised households to ensure they store an independent food supply to last a fortnight, the same day the “World Health Organisation mission director warns world is ‘simply not ready’ for coronavirus pandemic” (The Guardian, 26.2.20) .

Exactly ‘how ready’ was Australia for the Millennium Drought? How flood proof was Brisbane when Queensland flooded in 2011? One year has passed since the humanitarian crisis of 2019 when “Up to 500,000 drought-stressed cattle killed in Queensland floods” (The Guardian, 11.2.19). The 2019-2000 bushfire catastrophe was so intense much of the nation lived day to day, floods had slipped from the national consciousness.

It’s abundantly clear Australian leaders are never ready. They just react.

Be different. Be proactive. Tend your living larder. Grow that buffer against disruption to travel, to supply,  your buffer against ill health, rising prices,  underemployment and finite resources. As seasons continue behaving unseasonally, grow your own insurance and navigate your household through.

Rising greenhouse pollution is making our crops less nutritious, so however you grow your food, don’t forget no 21st century larder is complete without multivitamins.

Welcome to the future!

Jerry Coleby-Williams
Director, Seed Savers’ Network Inc.
26th February 2020

subtropical food garden in drought Bellis
Small food gardens can be powerful: Bellis garden during drought, 2019.



6 Comments Add yours

  1. Rob Taylor says:

    Jerry Do you have a problem with rats in the garden eating your produce? If so a post on how to deal with them / exclude them would be great. Rob Taylor

    On Wed, 26 Feb 2020 16:53 Jerry Coleby-Williams, wrote:

    > Jerry Coleby-Williams posted: ” Do you grow your own food security? “This > summer’s bushfires were not just devastating events in themselves. More > broadly, they highlighted the immense vulnerability of the systems which > make our contemporary lives possible”, The Conversation (7.2.20″ >

    1. Easy: Watch Gardening Australia this Friday 🙂

  2. ralph says:

    So true. One good storm to knock out part of the grid, and no phone tv petrol or food. Scary.

  3. Stephen Besnard says:

    Very interesting.

  4. cathyc says:

    If our world has broken down enough that your own food security will be necessary, how do you copy with the idea that in that case, law and order probably won’t be functional either. Ie how do you protect your food from other human beings? In the US it would be guns, obviously, but here? Do you have thoughts about that?

    1. Yes, this gardener has thoughts, having already lived through interesting times. You might also like to think about what generally happens during times of social upheaval. You are already on line. Use the search facility on your computer and take a virtual stroll through the BBC News archives, starting with 1970’s and 1980’s Britain 🙂

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