Perennial Food Plants, Food Forest Gardens, and Food Security
This article and research proposal were initially inspired by reading Eric Toensmeier’s article User-Generated Food Forest Resource is Online, encouraging food forest gardeners to contribute to this expanding database, and the discussion ensuing from Angelo Eliade’s article on Perennial Plants and Permaculture, among others, debating the planting of annuals versus the planting of perennials, as well as, I have to say, a personal obsession about food forests and perennial food plants in general.
I have also been concerned by many comments in discussions about needing to continue with our annual grains. I wish to add some perspectives to these matters as a nutritionist, counselor, herbalist and naturopath, specialising in the use of food as a medicine, whether preventative medicine or otherwise, and to propose a research project that I hope will provide a furtherance of our permaculture goals.
By way of introduction to the research proposal, I will cover the following topics: our biophilic needs and an extension to our current view of food insecurity; what we need to thrive and our broad nutritional requirements, with a focus on the phenomena of many of us meeting our carbohydrate requirements in a non-biodiverse manner using mainly common annual plants, and looking at ways of getting our energy food requirements using perennials, concurrently increasing the diversity of foods we might consume; what influences our food choices and why there might be resistance to making any shifts in diet, including the shift from annuals to perennials. I will mostly be focusing on dietary choices of those exposed to the industrialised food system and the so-called Western diet, and, because of the need I see for the particular research project I’ll be proposing, foods grown in temperate climates.
In my work I have had many opportunities to observe what happens when people need to change their diets, especially during the stressful time of dealing with illness. From a psychological point of view, experiencing illness causes people to become afraid, whether consciously or unconsciously and, according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, they are then in survival mode, and are usually less able to assess their problem solving and creative abilities. Even though in my professional demeanour I have been most kind in my efforts to persuade, I have repeatedly observed patients encountering lots of resistance to dietary change, either coming from within themselves, or from people around them. In their experience, their bodies were out of control, and they didn’t want to lose any more control of the familiar and everything they had become accustomed to. Stepping out into the unknown and being uncertain of the outcome frequently causes people to ‘slam on the brakes’, even though there is the likelihood that they would feel better for making the dietary changes they had come to consult me about. I have of course seen many positives as the great and welcome changes occur once fears are overcome and choices are made for the better.
I believe that we are currently in an analogous situation. Economic chaos, peak oil and fossil fuel dependence, and the destructive effects of the industrial (non) food system on our environment and on our bodies, leading to chronic disease in both, is causing food insecurity, fear, and the feeling of being threatened, striking at our base level survival needs. Many of us speak of a compelling need to change as we realise the extent and implications of our situation. What we may not have considered is that there is an aspect of food insecurity particular to food production using annual plants.
When someone is able-bodied, they are either employed and earning money to provide themselves and their loved ones with food, or perhaps they are closer to food provision because they are farmers/gardeners involved in food growing and production. Unless you are growing food in food forest gardens or other perennial plants growing systems, this is usually based on annual plants, apart from the perennial fruits and nuts that are currently grown. From a psychological point of view again, when we humans decided to farm using annual plants, and the work had to be repeated every single year to make the food happen, I think that we started on a very insecure-feeling trajectory.
When the conditions were favourable, the farmer was able to perform the necessary tasks, the ‘gods were kind’, and the weather ‘behaved itself’, the crops grew, people were thankful for the harvest, and life was seemingly good. But if things went wrong, it caused a lot of travail, and still does. People age or get sick, or have to leave the land, weather vagaries and herbivore populations cause unpredictabilities, sometimes no harvest at all, and for one reason or another people found (or find) themselves in situations where they were not able to obtain food relatively easily. For people dependent on current distribution systems for their food, crop failures, trucker’s strikes, and the actions of supermarket monopolies lead to questions about adequately sourcing food when things take a downturn. Perhaps when annual plants were first chosen as the foods to farm, people temporarily felt more in control of their destinies with quick result annuals, but this control was short term, and short-sighted. (I like to imagine what things would be like now if they had chosen to plant and foster the perennials that they were already used to eating, and the legacy we would have inherited if they had!)
When annuals are the focus, I believe that we recreate those survival fears every year as land becomes fallow again, and the system goes back to an earlier, less developed state. Perhaps most perennials were and are seen as taking too long to yield food when compared with annual plants that do what they do in a growing season, even though there are all sorts — ones that yield more quickly and others that take longer.
I think that we as humans will only ever feel really secure when we can see identifiable foods growing all around us in perennial plant food growing systems (additionally with the inclusion of self-seeding/perennialised annuals known to thrive in your situation), with a further solidifying sense of security when those perennial food-bearing plants are interrelated in food forest gardens. To see that plants are continually giving you food year after year after year is very comforting to us from both a survival point of view, but also because we are inherently biophilic. In order to have our need for nature fulfilled, and our survival needs fulfilled, food forest gardens that mimic natural patterns, and that persist to whatever degree, make the most sense. Creating swales and planting on contour also mimics natural patterning, increasing our biophilic resonance. From a biophilic perspective, any perennial food plant growing systems would be preferable to just growing annuals, but anytime we can give ourselves a more nature-oriented experience, we will feel better. This needs to be the case whether we are urban or rural dwellers.
I once had an illuminating experience whilst visiting Cape Otway, on the wild and windy south coast of Victoria, Australia. I met a part-Aboriginal man who taught me how to identify and eat foods eaten by his ancestors: seaweeds, shellfish I could eat raw, different berries, the juicy base of a type of swordgrass, watercress and land cress, the salty juicy leaves of a trailing coastal plant, plus others (all of which were delicious), as well as how to locate fresh water. We had hardly scratched the surface, but after we parted I lived off the land exclusively for the next ten days, and felt so at home there, and very comfortable as I observed and ate the foods on offer, which were abundantly growing all around me, considering the harshness of the conditions there. Aware that ten days is a mere snapshot in time, when I contrast this experience and the possibilities inherent in food forest gardening and growing perennial food plants with the way it feels to garden with annual plants, I’d go the perennials any day!
From a nutritional point of view, what we need to eat to thrive is very different to the foods that many of us consume, and many people are below par because of this. The average industrialised food diet is very low in nutrition, and in biodiversity, and sometimes, even if people are choosing better versions of these foods, the range of foods they eat can be low, especially if there is an over-reliance on common staple foods. Whilst it can be broadly said that we need a mixture of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats/oils, the amounts of each and what form they need to take vary considerably for each individual person. However, let’s start by saying that we will be at our best nutritionally when we obtain these macronutrients from a diverse range of foods, between thirty to fifty different foodstuffs over a day is ideal, which is not only more diverse than is common, but which also provides myriad currently missing biochemical phytonutrient substances that would benefit us immensely, and which are used to fuel the processes your body runs ‘behind the scenes’ to keep you functioning optimally.
Looking at carbohydrates specifically, instead of eating one or two familiar staple foods (which in many places are cereals which come from the seeds of annual plants), a few standard fruits and vegetables, and rarely eating other sources of carbohydrates, as many people do, we would be healthier if our carbohydrates came from a wider selection of foods. I think we need to begin developing a new model of eating (complex and simple) carbohydrate diversity by realising that our carbohydrates come from many different plant foods, and plant parts, not just the seeds that are known as grains, and the flours and starchy foods which are their products.
We can, for instance, choose from a wider range of fruits (ideally grown without toxins) and include their cores, pith, their peels if edible, and their seeds if they are not toxic, all of which provide complex carbohydrate (yep, those stringy bits that come with your banana are good for you!); a much wider range of vegetables, plus more of the plant parts that we usually discard, as with fruits. Through research and experimentation we can see how much more of the plant is edible — for example, a greater range of tree nuts can be eaten, either as they are, or by being made into pastes, milks, oils, and flours if required. We can have more variety in roots and tubers, such as utilising temperate climate yams; carbohydrate-containing foods grown in ponds and boggy ground; perennial legumes, including fresh beans and pods, dried beans, and dried pods (as in carob); carbohydrate-rich foods from plants like bamboo; and seeds from plants such as the buffalo gourd (which I had not come across until I read Eric Toensmeier’s article Perennial Staple Crops of the World, and can’t wait to try), all of which would be foods that we can harvest in abundance and biodiversity from our perennial food plant gardens, not only for their nutritional properties, but also for all the benefits that arise from perennial food plant gardens that persist. If we are shifting to a diet containing plenty of different perennial foods, the only thing that will be less prominent are the annual plants from which we now derive our common staple foods, which have usually been few in number, to our detriment, but there are plenty of carbohydrate-type foods to choose from, albeit in a different form to that which we are accustomed.
It is important to realise that energy can also be derived from proteins and fats/oils, not only from carbohydrate-containing foods (though these macronutrient divisions are a little abstract when you consider the blends of macronutrients that exist in most foods), in fact, some people are less able to completely and efficiently digest carbohydrate, and find themselves better off meeting their energy requirements using mixtures of proteins, oils/oily foods, and whatever carbohydrate they personally find easiest to digest. As we’ve seen, carbohydrates come in many different forms, not just the common starchy cereal foods, and some types suit some people better than others. Consider too the compounded nutrient deficiencies that occur when people rely on perhaps a single staple that has lost nutrient during refining or processing, and which is then not completely digested. It is also important to obtain enough fibre, so if you are contemplating eating less in the way of grain-based foods, be sure to eat plenty of plant foods such as those listed above, if you are not already doing so.
When I personally add awareness of the global situation of manipulation of markets that deal in commodity grains to thoughts about my own nutrition, I prefer to be less beholden to things outside my control, and I am wondering how much better off we would all be if we experimented with our diets before we are forced to. What influences our choices is a big area to discuss, so I will just mention just some of the many things that determine our food choices: how we were raised, our culture, what’s around us and our exposure to different foods, the climatic situation we are in, or are influenced by (though year round availability of various foods causes us to lose touch with seasonal variation), media, peer groups, financial situation, education (consider the effects of media ‘education’ on your food choices), body type, biochemistry, life stages, occupation, world view, religion, health/illness, emotions, stress levels, time available for eating and food preparation, among others! If we as permaculturists that see the bigger picture can experiment with different foods, and question common assumptions about diet, then perhaps we can be of influence in assisting others to adjust to different ways of doing things. Because we are not yet facing constant and drastic food shortages, we have a window of opportunity to question, examine, and experiment with our food choices, and gradually shift to a diet containing more perennial foods in general, and more perennial carbohydrate-containing foods in particular, that is, if you feel you need to or want to. And if by the time you have done all this examining and experimentation you find yourself really missing your grains and grain derived flour-based foods, maybe the research being done on perennial grains will have yielded enough workable results for you to eat that way based on perennials. Also, there are books and websites that discuss grain-free diets if this is something you feel like pursuing, though I’ve not yet seen any that talk about perennial foods as a focus.
If you are currently eating a low diversity diet, you can of course aim to increase that diversity now by eating from a greater selection of currently available annual plant foods, as a way of eventually segueing into a diverse range of perennial foods, which hopefully our perennial plant growers will one day provide! I would like to encourage us all, but especially our food forest gardeners, those who want to create food forest gardens, and those who are growing perennial food plants in other configurations, to know that we can shift to meeting our nutritional requirements with the perennials that they are growing, or will be growing, so that eventually we can all come to see we won’t starve or become nutritionally disadvantaged if we make the shift!
Looking forward to change…
So of course there’s the issue of getting that food into people’s mouths, and that’s something that I have a great interest in as well because, as we’ve seen, people understandably prefer to eat what they’re used to, and what tastes ‘good’ to them. Many people’s palates are not accustomed to the subtleties of real food, as compared to the coarseness of the sweet/savoury bombardment that many industrial foods offer. I am very keen to be part of the efforts to re-perennialise our diets, and to contribute to a future scenario where people are happy to eat perennial plant foods on a regular basis, hence the research project and potential spinoffs below. The push to get people to eat more fresh foods in their diets has been, and still is important, and will lead to better health outcomes, but I believe a new era of eating perennial plant foods will achieve so much more, though whilst people are unaware of the alternative foods available, and whether or not they will be ok eating them, there will be resistance. We need to make whatever small adjustments that are appropriate, whether in our growing choices, our own diets, or in the ways we decide we want to offer perennial plant foods grown in permaculture systems to others. Perhaps something about all this that will be confronting to people is the inconvenience of learning about new ways of approaching eating, seeing foods in different ways, and whether we have the headspace and time to do so, and possibly just when you thought you had it all sorted! Gradually really is the best way to go, unless you feel you have a great and compelling passion for it!
Unfortunately I personally cannot say much about the obstacles arising from all of this in terms of commercial viability for growers, but I wish to invite collaborative problem solving discussion and action to address it from those who have, or are obtaining expertise. I have presented many benefits of re-perennialising our diets, but of course it will take cooperative and gradual change to eventually see more widespread changes take place, as with any of our efforts to alter the status quo.
In the interests of acting locally, and being greatly inspired by the work of food forest gardeners everywhere who’ve written articles or made videos about their gardens, as well as the work of Eric Toensmeier, Dave Jacke, and Martin Crawford in both the U.K. and the U.S., I wish to start a research project about the perennial foods that are currently being grown in temperate climate Australia, either growing in food forest gardens, in other perennial food growing situations, or even those being grown in small groupings or as single plants. I love reading about the many, many species being grown in other temperate parts of the world, but every time I do, I always want to know if they are or can be grown to produce food here in Australia (beyond the ones that are already), and I want to compile lists of these plants so that more permies are inspired to incorporate them into their own systems, and because of my own interests, into food forest gardens. The research project will answer the following questions:
What food is being provided by perennial plants month by month in temperate Australia?
What perennial food plants are you harvesting, and what’s being eaten by you or others from the perennial plants you are growing? (This means that if you are growing a particular perennial food plant to, for instance, sell at farmers’ markets, but you don’t personally like to eat it, we still get to hear about it!)
It’s all about the food!
Whilst it’s very exciting learning about new plants and seeing them growing, especially when experimenting with our designs and choices (being fairly new to this, I’m currently having those wonderful experiences of “Oh, I didn’t know that was edible or, in some cases, even existed!”), I am thinking that when we learn that a plant is actually providing food, and we can see month to month what is possible, then this may eventually lead to an increase in that plant being grown and eaten! Hopefully this will then produce a gradual change in our food culture, to whatever degree that is possible.
I hasten to add that if anyone is already collecting this information, please contact me, I want to help! I have searched for it, but have not yet found it, all in the one place that is. I imagine that growers are compiling their own data, but to see it arranged month to month, and collectively, would be very useful.
As mentioned, this project will have a month by month format, and we will begin by requesting any growers to fill out a Grower’s Profile pro forma that lists the following:
- Broad climate information and latitude — warm temperate, cool temperate, cold temperate, highland, maritime, rainfall, seasonal variations, and whatever else would help us to understand your general growing situation.
- Brief description of your garden — food forest, other permaculture system, urban, rural, semi-rural, balcony, courtyard, greenhouse, etcetera.
Then every grower who sends me a profile will be allocated a code number, so that I can list their garden as a number, and readers can look up that number to identify the garden in which a plant is growing. A grower can then remain anonymous if they so choose. This information need only be submitted by the grower once, but will be provided for readers at the end of the monthly post every time a grower gives plant information.
When it comes time to provide monthly information about food from a perennial (or successfully self-seeding annual) food plant, another pro forma, Plant Profile, will hopefully smooth the way. This will list:
- Grower’s code number
- Botanical name
- Common name(s)
- Plant parts used for food
- How used — this can be a very simple description, raw or cooked, or more complex, perhaps providing preparation details and recipes, or links to recipes where the perennial is substituted for a more common annual plant.
- Notes – here you can free flow if you wish, giving us details such as the plant’s growing situation, microclimate, the polyculture it is part of, if the plant is really happy and prolific, or very easy as a food source somehow, where you got the plant, how it is propagated, if you also store the food and eat it later, or any other anecdotal information. However, very importantly, don’t burn out here! I’m not asking anyone for all that info. This is a long term project and everyone’s busy — meter out your inputs so we get to hear from you over the long term :)
The first step is to send me your Grower’s Profile. Then, as each plant yields food in any given month, make out a brief profile for it, then send me the plant profiles for that month as soon as possible after the month’s end. If a plant yields over two, several or many months, just list them in the particular month’s information that you send me, and I will repost the profiles you’ve already given me at the appropriate time.
If growers already have their own monthly data, they can send that to me now using the pro formas, and I will post it in the monthly reports at the appropriate time.
I am also interested in what people are foraging for and eating month to month (and if you have ever tried to grow these plants in your gardens), so if you feel like adding brief profiles of these plants to your others, please feel free, it would be most fascinating.
Every month I will post lists of plants and food information submitted, along with the code numbers and profiles of growers who have provided the information so that we can read about plants that are suitable to our own areas and similar situations. Then we can all work backwards from that information to do whatever’s necessary to get that plant into the ground for ourselves, knowing that someone’s successfully growing and eating it somewhere. I would also love to say “to get that plant into the ground in food forest gardens”, because I want to see them proliferating, but that may not suit everyone, so I’m restraining myself just a little! Notwithstanding, I really hope enough people are interested in contributing — I can’t wait to hear what perennial food plants people are growing and eating here in temperate Australia!
Ok, here we go! For any growers who wish to participate, please email me for the pro formas — 5555susana [at] gmail [dot] com.
A few notes before I sign off:
A wonderful spinoff that I can see is if the cooks and chefs out there connect with food forest gardeners and perennial food plant growers (of course you might be one and the same!) and invites arranged to come and prepare their foods, then publicise the recipes here, in blogs, on farmers’ market days, on farms, in workshops, wherever, so that we are eventually sharing more rich resources of knowledge and food, but now with an emphasis on perennial food plants in daily life.
Quantities of food grown are not that important for this project, although that is important information for all sorts of other reasons, so that might be another spinoff for the future.
From a very practical point of view, for those who are sensitive to different foods or for anyone who is trying new foods that are quite different to their normal fare, test a little of the food you are eating on its own, so that you give yourself plenty of opportunity to see if your body is ok with them. And the forager’s rule applies too: don’t eat anything unless you are certain of its identity, and how each plant part is to be consumed. If it seems like a good idea to proceed, eat a very small amount. (As we know, some things from the same plant can be entirely edible, or quite poisonous — for example, rhubarb stems are edible and the leaves are toxic, also some plants need to be cooked or prepared in certain ways to render the food harmless, and therefore beneficial.) Don’t let that one taste put you off though, many of our familiar foods come alive for us when prepared in recipes or combinations that suit the flavour and characteristics of that food, so the same will likely apply to new foods that you are trying — make sure you give them plenty of opportunity to impress you!
Regarding the discussion about the merits of perennial food plants compared to annuals mentioned at the start of my article, I have personally been edified on some of the issues raised in the discussion by reading “Succession: Four Perspectives on Vegetation Dynamics” pp. 239 – 290 in the book Edible Forest Gardens by Dave Jacke with Eric Toensmeier.
Lastly, I have a question: are growers thinking of adding their polyculture and food forest garden information to the Apios Institute database, also mentioned at the beginning of my article? They are inviting people from all over the world to contribute. I joined up and searched for Australian entries before formulating the research project so as not to ‘reinvent the wheel’, but did not find any, though I haven’t read the whole of the database yet, so perhaps I stopped too soon and yours is there? If it is, let me know.