In permaculture design, water is the first priority. We try to find its natural routes on and off the property, slow it down, spread it out, and harvest it for use in times when it isn’t so abundant. In this regard, ponds (below surface water catchments, often naturally formed) and dams (walled-off catchments that retain water) are routinely part of a permaculture site.
Designers should strive to make these bodies of water perform as many functions as possible. Of course, they can be used for irrigation and recreation, and many people are aware that protein production from fish can be much more efficient than with any land-based animal. However, it is equally as important to realize how many edible plants can be grown in water and how productive they are, as well as the role they play in creating a healthy ecosystem.
That’s probably too huge a topic for us to tackle in one short article, so as is the case with much of what we approach in permaculture, I’m interested in sharing some of the potentially productivity—food-wise—that could be including as part of these water-harvesting landscapes. After all, if the water is going to be there anyway, we ought to put it to as many good uses as we can, and growing food certain seems like a right way to think about it.
Some Positive Things to Consider about Water Gardens
With the rise of commercial fishing, water gardens sunk even further into the background of Western food production. In the Far East, however, they have long been and remain a huge part of the diet, specifically in the form of rice paddies. However, even rice production has largely gone the way of monoculture, industrialized farming and could use some revision. To put it bluntly, there is a lot more we could be doing with water gardens.
Water gardens come with built-in advantages. Obviously, they don’t require irrigation. When used for raising aquatic livestock, such as fish, mollusks, and ducks, the water also gathers a natural abundance of nutrients, and the plants, in turn, are the means by which an over-abundance of nutrients is thwarted. Stocked with the right kind of fish, and noting that ponds are the habitat of beneficial wild animals like toads, frogs, and snakes, they also help to control pest—like mosquitoes—populations. Then, productivity can come from edge plants, floating plants, and submerged plants.
In the end, our water gardens can provide a bevy of benefits. Reed beds can be used to clean and cycle household graywater back into the system, while simultaneously producing an abundance of quality mulch material. Contour swales can slow, spread, and soak water across the landscape, supporting new forest growth while also providing rich beds for water-loving plants. Ponds and dams can add beauty, back-up water sources, and recreational spaces while they also produce much more food per square meter than terrestrial gardens can.
A Polyculture of Aquatic Plants to Get Your Water Garden Going
Like certain wily land-based plants, such as dandelion and stinging nettles, many water plants have the reputation of being noxious weeds, and still even more similarly, many of these noxious weeds are both edible and astoundingly nutritious. This isn’t to say there should be no cause for concern when introducing a rapidly spreading water plant, but it is to say that sometimes there is potential for production in doing so and methods for limiting their invasiveness. We just have to be in tune with our water gardens, influence them this way and that on occasion, and bring home the bounty. Here are a few plants to get started with.
You’ll hear Mr. Geoff Lawton reference kangkong quite a bit, and that’s because it is the fastest growing vegetable on the planet. Obviously, that quickly puts it in the weed category, but like many weeds on land, this one is particularly adept at picking up nutrients and providing a healthy addition to our tables. It tastes like a nutty spinach and is, in fact, called “water spinach”. It’ll be easy to cultivate. It’s a tropical plant that’d likely have to be treated like annual in the temperate water garden and/or be grown in greenhouse ponds.
In the wild, watercress likes to grow in moving water, such as shallow springs. It might be a good plant to have around a continually overflowing spot that maintains pond depth. It’ll also work in small containers, as long as the water is changed frequently. Watercress doesn’t like dirty water. This is a quick-growing, nutrient-dense food that works well as a raw green in salads, and it—like nasturtium—has a nice, spicy flavor. It’s a perennial plant, and it will regenerate after being harvested.
Water chestnuts, like kangkong, are another primarily tropical plant, and they like to grow in muddy soil in shallow water. Unfortunately, unlike kangkong, in order to get a harvest from them, the growing season must be quite long, over 200 days of frost-free weather. They supposedly require a little more water control, i.e. draining and filling, than other water crops do. That said, if they work where you are, they are a delicious, crunchy treat that work great in stir-fries, and they can provide a lot of food.
Highly regarded as a forage plant, sweet flag can also be cultivated, though it is more often as an ornamental than food source. But, sweet leaf rhizomes and leaves are edible and medicinal. This one is a slow-spreading perennial, so it doesn’t come with the invasive reputation. It likes to go in the muddy bogs, such as the edge areas of ponds. In the kitchen, the leaves have a lemon-like flavor, and the rhizomes are often used as a spice, something akin to ginger.
Lotus is another warm climate water plant, and in Western cultures, they are typically grown for their beautiful flowers. While there is certainly nothing wrong with enjoying flowers, the benefits are much more than that. Two types of lotus have roots, shoots, flowers, and seeds that are edible, very nutritious, and delicious as well. It’s good for our blood, brains, bowels, and more. Yet again, this plant has the reputation of begin invasive, but cultivated with caution and/or in containers, it can be a great source of aquatically grown food.
Another food often used as a wild edible, especially in survival situations, cattails have a lot of edible parts, including rhizomes, leaves, and pollen, and they are also handy for crafts. They can be used to clean toxins out of ponds or polluted areas, though the resulting cattails shouldn’t be harvest for food. These are well-suited for temperate climates, and they can be found in colder zones to boot. This plant is worth growing for its functions beyond food, so it’s just an awesome bonus that it can be eaten as well.
Malanga is another, quite common, tropical vegetable, and it is most similar to taro and falls in line with other big root veggies, like cassava. The young leaves are also edible and used similarly to spinach. Malanga is often called elephant ear in Western gardens, and it is grown as an ornamental. Yellow malanga (rather than white malanga) is grown in boggy areas, and it likes full sun, acidic and well-draining soil, and plenty of heat. Drainage ditches are good spots. The roots need nearly a year of growth before they can be harvested. It’s worth the wait.
Foraged for many centuries, duck potatoes grow all over North America, and unsurprisingly, as their name has suggested, they are renowned for their tubers, which can get up to the size of goose egg but are more readily found around the size of duck egg. They grow in lots of climatic zones, from Southern Canada to Florida. Wapato, as they are also called, are large plants, and a nice thing about them is that they’ll grow in anything from mud to 60 centimeters of water.
There are four varieties of wild rice from the Zizania genus, two annuals and two perennials. These are a great source of food, with the potential to be a staple for those cultivating it. Wild rice is rich with protein and fiber, and it comes with a heap of vitamins and minerals. Wild rice grows in shallow water in small lakes, as well as in slow-flowing streams, so it is a really viable crop for most permaculture designs. It also thrives in cool-temperate zones.
Header: Cattails (Robert & Pat Rogers)