Gardening Tips: August 17, 2011

Permaculture Part 1
Imagine not having to ever buy herbs, vegetables or fruit for your family, yet still being able to enjoy a tasty and healthy diet. In some parts of the world, such as some tropical islands in the Pacific, nature provides most of the food for free, without even having to till the soil or plant seeds, weed, fertilize and perform all the other tasks associated with food production. While such a scenario is appealing to many of us, few will ever get to actually experience it.

Here in the great Northeast we are accustomed to a boom and bust cycle of production, harvest and storage for the long, cold winter that requires lots of planning and even more work! It is possible to plant and maintain a large vegetable garden but the workload of putting up an entire winter’s worth of food is substantial and most of us are too busy to even consider it. But if you stop to think about how much effort we put into more or less, routine yard work each season, devoting most of that time to food production could yield some significant rewards.

Consider lawn mowing first. A typical 5,000-square-foot lawn requires several hours a week just to keep it mowed. Add to that the time and money spent buying gasoline, keeping the mower blades sharpened, maintaining the machinery, applying lime, fertilizer, weed killers etc. and the hours mount up quickly. It is clear that in America, we truly love our lawns with passion, but I think most of us would also love being surrounded by ground covers that not only eliminate the mowing but also provide us with a useful by product.

Take some thyme
My favorite lawn substitute is the common wild thyme that appears almost spontaneously in many lawns throughout our region and is often treated as a noxious weed. Just for starters, wild thyme smells wonderful when it is tread upon! The tiny, pink flowers are very pretty and it never needs to be mowed, watered, limed or fertilized. I use the thyme in many recipes, dry it and use it all winter. Ironically, thyme thrives on neglect, preferring to grow in low fertility, acid, rocky, dry soils that most turf grass cannot tolerate.

Another common lawn weed is wild strawberry. This low-growing cousin to the cultivated strawberry also thrives in poor, acid soils and never needs mowing. The tiny berries are edible and very, very sweet. Although there is probably a net loss of calories expended on harvesting and eating the fruit, wild strawberries make extraordinary ice cream, jam and jelly. My neighbor Phil has calculated that it requires about 1,000 wild strawberries to make about 12 ounces of jelly! Of course you are not required to pick the berries since birds and other critters enjoy them as much as we do!
Chickweed, plantain, dandelions and clover are also common lawn weeds that are completely edible and need zero maintenance. I don’t find any of them particularly delicious as is, but a creative cook surely would find ways to incorporate them in tasty dishes.

If you really need to be surrounded by a green carpet all summer long, note that these weeds will remain green long after summer heat or drought has turned your expensive lawn grass straw brown. Next week I will continue on this topic with low maintenance, edible shrubs and trees.