As one turns west on Third Street, Tulsa, Oklahoma, and begins driving in the general direction of 'Sun Goes Down', one passes quickly out of Downtown, through a sparse residential area, past a scenic hillside house, a park, and some old under-utilized light industrial properties. The name of the road changes, from the antiseptic "Third Street" to the much more colorful "Charles Page Boulevard" The road follows the course of the Arkansas River - far enough removed to avoid seasonal flooding, of course: To the left side of the street, one can see the levees built by the US Army corps of engineers to keep the parking lots of those industrials from becoming mosquito breeding pools.
Eventually, if one continues their drive, they will pass outside of the city limits - and drive directly past our nursery. As the driver continues westwards a piece towards the small town of Sand Springs, they may notice a sign board beside a row of semi trailers, advertising the current price paid for scrap aluminum. As there is little of interest to me in downtown Tulsa, I find myself passing that particular sign frequently. The recycling business there has been doing business for as long as I can remember, and no matter what the market, they are always buying .. the only thing that changes is how much they are willing to pay.
Prior to 2008, and the aftermath of 'affordable housing' programs, the price was fifty cents per pound of aluminum - out west in California, the metal purchase price was much higher .. high enough to cause one to contemplate driving a U-Haul full of crushed soda cans across state lines for capital gain .. but I digress. I have been using that sign as my personal economic weathervane .. because in the modern world, commerce runs on recycled aluminum every bit as much as it does petroleum and easy credit. If the economy was growing, the demand for scrap would be up, and the offered price higher; if the demand faltered, the price would also decrease. In all the years since the bank bailouts, I have yet to see the price return to fifty cents.
Growing up on the farm as I did, I had several opportunities to observe the facilities surrounding our regional livestock auction: There were acres upon acres of pens where beef cattle bound for the slaughterhouses waited, packed in shoulder to shoulder, gorging on corn. The press of bodies is too great; nothing will grow on the ground beneath those churning hooves .. unless someone comes around with feed and water for those cattle, they will surely die. The cost of feeding and watering the livestock is a portion of the price that the growers will seek .. and if the cost of buying in that feed is too high, the owners will liquidate their herds, at a loss, if they have to.
I couldn't help but notice that living in a city is an awful lot like being a beef in the pens at the auction yard - so long as there is profit to be made buying the feed in, all is well .. but with a currency that is rapidly devaluing by the day, and a debt that is rising by the millisecond, one must begin to feel that that day when the herd will be thinned is approaching. Following close on the heels of the housing market 'correction', someone had the bright idea to make "Affordable Healthcare" .. and I wondered if the already fragile economy could survive the 'correction' that would come from this latest boondoggle.
It is rather unfortunate, I think, that many people in the world see movies of glamorous Americans enjoying a carefree lifestyle, hear about the average income in America, and begin to feel envious .. If only they knew how expensive it is, to be poor in America! I thought of my Great Grandparents on my mother's side: Scottish immigrants living on the prairies of Kansas in a sod house. How is it that they were able to survive with no money - not that there was much out on the frontier to buy in the first place - but here just a few short generations later, their great grand children had become dependent on the stuff?
Many people have a goal of becoming 'financially comfortable' .. a modest form of being well-off, I suppose. There is nothing wrong with middling ambitions .. but I had other ambitions. Where some wanted financial security, I wanted security even if the financial instruments ceased to have value: freedom from the world of money. Financial independence, but not in the usual sense at all.
Call me a hedonist, but I like having fresh, clean water to drink, and I enjoy being warm and dry in the winter. I could make do with a friend and a chessboard, or a collection of good books and an old guitar, should I have to forgo the pleasures of internet, or even electricity. We found the old well on the property - the previous owner had installed a sand spike, and ran it with an electric pump (now defunct). An order placed with Lehman's secured a cast iron manual pump, with a spare parts kit, should it ever require maintenance. The pump handily featured a threaded connection, to which a standard garden hose might be attached .. The missus stacked a few RV filters, which also connect to a hose, so we can now filter the water as we pump it .. those should last a good long while. A search of Craigslist landed us a used wood burning stove .. it took a while to get all of the pipe and assorted kit that we needed to install it, but eventually we got it done: just before our gas furnace gave up the ghost. With the water heater aging, and the oven failing on the kitchen stove, we will soon have no need for gas .. I'm investigating ways of replacing these creature comforts in a way that I can sustain.
Next, I began to work on food, and medicine. I should mention that I have held a keen interest in herbal medicine ever since I was a young boy, age eight. It was on an occasion when one of my cousins and his father were going to hunting camp, and my mother felt that it would be good for all of the boys to spend time out in the woods together .. probably so that she could have a night out for herself, in retrospect. Long story short, I suffered a sever injury out there in the woods, and one of the other campers used their knowledge of the medicinal herbs in the forest to treat the wound. By the time we had gotten back to civilization, it was well on its way to mending, and I became a believer in natural medicine.
For wound care, I planted yarrow and oregano around the yard .. but quickly found that the fancy yarrows that had been bred for their colorful blooms could not handle Oklahoma winters so well .. and oregano could only manage three years or so before it failed. It is the thymol in oregano that makes it such an effective antiseptic, and nearly 20% of it is thymol. I found another plant that has a fair amount of thymol, but one better suited to growing in our area: monarda, or Bee Balm. Monarda fistulosa is such a common plant, it has escaped captivity, and can be found growing wild, along with its more native cousin, monarda punctata. I remember the pungent scent of horsemint well from my youth spent clambering over the limestone hills of the Ozarks .. but the domesticated version is not quite so overpowering.
Two years ago, I finally managed to bring home some wild yarrow .. I had noticed that there was some that grew wild nearby, that was up, and even flowering despite the cold spring weather. I took cuttings of this white flowered specimen, rooted them, and began planting them about the yard. I would be selling specimens of this mighty herb now, if not for the fact that gophers love to destroy the plants. I doubt that the beasts have need of a styptic, analgesic, and fever reducer .. maybe they think it tastes good, or that its thick, fern-like foliage would make good insulation for a nest .. I have no idea - I watched them drag one down every day for a week before I hastily dug up what was left, and kept it potted up until I could tackle the rodent issue. I currently have the yarrow planted alongside peppermint, in the hopes that the strong scented herb will protect it.
Most yards are small .. our entire property amounts to 1/6 acre, house and garage included. We removed the fence between our house and the mother in law's house, and have a combined area of 1/3 acre to work with, not counting the houses and outbuildings. Could it even be possible to grow all of the calories, protein, vitamins and minerals that a person needs to live in this amount of space? I considered the common back yard garden: Radishes, beets, carrots and onions, peas, celery, lettuces, tomatoes and peppers. Some potatoes, perhaps, and a few squash .. and a block of corn if there is room to spare - but you realize that if the entire yard were planted in corn, it would not be enough. It is all one can do with conventional crops to grow the calories that one needs .. leaving little space for other important details .. like protein, for example.
The conventional garden fails in other areas, as well: many of these crops are grown because of their familiarity. They are the vegetables that one finds in the supermarket - but the vegetables that are grown for the market are specifically selected to be easy to grow for the farmer, not for the urban gardener. The gardener attempts to make the yard look like a miniature representation of the commercial farm, and as a result, incurs tremendous expense: fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, and even herbicides are all used to maintain the commercial farm .. and these costs do not lessen when scaled down to the back yard level. Our primitive ancestors living in the forests of the world certainly did not have neonicotinoid pesticides, synthesized nitrate fertilizers with mined phosphorous or glyphosate herbicide. What was their secret?
I imagine that ancestral diet being something like this: Plenty of nuts and berries, fruits in season, tender greens and edible roots. Add in some fish, small game, and if one is fortunate enough to domesticate a jungle fowl, eggs and occasionally poultry. I can see developing something like this into a garden design. I started with pecan trees, as they would take the longest time to reach their desired growth: 15 years before they begin to yield a reliable harvest of 50 pounds and up of nuts each year. The pecans are also useful for providing shade for the house: knocking off a few degrees in the heat of summer with shade and surface water might make living out here with no air conditioning just tolerable. Maybe.
Pecans are a great source for fat calories and protein, but there is only enough room on the 1/3 acre for three of them .. and really, if I had my preference, one should only have up to nine pecans per acre, in a mixed forest. I added hazelnut trees, for additional fat calories, and protein. At the moment, not counting the newly propagated suckers, we have nine hazelnut trees - an assortment of 4 different improved hybrids. These are suitable for commercial nut production, but do not take much space - just 144 square feet, and they can grow in partial shade. This year, I added three Chinquapins: bush-like variants of the chestnut tree, that should only reach fifteen feet in height .. just fine for the shrub layer.
I suppose that it is worth mentioning that, just as I am attempting to assemble what might look like an ideal human diet, I am also attempting to construct a forest garden .. adding a few new species every year, as finances allow. A forest garden capitalizes on plants ability to photosynthesize in layers, up until the last bit of the sun's energy has been absorbed and put to work. From the top down, there are 6 layers where solar energy is being harnessed, and a seventh where energy is being transmitted - I have covered these topics in greater depth in the posts "On Roles and Layers" and "The Internet of Trees" For now, these layers are: Canopy, Understory, Shrub, Herbaceous, Ground Cover, Vine, and the seventh layer, which facilitates the exchange of energy between elements of the forest, is the Fungal layer.
For our understory layer, I have planted a lot of fruit trees .. in order to keep the fruit within picking distance, I prune them to 14 feet, every other year .. positioned at the edges of the pecan trees' spread, they settle in nicely. There are a pair of Cherry trees, two different kinds of Pear, Plum, Peach, two different kinds of Jujube, Persimmon, and several Red and Black Mulberry trees. Scattered throughout, we have Redbud, Goumi (a non invasive Eleagnus) Black Locust, and even a Chinese Mahogany.
I'm going to let you in on a secret now: Eating the same food over and over again gets boring, very fast. OK, its probably no secret, but it bears repeating: get some variety in your diet. Having a diverse mix of species in your garden, each with its own time for ripening not only lets one avoid food fatigue, it delivers a more complete compliment of vitamins and minerals, and helps to prevent the gardener from becoming overwhelmed with too many things to harvest at once .. although that will likely happen anyway, you'll see.
Our shrub layer has Blueberry and Blackberry, Black pussy Willow, Rose of Sharon, Goji Berry and Prickly Ash. I'm not certain, but I might have a Yaupon Holly left alive around here somewhere - I had hopes of growing a low holly hedge along the front of the property, along the street .. so I'll list it along with shrubs, even though it could just as easily grow to understory tree size. Yaupon is North America's caffeine producing plant - the leaves also contain a fair amount of theobromine, making the resulting tea a bit like a chocolate infused coffee (chemically speaking, that is) There is a massive yaupon growing outside of the Tulsa county courthouse .. it is grown here as an ornamental, but that same ornamental has the highest concentration of caffeine of all yaupon cultivars. How convenient! The disturbance of the front yard last year has likely killed it off, as it was just a little too close to the water line work for my liking .. but we shall see.
The herbaceous layer is home to Day Lilies with their edible blooms and tubers, like little finger-tip sized potatoes. there are Canna Lily here, too with huge, calorie dense edible rhizomes, and colorful flowers, beloved by butterflies and hummingbirds. Clumps of allium proliferum, the Walking Onion insert themselves here and there: once established, these perennials readily spread, and can be divided and replanted at the time of harvest .. often just before preparing a meal, as the roots can be left in the ground throughout most of the year in many growing zones.
For ground cover, we come ready sown by nature, with purple dead nettle a-plenty in the spring, chickweed, wild geranium, wild lettuces, some grasses (including the Bermuda that is a haunting reminder of when this was once a grassy yard!) Occasional Shepherd's Purse and Hairy Bittercress make an appearance .. none of these plants are particularly noxious, save for the grass. I sow additional perennial clover whenever I disturb a large area of ground, in the hopes that some clumps will decide to take off and naturalize themselves. As summer comes along, I like to plant sweet potatoes in the sunny areas. The gophers will eat some .. but I will still wind up with plenty.
At this point, we are still looking for the best vines for our area .. there are a few that are native that are quite vigorous, but not of much use for humans .. I planted Scuppernong grapes, Hardy Kiwis, Passion Fruit, and a very kind lady sent me some apios americana, which I hope will fare better than the schisandra chinensis I had in the same space last year - in fairness, last year's drought was severe, and I had not developed our water capture system fully yet. I have had varied success with all of these perennial vines, but I haven't given up on any of them, just yet.
In vines, we are not limited to exotics like the ground nut and magnolia vine. Indeterminate Brandywine Tomatoes can be grown using a hazelnut tree for a trellis, and climbing beans do not care if they climb a pole, a string, or simply a small tree .. I have had success growing winter squash in a woodland garden as well: many plants that require "Full Sun" can easily tolerate some natural shade. There are several other annuals at work in the garden, including a patch of corn in an area where I cannot plant trees, for structural reasons.
Those three blocks of corn, 300 plants in all, are about the closest thing we have to a conventional garden, or miniature farm. Last year, we experienced that horror that many farmers must feel on an annual basis, as grasshoppers swarmed in the thousands, gobbling up the tender silks of our corn before it could be pollinated. We had enough seed and time to plant a second crop, and as fortune (or good planning) would have it, we had a new ally to bring into the fray: Ducks.
We were in desperate need of an effective insect control measure, and a dozen hungry ducks fit the bill (no pun intended) nicely. By the time our second crop of heirloom corn was chest high, and the ducks could no longer reach the tender bits, we let them have free run of the corn patch. The ducks weeded, the ducks hunted grasshoppers, and protecting the crop. I irrigated and fertilized with the water that our water fowl had fouled .. and finally produced those lovely ears of corn that we had been looking for: No pesticides, no synthetic fertilizers, just nature.
In candor, we are somewhat overstocked on ducks. Based on my calculations, 18 ducks could manage to forage an acre without over grazing it: 2-3 drakes, and 15-16 hens. In order to support our 12 hens, we have to buy a certain amount of feed in, and if I had to give up on supplying the supplemental feed, we would need to reduce our flock to no more than 6 birds. Even then, we will need a fodder system in place to keep them
fed, and since we do not yet have that system perfected, I am going to have to buy in some feed, anyway: may as well produce extra eggs, and sell them to recoup the costs of setting up the shelter, building fence, establishing waterers, feed, and such. If We can break even before it becomes necessary to reduce the flock, I will be happy.
Now I can clearly see two different worlds: In the World of Money, the necessities of life are mass produced by machine labor, far away from the population centers. The people in this world must find ways to obtain scraps of paper with little or no value of their own, or accumulate virtual fiat within their bank accounts in order to barter for those necessities .. all dependent upon very vulnerable infrastructures and supply chains. Everyone has their piece of the action, and returns diminish as time goes on. It requires considerable effort to keep this world running .. and it does not work well for everyone.
In contrast, there is the natural world: a world not governed by cycles of boom and bust, extravagant wealth and abject poverty. The cycles of nature are reliable, with each season preparing the ground for the next season's growth. As time marches onwards, yields increase and the labor required to harvest and expand the garden becomes easier. The natural world will keep doing what it does, no matter what companies Warren Buffet invests in. It will not care what Elon Musk has to say to his shareholders, and If Europe never sees another cubic meter of Russian gas, it will make no difference to nature.
We aren't done yet: there are still ponds to dig, irrigation systems to expand, more plants to try. We will add fish to the equation soon; I am currently learning how to balance and integrate an aquatic environment. Bit by bit, I find that the value created on the property increases .. and it is beginning to reach a point where trees and plants are 'planting themselves' .. nature is starting to take over, and may continue on in the direction she has been guided .. knowing nature, she probably has a few surprises in store for me.