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March 20: Famine was looming for the residents of Vanuatu when the Food Security and Agriculture Cluster (FSAC) sent out a message to the people and farmers of that South Pacific island nation. Three days prior, a category 5 cyclone called Pam had obliterated everything on the islands, including the food supply, and the FSAC message was to “start replanting crops” immediately. For a nation that feeds itself from the fruits of its tiny farms and home gardens, replanting right away meant that there would be food again in three month’s time.

As I listened to that NPR coverage, I couldn’t help wondering what would happen if my own life depended on food from my home garden or a farm down the road. I don’t have a garden, but I like to forage for wild food and am happy to have a copy of the Berkeley Open Source Food project’s new field guide, The Bay Area Baker’s Dozen Wild Edibles (available at forage.berkeley.edu for a $15 donation). I was about to go for a walk in search of some sow thistle and bristly oxtongue, edible weeds now growing in local profusion wherever there’s nobody bent on eradicating them, when the phone rang.

It was my former co-editor Helen Krayenhoff, co-owner of Kassenhoff Growers, which provides many local vegetable gardeners with their plant starts. Helen wanted to relay something about her customers’ collective quandary over whether to plant a home vegetable garden at all this year, explaining how hard it is for her to advise them, given her company’s vested interests. “It seems to me that watering one’s own plants is more efficient than drip tape on a 100-foot row,” she said. “And factoring in that the produce is uber-local—no trucking needed from garden to kitchen—it seems like a good idea, don’t you think?”

“Well, sure, that makes sense,“ I said, as I leafed past some information on how to forage for wild alliums.

For an unbiased and more learned opinion, Helen later emailed Cat Chang, a local landscape architect and urban designer who sits on the Oakland Food Policy Council and is a certified auditor for the QWEL (Qualified Water Efficient Landscaper) program. Chang wrote back with lots of helpful thoughts.

“Our gardens use less water than Central Valley farms to grow the equivalent amount of food. The water needed comes from the very same place for both areas.”

Chang’s detailed notes included a water-wise planting short list—peppers, onions, leeks, dry-farm tomatoes, horseradish, herbs, and pineapple ground cherries—which with the addition of some lemon juice, salt, and extra-virgin olive oil, would make a nice vegan meal.

She also mentioned some irrigation and permaculture strategies:

  • Plant items that can thrive in shade/partial shade.
  • Mulch heavily. Chang heaps the mulch to 10 inches deep around her own garden beds in the pathways.
  • Put rotted wood at the bottoms of raised beds to serve as a water reservoir.
  • Add bio-char and compost to augment soil structure and help with soil moisture retention. “I top dress and do not double dig,” she wrote, adding, “the mycelium are really amazing.”

Thanks, Cat, and thanks to another local professional, who offered some good advice for saving kitchen water to throw over the garden. Find local chef Mario Hernandez’s water-conscious Mindful Salad recipe on page 63 and his accompanying videos on our website.

At this stage in the drought, I suspect we all are assembling our strategies for saving and reusing water at home. Gray water systems are on the rise, and catch buckets are coming out of the closet for use in the kitchen. Groups like the Ecology Center, the Berkeley Climate Action Coalition, Transition Albany, and many others are organizing workshops to help people learn about and install water conservation systems and devices. (Read “Water: Another kind of harvest” in our Spring 2012 issue, available in our online magazine archive.)

As the dry summer plays out, I expect we’ll have lots more water-relevant news, tips, recipes, and event listings to share through our online events calendar, blog, e-newsletter, and social media. So please search, like, follow, and join to see what’s going on . . .
. . . or just enjoy another taste of our dry summer’s precious harvest!

Cheryl Angelina Koehler