The jury is in: the most sustainable way to feed yourself is to grow your own food.
There are many factors considered when evaluating food sustainability. The primary concern is: what is the ratio between how much land is used, and how many calories are produced?
In asking this question, we can immediately eliminate meat from our sustainable diets. Pigs and cows are extraordinarily “inefficient converters of grain energy to calories,” as put by the executive director of Steel City Biofuels, speaking generally about fuel efficiency. In her presentation about Organic Farming during Pittsburgh’s Farm to Table Conference 2008, Dr. Patricia DeMarco, executive director of the Rachel Carson Homestead, noted that raising meat in the U.S. comprises 79% of all agricultural resource usage. While the health benefits of going vegan will be endlessly debated, at least doing so will be much more healthful for our environment.
The next question naturally becomes: how can we grow food in a way that nourishes the soil, produces a vast yield in a little space, and is maintained by nature?
Surprisingly, all of the above is easy to do, if you’re using the right methods. John Jeavon’s book “How to Grow More Vegetables Than You Ever Thought Possible” describes the biointensive method: growing food tightly together in ways that foster symbiotic relationships between plants, like those that would organically occur in nature. For instance, marigolds ward off common insect pests for their companion plants, tomatoes. But biointensive gardening is more than just knowing companion plant lists and spacing maps. It is understanding that each time you take a piece of food that you grew out of the ground, you are removing nutrients and minerals from the earth. It is essential that you find a way to return those resources. Maintaining soil health is the cornerstone of sustainable agriculture.
So you’re a greenie, just like me. You believe in doing everything you can to live a more sustainable lifestyle. Now that you’ve got the facts about sustainable eating, you recognize the importance of starting your own garden. However, you were raised watching TV and eating potato chips on a couch. If you’re like me, you know nothing whatsoever about gardening.
In this case, where do you start?
Follow the instructions on the back of the seed packet, and put some seeds in the ground. That’s what I did! Even better, follow the biointensive guidebook to learn which plants thrive beside each other and which tend to compete for the same nutrients, and arrange your bounty properly. Keep the seeds continually damp until they germinate. Then provide lots of sun.
I always believed there was something deceptively simple about that formula… but in my own practice, I found that ancient wisdom to be profoundly perfect.
I am “camping” in an urban forest, where natural forces have reclaimed previously “residential” property. Thus, my area’s soil is probably extremely unhealthy and heavily contaminated. Knowing this, I planted beet, carrot, swiss chard, nasturtium, cucumber, bean, and radish seeds (all fairly shade-tolerant species), with some leaf compost, expecting nothing to grow. And then, everything did. In concert with fermentation, a person can grow many meals worth of vegetables and fruits–for all seasons–in one smart garden.
Here are some helpful tips I picked up while being tutored in basic biointensive gardening for a segment for Sust Enable.
- To deal with pest infestations (commonly: aphids), spray the plant with garlic or onion oil, or with a mild soap/water blend. This is a very effective, environmentally harmless remedy.
- Plant tomatoes (and others with tender stalks) up to the growth of their youngest two leaves (see photo).
- When winter is on its way, help to prevent erosion in your yard by planting cover crops, such as oats, cereal rye, or legumes, etc. These plants have short but hardy roots, which maintain nutrients and nitrogen while suppressing weed growth. Tear them up and use them as compost in the spring!
More ways to eat sustainably: