Permaculture approaches to feeding the world in a changing climate, planting trees to feed future generations.
by Violet Bee
While the climate news grows drearier by the day, I have yet to give up my radical hope for the fate of humanity. We’ve done our best to make the Earth uninhabitable and it looks like we’ll succeed in our endeavor. Even so, while we are here, we must do what we can for the generations following us and for the rest of the inhabitants of our beautiful home.
To that end, I propose that the best course of action that both individuals and communities can take is the planting of mast producing trees.
“Mast is the fruit of forest trees and shrubs, such as acorns and other nuts. The term derives from the Old English mæst, meaning the nuts of forest trees that have accumulated on the ground.” — Wikipedia
The term mast is usually used in relation to wildlife, but edible mast is very common and much of it is quite familiar to most people. In our modern civilization we have lost our dependence on edible mast and in doing so have abandoned the knowledge and the skill for utilizing this readily available resource.
Historically, our societies were highly dependent on the perennial food crops of their region. These should be the backbone of our food systems.
As the weather becomes increasingly unpredictable, perennial crops, especially tree crops, can provide us with a level of resilience unparalleled in annual-based agriculture.
While tree fruits are also mast, we’ll focus here on nuts or hard mast as they can be a staple in our diets. Here are a few of the temperate mast bearing species to consider.
Hard Mast (Nuts)
While many consider the acorn to be good only for wildlife, due to the high tannin content that makes the raw nuts unpalatable, with a simple, albeit time-consuming processing, they can be made into a major (and tasty) part of our diet. The oak’s prolific production of acorns is one of the primary reasons these are worth the work and time to grow. Oaks can also be coppiced, on a long cycle, usually about 20 years, which means the wood can also be harvested at intervals for other uses. Acorn Nuts: The Grain That Grows on Trees
“As a perennial tree crop, acorns can be grown year after year without cultivation, fertilization, irrigation, or — in most cases — spraying for pests. The oak also has the ability to yield well on marginal land, including steep, erosion-prone hillsides. ”— David Bainbridge
All of the sweet chestnuts, but most importantly the American chestnut, should hold an important place in our landscapes. Nicknamed the bread tree, chestnuts are very low in fat and could be better labeled as a grain. They are ready to eat fresh, cooked or ground into a flour that is suitable for baking.
Added to their superb nutritional content, the trees are also prolific producers. Even the young American chestnuts that are eventually infected and succumb to the blight will likely produce copious amounts of nuts in their short lives.
Additionally, the blight kills only the standing tree, but not the roots. When the tree dies, new growth will spring back from those roots and likely live to produce nuts, before succumbing to the blight.
Hazelnuts are one of the easiest to grow and fastest bearing of the nuts and lend themselves to use in the home landscape. If I could suggest one tree/shrub to homeowners with small yards it would be a member of the hazel family. There are many hybrids and they are easy to find.
“They are really rugged, adaptable survivors. Hazels will grow in heavy clay or sand. They can tolerate drought, flooding and a side range of pH. They do very well on infertile soils and even better on fertile ones. They are one of the easiest plants to grow. ”— Akiva Silver
We have begun growing hazels throughout of permaculture style food forest and have planted about 10 varieties in the last two years. Hopefully I’ll be reporting soon on our output, since these will bear long before any of the other nut trees we’ve been planting.
Pecans, the most well known of the hickories, are only one member of a diverse family that includes shagbark (the tastiest) and bitternut (which has been given a bad-rap because of it’s taste eaten raw), among others.
Bitternut has a unique claim on our attention and has been too long ignored.
“The shells of bitternut are very thin, similar to the shell of an acorn. The nuts are packed full of meat that has an oil content of 75 to 80 percent. The oil that comes out contains none of the water-soluble bitter tannins. Here is vegetable oil raining down from the sky in enormous quantities.” — Akiva Silver
The pistachio has begun to take ground in California as a replacement for the water intensive, short lived and tempermental almond trees that have been a staple of west coast farming. Easier to grow and less sensitive to weather fluctuations, they should be considered a mainstay anywhere it is warm enough for them to flourish. (Sadly, we’re too far north.)
“Pistachio trees require somewhere between one-third and one-half as much water as almond trees. Unlike almond trees, pistachio trees don’t die during extended droughts. Their metabolism merely slows and when water returns, they start producing nuts again. And they can produce nuts for 80 years or longer, almost four times the life span of an average almond tree. ”— Mark Schapiro
Feeding our Grandchildren
These are but a few of the tree crops that could be the staples of the future. As the climate changes and weather patterns become more erratic, industrial scale annual production will likely collapse under the pressures of temperature and rainfall fluctuations.
Trees have a long history of keeping humans fed and sheltered and we’ve not paid them the respect they deserve. It’s time to plant trees for our grandchildren with the hope that they can continue to sustain and keep us.
You may also like:Growing Food in a Crisis
Gardening is the backbone of a resilient food system.medium.com4 Agricultural Lessons for an Uncertain World
Harvest water, build soil, save seeds, plant perennials. Why these are important for our families to learn.medium.com
Violet Bee is a mother, writer, farmer and activist. She and her partner practice permaculture and foster cats in all of their free time. Follow her publication Radical Hope for more on parenting in a changing climate.