Weeding the Wasteland

There is an old joke from the Addams family stuck in my brain, where Morticia says she needs to finish the dusting. She then proceeds to apply a thick layer of dust to the room. The English language is riddled with contronyms, words which are their own opposite (depending on context). There is a long list of them here: https://www.dailywritingtips.com/75-contronyms-words-with-contradictory-meanings/. Even a word as simple as “off” can mean to activate or deactivate (the alarm went off/turn the alarm off). “Left” can me remaining (left behind) or departing. Nouns which become verbs are a good example. Seeding can mean either removing or adding seeds. Personally, I would like to add the contronymic sense of the verb “weed” to the English language.

A year of relative neglect has been a really useful experience on the farm (though that break is currently coming to an end). Wandering around the spaces overgrown after a long summer of nonstop rain has acted as an acid test for identifying crops that have the ability to grow and produce with next to no attention. Among the Canna patches the old Queensland arrowroot clone has been more or less lost to weed competition. By contrast the hybrids have dominated the adjacent space, growing well over head-height with robust upright stems and crowding out any competition. Maintaining this population will only depend on preventing tree seedlings from establishing and harvesting the roots to prevent overcrowding. I suspect land race grain crops were long ago managed on large scale plantings using similar levels of management intensity. Modern grain crops have been bred to only grow to knee height, while old forms often grew 2 meters tall (producing less grain but large amounts of valuable hay).

In the vegetable garden cucamelon has spread everywhere, providing welcome snacks while I wander about. A large area of lab-lab bean has also grown up and over the competition, despite being sown into the middle of it and never weeded once. Surprisingly both chia and huauzontle managed to self-sow in between hybrid canna patches, making me suspect the trio might make a functional staple crop guild in the future with careful canna spacing and a little management. Those small grains produce high protein, nutrient dense storage crops that balance the high calorie canna, and their growth phases are nicely complementary. Winged yams have continued to expand all around the overgrown farm, persimmons are dripping in fruit and the bananas continue to put out bunches.

The oldest forms of agriculture are nothing like the modern approaches where resources and attention are poured out to force a crop to produce where we want it to grow. Instead people would move widely across the landscape and locate spaces which already had suitable soil, topography, and vegetation competition for a particular crop. Then they would transport plant material from one place to another (helping the plant through the most difficult part of its lifecycle). Then the people would return periodically to harvest and sometimes manage the crop (though for the best crops these activities were one and the same). Rather than weeding, often these spaces were periodically burnt at the right time to prevent canopy closure, or lightly grazed by shifting livestock. Tuber crops would survive underground and seed crops could be sown again.

On my own property the majority of the hilly space could support canna hybrids, interplanted with more diverse crops (though digging roots on the hills could cause erosion issues over time). Even among goat paddocks Canna could be established given more careful rotational grazing. Finding suitable genetics of the right species for your space completely transforms your approach to growing, where your primary duties are distribution and harvesting. The modern, dominant mentality is that we humans have to toil non-stop to support the crops, but this is madness. We are the next step up the trophic cascade from our crops and therefore have only a tiny fraction of the energy available to us that flows through the plants that feed us. They support us, not the other way around, and they have to be strong enough and adapted to local conditions in order to manage this burden. Leveraging fossil fuels has obscured that reality and allowed us to burn a barrel of oil to grow a wheelbarrow of weak rooted vegetables. In the coming deindustrialised future that fantasy will evaporate and only the wild and weedy wastelands will remain. We do, however, have the power to influence which weeds will be growing around us in that future, and the ability to reshape our skills, culture and expectations to thrive in that emerging landscape.

Hybrid Canna dominating a neglected space
Cucamelon overcoming all opposition

Persimmons producing regardless of the surrounding weeds.

8 thoughts on “Weeding the Wasteland

      1. Hey, thanks for the great post as always! Unrelated, but I was curious if you had an posts specifically about ducks or Muscovy ducks? I feel like I’ve read a few about them or that mention them heavily but google was fruitless. Thank you 🙂

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  1. @Cimbri- I have done posts on my geese previously (the only poultry that doesnt need any supplementary concentrated feed). I am experimenting with muscovy ducks, and they have a lot to recommend them, but don’t think I have cracked any unique approaches that are worth sharing yet.

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  2. It is good to see you posting again Shane. Persimmons and pumpkins are both in overabundance during fall harvest season so I like to combine them and make persimmon/ pumpkin pies. Persimmons replace sugar.
    Making arrowroot starch, acorn starch, and cattail starch is not standard knowledge for cooks. Dried starch can be stored and it is energy dense. Your recipe for arrowroot powder production was educational . I learned how to produce dried acorn starch powder. I believe cattail roots are processed like Canna tubers to extract starch but I haven’t tried making cattail starch yet. Anyway starch production is an important forgotten skill. Should anarchy ever shatter our fossil fuel / food Ponzi scheme, the foods nobody else knows are food may be the only food available.

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  3. How do you incorporate canna starch into your diet?

    I know it can act as a thickener, but if it’s a major calorie source I imagine it is a dominant ingredient in many meals. Are there any meals based in pure starch that you tend to make often?

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    1. In Peru the tradition that survives is roasting whole canna tubers, then fermenting them into an alcoholic mush in giant stone pits (alcohol is calories right?). In SE Asia where lots of canna is grown in the mountains the starch is converted into high end cellophane noodles (the technique is remarkable). You can also gel starch in solid blocks then finely cut them into noodles (a simpler approach on a home scale). Finally you can bake with it to make slices and griddle cakes (though the texture might turn out a way your mouth needs time to adjust to). In Australia we used to add a little fat and sugar and bake canna starch into biscuits as well.

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