How to ensure your food supply

by Amy Reiswig, August 2010

Carolyn Herriot believes it’s best done in your own backyard.

From the parable of the mustard seed to salad days, gardening is a time-honoured source of symbols and stories. The issue of reaping what we sow, in both the literal and symbolic senses, underlies Carolyn Herriot’s new book on self-sufficient gardening. Alluding to the popular 100-mile diet concept, The Zero-Mile Diet: A Year-Round Guide to Growing Organic Food (Harbour Publishing, May 2010) provides month-by-month advice on bringing our food footprint even closer to home and examines what that means for us as a society.

Only one week after its release, the book was #2 on BC’s bestseller list. At the time of writing this article, it was #1. “People need this. I just think it’s the perfect time,” she says excitedly. Sitting on her deck overlooking fields and trees of uncountable shades of green, Herriot seems proud, not of her position on the list but of what it reveals about people’s awakening to issues of food security and health.

Carolyn HerriotWe met at her Edenic home base at The Garden Path Centre (near Camosun’s Interurban campus), where the energetic grow-your-own missionary has been practising and promoting organic gardening, food self-sufficiency and seed saving for 20 years. Author of a previous best-selling book, A Year on the Garden Path (New Society Publishers, 2006), she is also a regular columnist for GardenWise and Common Ground magazines, in addition to running Seeds of Victoria, co-hosting Global gardening show Get Up and Grow and speaking at events such as Victoria’s annual Seedy Saturday.

Therefore the new book is again a forum for passing on knowledge. “The book is an empowerment tool,” she explains. “We’ve given up responsibility for taking care of ourselves. Who is taking care of us?” she asks, deeply disaffected with policy makers and corporate food producers. “Food has become a commodity, so people will say anything to get people to buy their product. It’s all about propaganda. Politicians and corporations with vested interests are manipulating the story: everything is provided; life is good. There is a false veneer of security.” 

But in reality, she notes, Vancouver Island only produces about five percent of the food we consume, and that leaves us vulnerable. A big earthquake here on the Island, flooding or drought in the nation’s food-producing areas, disruption in global food distribution chains—these are some of the potential threats Herriot sees to our food security.

“People need to know how to feed themselves, and the government is busy talking about anything but,” she laments. “Meanwhile, the public has become so disconnected from nature that they don’t even know the right questions!” That’s where she comes in. Part emergency preparedness plan, Herriot’s book also inspires a kind of political act—individuals taking back power—by providing the answers to all the questions. 

The Zero-Mile Diet is accessible yet encyclopaedic on how to grow your own vegetables, herbs, nuts, berries, fruit trees and edible ornamentals, as well as how to look after chickens, ducks and mason bees. You’ll also find tips on seed saving, garden design, tool care, and what to do with your harvest, including medicinal plant uses. All of Herriot’s methods, including soil fertilization and pest control, are organic and designed to provide maximum yield from minimum time and expense. 

Anyone, she argues, can sidestep the system in order to start feeding themselves. The goal is for people to do what they can and to realize how much they can do in whatever circumstances. For example, she talks about container gardening, edible boulevard landscaping, using free resources (like making a three-bin composting system from used pallets) and building temporary vegetable beds. Of these lasagna gardens—so called because of the layers of material— she writes: “It’s possible for anyone to do, even if they don’t own the land…We could grow lots more food by creating lasagna beds on vacant lots and in unused spaces, and we would solve many of our waste-disposal problems at the same time.” 

It’s a creative gardening approach that addresses food security and individual health as well as broader social issues. “Agriculture has become agribusiness. I want to put the culture back into agriculture,” she says. The urban and rural would interact more as people collect free organic waste like seaweed, rotten hay and dead leaves, and she envisions people benefiting from horticultural therapy with family in the garden, getting to know neighbours through food- and seed-sharing, all of which would build social strength.

“It sounds so simple, but it’s so beautiful,” she says as the sweet smell of freshly picked, sun-warmed strawberries fills the deck. “I never knew I’d be sitting here saying something so simplistic as how going back to the garden can have such a profound effect.” 

Purposeful yet peaceful, Herriot’s lifestyle and ideas are rooted in a fertile optimism about what people can achieve in humble harmony with the land, and they provide a powerful counter to more personal, psychological threats of cynicism and fear. Therefore, The Zero-Mile Diet is not a dry how-to, but is written with irrepressible enthusiasm. “Can you imagine harvesting bunches of nutritious greens you didn’t even plant? You can do this simply by growing kale, chard, spinach, salad greens, mustard greens, parsley and coriander—all of which are prolific self-seeding vegetables…Talk about the Garden of Eden!” 

Sprinkled liberally with exclamation marks, the book also clearly reflects Herriot’s delight in surprising the reader with the unusual, from recipes (nasturtium capers, crabapple and geranium jelly) and veggies not likely found in your grocery store (cardoon? salsify?) to weird pest control tips: “sowbugs and pillbugs love cornmeal, but explode when they eat it.”

The wealth of information in The Zero-Mile Diet can be daunting for the beginning gardener, but delicious colour photos showing Herriot’s abundant yield make you want to get going. As well, her advice for doing it on the cheap and her upbeat community-oriented attitude make you feel like you actually can and should. In that way, the book reminds us of the potential for growth—of all sorts—here in the city of gardens. 

Amy Reiswig is an editor of Hansard. Her reviews and other non-fiction have appeared in the Danforth Review, Quill & Quire, The Malahat Review and The Walrus.

Copyright © 2010, Amy Reiswig