A friend suggested recently that my wife Nancy and I would not starve even if we depended on just the food we produced from our property.

I laughed. That is not even close to true. We produce some vegetables and fruit, but we have no animals to provide meat, eggs or milk. And while I enjoy fishing, I spend a lot more calories pursuing my finny friends than I get from the few fish I have caught and kept – although I would keep more if starvation were an issue.

I will admit we don’t buy many vegetables from mid-May until late September. Some of those are produced by the seedlings we buy annually from local markets. We’re being super-local this year, and getting them from Green Spark Farm and the late Norm Jordan’s The Farm, now run by his son Greg, which are both in Cape Elizabeth where we live.

But a lot of our harvest comes from our perennial vegetables and fruits. This time of year, that’s asparagus.

I once read – and I can’t remember where or when, so it could be senility kicking in – that E.B. and Katharine White ate asparagus three meals a day when it was in season at their Brooklin farm. If they harvested as long as I do – from about May 12 to July 4, depending on the year – that would be all the vegetables they would need for an eighth of the year. Even that is not enough to be self-sufficient.

Nancy and I eat asparagus only at dinner, and only four or five days a week during the season – although we do give some to neighbors.

But everyone should grow asparagus. Put a note on your calendar and make sure you plant it in April or May next year. It has to be planted in early spring. And plant it even if all this stay-at-home, social-distancing stuff is over by then. It is definitely worth it.

It involves digging a six-to-eight-inch trench, adding compost to the bottom, covering the sprouts until the ground is level. And you can’t harvest for three years.

Yes, it aids in self-sufficiency, but it isn’t immediate self-sufficiency, For that you need rhubarb. While driving to an essential activity recently, I saw a pile of about 15 pounds of rhubarb with a sign that said “FREE!” I haven’t seen anything like that since the zucchini harvest last year.

Some companies sell rhubarb seedlings, but I don’t know anyone who has bought any. Anyone who has rhubarb will gladly provide a part of the plant – although it divides more easily in early spring before the shoots have come up or in late fall, after harvest. Just find someone who will dig a six-inch clump and give it to you. Take it home, dig a hole, add some compost and plant the rhubarb. A sunny location is best but semi-shade works too.

Again, it is too late to buy strawberry seedlings. But if you know a generous someone who has an established strawberry bed, you have to wait only until the strawberries have stopped producing fruit for this year – mid- to late July.

Strawberry plants produce runners – long stems with a potential strawberry plant at the end of the runner. These runners, if left alone, sap energy from the original strawberry plant, reducing production, and perhaps even more irritating, widen the row of strawberries so much that it is highly difficult to pick the berries in the middle of the row.

So take those runners home to your own garden. The best way to do it is to bring in a small pot full of soil, pin a runner to the soil in the pot, wait until it has rooted and take it home after a few weeks. Free plants – although maybe you could give the friend some zucchini or rhubarb in return. Or upgrade to green beans.

And, again, strawberries like sun – most permanent plantings need lots of sun but semi-shade will be OK.

Raspberries are best planted in spring, So, add raspberries to your calendar note about planting asparagus. Again, worth it even if you can go out to concerts and restaurants by then. Add to your calendar note that you should check the Fedco web site for buying asparagus and raspberries. They also have strawberries and blueberry bushes.

And you can plant new blueberries now. High-bush blueberries are basically a shrub – small but nice white flowers in the spring and attractive, red fall foliage – that has the advantage of producing tasty fruit. The shrubs can be planted from mid-April to early October. If you have the space, buy five different varieties so that you can harvest blueberries for six weeks.

Blueberries want full sun, but they will do well anyplace in your yard – the vegetable garden or the perennial border.

Try a few fruit trees, as well. We have a peach tree that I love. It is self-pollinating, so you only need one. If you like apples more than I do, add two – but make them dwarfs, so they are easy to pick.

The nurseries are open, and will welcome your business.

And while these foods that return to your backyard reliably every year won’t mean you will never have to shop again, you still might feel better about yourself – and your family’s future.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at: [email protected]


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