Gardening vs. Gathering: How We Harvest

By Hank Shaw
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Hank Shaw


My blog may be called Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, but for the past year it's felt more like Hunter Angler Gatherer Cook. I've stepped up my foraging considerably in 2010, and for much of the year my garden suffered because of it. There are only so many hours, and something had to give.

Now I'm happy to report that the garden is back in full swing. I built two new raised beds in July and planted a full array of fall and winter veggies, all of which are doing well. Hell, even with this benign neglect, I managed to grow both butternut squash and pumpkins successfully; winter squash always had been a problem for me in the past.

Gardening is all about control, while gathering requires you to relinquish it.

Conversely, this is something of a down month in my foraging year. California aches for rain in September; it is our deadest, driest time. Yes, you can still find berries, but you need to head up to the Sierra or down to the river to find them. Nuts don't come until October, and we will not see anything green until the rains come.

This pause—garden humming, wild world waiting—gives me a chance to reflect on how different the relationship to the plant world is between the gatherer and the gardener, or, at the very least, how my relationship with plants has changed.

Control lies at the center of the relationship. Gardening is all about control, while gathering requires you to relinquish it.

In a garden, you control the soil, the water, what grows where when and next to what. You become an imperfect master of your own little green world, a guardian standing vigil over your charges. You squash caterpillars, crush beetles, spray mites. You cover your tomatoes for fear of frost, and shade your peppers if the sun shines too strong.

In the wider world, however, it is the plants that have control over you. They decide whether to fruit or not, drop acorns or not, present themselves to you or not. Anyone who has ever hunted mushrooms knows they possess a paranormal power to become visible, or invisible, depending on your state of mind. You cannot will a morel to show itself; you have to let them come to you in their own time.

Gardeners plan. They pore over seed catalogs and scribble down imaginary garden plots when the snows are flying in February, and then when it comes time to plant, they line their seeds up like soldiers: straight lines, right angles.

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Hank Shaw

Gatherers meander. Sure, when we wander into the wild, or at least the semi-wild, we have some notion of what we ought to find when we get there; only a fool looks for blackberries in April. But a forager must keep an open mind—and open eyes —for the unexpected. The salal berries I found last month while huckleberry-picking were just the most recent example.

It's like shopping for your dinner: If you walk into the supermarket in search of a ribeye or some pork shoulder, you are all but assured to find it. But if you are in search of fresh fish, you really cannot plan. Maybe the salmon is sketchy today, but the sole sings to you. Or something special might make an unexpected appearance, like fresh sardines or spot prawns. Then you must drop everything and seize the moment. Fish, incidentally, are the last wild food we humans regularly eat.

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Hank Shaw

But it goes deeper than the question of control. The more I forage for wild plants, the more I start to look askance at my garden plants. Don't get me wrong, I love my funky Italian lettuces, my Portuguese cabbages, my German radishes. It's just that, well, they're needy. Some, particularly the brassica family, are downright pushy. If you garden, you grow brassicas: cabbages, broccoli, cauliflower, bok choy, radishes, mustard greens, etc. And at least in my garden, the brassica clan grows under siege. Cabbage looper caterpillars, the larvae of those pretty little white butterflies, gnaw the leaves ceaselessly. Worse, a legion of black-and-orange harlequin bugs can materialize overnight to suck my broccoli raab dry. I must tend my plants almost daily to prevent the bugs from gaining the upper hand.

Contrast that with my tepary beans, which are more laid-back. Teparies originated in the Sonoran Desert, and as you might imagine, they require almost no water. A few waterings to get the plants started, and you can literally walk away all summer. Yes, the beans are small, but this is a fair trade for an effort-free crop in my book.

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Hank Shaw

It was as I was planting these tepary beans last May that I fully realized something: Half the plants in my plots are volunteers. My garden is six years old, so there is a lot of seed around. Every spring, and sometimes in fall, I get volunteer peppers, tomatoes, tomatillos, arugula, and the like. Every year I've let more of the seedlings live, weeding around the strongest. This summer, all my tomatoes, tomatillos, melons, and squash were volunteers. I have a fennel patch that consistently gives me a half dozen bulbs each year. I am, in effect, relinquishing some control.

Why? Because volunteers are, without question, stronger plants. They resist bugs better, they're more drought-tolerant, and, if I treat them right, they will yield better than the newcomers I plant each season. These plants chose to grow in that spot. All I did was preserve their pride of place. We're both the better for it.

So it is with wild plants. As a forager, I go to their spots, where they have chosen to grow. I never need to worry about pests, or watering, or whether the plant will get enough light to set fruit. It's taken care of those things all by itself. If it's a bad year for something, it will always be a good year for something else.

Holly has posited that one reason we hunt is to meet wild animals on equal terms: A grouse or a duck or a deer is in full control of its faculties, and, more often than not, will use those faculties to escape us. If you don't believe this, you have never hunted. Contrast that with farm animals, which are raised in captivity, dulled of many of their senses, and doomed to become our dinner the day they are born. They are, in essence, slaves.

I am starting to feel the same way about garden plants. Those brassicas I love to eat require my constant attention if I want them to grow to harvestable size. Is it all worth it? Sometimes. The flavor of some domestics—squash, peppers, and tomatoes for example—beats any wild cousin.

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Hank Shaw

Yet this newfound realization has definitely affected how I view my garden, and what I plant. Tepary beans, really beans of any type, will stay. They are good for the soil and don't ask much. Tomatoes? You bet. The taste of an heirloom tomato still hot from the summer sun is worth any effort.

But to the brassicas, and to any high-maintenance crop, I say this now: I'm done with you. I have neither the time nor the inclination to baby you any longer. You can grow pest-free, or die. I promise to weed around you and water you in droughts. But beyond that, you're on your own. I'll be out, hanging with your wild cousins.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2010/09/gardening-vs-gathering-how-we-harvest/63339/