Becoming a Modern Peasant: Hedgesteading

Some say the fundamental difference between “high”  magic and witchcraft is that the former is solar and the latter lunar. That’s one way of seeing it. But for me, the difference is that witchcraft is usually connected to nature in a way that “high” magic is not. That connection to nature can play out in various ways. It can be about reading natural signs, working with local spirits, knowing the medicinal/magical qualities of  your native plants and when best to harvest them, using hunting magic or the magic of husbandry and working with animals. One way for witches to develop a connection to nature is to grow some of our own food. Doing that requires that a person get to know their mini-climate and just by working the garden, come to recognize the natural signs of change and become acquainted with local spirits. And by eating food you grow yourself, the environment literally becomes a part of you.

But what if you don’t have good land for doing that?  My yard is a city lot covered with trees, for the most part, much of it sewn with great knots of tree roots like the back of a crone’s hand. It’s great for relaxing in, doing magic late at night, and growing perennials, but it’s not a happy home for the sun-focused, mostly annual food crops our culture prefers to eat (does that solar focus say something about our culture?).  And since I rent this place, I don’t feel like putting a bunch of money into permaculture food plants like fruit and nut trees, although I have started berry bushes I can take cuttings from when I eventually move. This season, I tried harder to work with my yard conditions than against them. Gone are the days when I tried growing squash in my back yard, where fast-growing Norway maples are eating up what little sunny spots are left. Instead, my garden focused on herbs that can prosper in shady territory, and I got a lot from that, although a number of the plants I grew from seed, like angelica and vervain, won’t come into their own for another year or two.  I want to add more food plants back into the mix but in such a way that takes into account the fact I am gardening mostly in shade. So for next year, I will grow a lot of Asian greens, like mitsuba, mizuna, and pac choi. I’ve got a lot of seeds for those plants, I’ve grown them in the past, they taste good and are mostly not available in grocery stores here, and they tend not to mind shade as much as fruiting plants like tomatoes and squash do. I also will grow peas, beans, and cukes in the few sunny bits I have in the back, as I have been doing since I moved here, but leafy greens are the type of food plant nearly anyone can grow, since they can take partial shade and they can be grown in pots or even function as decorative plantings in yards where veggie-growing is disapproved of.

Then I got Deppe’s new book, The Resilient Gardener. If you’re a garden geek, you might remember her from Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties, where she describes in more detail than I can handle the ins and outs of saving seeds from garden vegetables.  This new book is way more inspiring, to my mind. There’s a lot of talk out there about food gardening as an important component in self-sufficiency. Some people are into self-sufficiency because they see social disorder or collapse coming down the pike. I think that might happen, but more, I want to disengage from consumerist culture and in terms of magic, to connect more to the life of nature around me. In terms of growing food, for town folks, the emphasis nowadays is on intensive gardening, where the greatest number of plants are squished into highly worked on land (raised beds with wooden sides, specially imported dirt, hand watering and hand weeding, imported fertilizers, and lots of imported mulch). This can indeed be very productive in terms of amount of food produced per foot of land–and sometimes it’s the ONLY way someone can get food out of their patch. But it’s not that resilient or very sustainable. Being resilient as Deppe defines it means that your garden can stand some neglect if things go wrong, like job loss or having to spend time caring for a sick person (maybe yourself). It means using growing methods that aren’t so finicky and that require minimal external inputs (something I have been looking at real hard). A resilient garden should be able to deal with the erratic weather of global warming. Hmm.

One way Deppe proposes gardeners can be more resilient is by using wider plant spacing that reduces the need for any supplemental irrigation (Steve Solomon describes this in his book, Gardening When It Counts).  I really can’t experiment with that technique at this point, since I don’t have much land. I have, though, looked at 19th-century farming books, and they do indeed recommend much wider spacing than we use now, because they were not only not depending on supplemental irrigation but didn’t have synthetic fertilizers to artificially pump up plants either. She also recommends using a tiller, which is pretty much blasphemy in the gardening world nowadays (and which is something I do use). But she has put her finger on a number of problems that I have certainly encountered with intensive growing. There is no way you can produce the amount of compost called for in that method. You have to buy it or get it from somewhere like the city, if they produce decent compost. It’s great to use up stuff that is going to be thrown away, but you still have to get it to your place. And mulch? When your garden starts getting bigger, mulching becomes really difficult. I figured out that in my old place, where I had a large garden but nowhere near what it might be, I would need to add two tons of mulch to bring it up to intensive gardening standards. Two tons. Every single year. Where’s that going to come from? Digging in green manure with a tiller is more sustainable than importing masses of compost and fertilizers from off-property (especially if you can share the tiller). And as for tilling wrecking the soil, it’s tilling, not plowing. My soil is full of worms, so I know it is in good shape. You can’t use a tiller in a bed with wooden sides. But leaving even mulching and tilling aside, as Deppe points out, it is much easier to weed with a hoe than by hand, and none of us are getting any younger (I really like that she addresses gardening issues like age). Intensive gardening usually involves hand weeding. No thanks. I like my hoe.

Deppe notes that unpredictable weather is the greatest problem facing a resilient gardener. Weather has always been an issue for growers, but lately how it deviates from average has been more and more extreme. It’s really hard to have a productive garden when for years you’ve been easily growing tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants and then you hit a summer where it’s cold, dark, and rainy. Or like last summer in upstate NY–we always have sufficient water here in the MidAtlantic, it’s one of the characteristics of this climate, but last summer was very hot and we had little rain–not enough to qualify as a drought, but enough for the soil to be very dusty. Even with supplemental water (I use recycled rubber soaker hoses and watered only in early morning), my plants were negatively affected. It was one of the reasons I ended up buying a lot of produce from others who did get enough water for their plants. I then processed that produce, turning it into pickles and preserves that can feed me all winter (some of which is pictured in this post). I learned a LOT about various preserving methods by doing that, and I hope to learn more.

One thing that really struck me in this book was how Deppe trashes the idea that you need to own land to be self-sufficient. She says she hasn’t owned most of the land she has grown food on. She rents it, and her position is if you have good growing skills, at some point in the future, land will be made available to you because of those skills, so work on what you have now. How practical! She rejects the idea of independence and points out that as a species, we have never been individually independent. Even early humans traded for whatever they could not grow or make in their own territory–sometimes importing stuff over thousands of miles. IOW, she embraces history’s idea of interdependence: if possible, grow as much of your food as you can. But if you can’t, work on your food preservation and other skills. I like that, especially many of those food preservation skills come in handy for the witch. As she says, everyone does not have land, but most everyone has a kitchen. In that scenario, no one tries to do everything alone. Instead, folks specialize, just like we have always done.

She also rejects the idea of trying to duplicate the 19th-century homestead, for which I am glad. IMO, trying to duplicate 19th-century farming, including having all sorts of stock, is a recipe for disaster. There are too many variables in the equation. Only about 20% of homesteaders under the Homestead Act were still on their land after the regulation five years were up. The rest gave up and abandoned their land. It was not just a problem with tough climates (the northern plains can be a hellish place to farm); it’s an enormously steep learning curve. And personally, I don’t want to spend what lifetime I have left learning how to raise, doctor, and butcher pigs, cows, chickens, goats, AND try to learn how to drive a team AND learn how to plow and tend to grain fields AND grow enough not just to feed myself and my own but also to feed the animals I need to have to grow the grain in the first place. Plus most grains need prime land and specialized equipment to thresh and grind. And then you still need to make cash money to pay for stuff you can’t make, like dental work or taxes, which aren’t going to disappear anytime soon. So there’s a fundamental flaw with the idea of returning to the traditional homestead as an answer.

Instead of the homesteader perspective, Deppe says “I aim to be a modern peasant.”  She’s not talking about slaving for some aristocrat (being a serf) or living without running water or electricity. Instead, she’s contrasting the peasant with the homesteader, IMO. Peasants might well not own their own land. They usually had more than one skill–IOW, they weren’t out there digging potatoes all day. They knew how to do things outside of growing and they traded on those skills to add income and variety to their lives. They didn’t focus on growing lots of livestock, and they usually lived in villages rather than on isolated homesteads, with their lands spread out like a skirt around them. We can look back and believe (wrongly, IMO) that homesteaders were rugged individuals hacking out independence in the wilderness. We look back on peasants and see them as members of their community. I think that emphasis on community and on developing skills to trade with is what distinguishes Deppe’s book from the majority I’ve read on prepping for the future. And I think it points to important lessons for witches, too. We have been hidden from our communities for so long. She discusses becoming a reservoir for the knowledge of growing food and/or preserving food. I think that can not only be a process of learning about the immediate environment for the witch but a lever with which to pry open relationships with one’s community. For witches, instead of homesteading, we can learn hedgesteading–using hedge in the sense of edge, learning how to make what one has access to into something that both teaches and sustains.

In terms of growing food, Deppe focuses on staples you can grow without animal helpers and with little specialized equipment, namely, corn as a grain (can be ground in a sturdy mortar and pestle or if you want to get fancy, a hand operated grain mill), along with potatoes, beans, squash, and eggs from ducks. Notice she doesn’t include the classic field grains like wheat, rye, and barley. Corn can be demanding in terms of fertility, but potatoes can grow almost anywhere. For beans, she’s talking not just pole beans, but garbanzo beans, which can be popped, cowpeas, lentils, soybeans, tepary beans, and fava/broad beans.

One of the ideas that intrigued me was drying summer squash to use as an ingredient in winter food. I know about storing winter squash and have done that when I had land to grow them, but honestly, I would not have thought of drying and storing summer squash. Like mushrooms, though, which are also mostly water, summer squash can be delicious, and according to Deppe, some of them are especially good dried. She mentions Buffalo Bird Woman growing and drying squash (that’s BBW in the pic, holding a rake made out of what looks like an antler lashed to a stick–makes me grateful for my steel stirrup hoe–steel stirrup hoes are part of the “modern” in “modern peasant,” I think). I am going to try this myself next year, putting two circular plantings of summer squash in the front yard, my only real sunny area. They’ be surrounded by marigolds, so no one can get their ass in an uproar about veggies in the front yard. I’m considering lining that part of my yard with colorful mustards and purple greens as well. Might as well be hanged for a ram as a sheep, right? Deppe recommended Costata Romanesco and Magda varieties of summer squash for best taste. I’ve never grown those two, mostly stuck to pattypans due to their lovely Cthulhu shape with occasional forays into gigantic zuke land (which are pretty good with the seeds hollowed out and then stuffed and baked–learned that from Stocking Up). I ordered these two seeds already. In fact, I already have all my seeds for next year’s garden ordered. Notice that the description of Costata Romanesco says it’s not as productive as modern hybrids but it tastes the best. Deppe does not ignore taste for production–she wants not just food, but delicious food. I like that. If you’re going to be a peasant, you should at least get to eat good. Also notice that the Costata Romanesco is open-pollinated, which means you can save seed from them and they will breed true. You do have to pollinate the flowers of fruits you will save yourself, though, so bees don’t help them cross with all the other squash in the area. ‘Course, the way we are going, we are not going to have to worry about that problem, because we won’t have any bees. But I will give that a try as well.

Check out the book. It is heartening and inspiring and might just get you hedgesteading.

16 comments to Becoming a Modern Peasant: Hedgesteading

  • faustianbargain

    that’s an awesome pantry! great job!

  • petoskystone

    thanks for the recommendations! such gorgeous colors in your pantry 🙂

  • Actually, that rake is just a multi-forked stick. It branches, and each branch branches again. They’re quite sturdy, and very handy. And, if you accidentally leave it out it’s not going to rust.

    One of the reasons I want to grow herbs is because we just don’t have local growers of herbs, hell… most don’t even come from the same nation! That’s not “right” to this witch. Yarrow from my front yard works far better for me than yarrow from the local health-food-store, imported from California, who may well have imported it from the East.

    • herba15

      I feel relieved to learn it’s a stick. I could just imagine what it would be like to use an antler lashed to a stick. I do use an antler tip for digging up mandrakes, but that’s a simple matter, not like cultivating vegetables in a field.

      I’m with you about the herbs. One of the most challenging things about my business has been sourcing herbs of decent quality. Even the ones called “organic” often are little more than chopped olive green stuff. One good place I have found in the US is Pacific Botanicals. They have the best quality I have seen, but unfortunately, there are a lot of herbs they don’t carry. I get what I can for the shop from them.

      I like growing my own, too. There is just nothing like it for harvesting, even when you dry it. I harvested a bunch of stuff this year for myself.

  • I’ve always thought the notion of turning your home into what amounts to a small farm was less “spiritual” and more… antisocial? If you’ve got 10 green appendages that’s all well and good, but I imagine sticking to what works for you (and the area) and sharing/trading the bounty is just so much more fulfilling.

  • herba15

    She recommends ducks over chickens for the northwest, which is where she’s at. Makes sense. They can be outside all year there, and they like slugs and snails a lot. I know that ducks are supposed to be easier to take care of than chickens, but they need a pond to escape predators. She says where you get a winter, you should stick to chickens instead. The breed of duck she mentions is called Ancona. I have not heard of this breed before. I had heard that the Runner ducks were the best for this type of job. She has some pictures of the ducks, and they are mottled but otherwise look like regular ducks, not Runners. I love ducks myself. Damned cute.

  • I ordered the Deppe book last week 🙂 This weekend, because last weekend was too busy, it’s all about winter crops in the raised beds, moving the existing edible solanums into half barrels to be insulated with straw under a greenhouse (got an affordable kit at Lowes), planting fava, garbanzo, a crapload of brassicas, etc.

    Growing food to share is the precursor to breaking bread with friends, IMHO. Or brewing wine or beer to imbibe with friends. Or canning preserves to share. Food is culture, in other words.

    And I freely admit I thought I’d be able to do a lot more than I currently do, when we moved here. However, creating an edible landscape is time-consuming. Luckily it is only time-consuming for the berry bushes and vines which need to grow. I was looking to free us from the grocery store entirely, but it’s not possible at this juncture. That’s me being the cooknik though. Just like we’re dirtniks out in the yard.

    Anything that gets people outside is a good thing.

    • herba15

      What kind of mini-greenhouse kit did you get? I have been wanting one. My excuse is that I need one for the mandrakes. Right?

      I’m taking a tip from you and growing more stuff in pots next year. I have my eye on some 10-gallon and 25-gallon pots:

      This would really help my problem of massive tree roots in the ground even in the small sunny bits in the back.

      I thought I’d be able to do a lot more than I can do in my yard food-wise too. But like you said, it is a big investment of time.

      • Those pots are lovely by the way! I don’t suppose any of the local garden stores or even warehouse places like Home Despot ever have pots up for grabs, destined for the trash?

        That is the one thing I buy from Urban Ore with some regularity. Stacks of giant pots when they have them. Maybe a landscaping company would have some to be rid of? Kind of like arborists and tree trimmers who chip up the stuff they trim and remove usually have free wood mulch to unload on people to avoid paying to dump it even at transfer stations and landfills that divert for composting.

        Most of these black pots are made out of #5 resin, have little to no recycled content in them, and are not themselves recyclable, but they sure can be reused until they deteriorate.

        • herba15

          I’ve wondered if they were recyclable. I avoid plastic generally, but I haven’t found a good substitute in pots. Terra cotta pots have become so expensive I could never afford them in the quantities that I use. I haven’t had a plastic one wear out on me yet, so it hasn’t come up. I bought a bunch of 1-gallon and 5-gallon ones from them about five years ago. I grew all my peppers, tomatoes, and eggplants in them for the past couple of years. That is a good idea about checking with landscaping places. I didn’t think of it. Lowe’s has people from outside who do their plants, so I am not sure what they do about extra pots or if they ever have any. I will check, though. I did find out recently that as I suspected, you basically do not need to bleach used pots. You can just use them as is.

      • herba15

        That is a nice one! And if you can get peppers and tomatoes in the winter out of it, holy cats! I would love that. Here, even with a built greenhouse, if it’s unheated, you are not getting anything in winter. But Elliot Coleman came up with a way of growing greens in winter by using rowcovers in a hoophouse. I might be able to get away with a coldframe right next to the patio or the south side of the house, but I haven’t collected enough junk to make one yet.

  • Sean

    You know, this might help out for watering quite a bit:

    Just thinkin’ “out loud”

    I absolutely love the pantry for what its worth. And I too live in the shade.


  • Medeina Ragana

    When I lived in PHilly, my backyard was concrete! I solved the problem of growing stuff by putting them in 5 gallon containers. I grew onions, broccoli, lettuce, tomatoes, radishes, carrots and others. My neighbor’s father (who was drunk at the time) wanted to know why I didn’t just buy stuff at the store.

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