For some the phrase living off the land brings back an audio memory of a song from the 1970’s; Dog Named Boo by Lobo. For others it means foraging and companionship farming. In the beginning of time all people lived off the land, hunting and gathering food. Eventually people learned how to grow crops and raise animals for food. These agricultural societies were dependent upon the land for their existence.
Living off the land, can mean learning how to grow food plants easily without employing high till, soil eroding methods requires that you give up the idea of neat rows of growing plants with dirt paths between them. A large amount of time is spent pulling weeds from traditional gardens. Weeds that are usually edible and give back nutrients that food plants remove from the soil.
American Indians used a method for producing three staple vegetables that they called the “Three Sisters.” Using primitive stone and bone tools they would prepare the soil in a circle. They would mound up the dirt. In the center would they would plant corn. Close to the corn seed they would plant three bean seeds. Around the edge of the mound they would plant squash. As the corn grew the bean stalks would wind around the stalk of the corn. As the squash grew, the large leaves would help retain the moisture from the rains to keep all three growing strong. Each plant uses different nutrients from the soil and puts back what the other plants need. Each species contributed to the well being of the other.
Planting large leaved food crops such as squash, pumpkin and melons near other smaller leaved plants helps retain moisture in the soil. Planting quick growing plants like leaf lettuce and greens in the rows between longer growing plants such as beets and turnips you harvest food long before the next one is ripe. Planting flowers in between rows has been a common practice for companionship planting. The flowers draw the bees to the garden helping with pollination.
A word of caution: If you’re using heirloom seeds, keep pumpkins away from squash, and allow lots of space between corn varieties. While cross pollination of Blue Corn and Yellow Corn may be pretty it takes many years to return each to their genetic purity. Mounding on different sides of the area solves this problem. Pumpkins take to mound planting as well as squash. Watermelons and other melons also do well when planted with beans and corn. Heirloom varieties require about 100 feet between them to be safe from cross pollination.
Foraging is almost as important as companionship farming when living off the land. Wild fruits such as raspberry, blackberry, cranberries and blueberries grow wild. Gathering these add variety and flavor to the daily meal. Many wild greens, mushrooms and roots gathered when they are ripe also add nutrients to the diet long before garden plants are ready to harvest. Wild Mustard, Lambs Quarters and Amaranth are ready to be eaten when lettuce, spinach and turnip greens are just barely recognizable.
Later in the fall the various nuts gathered and added to the stores of food that the garden produces increases volume and variety. Walnuts, Butternuts, Hazelnuts, Beechnuts and Hickory nuts are just a few of the many nuts that grow on the North American continent. Nutmeats are high in oil that can be extracted for cooking and they are high in protein. They are well worth gathering.
Living off the land requires that you store what you grow and gather. Canning, water bath and pressure canning, through drying or freezing or cold storing the food that you have foraged or grown will feed you through the winter. Almost all the stems and stalks of food crop plants can be dried and then fed to livestock.
Chickens, turkeys, guinea hens, rabbits and goats are all valuable to a family that is living off the land. The birds will eat the left over plant produce as well as the bugs that bite and irritate. Using tractors, a type of small animal cage that is mobile, and the entire yard can be pest free all season long. Additionally using animal tractors keep your yard fertilized and “mowed” without you spreading any fertilizer or running the lawn mower.
The most important aspect of living off the land is the knowledge that you have provided a healthy, balanced diet for you and your family. Watching the fruits of your labor ripen on the vine or stalk, seeing that tiny egg grow into an adult bird with chicks of her own are things that no supermarket or grocery store can provide.