It’s the summer of 2016 in Prince Edward County. In the last 6 weeks we’ve had maybe 20 mm of rain. We are in the midst of a major drought, and there doesn’t seem to be much indicating it will let up in the near future. Occasionally we get some promising-looking dark clouds overhead but they hardly ever break into a downpour. In the County we often find that the lake blows clouds right over our little island, and they break into rain somewhere further north, leaving the land here dry and parched as before.
Growing a garden under these conditions is challenging, to say the least! In our gardens, some of the heat-loving, dry-tolerant plants like tomatoes, peppers and eggplants are managing with little water so far.
However, our lovingly-planted peas and lettuce have shrivelled up to almost nothing. Meanwhile, due to the limited supply of thriving greenery around, the rabbits and other creatures have been taking advantage of our garden goods more than usual..
Although this can be disappointing and frustrating, I am finding it to be an interesting challenge and learning experience. Having to subsist on little water ourselves has made us feel exceptionally grateful for any water that we use.
Looking around, I notice that while some plants and trees are struggling or dying back early (like the poor dried up goldenrod in the photo at the top of this post) others are actually thriving under these conditions. These are the ones making themselves available as food and medicine right now, offering us what we need most at this place and time.
A fine example of this is the wild grape vine. These big lush green leaves do not usually look so healthy and vibrant by late July. This year however, they are strong and abundant. Many of them are carrying motherlodes of maturing fruit, promising to bring sweet sustenance as late summer approaches.
For now, we are enjoying the sustenance of their thriving green leaves. We’ve been cooking them into our meals, and preparing the delicious middle eastern-style dolmades (vine leaf rolls, stuffed with rice and vegetables). Grape leaves provide a tremendous source of vitamins A & C, calcium, magnesium and iron, packing a bigger punch of nutritents than most cultivated produce.
The ability to hold water when it’s in low supply also indicates something important about the medicine that grape vines carry. They are astringent, which means that they help to strengthen and tighten membranes, keeping out infections and supporting healthy tone, especially to skin and blood vessels.
Another thriving plant in dry weather is the tasty, succulent Purslane
Loaded with alphalinoleic acid (ALA), one of our important omega 3 fatty acids, this plant uses its oils as well as its astringent nature to hold onto water. It plants itself and survives in dry garden soil and other disturbed areas, helping to soothe, nutrify and moisten the earth where needed. It is often even found thriving in the cracks of sidewalks and parking lots! Purslane is a welcome weed in our gardens as it is one of the tastiest wild foods I know. It has a lemony flavour and a hardy texture which makes it a lovely addition to cucumber & tomato salads, as well as gazpacho soups. The whole above-ground plant is edible, markedly nutritious and is delicious raw, cooked or pickled.
Other greens we’ve been enjoying this summer include the pleasantly bitter Wild Lettuce, cousin of the less-hearty cultivated lettuce varieties. The cooling leaves make a superb addition to green salads on hot days.
..and then there’s the ever-abundant Lamb’s Quarters. This is a relative of spinach, having a similar flavour but even higher nutritional value. It is rich in vitamins A & C, as well as calcium and iron. It grows throughout our gardens as another welcome weed. We add the leaves to salads, puree them into pestos, blend them chopped up into green smoothies and cook them just as we would spinach. Lamb’s quarters can survive on way less water than spinach however, and it seeds itself readily all summer long, helping to cool and nutrify barren patches of garden soil.
Of course, midsummer is wild berry season here in the County. The sweet, delicious black raspberries seem to be producing some tasty fruit this summer. We eat them fresh in our cereal and freeze them for later use in smoothies and baking. Before and after fruiting, the raspberry plants provide mineral-rich leaves which make a tasty nutritious tea that can be safely used as a medicinal (with more properties than I have room to mention here). This plant is a real generous provider.
While a drought provides challenges for all creatures involved, the value of what can be gleaned from such challenges is immeasurable. The old adage seems most appropriate here, If it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger.
..Well, so far we have indeed survived, and I dare say we do feel stronger and more resilient as we gratefully benefit from the earth’s gifts enveloped in the heat of the summer sun.