When the very existence of humanity is threatened, perhaps by catastrophic global warming, perhaps by an attack of brain-eating monsters, what is the first thing you think of? Yes, we’re on the same page: ensuring an adequate layer of mulch under your fruit trees. Ideally something that not only retains moisture and maintains soil structure but offers a little something for the humans struggling with a post-industrial lifestyle nearby. So, to address the needs of fellow survivalists in these difficult times, I offer a run down on chlorophyll-laden companions for such moments of adversity.
Chance of surviving: Good, given consistent moisture and morning sunlight. After a couple of years in the ground, susceptible to a virus that makes the fruits look like hairy-faced Cousin It out of the Adams Family – greenish protrusions all over the fruit. Still tastes okay, though: it doesn’t pay to be fussy after the zombie apocalypse.
Productivity: Theoretically, excellent. A delicate reminder of the luxuries of gentler times. In reality, in my garden, nada: easy pickings for critters. Maybe netting would help.
Capacity to out-compete weeds: Could do better. Needs extensive straw mulch or weed matting. This is your pampered city no-nothing who is the first to bite it when weapons are drawn.
Chance of surviving: Excellent. Said to be short-lived but can reproduce by layering, so new plants take root wherever branches lay on the ground. Tolerates partial shade well and copes well with periods of drought.
Productivity: Again, theoretically, impressive. Produces peach-sized juicy, mildly sweet fruits tasting like a slightly insipid melon – good in a mixed fruit salad. Flavour will be surely enhanced by the scarcities after the breakdown of civilisation. Fruits early, within the first year or so. Unfortunately, fruit tends to droop towards the ground where fruitarian zombies and/or rodents can easily nab them.
Aesthetic appeal: (the art galleries may be filled with mindless corpses, but the beautiful things in life are still important) High. Gorgeous little white and purple striped flower with a contrasting yellow stigma. The light apricot-coloured fruit is dappled with purple and the long leaves are an attractive greyish green.
Capacity to out-compete weeds. Not bad. Plenty of leaves right down to the ground, even in shade. Can’t entirely crowd out ehrharta or trad, though, and it’s a pain to weed around and through it. Not for neat freaks. But neat freaks probably won’t cope with the survivalist lifestyle too well, so not to worry.
Chance of surviving. Comfrey will be the last plant standing. Deep tap roots enable it to access any water available. Needs some sunlight but copes with very little in my garden.
Productivity. This is the permaculture mother lode: high nitrogen, high potassium, a dynamic accumulator of minerals. No doubt there are herbal types who will profess it cures cancer. You can’t eat it and your chooks probably shouldn’t eat too much of it either unless you want them to have liver failure, but it’s a fantastic compost activator and decomposes into a comfrey tea that’s an all purpose liquid fertiliser.
Aesthetic appeal: Enormous textured grey-green leaves and lovely delicate purple flowers. Smells pleasantly of cucumbers when cut.
Capacity to out-compete weeds. Comfrey is a weed. Well, the non-sterile versions are: you are best getting your hands on the Bocking 14 sort which don’t produce seeds. Spend some time in the underground bunker planning ahead before you plant this, since, a bit like Jerusalem artichokes, once it’s in it stays there. Any tiny piece of root (or stem) in the ground will produce another plant. You can tear off its leaves three or four times in a year and it will come right back. In fact, comfrey may well be the plant version of the undead. The large leaves and capacity to grow when all around are wilting means it keeps most competitors down though trad seems to be able to find a way. Dies down briefly in winter which gives the other nasties a go. Since Sydney will no longer have a winter in the near future this may become less of a problem.
Chance of surviving: Very good. In theory dies back in winter (but see above). Regrows from tubers left in the ground in previous seasons. Copes well with drier periods, though it does need quite a bit of sun.
Productivity. In my garden hasn’t produced an astonishing number of tubers, but I haven’t taken it very seriously as a root crop. That will obviously change when civilisation breaks down and there’s no longer a chip shop around the corner. The new leaves and shoots are an excellent alternative to spinach or swiss chard, juicy and quite mild flavoured. They are much nicer to eat raw than rainbow chard, for instance, and apparently are a favourite food in the Phillipines. The leafy tips grow back quickly after being harvested.
Aesthetic appeal. Gorgeous. Some varieties have heart shaped leaves, others palmate. The leaves are a deep glossy green with purplish new growth. Related to the (weedy) morning glory vine, so you may get some very pretty flowers towards the end of summer. Apparently there are ornamental varieties with near-black or lime green leaves, but the culinary varieties are nothing to sneeze at. Note: there will be zero tolerance of ornamental plants after the zombie apocalypse.
Capacity to out-compete weeds. Not bad at all. The leaves are large and there are lots of them. The vine is quite vigorous and, like pepino, sends out roots where it touches the ground. With a little light supplementary weeding, my sweet potato seems to have kept things under control around the artichokes and the citrus pretty well.
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No advice here on weaponry or tips on an antidote for those snacked on by the undead, but we have covered the important issues. Next week: hydroponics after the collapse of the West Antarctic Icesheet.