A few years ago I and my wife, Maureen, visited Ireland, and we took a trip to part of North West Sligo, whence my maternal great grandmother's family had emigrated over a century ago. Ireland of today is a comfortable place to live, but as a gardener I was interested in the soils, and I was somewhat daunted by what I saw. We were very near the shore, and I thought that the soils were thin and exposed to the salt-laden winds that sear that landscape near Rosses Point. I could see why my ancestors made the decision to go to England. The land was too poor to farm.
Yet many of us nurture a dream of living near the coast. For some it is a retirement dream, or the thought of a coastal business, but others dream of self- reliance. Well, the coast has advantages. You can grow vegetables and keep chickens, etc, and you can also do a bit of fishing or foraging. But there are difficulties of coastal self-reliance. The most obvious is that nowadays there have been incidences of coastal flooding, only in the last week or two in the British Isles, as storm surges bring waves inland. I have no dream of gardening on a shore prone to flooding, and a house there would be vulnerable. Self-reliance is a dream, but it is only for realists. An unfeasible operation soon becomes nightmare.
You must consider certain factors: how near to the shore do you propose to live, and how exposed the shore is. My daughter lives on the South East side of Anglesey above the Menai Straits, some distance back from the shore, where she is definitely not exposed to coastal flooding, and the bulk of the island protects her house from salty winds [She is not a practitioner of self-reliance and probably looks upon her Dad as lovably nuts. She is probably right.] So if you want to be self-reliant near the sea, stay a bit back from the coast and nowhere near a stream prone to flood, if you can avoid it.
Yet there are no limitations on livestock. You can keep chickens, turkeys and various mammals like pigs or cattle near the coast, but you need to be sure that if the land is floodable they can easily be rescued. Having to leave animals to drown or not bothering to save them is horrible. If you cannot guarantee an animal's safety, do not keep it.You can also do many of the activities of self-reliance, such as making bread and wine, pickles and other preserves without thinking about how near the coast you are.
Growing vegetables is a key part of self-reliance, but here is where you must consider the salt in the soil and the air. All coastal areas have some exposure to windborne salt, which is not good for many plants, some of which cannot tolerate it. But there are solt tolerant varieties and there are techniques for minimising salt in the soil. The main technique is raised beds. The soil below the raised bed should be heavily turned over before the bed is raised above it. Horticulturalists advise going down to nine inches and working compost into the hole. This will provide salt free soil
You can choose salt tolerant varieties. High salt tolerance is possessed by kale, spinach and asparagus; beet also descends from sea beet, which still grows wild on our shores, [I saw some in Anglesey last week] so it is easily salt tolerant. There are some that have salt tolerant varieties.Potatoes have medium salt tolerance, and there some new varieties that are stronger in this respect. Tomatoes, peas and lettuce also belong in the salt-tolerant category. Broccoli and some squash varieties can thrive in coastal conditions, and there are some varieties of cauliflower that can produce results in spring in the milder conditions that are found at the coast. However, radishes, celery and beans are not suitable for coastal conditions. Worthy of mention is an apple variety, Bardsey Island, which was found growing wild on Bardsey, and is therefore of proven salt tolerance.Onions and leeks can also be grown.
Self-reliant people may be tempted by foraging. Mussel picking is a popular activity, but remember there are local by-laws and regulations enforced by the authorities in each area that determine where and when you may pick shellfish, and how much. Check the regulations for your area for each type of shellfish that you want. Also ensure that you only pick from clean waters. and local advice wil be needed for this. Do not take shellfish in months without an R in the name, as these are the breeding months when the flesh is poorer. It is also at this time that toxic algal blooms can be found in coastal waters, and these can poison the shellfish and you, seriously. You always need to follow the basic advcie of leaving the shellfish to purify for a time that differs for each variety, which you will need to research. Only then can you cook and eat, and even then follow all the cooking guidelines for each type.
Fishing for your supper is also attractive, and I enjoy some sea fishing. But not only is fishing a skill, it can be dangerous. There have been people washed away while fishing from exposed rocks or on stormy shores. You will need to work out whether you want to beach cast or fish from pier or boat, and then get the hgear suitable for your fishing type. If you want to fish from a boat, ensure that you know the local waters and take advice. It is easy to get into trouble at sea, and there are tricky waters off parts of the British Isles.When fishing, the rule is safety first; the sea is unforgiving.
Some people forage beach plants, but I see little use in most of them, many of which are too rare and so are forbidden to foragers. All multicellular algae [seaweeds] can be eaten, but you must ensure that you take them from clean waters, and some are not worth the trouble, either because hey take too long to cook or to chew. Dulce is in the latter variety. It is even when cooked certainly chewy, and while the Welsh eat laver in laver bread, cooking the stuff requires heroic patience. But these seaweeds can be great mulch for your garden. I have seen masses of blackberries on land just behind the coast, and these can be foraged; and on a trip to Scotland my son Peter and I foraged raspberries by the side of a sea loch, so these are available to the forager.
Doing some research as to what is available and possible in your chosen area is a must. Self-reliance by the sea is a great idea, but you have to get it right, be realistic and stay safe.