Unemployment is rampant. The government is bankrupt. Foreclosures are everywhere. And one day soon, you may find your local grocery store has closed and shut off your supply of Hot Pockets. Most of us have never had to grow our own food. Those that have grown their own generally do it as a hobby – or as a way to get a vine-ripened tomato without selling a kidney..
Climate zones 8 and 9 [found in much of Arizons, parts of Florida, and the regions at the north end of California's Central Valley] are not a gardening paradise. If you go further south, you can grow tropicals year-round (like papayas and mangos) – further north [or into higher elevations], and you get fewer destructive insects and more options (like horseradish, gooseberries, and European pears).
However, that’s not to say you can’t grow food here. You can grow plenty to eat. Most of the Southern US has many native edibles of varying quality: beautyberry, sumac (not the ones with white berries), hickory nuts, blackberries, shepherd’s needle, Chickasaw plums, mulberries and many more. Our long season allows gardeners multiple harvests as well, provided they can outrun the insect population and beat back the nematodes.
The trick to growing here is generally two-fold: water and organic matter. Droughts must be overcome with proper irrigation, and our sun-beaten sandy (and sometimes clayey) soils benefit greatly from mulching, manure and compost.
It’s been said that it takes thousands of square feet to feed a person for a year. In a small lot, this is often impractical – but there are ways to maximize your yield. Long-term planning will allow you to harvest tons of food (literally) from an average yard. The trick? Fruit trees and shrubs, along with edible perennial herbs. One peach tree can easily produce 40-100 lbs of fruit a year. According to the University of Arizona agricultural extension office, the average yield of a grapefruit tree is 350 lbs a season. Also according to the University of Arizona, an 8-year old pecan tree will usually bear 40-50 pounds of nuts at maturity. Of course, if you plant that tree in a 1/10th acre lot, you’ll kill your chances of growing sun-loving annuals forever. However, if you create a “guild” by planting a pecan tree, surrounded by a ring of smaller fruit trees, which are then interspersed with smaller fruit-bearing shrubs, you have created a high-density food factory that will out-yield – even taking into consideration some tree over-crowding – any garden and do it with much less work.
Good trees to consider include many members of the citrus family (though allegedly no longer recommended by the University of Florida due to the spread of greening and canker), loquats, persimmon, pindo palms, olives, chestnuts, walnuts, pecans, pomegranates and low-chill plums, peaches, pears and apples.
Shrubs include blueberries, blackberries, cattley and pineapple guavas, prickly pear and edible bamboos. A few notable vines could also be added: grapes, kiwi and passion fruit. Hops vines are another good addition if you’re going to start brewing when your work dries up and you can no longer afford to buy bottled beer. And if your hops “fails to thrive,” thanks to our warm climate, wormwood is a passable substitution as a bittering agent.
Among perennial plants, the herbs are king. They may not provide much in the way of food, but the spice they add and the medicinal benefits of their consumption make them invaluable to a survival garden. Sage, rosemary, mint, hyssop, lavender and oregano are excellent starting plants.
STORING HARVEST TO EAT YEAR-ROUND
Planning your crop planting to ensure yield over as much of the year as possible is a good idea. However, you’re not limited to eating dirt during the winter if your squash crop happens to fail.
Proper management of your harvest is key. We’ve all heard someone say “I have a ____ tree and it bears all at once… most of them just rot! We can’t give enough away!” People that say things like that have lost the ability to reason and will be the first to be eaten in the apocalypse. Preserving is not difficult. It can be done through drying, freezing, canning or fermenting.
The Indians dried fruit and meats to take them through the winter and you can do so, too. A dehydrator is an excellent investment – and building a solar dehydrator is also worthwhile in case the electrical grid is rendered inoperative by an EMP strike, fuel shortages, a labor walk-out, abnormal sunspot activity or other disasters.
Freezing generally requires blanching vegetables (to deactivate decay-inducing enzymatic processes) in boiling water. Fruits can just be frozen as they are, with seeding, skinning, pitting, chopping or whatever preparation you prefer done ahead of time.
Canning requires more work at the front end and some specialized equipment such as mason jars and lids. It’s a little-known fact that you can also re-use almost any jar from the store for canning. Look at the rubber seal under the metal lid of the jar. If it’s intact and the lid fits snugly, you’re good-to-go. Despite the manufacturer’s instructions, mason jar lids can also be sterilized and reused. Just make sure that the pop-top seal is intact when you pull your preserved bounty off the shelf in the future. If the seal compromised–as evidenced by a popped top–then throw it out. Because another thing that mixes poorly with survival is Clostridium botulinum. And while on the topic, a pressure canner is superior to the water bath method in its ability to destroy potential pathogens. Boiling water is fine for high-acid foodstuffs (fruit), but don’t do green beans or corn that way. It’s not worth the risk.
Fermentation is probably the least utilized and most misunderstood method of preservation. In fermentation, you’re actually encouraging the growth of beneficial organisms and letting their excretions preserve your food. Wine and beer are yeast-based ferments – a sugar-to-alcohol conversion that renders the final product less appetizing to decay-inducing organisms and more appetizing for partygoers. Acid-forming bacteria were originally the preservers of sauerkraut and pickles. And various other molds and sundry animalcules have played their part through human history in the creation of cheeses, miso, sauces and other delicious foods. Without refrigeration, fruits and vegetables break down quickly. Encourage the formation of the right species of microorganism via brining, oxygen inclusion or exclusion, or other methods and you’re well on your way to ditching the fridge. Not to mention the major health benefits incurred by consuming the beneficial species that colonize your fermented harvest.
WHAT TO GROW
When considering what to plant in a garden, the first question that is often asked is “well – what do you like?” That’s a good start; however, in survival gardening, the first question should probably be “what can you survive on that requires the least input to the highest yield?” If your answer is “okra,” you may just want to go ahead and starve.
Sweet potatoes and cassava are two of the best root crops for our area, yielding well even with low care – and they also contain a high caloric load. Sweet potatoes beat cassava on nutrition – and their leaves can also be used as a green. Cassava leaves are edible too, but only after steaming. Otherwise, you’ll be ingesting cyanide. Cyanide and survival are generally at odds with each other.
Grains are less useful in the home garden, except as perhaps a cover crop or animal forage. The yield to input/work ratio is poor and the space required makes their cultivation impractical for home-scale agriculture.
Cabbage and other members of the crucifer family are excellent choices, with cabbage being the king thanks to its ability to be turned into sauerkraut.
Winter squash is another good choice. Many of our squashes, such as the “Hubbard” squash, were originally popular because of their ability to keep for six months or more in non-refrigerated environments.
Planning an area for blackberries is also an excellent idea. Thornless cultivars such as Ouachita and Natchez grow well in the hot south and will out-yield many other crops. Children love them. What other recommendation is needed?
Tomatoes are also easy to grow and may actually improve in flavor when canned or dried. Peppers are another member of the solanaceae family that does well in this region.
Tobacco, though a little difficult to start from seed, is a worthwhile addition (addiction?) to your home garden even if you don’t smoke. The leaves will be an invaluable bribe to smokers suffering from the shakes. The flowers are attractive to hummingbirds and the leaves can be distilled into a nicotine insecticide that devastates aphid populations.
Beans are another good choice. The “yard-long” or “asparagus” varieties thrive in the heat and will out-yield most other pole cultivars. Bush beans do well also. Peas will grow in the early spring and add valuable nitrogen to the soil as they grow.
Forget about asparagus, celery, rhubarb and head lettuces [in Zone 8 or 9]. They are a waste of time.
Keep your friends close – and your garden closer. Putting high-maintenance plants in a raised bed at the back end of your yard is a recipe for failure. Keep them where you can immediately be aware of any pest or water issues. Right by the back door is usually perfect, with your compost on the other side of the garden from your house. Doing so allows you to easily discard spent plants and apply compost without enlisting the aid of a wheelbarrow, a grandchild, a pack animal or a catapult. Work smarter, not harder! Make sure a water source is nearby and that you also have vehicle access, if possible, to allow you to bring soil amendments, fertilizers and mulch right to your garden.
Using heavy mulch in your garden will eliminate most weed issues. Gather leaves in fall and winter, along with grass clippings, pine needles, rotten straw or other organic matter and put it alongside your garden space for use as needed. A heavy mulching in fall will keep cool-season weeds from emerging and also allow worms to stay moist and breed in the soil, bringing valuable oxygen and nutrients from the surface into your beds. Cover cropping in winter with peas, lentils and various crucifers also adds organic material and is a cheap way to keep the soil intact – not to mention providing some vegetables for the table when the main harvests are done.
Plant trees as soon as possible. If you’re limited on space, stick to smaller varieties. Again, the square-foot yield you’ll receive from a mature tree requires little input compared to an annual vegetable bed. Leave space for trees – you’ll be glad you did – and remember: the best time to plant a tree was ten years ago.
Now is the time to start planning and growing. Do your research and experimentation before you’re required to live off your land. And if there’s a miraculous turnaround and you never need to go farther than the supermarket to stay fat and happy – great. You’ll at least get some delicious preserves from your fruit trees and will have learned a bit more about food production. Finally… relax. If you can’t manage to grow enough vegetables, you’ll certainly be able to subsist on the grasshoppers and hornworms attracted by your efforts.
Editor’s Note: David is in the Florida Master Gardener program in North Central Florida.