The Disaster Garden–What’s Not in the Can, by C. the Old Farmer

“I’m going to garden if the Spinach hits the Fan…I’ve got my seeds in long term storage,” my prepper friend sighed with an attitude of  that’s taken care of now, thank goodness!  I asked if he had a garden.  “No, but I’m ready to start one if I have to.” As a homestead gardener of over 30 years from a long line of homestead gardeners, here is some practical advice culled from my years of experience growing food. 

There is no instant garden by digging up the back yard.  I wish it were so!  Lawn grass is one of the most time-consuming weeds you’ll ever meet, and you’ll have to eradicate it if you plan to plant. 

Now, what’s under that grass?  Most of us have heard of ‘crop rotation’, where the same plants are not grown in the same place every year because they strip the soil of certain nutrients and encourage insects and diseases specific to those plants.  Think of grass as a crop that hasn’t been rotated for…how long?  The soil’s pretty depleted.  Although you’ve maybe been fertilizing it, you have a root mat that encouraged just top growth because lawn fertilizers are high nitrogen for fast greening.  Hopefully you’ve not been putting on serious pesticides in order to have the perfect lawn – or the previous owner didn’t!

If you have a season to spare, put a big sheet of black plastic well weighted down over the future garden, effectively cooking the grass.  You may have to hire a commercial tilling outfit to do the first run through, or plan to spend lots of time with the shovel developing those arms and shoulders.  The reason?  Rocks.  They get stuck in tiller tines or break the shear-pin, over and over (have extras) unless you live in a location (like Dallas) where they actually truck in rocks for lawn ornaments (then you’ll be amending the heavy, clay soil to make it lighter).  Grass should be raked out.  ‘Dead grass’ is an oxymoron – I’ve never seen such a persistent plant.  It grows under the snow and will come back from the root with a little water, even lying, dried, on top of Agri plastic. 

Let’s say my prepper friend goes as far as to ‘cook’ his grass and get the spot tilled and raked.  The ‘old farmer’ (me) strolls up and takes a handful of soil.  Unless his yard was a very fruitful garden not very long ago, the soil will dry quickly and when I squeeze it, the ball will fall into dust.  There isn’t a worm in sight.  I prescribe compost – mountains of it. 

At this point most people think:  Compose pile!  But you have to have one, more than a little spot where you put the coffee grounds, potato peels and old bananas and let the critters dig through it.  The best compost is from animal manure and it takes time to be useable in the garden.  Only rabbit manure can be put directly into the soil by the plants (called ‘side dressing’).  In the short term, you should have a bag of 10-10-10 and one of  5-10-5, the first for foliage crops and the second for root crops while you work in every scrap of leaves on your land (chopped by the mower while you have one and the gas to run it) and grass clippings that do not have seed heads in them.  (By ‘work in’ I mean till or dig in a thin layer of these things.  A thick layer of leaves laid down in the Fall will still be a thick, soggy layer in the spring.) 

In the long term, start a pile and plan to manage it.  Although compost rots quietly on its own, it has certain requirements, like the amount of ‘greens’ and ‘dry’s, and it has to be turned.  If you continually add new items, especially thick stalks, etc., you’ll never get finished compost, so that means one pile at a time or several working piles. 

You may think of getting some compost brought in, so you should know that not all compost is equal.  The guy with horses who is just looking for a way to get rid of the poop has compost of a very different nutritive value than the compost I get from a local homestead when mine runs out, made properly from animal and dry ingredients and covered when there’s too much rain.  His compost may have a lot of hayseeds in it, too, which means weeds to you.  Heed this warning!  Find out if he’s using hay or straw for bedding.  However, before you get out the truck, stroll your own property.  Neglected piles of leaves (rotting down in the same place for 5 plus years) can yield some real gold if you are knowledgeable about fixing the Ph deficiencies.    Years ago we bought a home with a sloping backyard where the previous owners had raked the leaves downhill for who knows how long and the result was incredible soil under the trees, several inches deep.  I moved it into the garden, of course, gloating over every chocolaty shovel full!  

Some people think having topsoil trucked in will do the trick.  It may be decent soil, but it will not have the amount of organic matter incorporated that helps to hold water and provide nutrients plants will access over time.  Topsoil here in the Northeast comes from building sites where they scraped off the top few inches on a potential building lot; in other words, just what you already have at this point and must amend, so I’m hoping this writing will keep you from making that mistake.  My formula is half a barrow of soil and half of compost, with lime or whatever other minerals you might need sprinkled on top, then mixed in the barrow and dumped in where you plant to plant.  You don’t need to amend every inch of the fledgling garden – concentrate on the places you’re going to plant and mark them, so you’ll know where you put them. 

Good plants cannot grow without a full day of sun.  A future garden may mean you’ll have to take down trees.  It would be better to do this before you need your garden (and definitely before you put up a fence!).  Trees may also have long roots that forage in the areas you plan to grow in.  I don’t know the exact number of feet from the trunk, but I’d say 20 to 30 feet from the drip line would be safe.  In dry years trees will suck up all the water and nutrition you put on your plants if they’re too close.  .

Timing for planting is critical.  A good gardening guide will tell when the best window of opportunity is for planting each variety in your area.  If you plant too soon the seeds may rot and you’ll use up more than you expected.   The length of your growing season matters:  you may be able to get successive sowings, or you may have to plant special short season varieties.  I laugh when I hear the ad that claims you can grow 5 acres of ‘emergency garden’ with their seeds.  Do they allow for washouts, mistakes, unexpected cold snaps, thinning, losses to late frost, damp-off in the flats?  Never plant all your seeds at one time! 

Tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and some other long-season plants must be started indoors in most places.   You need to be prepared with the proper, sterile starting mix, correct light and temps.  Now is the time to make the mistakes, lose a whole batch to damp off as I’ve done and be able to get more at Wal-Mart.  Plants also have to be prepared for the new environment by ‘hardening off’.  Good gardening books will tell you how and most I’d recommend are already listed on this site.

Peering into the can I see there’s no fences in there.  Too many nice gardens wind up being forage for the deer or other animals.  A fence of the proper type will keep out rabbits and small animals that don’t dig well – (nothing keeps out groundhogs, so I hope you also have a .22 varmint gun).  Milorganite, a fertilizer from the sewers of Milwaukee, repels deer, but don’t use it on the garden.  Instead make bags from old nylon stockings, pouring in about ¼ Cup of the Milorganite then knotting them off into bags – you’ll get about three from a single knee high – and tie or wire them at 4 – 5’ intervals on your fence and on fruit trees at about nose height, or on stakes near plants you want to protect.  This works.  You’ll have to renew the bags each year. 

Why not have a ‘fence that keeps the deer out’?  Deer consider a fence under 8 feet a suggestion, and I’ve heard of taller fences not doing the job.  Fencing is sold by the foot and gets pricey over 5’.  So make your Milorganite bags.  Save the scraps you don’t use from the nylons to tie up plants – they stretch as the plant grows and decompose in the compost pile eventually, too.  Human hair and other ‘deterrents’ don’t work as well as this does, and a bag of Milorganite keeps forever and goes a long way, since you’re not using it for anything but deterrent.

Fencing is an investment.  Garden wire (with ‘varmint netting’ at bottom) is the cheapest and might last you 4 or 5 years, going up to chain link as the sturdiest and longest lived.  For years I ‘made do’ with scrounged fencing and metal stakes, a Rube Goldberg construct that needed constant vigilance.  As soon as I could I paid a fence guy to put in something reliable and solid.  If you’re looking for an investment in your property, a well-built garden fence will pay you many times over.  Don’t forget gates at both sides or you’ll do a lot of extra walking even though they cost extra.  And the fence can provide places for some vining plants to grow.  In the event you have garden thieves as the economy worsens, a strong fence can have barbed wire added in tiers and can be locked.

You may also need netting and mirror strings to discourage birds, and traps for small rodents, like chipmunks, that can devastate a berry patch .  A mirror string is two small mirrors (get from craft shops or online) sandwiched with epoxy every  4“ or so on center on a piece of heavy fishing line.  A loop at each end allows the string to drape between branches or stakes.  The mirrors create a flash of light when half hidden in the foliage of raspberries, tomatoes, etc., and look like predator eyes.  This works on most birds and is easy to do – ahead of time.  Forget the fake owls and high tech deterrents.  If you have to trap critters, do it under the net or put the trap, baited with a ripe strawberry or whatever they’re going for, in a can or barrel half buried.  I’ll never forget the only bird I caught in a rat trap set for voles – watched it light and couldn’t get there fast enough.  Speaking of birds – a wren house will pay back your effort in building it tenfold.  They are voracious bug eaters as well as vivacious songsters and often return year after year.

Pests – if you can’t identify them and don’t know what to do when they arrive, you’ll lose valuable food.  Rodale puts out an excellent pictorial guide, and I’m sure there are others.  It makes great winter bathroom reading!  By spring you’ll be an expert.  Don’t neglect the small bugs, like aphids, lurking under the leaves.  Turn leaves over and you’ll find your enemies, a mosaic of aphids sucking the life out of your plants and spreading disease, or squash bug eggs laid out like a Chinese checkerboard.  If you can’t stand bugs, use gloves.  After a year of you-eat-or-I eat, you’ll hate them enough to use your bare hands.

Weeds:  You wouldn’t think you’d need to know your weeds. But some are a real menace and must be eradicated by destroying the whole plant.  Some can’t be hoed because the pieces will make new weeds.  Mulching is your best weed control, and it’s cheap if you don’t mind hard work:  The simplest type I know is newspapers covered with mulch, grass clippings or leaves, and it rots down…to Agri plastic held down with rocks or bricks that you can take up year after year and store is nice to have.  If you decide to get Agri plastic, invest in the thicker mils.  The stuff that’s like black plastic bags is a joke, and the other ‘weed barrier’ that looks like fabric only works if it is mulched on top.  Plants need light to grow and weeds won’t get it if you smother them and their seeds.  

Gardening doesn’t require many tools, but you’ll need a hoe (I have two, one with a small head for working near plants and a larger, heavier one for bigger weeds), a shovel, an iron rake, a trowel and some hand cultivators.  These tools should be sharpened, so you’ll need a file.  Buy the best tools you can afford.  I also invested in a ‘wheel hoe’ last year and I’d do it again.  For scalping off weeds before planting, weeding between the rows or laying good furrows for planting, it’s a time saver.  Mine’s Amish made and has several attachments.  Hoes, shovels and hand cultivators should be sharpened like any other tool, so you’ll need a file.

There will be hand weeding in the rows. though  – sorry.  Don’t invest in a toy tiller that claims it will make your garden weedless – besides the rocks I mentioned before, which may make it completely useless where you live, if you till too close to the plants you’ll cut their roots.  Tomato plants put out roots for a couple of feet.  Weeds grow faster than food plants, have vast root systems for their size, and suck up nutrients.  If allowed to go to seed (or if you foolishly till weeds with seed heads in or blow grass into the garden with a mower) they’ll be back for a second crop very soon.  Pull them out and pile them in a separate place away from the garden. 

Water:  Peering into the can, I don’t see a water source, but you can’t have a garden without it.  I have a 250 gallon oil tank that was properly cleaned out and sits under the downspout from the roof, and another that fills from the curtain drain.  An adapter made it possible for me to retrofit the spigot at the bottom for a garden hose – go to the local plumbing supply in the off hours and explain your dilemma to get the parts.  Plan your garden downhill from water sources if you possibly can:  siphoning is a wonderful thing and works with only a small height difference between the water source and the garden, although the more height difference, the better flow you will have.  If you have a stream you might be able to take advantage of a ram pump (see Lehman’s catalogue for details).  A lot of people have never heard of these, but if you meet the requirements, they’re great. 

Absent the big tank, 55 gal plastic drums or even heavy duty trash cans may be arranged so that when one is full the run-off goes into a second, and third container.  Siphon off from the top, or if you have ones that open, you can install a spigot at the bottom with a hose adapter.  Use that wonderful thing, Plumber’s Goop, to ensure a watertight seal.  Take precautions to keep mosquitoes out and you’ll even have a bit of water pressure when the barrels are full, depending on how far uphill you are. 

We’ve had good luck with soaker hoses attached to the siphon system – they don’t need high pressure and it saves an enormous amount of time watering.  Don’t forget to drain everything before the first freeze and stuff as much as you can in storage:  hoses, tomato trees, Agri plastic, etc.  Nets and plastic can overwinter in trash cans.  They will last a lot longer than if you leave them out in the weather . 

Crop failures:  Expect some.  It’s my experience over the years that if you plant a lot of different things some will do well no matter what the conditions, and that’s what you’ll be eating.  The weather is in God’s hands, but He mercifully made plants that do well in all kinds.  While I don’t recommend planting things your family doesn’t like, if all they like is tomatoes and you have a bad year…you get the idea.  Also, some things preserve well (tomatoes) and some don’t (squash, Brussels sprouts), some varieties will root cellar well (butternut squash) and some don’t (acorn squash). 

Varieties to grow:  a lot has been written about this and you should take it seriously.  The current debate is about ‘heirloom’ or open-pollinated varieties vs. hybrids that don’t breed true in the second generation.   While having plants you can save seeds from is good, some vegetables may have no variety that is sufficiently disease resistant in your area for the plant to get to the seed-making stage of life.  These you should stockpile from seed companies.  Obviously the plants that live to harvest are the ones you want, the biggest and the best, and save the biggest and best seeds.  Not all hybrid seeds will fully revert, and some heirlooms will gradually change into your own special variety as you plant them year after year – that’s where these things came from in the first place.  Years ago my mother and a few other gardeners planted a tomato that was a local version of the old oxheart tomato.  Over the years it picked up some disease resistance, but not enough for me to stop planting Park’s Whopper and other reliable varieties.  Remember, also, that some plants, like carrots, cabbages, parsley and Brussels sprouts, are biennials and will not bloom until the follow year, so they have to be over-wintered for you to get a crop of seed.  Again, never plant all of your seeds.

Frost and extending the season:  Beware of the first still, cold evening in the Fall when the sky is clear, especially if there has been rain but now there is a pale, apple-green tinge in the West at sunset where the sky is clearing at the front line.  This is nature’s Frost Warning!  I could go on a long time about knowing the weather, but this is sheer experience.  Nothing will survive a hard freeze, and some crops (like basil) won’t even take a light frost, but many crops, if covered with old sheets, etc., will live for several more weeks before the final freeze.  There are lots of ways to extend the season – the only one I’ve used is a cold frame.  Like everything else, these take care and maintenance.  You’ll have to lift the glass daily on the warmer spring days as the sun gets hotter or you’ll cook your plants.  Research, build and use it now if you have a mind to.  

I strongly recommend linking up to someone who already gardens.  Some folks who have large gardens will trade knowledge for work.  Over the years I’ve had an amazing array of helpers and all of them had to be trained, even the Vo-Ag student.  The only thing that builds practical knowledge is doing

When times get tough people will be less likely to let you on their land, so identify and start getting to know someone who has the knowledge you need ASAP.  Look for gray hair, stained fingers and the tell-tale ‘gardener’s tan’ that stops at the short sleeved T-shirt.  If you’re invited into the garden, do not arrive in shorts and sandals!  Wear long pants tucked into your socks and sturdy shoes or boots, close all gates behind you, watch where you put your feet, stuff a small notepad and stub of pencil into your pocket, and at the first opportunity, offer to tail on to a hoe or shovel.  And for heaven’s sake, don’t mention that you hope to get your next garden out of a can!