Food Security: A Pantry and a Garden by Marianna

Believing as I do that a tragedy of some form is coming, I expressed to my husband that food security is a great place to start.  As he is somewhat skeptical of what may come, he did agree that a food investment is not frivolous.  We have four children and already know what feeding six people a day is like and are used to buying in bulk and shopping smart.  Our food security began by starting a pantry.  Since our house was built in the 1920s, it has a peculiar little room (about 10’ x 10’) off the kitchen with a built in china cabinet which attaches to the dining room.  This was Providence for us. 

I have created a very efficient pantry with the  purchase of three large wire shelving units with 4 adjustable shelves from Sam’s at somewhere around $30 each (what a steal!).  I also inherited a 5 foot tall used dresser of solid wood with five spacious drawers, which I keep in there.   I store rice, beans, pasta, salt, sugar, cereal, oats, water in plastic fruit juice bottles, and about 3 months or more of canned foods, all that we use on a reasonably regular basis.  Anything non-perishable that we eat, I have a back up. I have also stored toiletries such as shampoo, toothpaste, toilet paper, tissues and the like, taking advantage of sales. None of the food items are strictly ‘survival’ foods.  All are part of the regular diet, even though we have our seasons for particular dishes.  I buy more heavily foods that store for five years+, like canned salmon and potted meat.  Wheat is still an intention of mine.  I store a year’s worth of vitamins in the drawers, along with candy that I hope the kids will forget about from Easter and parties.  First aid supplies would also go nicely there, along with herbal remedies that should be kept from light.  I have stocked up more on dry herbs from Wal-Mart and used them on ice cream to treat ear infections, colds and other minor problems in my children with success, until I can expand my knowledge about liquid herbs, which are more of an investment.

My previous garden attempts have been dismal failures when it came to growing anything edible.  I love fresh produce and it is a large part of my diet.  This year, we have had plenty of squash and cucumbers from my first real garden, and everything I planted will bear fruit: tomatoes, eggplant, chives, dill, corn, and maybe a pumpkin.  Our soil is red clay, and after my first soil test ever, I realized it is very acidic. The soil test was easy to get.  I used an old pickle jars, dug six different holes around the garden, and took dirt from each, about 6 inches down.  Then my husband dropped it off at the county extension office and paid $6.  My pH was 5.8, which explains to me why my previous garden did not succeed.

My real secret was to follow almost exactly the advice in the book How to Grow More Vegetables and Fruits (and Fruits, Nuts, Berries, Grains, and Other Crops) Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine by John Jeavons (7th edition).  One big advantage of this method, when looking ahead to hard times, is that is requires no tractor or tiller.  The other big advantage is that it works, even for beginners and dummies, like me.  It does require manual labor in the spring, every spring, and this requires real conviction.  Many times I told myself, I will overcome my difficulties and push forward.  When the final, most difficult work came, I had to push not only myself, but my husband, and this was a serious mind game!  We have never worked that hard for any garden, landscaping, or any other project I can think of.  Except moving.

This method is organic, yet I found it easy and not expensive to do, and I live in a small town.  Its focus is the soil.  Having good soil means success.  It is also intensive, claiming to grow four times as much from the same land required for traditional gardening.  I think that is fine, but bugs like squash vine borers are a real killer, and go largely unseen.  Next year I will be ready for them!  Preparing the soil uses only a D-handle flat spade and a spading fork.  Initial preparation requires some amendments, which can easily be done now, and won’t be required in future years.  Composting is a must, and the book gives good advice about that, too.  After loosening the soil with the spading fork (12 inches or so), add sand and composted cow manure or the like and work it in again. (Keeping the grown moist makes this much easier.)  Exact amounts are given in cubic feet for your first garden of 100 square feet, which is recommended for the first year.  Then, by using trenches of 1 foot deep and long, by about four feet wide, you use your spading fork again to loosen the subsoil another 12 inches or so.  The soil is never mixed.  Sand and compost are supposed to stay in the upper layer.  Once the first trench is dug, the soil is placed in buckets and the second trench is dug and moved into the first trench.  Now the lower foot of soil is exposed and loosened with the spading fork.  Moving that foot of dirt was tough.  My husband and I used two shovels and lots of muscle, because with clay, it is usually a block.  After repeating to the end of the garden, the last trench is then filled with the dirt in the buckets, and you have effectively loosened 2 feet of soil down from the surface!  This allows roots to really penetrate and make very healthy plants (even in clay).  Also, use a piece of plywood to step on to prevent compacting the soil.  This produces a raised bed, due to all the air added to the soil. 

After smoothing and breaking clods, broadcast by hand all soil amendments and fertilizers.  (As the season went on, I was amazed how the clods broke up!) I found the suggestion for a nitrogen source, alfalfa meal, at a local feed store, as well as ground granite for potassium (packaged for chickens).  I used bone meal for phosphate, but did not prefer it, due to the animals it attracts.  By traveling to a bigger city, I’m sure I can find phosphate rock for next year.  I also added lime and wood ash to raise the pH.  Then I worked these amendments into the top three inches of soil and planted my seedlings.  I watered everyday from a well, using a fan sprayer attachment in a rainbow fashion, so as not to further compact the soil.  I saw nothing but beautiful growth for about a month and a half.  I began to pick squash bugs and cucumber beetles by hand, but it was no problem using leather gloves and a plastic disposable water bottle for their new residence.  I would scrape and squash the eggs in my gloves.  Then I discovered some squash vine borers and I had to intervene with poison.  The book that taught me by means of pictures was Rodale’s Successful Organic Gardening: Controlling Pests and Diseases.  Dusting with pyrethrin was its recommendation, and I did see a slowdown in the effects of the borers after using it, but this requires vigilance and should be done once a week.  Different areas have different pests, so next year I will know that I am vulnerable to them.  Another suggestion was to use insecticidal soap once a week near the ground where the eggs are laid.

This first year of mine as a true novice showed me that experience is the real key.  Mistakes I made are many: I smothered some of my plants by planting too close.  Not protecting against the borers.  (Especially with the pumpkin—I intend to find a more resistant cultivar next year.)  Skip the corn—my garden is too small for it.  Give the vines a place to grow.  The cucumbers seem to be growing in harmony with everything else, but they are really everywhere.  Plant small plants, like bell peppers (the biggest failure) and eggplant and herbs on the south side of the garden, so they will get more sun.

But I am so proud of my success: my daughter is positively sick of squash. (Two of my children love it!)  I give it away, along with my cucumbers, and there is a plentiful supply.  Next year I will learn to prune my tomatoes, but they are producing well and growing large in cages my friend gave me.   Before the end of the summer, I will learn to save seeds and store them, and I will learn to grow seedlings, too!  Most of my plants are heirloom, thanks to a local man who sells them.  This is a game of ‘I can do it if I try.’  I feel thankful for the gift of good advice.  Without that, I wouldn’t have the confidence I do to keep going.  My book also describes how to plant a garden for complete subsistence, and this method has been done in India with great success.

Lastly, I feel I should mention that the useful area in our garden was only 50 square feet after it was all said and done.  Next year, it’ll be 100 square feet!