How Does Your Garden Grow? (After TSHTF), by Tom from Colorado

Gardens will supply a large portion of our food after TSHTF. Those who already garden know that, in many cases, additional amendments and plant foods/fertilizers are necessary for a good crop. While a compost pile will help a great deal in keeping your soil in good shape, there are many other sources for fertilizers/plant foods that will be easily accessible after TSHTF. I’ll detail several of them and the manner in which to make and/or use them in this article.

The Acronym NPK stands for Nitrogen/Phosphorous/Potassium. I’ll include NPK where applicable for more experienced gardeners wondering about the values.

Human Urine:
Human urine contains nitrogen, phosphates, and potassium (NPK approximately 12/1.1/3.3, varies by individual). These are the big three that plants need to grow. It is sterile when it comes out of the body as well. Urine by itself is far too concentrated to use directly on plants. It can be used directly in a compost pile (simply pour it over the top) or it can be diluted with water and used on the plants themselves. A minimum of eight parts water should be mixed with one part urine. You may need to use more water depending on your urine. I recommend testing the mixture on a small patch or single plant to insure that your mixture is not too strong.

If the urine will not be used shortly after it comes out then it should be stored in a sealable container. While it is sterile when it first comes out it will eventually allow bacterial growth if left exposed to open air. Only urine from healthy individuals should be used and if someone is in otherwise good health but on medication then their urine should not be used either. Once diluted and in the soil, bacterial growth is no longer an issue if urine from a healthy individual was used.

If you have problems with acidic soil, wood ash can be mixed into the urine/water mixture to help alleviate the acidity.

Diluted urine is a fast acting plant food.

For those who are grossed out by, or question the idea of, using urine as a plant food consider that many of the well known plant foods contain urea (although not from humans) as a component of the mix.

Bone meal:
Bone meal contains phosphates and nitrogen ( more heavy on phosphates than nitrogen, NPK approximately 4/12/0 but will vary). It can be easily made at home by one of two methods. Only use bones from animals that you know were healthy.

 The first method is to dry the bones in an open fire or an oven. First you need to boil off any remaining fat or meat, boil for about an hour to do this. Once they are completely dry from your fire or oven you crush them down to a powder, or as close as you can get. If you’ve gotten them dry enough they crush fairly easily.

The second method is to boil the bones for an extended period of time (in the vicinity of 24 hours is what I’ve been told, I’ve only used the first method myself). When they’ve boiled long enough you can simply crush them down into a mush. Allow the mush to dry if you want a powder or use as mush.

With both methods your best results will be obtained by digging the resultant bone meal into your soil.

Bone meal is a long acting, slow release type of fertilizer. Very useful used at the bottom of potato trenches or dug into the soil near fruit trees/bushes. Application rate for bone meal is approximately five pounds per fifty square feet when first preparing a garden. You can use slightly less in following seasons.

Blood Meal:
Blood meal is a heavy nitrogen source and may contain some trace phosphates and/or potassium (NPK approximately 12/0/0 to 13.5/1/1 depending on blood source). Blood meal has the alternate names of dried blood and powdered blood. The commercially available types are typically made from bovine blood although other types of blood will work as well. Only use blood from animals that you know were healthy.

Blood meal is made simply by dehydrating blood. Preferably all the way down to a powder although I’ve not had the patience to get it that far and normally use it while it is still relatively clumpy. This can be done in a solar dehydrator or, if you live in a very non-humid area, simply by leaving a container out with a thin layer of blood in it. The quickest way I’ve discovered is to use a heat safe container with a thin layer of blood in it immediately next to my cooking heat sources or on top of my fireplace insert when it is burning. Keep the blood covered and inaccessible to insects regardless of what method you use. Fair warning, this one can make a nasty smell if done indoors and the pans used may need extensive cleaning.

Blood meal is a quick acting nitrogen source and can be used in powder form (if you get it all the way dry) or mixed in with water.

Blood meal also makes a good compost pile stimulator and, if sprinkled around the perimeter of a garden, may keep some of the four-footed garden raiders at bay. Do not apply blood meal to seedlings and in a warm, most climate you’ll want to use less than recommended. Application rate for blood meal is approximately five to ten pounds per hundred square feet, one application lasts up to 4 months.

Wood Ashes:
Wood ashes are a good source of potassium when dug into the soil (NPK approximately 0/1/3 but can vary widely). You do have to be careful with them though as they turn the soil more alkaline. If you live in an area with acidic soil a moderate treatment of wood ashes shouldn’t be a problem. If you live in an area with more alkaline soil, you’ll want to find a different potassium source.

Be sure any wood ashes you use are from trees that did not receive heavy pesticide treatments or other potentially problematic chemicals. Wood ash application rates will range depending on the ash used and the soil you are using it in. Start small and slowly work up the application amounts if you are using this.

Compost Pile:
A compost pile is pretty much a must if you are doing intensive or semi-intensive planting. Areas planted in these manners benefit from a yearly (or more frequent) addition of organic materials. The best of these would be finished compost from your own pile. I won’t go into detail on creating a compost pile as that is covered in many of the gardening books out there and would cause this article to go well over submission length. I will mention a few ways to tweak your pile though.

The addition of human urine or blood meal (or even wet blood, although that is more likely to attract critters to dig in your pile) can help out your compost. If your soil is very acidic, you may want to mix some wood ashes into your pile. If your soil is alkaline you can add crushed pine bark or chopped up pine needles to add some acid into the soil.

In all cases follow the same cautions regarding health and chemicals on additions to your pile. If using pine bark or needles, be sure the tree was healthy and not recently treated with pesticides or chemicals.

There are many forms of manure that can be used on your garden. Starting with humanure (human manure). I do not recommend using this method unless you’ve studied up on the appropriate and safe ways to do so! If you are interested in this I suggest the book: The Humanure Handbook: A Guide to Composting Human Manure, by Joseph Jenkins.

Other types of manure that may be available to you and are good to use are: chicken manure, cow manure, horse manure, rabbit manure, etc…  You’ll note that all these manures are from primarily herbivores (minus the occasional bugs taken in with a free range diet). You don’t want to use manure from carnivores or scavengers as there tend to be more problems with these manures.

There are several manners in which you can use manure to increase your garden’s yield and provide the necessary nutrients to your plants. The first is to compost it in your pile. If you choose this option, you’ll want to add extra greens to your compost pile and add more soil to it to avoid massive nitrogen loss.

The second option is to mix it directly into the soil. Do not do this if you plan to plant the area in the next month or two. The manure affects the carbon/nitrogen ratio strongly enough when first mixed in that it can end up burning your plants. This is a good option for a fall dig-in where you mix it into the soil if you aren’t planning a winter crop (or cover crop) in the area. You can mix other items you would normally compost into the soil at the same time if so desired.

A third option is Manure Tea which gets its own entry.

Manure Tea:
Manure tea is made from dried, well-aged manure and water. It can be used in several manners. You can dip the roots of plants about to be transplanted in the tea, use it to fill holes that are about to be planted, or use it to water directly on the soil around existing plants (getting the manure tea on the leaves of the plants is discouraged).

Manure tea can be made by taking five quarts of manure and three gallons of warm water. The manure should be contained in a tight mesh cloth that will allow water to seep through, burlap (or an old panty-hose leg) is recommended, that is tied shut to form a bag. Suspend the manure in the water in a five gallon bucket for three to four days, stirring daily. You can also simply suspend the manure in the water for a week without stirring. In either case the next step is to raise your manure out of the water in the cloth it was suspended in and allow it to drip back into the bucket until it stops dripping.

The manure tea should be diluted with water to about the color of a normal drinking tea when used. This is approximately one cup of the manure tea to one gallon of water. Experience will show you the exact proportions you want to use for your area. The remaining solids can be added to your compost pile or dug into an area of soil that will not be planted for a month or more.

Note: manure tea may well have a very strong odor while brewing. After you are done, you can store it in a sealable 5 gallon bucket for several seasons if it is kept in a cool place. With it sealed the odor won’t get out either.

Compost Tea:
Compost tea is another option, but after TSHTF it will only be available to those who have some electricity and some basic aeration equipment. If this idea appeals to you a simple Google search for ‘compost tea’ will get you very clear instructions.

Grass Clippings:
Grass clippings can be used as a mulch to help maintain the moisture in your soil. Also, if dug into the very surface of the soil they will provide a nitrogen source to your plants. If used as a mulch you need to be careful to not mulch too thickly or you will end up with anaerobic decomposition (decomposition without oxygen present), a bad smell, and unhappy plants. Using clippings as a mulch will also get some nitrogen into the soil but not as quickly as digging them in.

Trace Elements:
There are quite a few trace elements (AKA micro-nutrients) needed by plants. One simple amendment covers quite a few of them as well as providing growth regulators and natural hormones that function like plant vitamins. Kelpmeal is a little expensive but well worth using. Since this will most likely not be available in a crisis (unless you happen to live near a place kelp can be harvested) it can be stocked up on in advance. It is a little pricey but well worth it to have for your garden.

Kelpmeal can be worked directly into the soil or, for a more sparing (on the kelp) approach, it can be applied as a foliar spray (meaning it gets sprayed on the leaves). Foliar feeding with kelp tea needs to be done about every two weeks but if you mix the kelp into the soil you can normally just do so once at the beginning of the season.

Kelpmeal is a component in complete organic fertilizer (COF) as described by Steve Solomon in his book “Gardening When It Counts: Growing Food in Hard Times” but can also be used on its own or with the other amendments/fertilizers listed in this article. You can easily store two fifty pound bags in a thirty-one gallon galvanized steel garbage can with a snug fitting lid.

For existing gardens that have been worked for a season or more, one pound of kelpmeal per one hundred square feet should be more than adequate to dig in. You may want to double or even triple this amount if it is a new garden area being prepared. Kelpmeal can be dug in to just the actual rows/raised beds/hills being planted but there are some advantages to digging it in to your entire garden area if you have enough of it.

Seed Meal:
Seed meal is another component in COF from Steve Solomon’s book. It is a slow release nitrogen amendment that is mixed into the soil. I mention it here because it is a byproduct of making vegetable oil and if you make your own then you can use the remnants left behind as a garden amendment. It can also be stored, with two fifty pound bags easily fitting into a thirty-one gallon galvanized garbage can with a  snug lid. The most commonly used seed meals you might have access to after TSHTF are soy meal, cottonseed meal, sunflower meal, and canola seed meal (rapeseed).

Other Options:
If you raise rabbits, chickens, or worms (vermiculture) many of the kitchen scraps you’d normally use in your compost pile can go to them and they will, in turn, produce manure or worm castings (worm manure). Worm castings can be dug straight into the soil shortly before planting. As mentioned before manures from other livestock should normally be composted or dug into the soil months before planting. Use caution with manure from different animals as the NPK and carbon/nitrogen ration of the manure ranges greatly depending on the animal it is from and what it has been fed. A trial and error method is best when using manures, keeping in mind that too little might stunt your plant some but too much can kill it.

I’ll close by again recommending Steve Solomon’s book “Gardening When It Counts”. The book details gardening with minimal amendments and, albeit briefly, deals with survival gardening. I’ve found it to be a very good resource for gardening on a regular basis and the skills I’ve developed by using it will be invaluable in a SHTF scenario. – Tom From Colorado