Four Seasons of Gardening Lessons, by Mrs. B. in the Midwest

Although I had a front-row financial services seat for the market collapse in 2008, it wasn’t until fall 2010 that I was stuck by an awakening that “something wicked this way comes.” With a master’s degree in Medieval Literature (it’s not as useless as it sounds, really) two things I have studied are the ravages of war and famine over the centuries, both of which desperately scare me as the mother of two young children.

I have paid particular attention to the many SurvivalBlog entries on gardening, one of my few practical skills. Most are either submitted by seasoned vegetable gardeners who have had a large garden for years, or about lessons learned by beginners.

Gardening is in my blood, passed down from generations of German farmers and English gardeners. My grandparents all moved off the farm, but they continued to garden extensively, as did my parents back in the 1970s. I watched my mother and grandmothers can their harvest. In turn, I have a couple decades’ experience with English perennial gardens, but little experience with vegetables.

I have put off submitting an article for a year in order to try and provide a unique slant on the topic of survival gardening: what happens when an experienced perennial gardener actually makes a serious attempt to grow real food, for the first time ever? And thereby hangs a tale.

We live in a small, conservative Midwestern city, in a solid brick farmhouse that is well over 100 years old, and that was encompassed by the suburbs in the 1930s. If the worst comes, we plan to bug in, as our foot-thick brick walls seem defensible. An old brick carriage house, 1,000-gallon koi pond, sealed-off well, and a rainwater-filled cistern are also on our quarter-acre lot. The perimeter of our property is in perennial beds, with an oval of lawn maintained in the center for our two young children to play upon. We also have a livestock watering trough and 250 square foot strip of vegetable garden in the undeveloped alley, portions of which receive less than 6 hours of sunlight a day. After clearing out some perennials toward the back of the yard, my total space dedicated to vegetables is 500 square feet. We even have an old dirt-floor root cellar. And of course we have a large (72 cu. ft.) compost bin. We garden as organically as possible, although I (very infrequently) cheat with a systemic on some of my more disease-prone roses. We have duplicates of all the gardening hand tools that we need.

My husband and I are both hard workers, still fairly young and strong, with good backs and a love for working with our hands. But we both work full time, so I garden in the few spare hours I can find.

Over the past year I have taken careful notes on my food project. So, as appropriate for a gardener’s tale, I have divided my experience into the four seasons, beginning late last fall.

Winter: Root Cellaring

“More than an hundred thousand persons, of all ages, perished of famine in this district. ‘It was a frightful spectacle,’ says an old annalist, ‘to behold, in the roads and streets, at the doors of houses, human bodies devoured by the worms, for none remained to scatter a little earth over them, all being destroyed by famine or the sword’….often, for the remains of the repast of a groom in the Norman army, the Saxon, once illustrious among his countrymen, in order to sustain his miserable life, came to sell himself and his whole family to perpetual slavery.” (Augustine Thierry, on the Norman Harrowing of Yorkshire)

Root vegetables were the hidden treasure of the medieval peasant—marauding armies might raze your village, burn your barn and steal your cow, but it was hard for them to root out all the turnips and parsnips.

In the fall of 2010 it was too late to put in any new vegetables for this project, but I had some vegetables I had planted for “fun,” including beets, carrots, and some heirloom potatoes that were misplaced in our cellar and rediscovered, sprouting, in time to plant for the spring. I harvested a good 10+ lbs. of potatoes from 6 potatoes planted, for somewhere around a 9:1 yield. I stored these in the root cellar for the full winter; they stayed firm and didn’t begin sprouting till the early spring.

I also stored a sampling of apples, which lasted a long time in the root cellar, but started reaching different stages of mushiness by late winter. I picked out the most perfect apples to keep and wrapped them individually in newspaper. Most were Empire apples, which I had used for making applesauce, and they have a very delicate white flesh; however, not the best choice for a “keeper” apple. In the spring, I planted two late-producing, disease-resistant Goldrush apple trees for my keepers down the road. This past fall we harvested many pounds of paw paws, which make a delightful cream pie, and have kept very well in the root cellar, and I have been experimenting with making sauerkraut and pickles the old-timey way, fermenting them in crocks.

I also had a row of carrots and beets that I “root cellared” in the ground. I just heaped dirt and mulch around them, and they lasted well in the protected, sunken alley. When I dug them out the following spring, they were still beautiful and tasty. This is kind of a lazy man’s clamp, which is an ancient form of root cellar. You dig a pit a couple feet deep, line it with straw, put in your potatoes, apples, carrots, cabbages, and other “keepers,” pile on more straw, and then cover it with a pile of dirt with some “chimneys” of bundled burlap or straw to provide some ventilation.

Finally, my Christmas present to my husband last year was a beer-making set. Although he currently has to brew from kits (we don’t have the room for barley, but perhaps we could put by some seeds, and I read with great interest the recent article on making cider) it has been an entertaining and very rewarding hobby.


Spring: Starving with Wild Edibles

“…three children huddled together, lying there because they were too weak to rise, pale and ghastly, their little limbs … perfectly emaciated, eyes sunk, voice gone, and evidently in the last stages of actual starvation.” (English Quaker William Bennet, on the English-inflicted starvation of the Irish)

The February full moon is called the Hunger Moon. This always sends a chill down my spine, since it’s a reminder that even when spring is around the corner, your winter stores are giving out and won’t be replaced any time soon.

As I started my vegetable seeds in our basement and set the tiny plants out in cold frames built by my husband, I realized it would still be a long time before they would become productive (our last frost date is May 15th). The problem is, even if your stores last till the spring, and you are a skillful forager, there is still very little for you to live off of, as wild edibles offer scant calories.

We took a wild edibles course at a local nature preserve, and learned quite a bit about the fungi, fruits and greens available in our local woodlands. I started throwing a handful of violet, sorrel, plantain and dandelion leaves into our salads, dressed with herbs and a simple balsamic vinaigrette, which provides a lovely counterpoint to storage foods—but it can’t replace them. We also found at least 5 lbs. of morel mushrooms—truly the feast of a feral king, but unfortunately offering just 340 calories for the whole lot. On the bright side, wild edibles can provide incredible amounts of vitamins A and C, as shown below. On the not-so-bright side, a vitamin powerhouse like Poke Sallet can kill you if you don’t prepare it properly or you eat the wrong part of the plant at the wrong time of year.

Here is a sampling of the food values of some common edibles (per 100 grams):

Chicory greens: 7 calories, 33% vitamin A, 12% vitamin C
Chicory roots: 66 calories, 6% vitamin C
Dandelion greens: 25 calories, 112% vitamin A, 32% vitamin C, 19% calcium, 17% iron
Lamb’s quarters: 32 calories, 156% vitamin A, 62% vitamin C
Poke shoots: 23 calories, 174% vitamin A, 227% vitamin C
Purslane: 16 calories, 26% vitamin A, 35% vitamin C

With such a low calorie count, you obviously would have to forage a huge bag of these items every day for them to make a significant contribution to keeping you alive.

Summer: Praying for Growth

“To eat your own children is a barbarian act.” Soviet propaganda posters during the Soviet-inflicted Holodomor in Ukraine

I started several trays of heirloom seeds indoors on a sunny windowsill, before moving them to a cold frame, and direct-sowed many more seeds. Here are my results for some vegetables that can be harvested over the summer. Cucumbers, mesclun, green beans, snap peas, and tomatillos were also grown, but the results were a thousand calories or less.

Carrots: the heirloom and Danvers-type carrots were a semi-fail, the salsify was a complete fail, and the parsnips didn’t even bother showing up. I am estimating 7 lbs total usable carrots; more went to the guinea pig. Part of the problem may be that they were in partial shade, but a major problem appears to be root nematodes, as they were freakishly misshapen. This was in an area that had never had a crop before. Total calories: 930

Corn: 25 seeds of a miniature heirloom yielded 1 pint of shelled dry corn grown in a 4 x 4 ft. space. Not much, but corn is such an energy powerhouse (365 calories per 100g) that it is worthwhile to keep seed on hand. This year I will be experimenting with several heirloom Indian corn varieties. Total calories: 1,656

Eggplant: 4 heirloom plants produced 16 lbs in 4 sq. ft. of space. Although prolific producers, they offer few calories. Total calories: 1,742

Melons: 4 Asian melon plants produced 15 lbs. The melons were the size of softballs, so I could grow them on a trellis, which is a very efficient use of space in such a small garden. Total calories: 2,449

Peppers: Including sweet peppers, banana peppers, ancho peppers, and an assortment of smaller hot peppers, they produced prolifically in the intense heat and dryness we had over the summer. They are also vitamin C powerhouses (green and red bells offer 134% and 213% daily vitamin C, respectively), and the hot peppers can easily be dried and stored through the winter. I noticed a huge difference between the peppers in the ground and the peppers I grew in pots, which were not terribly happy. Total calories: 1,995

Tomatoes: We harvested 130 lbs of tomatoes off of 20 plants (some of which bore heavily, others which never successfully ripened due to our weird weather). This tally includes 33 lbs. of green tomatoes and 20 lbs of ruined tomatoes, which we included as they would not have gone to waste in a survival situation. Not included are the many tomatoes that went straight into our compost bin over the course of the summer—again, closer monitoring would prevent the ruined tomatoes, and if we had livestock they could always be given to the chickens or pigs. Total calories: 11,700.

One big mistake that we made was, rather than planting roma-type tomatoes, we focused on delicious old heirlooms like Black Krim, Cherokee Purple, etc. that are great for eating out of hand, but they make a watery and flavorless sauce for canning, and are not as prolific as a roma plant.

Fall: When the Harvest Fails

“I saw the helpless Cherokees arrested and dragged from their homes, and driven at the bayonet point into the stockades. And in the chill of a drizzling rain on an October morning I saw them loaded like cattle or sheep into six hundred and forty-five wagons and started toward the west.” (Private John G. Burnett, on the Cherokee Trail of Tears)

The crops planted for the fall harvest would be the heavy hitters we would depend on to get us through the winter, so a heavy production of calorie-rich food would be crucial to survival.

Beans: I planted 3 different types of heirloom beans in the partially shady portion of the garden and got about a pint of shelled dry beans for 30 seeds planted. This is not a good yield. Possible problems are the shadiness, letting the bean beetles get out of control before tackling them with diatomaceous earth, and planting the beans too closely together. In addition to spacing, another trade-off that one needs to consider is the length of time it takes to grow them to the dry-bean stage (all season) rather than harvesting them as snap beans. Total calories: 6,115

Cabbages: This provided a good comparison lesson for sun vs. shade. I planted several cabbages in late spring in a very fertile, yet partially shaded area of the garden (6 hours of sun)….and later in the summer, I found some leftover cabbage seedlings on the sale rack, completely pot-bound and leggy, and I planted them in an area of scruffy grass in some waste space along a very sunny fence. The sunny cabbages were 3-5 lbs a head, while the shady cabbages were 1- 2 lbs a head. Total calories: 1,742

Kale: With five plants of Red Russian kale, not only is this a lovely, ornamental-looking plant, but I have been able to harvest leaves all winter long in order to have fresh greens and Portuguese Kale Soup. Kale provides 50 calories per 100 g, as opposed to 16 for your average lettuce, and this amount provides 308% of your vitamin A and 200% of your vitamin C. The Irish would cook kale with potatoes for colcannon. Total calories: 3,402

Leeks: We grew 50 or so leeks, half of which are still in the garden, having survived the winter in fine style. I am estimating 10 lbs. Total calories: 2,766

Potatoes: Our potatoes were one of our scandalous failures this year. I planted 5 lbs of (very expensive) seed potatoes and harvested 13 lbs, when a good average should have been maybe 20 lbs for the type I planted. I made a number of mistakes: planting fancy types rather than prolific bearers; not combating flea beetles quickly enough; not hilling them up; not giving them enough space. All this combined with a bad, wet spring and a relentlessly hot, dry summer. In my defense, one of our local farmer’s market vendors, a seasoned farmer, had an even worse crop…but the potatoes should have been the backbone of our garden. As I dug up clump after measly clump, I thought about how devastating it would have been if we were actually counting on the crop. It likely would have been a death sentence. And I was shocked because I thought I was doing a very good job with them. Total calories: 4,541

Squash: With so little room, I planted two Victoria Blue squash in my perennial bed and let them fight it out. One vine died, and off the other vine, which was planted way too late from a seedling that sat in its little pot for way too long, I got two smallish squash—surprising, considering the neglect and mistreatment the poor little vine suffered. To do them right, squash require a generous amount of room (spacing of 6 to 10 feet), but since they keep so well, they are one of the fundamental cops for winter. Next year I will give them more room, very fertile soil, and cover the soil with black plastic, and they really prefer some heat. Since I wanted to test the keeping abilities of squash, I bought 15 assorted pumpkins and squash for Halloween decorations, protected them from frost, and then moved them to our dry basement. They have continued to last well over the winter, and, with some onions, carrots and cream, make a fabulous, savory soup. Total calories (grown): 1,234 calories

Some Hard Lessons Learned

If, like me, you have ever had the thought, “Hey, I’m a good gardener—if things collapse I can just live off the land”…well, think again. Growing vegetables to keep yourself alive is a lot more difficult than growing some fresh tomatoes and pretty roses, even if you already have the compost bin, all the hand tools, the basic knowledge, the fertile soil, the strong back, and a love for growing things.

I have to be able to feed, at a minimum, my husband and my two babies. That’s 4,500 calories a day at a starvation level. Although I did not list all the details here, when I add everything up, including the odds and ends, and calculate it against the number of calories we need, at this level, we would only have 9 days worth of food. (!!!) Our 130 lbs of tomatoes, for example, account for 2.6 days. If we picked our crabapple tree clean, that might provide us for another week or so.

So, this project was definitely a reality check, but I am grateful that I could learn my hard lessons in easy times. Here are a few general things I am planning to do in the coming planting season:

  • Approach gardening with humility. Nature is fully capable of kicking your butt, and it can be a struggle even for seasoned gardeners and farmers. Never stop practicing and learn from your failures as well as your successes.
  • I will continue to rotate crops and build the soil with compost and manure, and will be trying the organic fertilizer Steve Solomon describes in his Gardening in Hard Times, but I am also going to stock a good amount of time-release conventional fertilizer for if we ever have to live off our garden.
  • The bugs will find your crops, immediately, even though you live in the middle of town and have never before grown beans or cabbages. I need to research some gentle, preferably organic, pesticides beyond diatomaceous earth and stock up. 
  • I need to better plan out adequate spacing and thoughtful use of land, rather than cramming too many things together. For example, lettuce and leeks can be grown in the partially shady areas, while the rows of corn can be intercropped with rows of early radishes and carrots.
  • Ultimately, you can’t get the calories you need to live off of vegetables grown on 500 sq. ft. of land—even if we tripled the garden area and tripled the harvest, it would still provide just 22% of our annual need. We need more land and a way to convert “lost” calories (grass trimmings, vegetables we can’t eat, etc.) into animal calories. We need to consider some contraband city chickens or rabbits. And like Proverbs’ Wife of Noble Character, who “considers a field and buys it,” I am already actively searching for a few acres in the nearby Amish community where we can get started with some fruit trees and a laissez-faire garden.
  • I have arranged with some family members to grow some of my corn, squash and other space-hogging veggies on their very large property. This will allow me to practice my skills, give the “three sisters” concept a whirl, test the seeds and potatoes I saved from this year, just to see what comes up from open-pollinated seeds that may have crossed, and better fill my larder and canning jars next fall.
  • Grow plants from open-pollinated heirloom seeds. There’s nothing wrong with hybrids, but Monsanto (a creepy company if there ever was one) controls 20% of the world’s vegetable seeds (40% in the US), including the patents on Early Girl tomatoes. Do you trust them?
  • Finally, as my selection of quotations shows, all governments are fully capable of starving and “liquidating” their inconvenient citizenry in pursuit of political, monetary or ideological ends. The US has its share of blood on its hands, from the death marches of Indian tribes to the Indian Territory and reservations that were little more than big concentration camps, or the internment of Japanese Americans in World War II, and once again there is a rumbling of a distant thunder. Like the Scots, my first inclination is to run for the hills. But for me, joining the American Redoubt is not an option. My roots run deep in this Midwestern city and state, and I will stand my ground and be the “salt of the earth” here.