(Continued from Part 2. This concludes the article.)
Your crops should be started indoors 4 to 6 weeks before you’re ready to put them out. Since your space is small to start, you will only need one or two 72 cell starter trays; you can also use egg trays or make pots from rolled up paper. When you are selecting your seeds look for heirloom or “open-pollinated” seeds; they will be labeled on the seed packet. Since you will be harvesting next year’s seeds from your little garden, you do not want hybrid seeds. Heirloom and open-pollinated seeds will reproduce true every generation. Hybrid seeds will grow, but you cannot be certain what characteristics will pass on. Put two seeds in each pot or cell. You can prune one out if they both sprout, but you double your chances of success that way. Sometimes you only get a 75% sprouting rate, so doubling up is the best way to compensate. You can use a shop light for germination and early growth, but if you can afford it get a small led grow light system. These have better light spectrum properties and are cheaper to operate. Light intensity decreases exponentially, meaning you want the light as close to the top of the plants as you can without letting them touch the bulbs. You can even sprout them in a window if you need to – it will take a bit longer, but it will work.
A week or two before you want to transplant them, they need to be hardened off. This can be done by making a small tent from PVC piping and shade cloth, or just putting them in a shady location. You can also watch the weather and look for a cloudy day – but you risk a sudden break in the clouds which can make things dicey. Keep them watered, remember those trays are small and do not hold much moisture. You should water daily unless it has rained. If the temperature is going to drop into the 30’s, bring them in at night. Remember that bunnies, groundhogs and other critters love tasty little sprouts, so protect them.
When it is time to transplant, you need to imagine each plant as a full-grown specimen and ensure there is adequate space. You can put things closer, but it will not allow each plant to reach its full potential. The seed packets you purchased will have spacing information you can reference. Add a handful of compost into each hole as you dig. When you have them planted, it is best to put some form of mulch over them. This can be purchased, hay or straw, or just weeds you have pulled from the ground. Pile this between the plants. This accomplishes three things, it reduces moisture evaporation, helps deter weeds and keeps the plants from splash-back during heavy rains. This is often the source of many diseases that plague your crops. Bacteria and viruses in the soil get splashed onto plants as the rain pelts the unprotected soil. Mulching helps minimize that.
Now is the hard part – waiting. Keep weeds down, and watch for disease. When you see issues, there is often something you can do to help. Since we’re working on Survival Gardening, we are practicing solutions that are replicable even in the worst situations. Eggshells can add calcium to the soil and help with some fruit blossom problems. A nice pest repellent can be made from three things you can grow: mint, garlic and hot pepper. Blend them up, boil them, strain into a spray bottle and apply. If you add a drop of dish soap, they will adhere better. Apply every two weeks. Dog hair can deter rabbits and squirrels. None of these are 100% effective, but they do help minimize damage.
While you are waiting for harvest time, get your next set of seasonal plants started indoors. Remember, Survival Gardening lasts nine months or more. This is not a time-intensive labor, but it does require a little bit of time every day. It allows you to understand the time commitment it would take to scale this up for real survival. During this time, remember to add to the compost piles. I try and keep each of mine four to five feet tall until after all the leaves have fallen. Then it sits over winter.
When it is time to transplant the next season crops, you will probably still have plants growing from the last spring, or summer plant. You don’t want to dig them up – they’re getting ready to produce for you. This is where you take advantage of the spacing you did – plant the new small crops into the gaps in the existing ones. They are small at this time and will not compete, but they can get a head start while you wait to harvest the last set and pull the plants to add to the compost pile. Plant peas in between corn, beets where there are zucchini, etc. You want your space to be productive all nine months. In that manner, you only need to store enough food to get you through winter and until the spring crops start to produce.
As you eventually harvest, you must take into consideration how your plants make new seeds. Some like beans, corn, peas, squash, and potatoes are easy – each thing you would eat either is a seed or has a seed inside it. There is no special work to be done. Other crops, like lettuce will have to stay in the ground past time when they are good to eat, but will produce seeds the same year they are planted. Simply leave one or two plants in the row and let the seeds form and mature. The toughest ones are biannual crops – crops that take two years. If you harvest them all, you will never get seeds. You must leave some of the fall plants in the ground over winter and throughout the next spring to get seeds. This includes onions, beets, kale, and cabbage. You only need one or two of each to get all the seeds for the next year or two, but it does take planning. You are an official Survival Gardener when you have the first crop that is composed of only seeds you have saved and only the compost you have made. You are now sustainable! Congratulations.
Extending The Gardening Season
After two or three years, when you have seen success (and failure) and expanded your survival garden bed a few times, there are some season-extending techniques you can do. This can add a few weeks onto the end of the fall and allow a few weeks earlier planning in the spring. The first is through what is called low-tunnels. These are small PVC arches that are only a few inches above the tops of the plants in the row which are then covered in plastic. This creates a mini-greenhouse. The temps inside will be much warmer than outside. Another technique is called winter sowing. Take soda or milk plastic containers, cut the top off, put dirt and seeds inside, tape the top back on and leave off the lid. Then in winter, toss them outside. They will germinate a few weeks earlier than direct-seeded plants and be ready to get transplanted earlier than seeds sprouted indoors. They do not have to be hardened off since they grew outside the whole time. If you get really adventurous, you can make a hoop house out of bent pipe and plastic. This allows for large scale early seed starting outdoors.
There is nothing in this guide that is too difficult for even the most “black thumb” to undertake. It is a simple, easy plan that just requires patience and fortitude. These are traits you will need in WROL, so cultivate them alongside your gardening skills. If you believe that there is a possibility of an event lasting even a year that will disrupt the supply chain, then this is a mandatory skill. If you have a seed supply and experience, then it goes beyond just sustaining your family or group – you will become a vital community resource. You may find yourself teaching people skills in a crisis that will be life-saving. You will have the confidence of previous successes and lessons learned from prior failures. Without this skill, however, you will perish.
Yes, You Will Fail
As a final thought, internalize that you will fail – over and over. Your first crop may be three peas and a puny beet. Or, you may have a great crop. It doesn’t matter since the goal here is to learn, improve and understand the process. Failure is cheap now – it costs you nothing. In a grid-down situation that same failure would be catastrophic. Do not get discouraged and quit. Study your failures and problems and look or solutions, then try again and see if you have solved them. If not, repeat the process. The idea behind the small 10×10 starter space is to give you a concentrated area that you can focus on, not worrying about acres of crops – just 100 square feet. Get comfortable with that small area then expand. I’ve been gardening for twenty years and every year I find new problems, or old ones that pop up again after I think I’ve solved them. Losses are to be expected and must be accounted for in your planting.
Grab a shovel, start making compost, begin digging in some plot of land and get going this weekend. Make it a family experience and enjoy being outdoors getting your hands dirty in a fulfilling activity. Don’t wait until next year – unless you are sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner. Then you do need to wait a few months. If you have any preparations beyond the food in your refrigerator and the old shotgun your grandpop left you, then you are already aware of why you do it. You have your own personal scenarios and concerns. All of them, beyond the weekend power outage, will require you to make longer-term plans. After something happens, it’s too late to gather materials and – most of all – knowledge. Within a few years of following this plan, that old Survival Seed can will be a nice addition to your own stash of seed supplies and just enhance your ability, not be the only forlorn hope you have. Let’s get digging.