I see some people making choices that concern me because these choices may cause them problems if they really have to survive on the food supplies that they have stored for TEOTWAWKI. I am no great expert, but my husband and I have been concerned about the possibilities of having an economic disruption since the early 1970s when a friend let us borrow some tapes by Robert Preston. We have learned quite a bit, but still have a long way to go. If this article can at least encourage people to actually try to grow a garden and save seeds from one or two plant varieties this summer then I will feel that the time spent writing this article will be well spent.
I see some people writing to this blog saying that they have their MREs stored and it sounds like they figure the food supply is taken care of. Please look at the MRE packages and notice the sodium content. It is usually fairly high. Eating several meals per day with a high sodium content may not be good for your health. Also the day will come when the last MRE has been eaten and another food source will need to be found.
I also see people buy a #10 can of seeds for their survival storage program. They may even have had these cans since the Y2K scare so that the seeds are nine or ten years old. Onion and parsnip seeds are only good for about two years. After that their germination rate declines rapidly. Many other seeds will be viable for 4-6 years depending on how they are stored and the type of seed. Yes, I know Egyptian wheat grows after hundreds of years in storage, but I do not have their storage methods. Potatoes and garlic need to be grown each year. A few other considerations to think about would be: are the seeds in the can right for your soil and length of growing season where they will be grown? Will the seeds grow foods that you are used to eating? Will your growing season be long enough for the plant to mature not just to produce food but go on to produce ripened seed? Have enough seeds been stored to grow gardens for several years in case of crop failure?
Finally I wonder if lack of experience will be a problem when it comes to growing a garden for food and seed. I have been growing a garden for close to 35 years that is large enough to put potatoes, beets, carrots, and cabbage in the root cellar and canned vegetables in the pantry. I have saved seed from lettuce, beans, peas, tomatoes, parsnips, beets, and squash, but even with this experience I am not sure I would be ready to survive without the ability to purchase items from outside sources. Let me encourage you to try following some of the procedures I outline in the rest of this article and learn some new skills that may be useful to you and your family in the future.
Gardening is a skill that is best learned by doing it.
Soil and Growing Conditions
Different areas of the country have very different growing conditions. When we lived near Los Angeles I had a small backyard garden all year long. Tomatoes and zucchini grew in the summer, while broccoli and onions were grown during the winter. The length of our growing season changed dramatically when we moved to a northern state. In this location our frost free time period is from the beginning of June to the middle of September. The winter temperatures can get to -35 degrees which puts us in a zone 4 for hardiness. This is important to know because it tells me that I need to order seeds with a shorter growing season, onions that like longer hours of daylight which occur in the northern areas of the USA, and fruit trees that can withstand – 35 degrees during the winters. Most seed catalogues have maps of the USA with colors that show the hardiness in each zone.
I have had soil tests done through the local Agriculture Extension Agent. I know that the soil is some what base rather than acid, it has a bit if a salt content, and tends to be more clay rather than sand. With this information I know that I do not want to add wood ashes to the soil which would make it even more base. Instead I add manure, gypsum, sulphur, grass clippings, leaves and as much garden wastes as I have. I do not have time for the cute little composting devices. I do what is called sheet composting which means spread it over the garden area and let it rot over the winter then till it in when spring comes. This has the added benefit of holding the soil in place over the winter. Since I plan to eat what I grow I do try to grow as organic as I can, but I do use commercial fertilizer and a few other products to help me get a crop worth all of my time and effort. During the first few years of gardening in a new area the preparation of the soil will be most critical. Through improving the soil a better crops will result. If you are planning to garden in a very large area you need a way to till up the soil. Spring can be a very busy time so digging up the soil by hand would not be a very good choice. We have a four foot rototiller on the back of our 20 horsepower garden tractor. I also have a small Mantis tiller to help with smaller areas and weeding between the rows.
Saving seeds from every variety grown in the garden each year may not be a realistic goal for a beginning seed saver. Most seeds will be viable for several years. A better goal might to choose a few varieties of seed to save successfully, thus gaining experience and confidence as the years of gardening go along. If open pollinated seeds, which are sometimes referred to as Heirloom seeds, are chosen as part of a storage program they will breed true to the parents. In most seed catalogues the hybrids will usually have an F1 after the name of the plant indicating that they are hybrid. Being a hybrid does not make the seeds bad, it is just means that two different varieties were crossed to create the hybrid seed. This is often done to create a plant that will grow more vigorously. When seeds from the hybrids are grown in later years the offspring will have some variations, but they will grow plants. For some crops that are prone to inbreeding depression a few different traits may even be a good thing. This is a topic that might be worth some study.
Some of the time I choose seeds that I know will produce plants with specific characteristics such as store for a long time. Some onions taste great because they are sweet and mild, but they do not store well and I want to have food to eat after the long winter and into the next spring. Therefore I choose onion seed that says that it is for a storage onion. Seeds of Change sells seed for Nutri-Bud Broccoli that was bred to have a higher nutrient content which may make this variety worth choosing. Lutz Green Leaf beets are an old time variety that grow very large red table beets and as an added bonus the leaves are as good to eat as Swiss chard. These beets also keep in my root cellar until early March. Seeds that mature quickly in the cool spring temperatures are also desirable. Seeds of this type would be spinach and Hakurei Turnips which take 38 days to mature.
I have grown cabbage for enough years to know that the early varieties will not last in the garden until the end of the growing season, so I only grow enough to eat right away in the summer or use for making sauerkraut. Many of the large late green varieties seem to attract pests such as aphids and green cabbage worms. In my garden the later types of Red cabbage grow without much trouble and store very well in my root cellar. A good book that may help you decide which variety of vegetable to grow for winter storage is Mike and Nancy Bubel’s Root Cellaring Natural Cold Storage of Fruits & Vegetables. Get several seed catalogues and read up on what the different varieties have to offer. I often order from the following companies: R.H Shumway, Vessey’s, and Johnny Seeds. These companies seem to carry varieties that grow well in my shorter season.
Some seeds need to be started indoors before the ground is warm enough for them to grow, or because their growing season is too long for my climate. One of the first things that I plant is onions seeds in a container. They can be planted where I live in early March. By March the days are starting to get longer, and we usually are finished with the bitter below zero cold weather. I have an unheated greenhouse that gives some protection to the plants. I will start enough seed to have about 40 onions that will be saved to produce seed and more onions to eat over the coming winter. About 2 months before I plant the garden I start the peppers and tomatoes. Since I can eat the vegetables that they produce and save seeds from the same plant I do not need to grow many extra plants for seed saving.
About four weeks before the planting of the garden I start seeds for cabbage and broccoli. If I plan to save seeds from cabbage I need to know that it is a biennial like the onions it will not produce seed until the second year. The cabbage will need to grow this year, be dug up roots and all, stored in the root cellar at about 40 degrees where the roots can be kept damp. Next spring I will plant the cabbages in the garden again. An X will be cut in the top of each head of cabbage to allow the three to five foot stalk to emerge and produce seed. I also need to know that it can be cross pollinated by other members of the cabbage family which include broccoli and cauliflower. Another small bit of information that might be helpful is that you may need to grow 20 to 40 plants for the seed to maintain genetic diversity and avoid inbreeding depression. Some good books on this subject are Suzanne Ashworth’s Seed to Seed which is very readable for the person who is beginning to learn about saving seed. Another resource is Carol Deppe’s Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties which has more technical information. The cabbage that is grown for seed will not be available for food therefore I need a few more plants to eat this year. So lets say that I grow a minimum of 30 plants and hope that they all survive and mature. Each plant will require about a square yard of garden space. Thirty square yards of land just for cabbage. The books say that you need to grow 100 to 200 corn plants to maintain genetic diversity plus the corn that I plan to eat. This is getting to be a really big garden to weed and care for!
Now that I have decided how many seedlings I need to grow of each vegetable I can start to think about the soil, water, and sunlight that the seedlings will require to mature into healthy plants. I have found that regular garden soil is too heavy for the seeds to be started in. Regular soil may also have damp off disease which will kill the young sprouts. Some years I have tried to save money by using less expensive potting soil, but the young plants did not grow as well. Now I buy large bags of Miracle Gro potting soil at Costco in the spring and life is good. What I will do when I can no longer get this potting soil will be a future learning experience.
I start my tomatoes and peppers in trays on my kitchen table because the greenhouse is still cold at night in April. As soon as the little sprouts are up I take then outside during the day to get sunlight so that they will be strong enough to be planted outside when the time comes. As the little plants grow I often repot them to larger containers so that they do not become root bound and stunted. Each time that the plants are repotted they take up more space. Thirty cabbage plants, the trays of onions, along with the broccoli, cauliflower, tomatoes, and peppers take up a lot of space. As the weather becomes warmer at night I move the seedlings out to the greenhouse permanently. Shane Smith’s book Greenhouse Companion is a good resource for more information on using greenhouses. I have purchased greenhouse supplies from CharleysGreenhouse.com and TekSupply.com.
Season Extending Techniques
Over the years that I have gardened in my short season location I have actively experimented with various methods that would extent the length of my 3-1/2 month growing season. One of my favorite season extenders is a cold frame. It is a box with hinged lids and has an open bottom. The cold frame is set on top of well prepared garden soil and anchored down so that the wind does not blow it away. Can you tell that the last advice is the voice of experience speaking? I usually set my cold frame out in the garden by mid-March and let it warm the soil for a couple of weeks. When my soil thermometer reads 45-50 degrees in the morning I plant cool weather crops. By cool weather crops I mean leaf lettuce, spinach, onions, beets, carrots, radishes, Swiss chard, turnips, peas, and a few others. A word of caution: even though the outside temperature may still feel chilly heat can build up in the cold frame on a sunny day to the point of cooking the young plants. A cold frame needs to have one of the lids opened a bit to vent the heat and closed again as the day cools. I am not always home to do this. Therefore I found a solution which is the Univent Controller. It is a solar powered unit that will automatically open a cold frame lid when the temperature reaches between 60 and 70 degrees and close the lid as temperatures cool. I have seen the Univent Controllers for sale by CharleysGreenhouse.com and TekSupply.com. Both companies also have cold frames for sale with aluminum frames and twin wall polycarbonate glazing.
A cold frame can also be used to extend the growing season into the fall. Often the carrots I grow during the summer are not very sweet and mature too early to store in the root cellar. As a result, I have been marking off a patch of the garden that is the same size as my cold frame. I make sure this is in an area with deep, well dug, weed free soil, and plant carrots in the middle of July. When the cold weather arrives in September I put the cold frame over the carrots and they continue to grow until mid-November. By then the cooler weather conditions have made the carrots noticeably sweeter and the root cellar is cool enough to store the carrots for several months.
In Spring I have used the Agribon garden cloths over curved wire supports to form mini greenhouses, These can be used to harden off young plants before they are planted in the garden or protect early plantings. Agribon comes in several weights. The heavier weights can be used for frost protection, and light weights can be used for insect control as floating row covers.
I have found some pup tent shaped cold frames made by FlowerHouses.com that are self supporting with net covered vents. I have used mine for four years and so far it is still in very good condition. These structures are tall enough to be put over Brussels sprouts in the fall and keep them growing until Thanksgiving.
Even things like placing bales of straw on the north side of plants allows warmth to build up in the soil faster. After I have planted the young plants that I have started from seed I usually cover them with empty plastic gallon milk jugs that have had the bottom cut away and the lid removed. The milk jug can be placed over the young plant and dirt scraped up against the sides of the milk jug to keep it from blowing away. The soil also provides more insulation. By the time that the plant grows to fill the milk jug the weather has warmed up. I try to remove the milk jugs on a day that is a bit cloudy to give the plants a day to adapt. The milk jugs can have a string threaded through their handles and hung out of the sunlight for use next year.
A couple of books that I have found useful are Eliot Coleman’s The New Organic Grower and The New Organic Grower’s Four-Season Harvest. Lewis Hill’s book Cold-Climate Gardening is also very useful.
Planting the Garden
Every seed packet and most gardening books tell you how to plant the garden so I will merely make a few comments about things that have been helpful to me. I do keep a spiral notebook journal to record information about the garden. I draw a simple map of where I plant each vegetable so I can rotate crops in a progression that takes three or four years to complete. I also record the dates that I start seeds indoors and plant seeds in the garden. I also notice and record whether these dates should be moved for better results. After a few years there is no need to guess when to plant each crop. I have learned that even with my short growing season I can plant one block consisting of three rows of corn by the end of May and plant another block of the same variety three weeks later. This extends the length of time I have fresh corn on the cob and I do not have to can all of the corn in a short period of time.
When I am planting the seeds I have learned to leave more space between rows than I think is needed. One yard of space between rows of corn, potatoes and at least a yard between tomato plants will be filled up by the end of the summer. After the plants come up do not be timid about thinning the plants to the proper spacing. If this task is neglected plants will not mature to the proper size. Dropping a few radish seeds in the row when planting carrots or Swiss chard will help mark the location of the row for weeding purposes. Both carrots and chard are slow to sprout. This is a form of companion planting which is discussed in greater detail in the Rodale Publishing book Successful Organic Gardening.
Gardening Companion Crop Planting
When the potatoes are 6-8”tall I hoe the weeds one last time and cover the whole area where they are being grown with a thick covering of old alfalfa hay. The hay mulch will deter the weeds for the rest of the summer, and it keeps the potatoes that grow near the surface from turning green. The green parts of potatoes have the same chemicals that are in the plant’s stems and leaves. These chemicals are not good for people to eat. After the potatoes are dug up at the end of the summer the hay mulch is tilled into the soil. One of the things that I still need to learn is how to grow new seed potatoes. I have planted potatoes that grew in my garden for several years, but after 2-4 years they do not sprout or produce as well as they should.
The first year that a garden is grown in a new location the crops may be hard hit by the local insects until a way to control them is found. I have trouble with a few bugs on a yearly basis. I try to deal with them in an organic way because I know that I will be eating what is grown in my garden. I use Bull’s-Eye Bioinsecticide form GardensAlive.com for cabbage worms and a Rotenone/Pyrethrins spray for Colorado Potato Beetles. Both products are organic and can be used with in a day of harvest. For aphids I use Concern Multi-Purpose Insect Killer with Pyrethrins as the main ingredient. This is ordered from Woodstream company at 1-800-800-1819. I am very satisfied with the results from these products. Depending on where a garden is located plans may need to be made to keep animals out. A tall fence will hold some animals out. We also use an electric fence around the sweet corn to discourage raccoons.
Storing the Vegetable Harvest
By late summer all of the hard work and planning have paid off producing a lush garden with a bountiful harvest which needs to be preserved in some way for the coming winter. There are many ways of doing this such as freezing, canning, pickling, dehydrating, and root cellaring. All of these methods have advantages and disadvantages, but most of them require some kind of equipment and as always practiced skill.
Freezing is quick and easy. Peppers can be frozen after they have had the stem and seeds removed. I chop peppers up either by hand or using a food processor and put them in zip lock bags before freezing. Other vegetables should be blanched which means cooked in a basket over boiling water for 5-8 minutes depending on the type of vegetable. Freezing depends on a steady supply of electricity. Food stored in this manner should be eaten with in a year or at most two. Having enough freezer space for a whole garden might be costly.
Canned vegetables will store longer that frozen ones. A kettle for hot water bath canning of high acid foods such as fruit and pickles is needed. A pressure canner is a requirement for canning low acid foods such as corn, beans, peas, beets, pumpkin, some tomatoes, and meat. Using a pressure canner is the best way to eliminate most of the chance of food poisoning. Having to deal with Botulism poisoning is not something to risk. When a pressure canner is purchased there should be a booklet giving instructions on how to use it. Ball and Kerr canning lid companies sell booklets with detailed directions for canning foods safely. I have seen these books for sale on Amazon. After a few years of use a pressure canner will need a new rubber gasket that fits in the rim of the lid. Sometimes these need to be ordered from the manufacturer a few weeks ahead of time. Canning lids have become harder to find and more expensive with fewer people involved in home canning. The best price I could find this past summer was $1.41 for a dozen regular size lids at Wal-Mart. They did not have wide mouth lids at the store where I shop. Stores usually only carry canning supplies from mid-summer through early fall. Real canning jars are safer to use than empty glass mayonnaise jars which are not made as heavy and now often are plastic. Sometimes canning jars are sold at yard sales. Be sure to check the rim around the opening of the jar. Chips out of the glass rim will prevent the lid from forming a vacuum seal. My voice of experience wants to say that glass top cooking stoves may not be built to hold the weight of a loaded pressure canner. The glass cooking surface can crack and are expensive to replace. Some of the modern electric burners on stoves do not heat up as hot or as quickly as needed for an efficient canning process. An older second hand stove can be wired to operate in the garage just outside of the kitchen door. This has the added benefit of keeping the heat out of the hot summer kitchen. With 30-40 minutes for a canner filled with seven quart jars of corn to heat up, 85 minutes processing time, and 30-40 minutes cool down time that is a lot of heat in the kitchen.
Dehydrating can be used for some foods such as herbs, jerky, and fruit leather. Other foods that are dehydrated will be changed by the process and will be best used in soups and casseroles. Plans for building your own dehydrator are available in many books. There are also commercial units available.
Many bulky foods such as potatoes, beets, carrots, and cabbage will store for quite a period of time if they can be kept a little cool. This is why a root cellar can be a good choice. Onions, garlic, and winter squash like temperatures between 45 and 50 degrees. A cool basement pantry where canned food is stored would be a good choice for them. Check them on a regular basis for spoilage. The saying “One bad apple spoils the barrel,” is true for all root cellared vegetables. There are many plans for all sorts of root cellars available in books. About eight years ago we decided that it was time to build a legitimate root cellar that had most of the qualities my husband and I had read about. A 12 x 12 foot hole was dug 8 feet deep. The forms for pouring the cement were prefabricated from Styrofoam and reinforcing materials. They were called Logix Blocks which are commonly used for home construction in our area. These Styrofoam forms are left in place after the cement has been poured. The advantage of this type of material is that cold from the surrounding soil will not be transmitted through the cement into the root cellar. A small well insulated steel building was constructed above the foundation. We even glued a layer of [foam] insulation to the inside of the door.
The floor of the root cellar is dirt covered with gravel which allows humidity to be higher and keeps the vegetables edible for a longer time. A large vent was placed in the roof to allow the rising heat to escape. The vent can be plugged up during very cold below zero weather. In the west wall a hole was drilled for a four inch plastic pipe which makes a 90 degree turn inside the root cellar and continues down almost to the floor where a second 90 degree turn is made. This lets cold air into the root cellar since cold air sinks. We had the root cellar wired for electricity. My husband bought two thermostats from Charley’s Greenhouse and wired them in series. The first thermostat, which is an Easy Heat Model SL1 made in Ontario Canada, measures the temperature outdoors. When the temperature is below 40 degrees it supplies power to the second thermostat. The second thermostat which is a Charley’s Greenhouse Weatherproof Thermostat, measures the temperature inside the root cellar. When the temperature is above 40 degrees it allows power to continue on to a muffin fan located in front of the 4 inch pipe opening near the floor. The fan pulls more cold air into the root cellar when it is needed. During extended periods of below zero weather we unplug the thermostats and plug in a small space heater set to maintain the temperature at 40 degrees. I still have potatoes that have not sprouted or withered by the following May.
Like art and cooking, the way a person goes about gardening is developed with practice and becomes a personal style. All of the skills and materials needed take time to acquire. It is my hope that the information in this article will help people move more quickly along the learning curve. Skills need to be practiced. The worst thing that will result from growing a garden next summer is that better food will be available, exercise provided, and peace of mind resulting from experience gained.