If you seriously think we’re going to be facing some kind of a TEOTWAWKI situation sometime in our future then you can’t get started soon enough on learning how to garden.
Among preppers, the majority of us probably don’t have a two-year supply of food on hand, even if any friends and relatives show up. And if most states lose 18-25% of their deer population every year in a managed 10-day hunt, I’m guessing that in the free-for-all that will ensue after the SHTF, most big game will quickly become nearly extinct — like it was in most states by the 1920s. So unless you live near a well-stocked lake, or have some livestock that is safe from the roving hordes, I’m betting that anyone who makes it to the second year after a TEOTWAWKI event is really going to wish they had spent more time perfecting their gardening skills when they had the chance.
Even experienced gardeners will have regrets. I’m going to wish I had spent more time learning to depend on my garden and less on the grocery store. That would force me to maximize my garden for as many of the weeks of the year as possible, for as many different crops as possible, and to change my diet to revolve around those crops as much as possible. That’s one of my goals for 2020.
If you look at the cover of any gardening magazine, it looks like it’s the simplest thing in the world to just throw some seeds in the ground and the next thing you know, you’re harvesting enough food to feed Attila and his Huns on an extended foray across Montana. There’s nothing to it! To further perpetuate the no-experience-required myth is the concept of the heirloom seed vault. This is where you buy a #10 can, or an ammo can, sealed with heirloom seeds inside. When the SHTF, you merely break open your seed vault, throw them babies in the ground, water them in, and all is well! The Garden of Eden shall burst forth and in no time at all you’ll have so much food from your garden you’ll need someone on full-time duty just repairing the fences that keep popping at the seams from all the overflowing vegetables.
Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings but I think those heirloom seed vaults should come with nutrition labels on the side because most folks would get more value out of eating the seeds than they would by actually planting them.
Okay, I’m exaggerating. But not by much. Buy your seed vault but like everything else, know how to use it before you need it. You don’t get your Colt 1911 out of the box and start reading the instruction manual when there’s an intruder kicking down your front door. By the same token, know how to grow those seeds you’re socking away for TEOTWAWKI.
Two Big Reasons Why You Need to Get Gardening in 2020
If you haven’t started gardening yet, the reason why it is so important to get started as soon as possible is twofold: First, because gardening is one of those skills that is ALL about experience. And second, because your garden soil needs improving and the sooner you get to work improving it, the better shape it will be in, and therefore the more productive it will be by the time the SHTF. It takes years to get your soil ready to be on the cover of Organic Gardening magazine. So the sooner you start, the better.
Even if you’re renting, if your landlord will allow it, put in a garden this year. I have lived in several places where the landlord allowed me to do just that. Anything you can do to get some experience will be helpful in the long run. If your landlord won’t let you garden, get some grow boxes instead.
There are more reasons to begin gardening ASAP so here are the top five reasons if you are not gardening already:
- To start getting experience. Gardening is fun but there is a lot to learn
- To begin improving your garden soil. It gets better each year you garden
- To figure out which varieties perform best in your exact location
- To figure out the crop timing for your exact location
- To figure out the best weed strategies for your location
By your “exact location” I mean the precise piece of real estate that you will be gardening. You are no doubt familiar with the USDA zone maps which can be used as guides for last-frost dates and lowest-freeze temperatures. These are rough guides only and are good for planting perennials such as orchard trees and ornamentals. When it comes to your particular garden spot, there are a lot of other variables to be considered as well.
One thing I quickly learned about gardening here at my homestead is that gardening knowledge doesn’t necessarily transfer well from one location to another. Everything here is radically different from other places where I have lived and gardened: the pests, soil type, amount of rainfall, humidity, organic matter, altitude, sun intensity, pollinators, raccoon density, you name it. So even if you are an experienced gardener and you’ve relocated to a new area to build your survival retreat, you should probably get going on your new garden as soon as possible to figure out what curveballs Nature will be throwing your way.
When I bought my homestead, even before starting construction on the house, I brought my compost pile over from the rental house and plotted out where the new garden was going. I rented a tiller, threw some tomatoes in the ground, and planted some strawberries. Then I ignored it all while I worked on building the house. The tomatoes never even got staked but I did manage to throw some straw down to keep the weeds from taking over and to keep the tomato fruit up off the ground. A volunteer squash came up from a seed in the compost I had spread and I ended up with 13 beautiful butternut squash for the winter, as well as 66 quarts of tomato sauce. Some key points:
- Gardening is not hard but there is a lot to learn
Gardening is not overly difficult as long as you take notes and follow some basic rules. If you’ve never done any gardening, there are a lot of books and websites available. Gardening is best learned by experience so after you’ve done some basic reading, you’ll have a rough idea of what to plant in the early spring, and what to plant later on once you’re past your last frost date. Keep in mind that no matter how much you read, nothing is going to prepare you for all the peculiarities of your particular garden. You’ll need to experiment with different things before you figure out exactly what is going to work best in your location, for your particular tastes. The sooner you get started making mistakes, the better. That’s how we learn and there’s no way around it when it comes to gardening so the sooner you get started, the sooner you can become more proficient. And don’t worry, you’ll have lots of fun along the way and there are no tickets and fines for making mistakes.
- Your soil is going to need improvement
Your soil will almost certainly need improvement. Your gut tells you when you pick up a handful of soil whether this is great stuff or if it leaves something to be desired. Rocky soil creates one set of problems, sandy soil doesn’t hold moisture or nutrients very well, and clay soil goes from holding too much water one day to turning concrete hard a week later as it dries out. If your earthworms are weak and sickly, then your soil still has a long way to go. When they can bench press your cobs of corn, you’re definitely making headway. Most soil composition problems can be remedied by adding more organic matter. Every survival retreat and homestead should have a compost pile for numerous reasons, but mainly for creating organic matter to add to the garden each year.
It seems to be common knowledge that gardens should be rototilled each spring. I wholeheartedly disagree with this philosophy. Natural soil has an important property known as structure. When you dig a hole, you’ll notice when you put the dirt back in there’s never enough to fill it completely up. And when you add water, the dirt sinks even lower. That’s because by digging all the dirt out, you ruin the soil structure just as you do when you rototill a garden. The soil structure consists of all the air pockets and all the worm and insect tunnels created by the millions of macro- and micro-organisms in the soil. That soil structure is very important for growing plants as they are putting down roots. The only time I rototill is after I spread compost and I need to mix it into the soil, or if I am breaking virgin ground to turn into more garden.
You may start out with pretty good soil. But it’s more likely you’ll have soil that will take years to get to its optimal condition. That’s one more reason to get started gardening ASAP and another reason why waiting for the SHTF before opening your heirloom seed vault is a supremely bad idea: you will have lost all those years of improving your soil. If Safeway is still open, it’s no big deal if your entire tomato harvest only amounts to six tomatoes. It will still win you the participation trophy. But on the other hand, if the SHTF last November then your Italian mother-in-law is going to be cutting you out of her will if you can only come up with six tomatoes. For Italians, tomato sauce isn’t food, it’s a transfusion! Have the experience and the know-how to grow her 66 quarts of tomato sauce after the grid goes down and you’ll be achieving sainthood before your next birthday.
If you have money in the budget, you can speed up your soil improvement by adding commercially available soil amendment products such as peat moss, bagged compost, bagged manures, etc. What you don’t want to do is spread uncomposted material such as sawdust or grass clippings in your garden and till them in. This will only tie up the nitrogen in your garden and steal it away from your garden crops that need it. That will screw your garden up for a couple of years so don’t even think about it. The only exception to this are “green manures,” which have nothing to do with fecal matter, but I’ll let you web search that topic on your own.
(To be continued tomorrow, in Part 2.)