When planning to grow their own food, many people understandably focus on the plants. A plant, however, simply expresses its genetic blueprint to the extent it can based on the energy and materials available from the sun and soil. We can therefore state that a critical aspect of successful vegetable production is the quality of the soil.
Given the limitations of either the amount of warning you might have before needing to produce food for your family, or the amount of money you are able to put toward improving your soil to the point it will yield reliably, amending your entire plot all at once is often not feasible. The best short cut we have found for this situation is the use of the auger. An auger is a spiral digging blade for mechanically digging holes. These can be designed to run from a three point hitch on a farm tractor, or be handheld, motorized versions.
Rather than trying to improve the soil over the entire area of your garden plot, an auger allows you to make custom soil conditions in a 6-18 inch wide vertical tube in the ground. Much has been written about the disruption to soil structure and beneficial earthworms with standard rototilling. With this system, only the sod need be skinned off and the surface area mulched or planted with white clover. The surrounding soil structure and its inhabitants are not disturbed while the planting spots are custom made via the auger. Fencing contractors are often called in to dig holes in this manner for the planting of numerous fruit trees, and you might find that helpful if your homestead plans include trees.
Here is an example of how the system is put into practice: If you have soggy clay that will not drain, you cannot grow such things as wheat that will not tolerate ‘wet feet’. When you auger out a hole, the spiraling action of the blade will bring the soil to the surface, and deposit most of it around the edge of the hole. Within each of these holes, you can add gravel at the bottom for drainage, then mix the clay from the hole with sand and humus, compost or manure. Fill this mix back into the hole. Having added other materials, you will be left with enough clay to leave a ‘shoulder’ of subsoil around the hole, minimizing weeds from competing with your sprouting plants. You will have customized the immediate growing zone to the needs of whatever you will be growing in that spot. The important bacteria and worm population in the adjoining soil is available to move immediately into your fill. Additionally, this high fertility fill allows for very intensive plantings – making the most of any plant-able spot. A good mulching around the holes discourages weeds even more.
There is no yearlong wait for soil just turned under by a plow to have become the mature garden soil you will need to feed your family. Also, the holes can be dug right now with rented equipment or by a fencing company and you can then work away at making improved ‘fills’ as your time and money allow you to source the amendments needed by your particular soil. Sand will need humus, clay will need sand, acidic soil will need buffering, etc. If time permits, get a soil sample analysis and it will tell you just what you will require – but in a pinch you can bet that good compost will cover most needs.
Even if you already have a garden bed in place, with a used handheld auger you can over time improve the soil of your entire patch while having full use of the already amended spots to produce the healthiest plants. Intensively planted holes can produce more food than a standard plot just tilled and planted in rows, and pests often have a harder trek from planting to planting.
The 6 inch blade of the handheld augers is rather small for a planting hole. This can be remedied by making three holes close together in a cloverleaf pattern, and knocking down the soil walls between holes. If you will be doing a large number of holes, a great time saver over lying on your stomach and scooping the soil out by hand is to use a ‘clamshell’ post hole digger. The digger is two long handles hinged together, with a metal half-scoop at the end of each handle, and allows you to reach into the bottom of your augered hole and scoop out the loose soil.
The depth of each hole is determined by the length of your auger bit, the depth of your soil, the amount of amendments you can spare for each hole, and how much amending the soil actually needs. This will have to be assessed as you go, and will likely be different for each place on the property you work.
Watering needs are minimized with this system, as only the planted holes need watered – not the surrounding soil. In a period of limited water availability due to interrupted electrical service, minimal service for a well pump due to living off grid, or simply a season long drought, this is no small consideration. As each hole is surrounded by soil mass, there is less drying out than in a raised bed or mound. There is also a cost savings in protecting your garden from rabbits, as each hole can be encircled with chicken wire held in place by a few stakes or rocks. This will buy you time to finish enclosing your entire garden with proper fencing, as your budget allows. The same concept of surrounding each hole can be used to make individual small hothouse covers for protecting plants in early spring or into the fall. There is much less expense in making a greenhouse tall enough for a plant, than in making one tall enough for a person.
Most plants fit well with the system, the climbing vines utilizing a homemade teepee trellis over the hole. Our earlier example of wheat might not seem feasible – but the planting circumference allows for staking to prevent lodging from growing in rich soil (the wheat falling over in a rain storm), and the stalks from each hole make one nice shock of wheat once cut and tied.
Some final points regarding the versatility of this system:
The first pertains to the price of quality farmland. More and more of the good soil in this country is being gobbled up by large industrial agricultural corporations and/or housing developments. The options are becoming limited for those who are of modest means and/or do not want to be enslaved to a large mortgage for thirty years. By and large, the best option is to buy low priced land in the areas of poorest soil. Improving said soil can seem daunting to the most enthusiastic of homesteaders. But, even Mt. Everest is climbed one footstep at a time – and the poorest of soils can be improved one auger hole at a time, with immediate use of the holes that are finished.
Second, in the unlikely event of a long term, widespread crisis, homestead security would become an issue. This is particularly true for the women of the family, who are often in charge of the gardening. If the main garden beds are distant from the house, or near woods and/or a road, desperate individuals would have an easy time targeting the gardener(s). The auger system allows growing spots to be dug close to the house. These can be tended by an individual with less risk than a patch by the road. The main garden can then be tended at such times as numerous group members can be present for added security.
Third, the large three point hitch auger coincidentally makes a perfect space in which to cache two 5-gallon buckets on top of one another. Pack the buckets with whatever you need to keep out of sight, secure the gasket-ed lids, turn the buckets over and caulk under the rim of the lid. When the caulk is dry, the buckets can be lowered into their hiding place and covered. If you are concerned about a fencing contractor asking what the holes at the back of your yard are for (which he probably won’t), mark two holes 12 feet apart. Answer that you want to set gate posts for a future fencing project. The only thought he will have is to leave you his card, hoping you’ll hire him for the fencing job.
Last but not least, a pre-drilled hole can be in place if the need arises for a privy. In the unfortunate event that conditions deteriorate enough as to require a long term privy, the last thing you are going to have the is time on your hands to dig one. Auger the hole now, then add leaves or other material that will be easy to scoop out later but provide enough fill to prevent a small child or animal from getting stuck, and lay a scrap of plywood over the top.
No one wishes disaster to strike – and the more peace within oneself, the more peace one brings to the world. But history teaches that troubled times can and do occur, and it is prudent to be able to take care of your family. Additionally, when trouble does appear it is usually with little warning. Murphy’s Law says that if a disaster happens, it will happen just as you have settled on the homestead of your choice, have some dry provisions laid away, but have yet to have sufficiently improved your garden beds to the point they will reliably feed your group. The auger system allows for maximum production in minimum time, and a used auger and some appropriate soil amendments might well fit into the ‘must have’ items on your list.