When I wrote my first article for SurvivalBlog back in July, I thought I covered about everything I knew or wanted to say about gardening. As I have worked in my garden over the past few months, I’ve realized how much more there is to gardening and how a garden changes with the seasons. Perhaps with the exception of August, something is happening every month in a Desert Southwest garden. The salsa garden goes through many changes as it morphs from summer salsa garden to winter salad garden. Each year there are new surprises in October and November as some vegetables are harvested and others are pulled and new plants put in their place. Autumn temperatures have been especially warm here this year, but the evenings have finally been cooling down so the plants can rest and respirate at night.
Last year at this time I had many ripe tomatoes, but because it stayed hot longer this year the tomatoes took longer to come back so all of the tomatoes are small and green right now. Some of the Romas are getting big. I hope the weather will hold long enough to let them ripen. One surprise this fall was the green peppers. They did well in the spring and summer, bur have really come on this fall. Every plant has multiple, beautiful peppers, some of which I’ve used fresh and some I’ve chopped up and frozen. Bell peppers are great in fried rice, stir fry, sweet & sour, or stuffed and steamed. Chopped up smaller they are excellent to have on hand for egg scrambles, quiche, and omelets. One of my favorite uses of green peppers is to slice long, thin strips and use them as dippers, along with carrots, on a veggie platter. The jalapeno peppers have done exceptionally well this fall as well. A little jalapeno goes a long way. That being said, too many were planted this year. Next year the jalapeños will be cut back to two plants only. The Swiss chard and Chinese cabbage are doing well and will keep greens on the table until the other lettuces and spinach come on.
A new garden box (see previous post on how-to instructions) was added to the others this fall. It’s planted entirely with onions. A shallow, but long spinach box was also added to the others because spinach has replaced lettuce in many of our salads. Other new plantings include garlic, elephant garlic, dill, basil, chives, carrots, beets, radishes, okra, lettuces, and Chinese cabbage. There wasn’t room for peas or broccoli this fall since so much space is still being taken up with peppers and tomatoes. Peas will be attempted in January. The timing may be wrong, but it won’t hurt to try. Okra is out of season and should be planted in the spring, but I had to try it anyway. I only planted four plants and there are still many seeds left to be planted seriously in the spring. I just wanted to see what the plants look like and how they come up.
One activity that was done this fall, but should have been taken care of long ago, was to sort seeds by season and store them in water proof containers in the refrigerator. Previously seeds have been stored here and there at room temperature without any kind of inventory. Now lists of each container are placed on the outside and spring seeds are stored in one container and fall seeds are stored in another. There is also a separate container for herbs and flower seeds. Seeds that can be planted in both seasons (such as radishes and carrots) are stored in both containers. I now have a much better idea of what we have and what we need for the upcoming season. I’ll order seeds in December from Native Seed Search (making sure that the desert seeds are ordered and not the mountain seeds!).
In January I’ll start heirloom tomato seeds and pepper plants indoors near the south facing French doors. My gardening friend has already started his tomato plants in his greenhouse to get nice and big before he sets them outdoors in the spring. I’ll also root some sweet potatoes from the grocery store in canning jars using toothpicks and water. Sweet potatoes like it warm, but shady with lots of water. They will do well under my Elm tree. I’ve had pretty good success with sweet potatoes in the past. As long as they don’t get too much sun, and have plenty of room to spread out, just plant and water and leave them alone. When it’s time to harvest, just dig them up and store in a cool, dry place.
Another autumn activity (pruning takes place in the spring as well) is to cut some branches off the large Elm tree that shades part of the garden. The shade from this tree helped the tomatoes survive the summer heat. During the winter (not yet, but soon) the Elm will lose its leaves so the three garden boxes shaded by it during the summer will get more sunlight. Then, as it gets hotter in the spring, the new leaves will grow in and protect the plants from too much sun as the temperatures soar. The other beds, which haven’t got a shade source, require sun screens later in the growing season. Cutting some of the branches in the fall also helps to open up the garden area and give more hours of sunshine to the plants. The pruned branches are cut into about one and a half foot lengths and stacked on pallets as a small wood pile. These smaller branches are perfect to use in volcano and rocket stoves. I need to make a cover for the woodpiles to protect them from our infrequent, but heavy rain storms. This has been brought to my attention over the past two days. More rain fell in two days than during the entire monsoon season this year. The water for my garden has been wonderful. Weeds will now become an issue.
One of my favorite surprises as I have gardened is to talk to and encourage other people to start gardening. At work I told one man about my garden and he told me how much he liked fried green tomatoes. I brought him some green tomatoes from my garden. He got so excited about planting a garden that he took some classes and started his own. The garden was so prolific that even being gone on vacation for a month this summer, he came back to a jungle in his backyard! He has now surpassed me in his knowledge and success with his garden. He brought me beautiful eggplants which I made into eggplant parmesan. Recently, I brought jalapeños to work and asked who would like some. Many co-workers took some home or just put them on their salads for dinner. One man made guacamole with fresh cilantro, avocados, lime, tomatoes, onions and seasoning which he shared with all of us. It was delicious! Work has almost become a mini co-op with people bringing in produce to show off and share from their gardens. As we talk of gardening and what we are going to try next, or how our plants are doing, others listen in and decide to try gardening, even if they haven’t been successful with it in the past. I try to encourage them to do as much as they can. They should look at gardening differently than they have in the past, especially if they are from Northern states where the seasons are different.
Any success is a step in the right direction when it comes to gardening. The goal is to grow 25 to 35% of your own food. A small or medium size yard just can’t produce enough grains, potatoes, etc. to completely feed a family. A large lawn can easily be replaced with fruit trees and vegetables. My gardening friends tell me that they produce about 10% of their total food consumption each year. Mine is probably less than that, but even so, I relish that 7 or 8% because the things that I produce will help me ward off food fatigue in times of need. Those peppers and onions, greens and beets will make a big impact on daily rice or soup consumption. I can change up the menu with just a few added ingredients. Every little bit helps.
Another important thing that I’ve thought about lately with gardening is my hands. Taking care of your hands is very important always, but especially if a survival situation were to happen. A small wound could be life threatening if infected. I ripped a fingernail part way off one day while sewing and found it to be painful and annoying. It bothered me during all my tasks whether working in the garden or around the house. A friend taught me a neat trick if fingernails rip part way off. Use tea bag material and super glue it to your nail/finger. It will act almost like a silk wrap and keep your nail from falling all the way off. Keeping fingernails short and clipped smoothly is important as well as always wearing gloves while working in the garden. Tools should be used to make tasks easier and take the strain off your hands. Gloves help prevent blisters, although sometimes they can’t be avoided. Always clean and dress wounds immediately. Another trick to deal with wounds is to super glue the edges of a cut together. This keeps germs out of the wound while it’s healing. Two people may need to help you do this, especially if the cut is bleeding. Calluses may begin to form on your hands or cracked skin may be a problem. I’ve found that a product called Bag-Balm works much better than regular lotion to sooth work roughened hands and helps cracks heal faster.
In addition, a great source of information is the internet. My gardening buddy from work said he was going to start a pallet garden. A friend was giving him a bunch of pallets and he thought he could improve (tame) the jungle with some pallets. I was unfamiliar with this, so I looked it up on-line. Pallets can be taken apart and the wood used to build garden boxes such as the ones in my garden (although smaller in size because the pieces of wood are smaller), or the pallet can be put on top of loosened, rich soil and seeds planted in the spaces between the slats. This keeps the seeds evenly spaced, gives the growing plants some support, keeps weeds down, gives the gardener a place to walk, and shades the growing plants along with keeping moisture in the ground. Also from the internet I learned how to make my tomato plants produce more. It has to do with pinching off the lower leaves and the small shoots that come out between the main stem and the branches. I think I did this without knowing it to my pepper plants and that’s why they are doing so well. I can’t wait to try it on my tomatoes next year. If yields are low or you have a question of any kind, there is so much information out there. Just search by topic to find the answers.
My fall garden is growing well. Carrots, onions, beets, radishes, and garlic, which were planted the beginning of October, are all up and growing well. Now the garden must be prepared for winter. We do have some freezing temperatures here, but the ground has never frozen (that I’m aware of). The greens, carrots, onions, garlic, and herbs should be fine as they are. I will mulch them with the Elm tree leaves when they fall. The beds with the peppers and tomatoes will need to be covered when the temperatures dip. I’m working on some sewn covers for the garden boxes because sheets or other fabric used in the past have come off the plants and blown away. Ordering seeds, planting starts indoors, and planning next season’s additions (apple trees, grapes and raspberries, moving the artichoke plant so that it has more room to grow) are all part of winter gardening tasks. In addition, I’ll be harvesting greens and protecting plants in the garden so they can thrive in the spring.
If you haven’t tried gardening, I encourage you to give it a try. Plant some seeds indoors this winter in preparation for the warm weather. Choose a space where you can grow a garden and prepare the soil. If you already have snow on the ground and it’s too late this year, plan a garden on paper and begin in the spring. Do everything in your power to be self-sustaining. Talk to other gardeners and learn all you can. It’s a worthwhile use of time and will pay off in the future as food prices continue to skyrocket or even worse…don’t procrastinate, now is the time to learn to survive. You can do it!