It amazes me when I see one of those “Survival Garden in a Can” products that supposedly sells you the peace of mind that if you purchase these heirloom seed kits, you will be able to strew these seeds around your yard and your entire year’s food supply will be ready and waiting at your fingertips, easy-peasy. They makes it seem that I can simply check that box off my list, since my future gardening needs have now been taken care of. Every time the topic comes up about potential upcoming food shortages and the possible inability to reliably get food at the store, I hear otherwise rational people say, “When that time comes, I’ll just plant a garden.” If I conversationally ask if they have ever gardened before, I usually get, “No, but how hard can it be?”
This post may fly in the face of the hard-core hunters out there, but there was a time when gardening was a true survival skill. In other words, if you could not produce enough food from your garden to feed your family, you went hungry. Yes, the mighty hunter could go after game, but it was not a slam dunk. The weather might be bad, there might be no signs of game, or maybe it was just not in the cards that day. If no game was shot, there was no meat for dinner. The average homestead might have a few chickens and maybe a milk cow, but there was not enough to slaughter regularly. Also, don’t forget that in the era where there was no refrigeration, there were few effective ways to preserve lots of meat reliably. So, the garden was THE most important and reliable food source they had. So you will rely on yours as well, because no matter how much you have stored up, it WILL all run out someday (or get “appropriated” for “dispensation” to the “less fortunate”, but that’s another post).
Gardening always starts with an area of dirt ready to plant. Now, most people think of their back yard when they talk about gardening. They believe that they can simply remove the grass and get busy, but it’s a little more complicated than that, as many will find out the hard way.
Back to the pioneers, who were able to start with healthy, thick topsoil usually loaded with organic material, which needed few amendments and would grow almost anything right out of the gate. These stories that made it back east were some of the primary incentives for the mass migrations of would-be homesteaders looking for their spreads in the past.
If you ask most people if it is a good idea to keep planting the same crop in the same place over and over again, they usually will knowingly shake their heads “no”, as it depletes the soil and is generally a bad idea. Well, lawn grass is a crop, and a really tenacious one at that, and with all likelihood one that may have been growing and cultivated in the same spot for years, if not decades. Again, it’s the same crop that has been grown in the same place for YEARS. Dig up that grass, plop in some seeds or plants, and you may be in for an unwelcome surprise (sickly or scrawny plants that won’t grow well, if at all). However, for most it’s all there is to work with, so you have to deal with it. Removing the grass is pretty straightforward– chop it out any way you can. Here is where preparing for a garden NOW will pay off, as they have these marvelous machines that are powered by electricity, gasoline, or diesel to help you with the hardest stuff. Whether it’s a tractor, a tiller, sod cutter, or some other means of mechanical disruption of the soil, this MUST be done if your soil used to grow grass. Wait until “after”, and you may be stuck with having to use a shovel, pickaxe, and garden fork. Trust me, especially if you have rocks in your soil, mechanical is the way to go. If you have a friend with a tractor or a tiller, offer a case of beer and a tank of gasoline or diesel in exchange for an afternoon of tilling. Also, you can rent just about anything at your home center or Rent-All place. Just be sure you know what you are doing to prevent injuries; in the best case, this will be extremely heavy labor that most will be unused to doing, so, stock up on NSAIDS and Ben-Gay. Your goal is to mechanically churn up the soil down to 12 inches deep or so, if you can, so that the roots of your new plants will be able to reach water and nutrients easily.
One note, the hardcore organic types may take exception with the tilling, stating that it disrupts the earthworms and “natural” ways of the soil. First, the earthworms will come back, never fear, in greater numbers than before. Second, even the earthworms can’t survive well in hard, packed clay subsoil, so you may actually be doing them a favor in the long run. The bottom line is that plants like loose soil better than packed clay.
Once the garden plot has been tilled, now you need to make a decision as to how you will want to organize and plant. It doesn’t really matter, as long as you follow one unbreakable rule– NEVER walk or stand where your plants will be growing, either now or in the future. So, you will need to plan for walking rows or aisles between your planting rows or beds, and if you can, plan to be able to roll wheelbarrows, or anything else you’ll need down the aisles, so make them at least three feet wide. Once the walking rows are set, then it may depend on your type of soil, whether it is rocky or not, whether it is so poor that you will have to haul new soil in, or a combination of all three which determines whether you make long rows, raised beds, or other variations. Standard rows will usually have furrows in between for walking and irrigation, while raised beds use either lumber or other materials to form containers that hold good soil on top of your existing soil, hence the “raised” part. They are generally no more than four feet wide so you can reach from either side to weed or pick produce. Raised beds are limited only by the materials you use as the edging; just don’t use treated lumber as the chemicals leach into the soil and may be toxic. Some have tried to make raised beds without edging, but eventually the bed edges will collapse, unless you leave generous space for the sides with no plantings. I have heard about using used tires as raised beds but all those petro-chemicals leaching out worries even me.
Remember that plot of grass you dug up in the beginning? The soil you have now tilled and organized is the same depleted soil that was under that grass and without amending it will not grow anything well. So you need to improve the soil by adding nutrients, and that means compost. (You could use synthetic fertilizers, but I prefer natural if at all possible, and a source of bagged chemical fertilizers may not be easy to find later.) Many non-preppers are familiar with composting kitchen scraps, and this is a fine practice, but there is a rude fact about composting for a large garden that few consider– you may literally need TONS of compost for your large garden, and it is simply impossible for even a large family to produce enough kitchen waste that makes enough compost to suit your needs. That brings to mind two essential sources– animal manures and bedding, and leaves.
If you are fortunate enough to either raise your own large animals that produce manure, or have a nearby source that will let you haul it away, you are very lucky. All of that manure and bedding is compostable, and once mature, will add the needed nutrients and organic material to your garden soil. There simply is nothing better. Just be sure it is truly mature and composted well– many find it hard to believe, but fully composted manure smells like dirt, even if held to your nose. So the “eewww” factor is greatly reduced. (Fresh manures have been applied to crops for millennia, but the risk for bacterial contamination is higher, and it tends to attract more varmints in my opinion. YMMV.) Just put all that manure and bedding material in a large pile, keep it moist and turn it as it needs to. When there is no more smell and it is cold, it is ready to mix into your soil. (If you raise chickens, NEVER put fresh chicken manure on or around your plants– the nitrogen is so concentrated it will burn the plants and possibly kill them. ALL chicken manure must be composted first.)
If you have no source of manure, your next best bet is plain old leaves. ALL leaves, once they are brown and on the ground but no pine needles for now. The more the better; I’m talking 10 contractor bags full every weekend is what you are looking to achieve. I have found that using a shredder will greatly cut down on the bulk and helps them break down faster when you start composting. If you can’t scrounge enough leaves from your property, maybe your neighbors may let you take theirs, especially after they have been raked and bagged. (Be aware of your local laws, as some municipalities consider removing trash bags or “yard waste” without permission to be considered theft, punishable by arrest.) There may be landscaping companies that collect leaves in your area that will cheerfully dump a truck load on your driveway for free for you to haul to the back, or your municipality may have a leaf “dump” that you may also haul away. Be creative, but get those leaves. Once shredded, I leave them in the bags and store them behind the shed, or you can just put them in one huge pile covered with a tarp. Once spring rolls around, you can start composting in earnest. Once you have the shredded leaves, you can either mix them 1:1 with grass clippings (at last the lawn is helping you with something), moisten and turn weekly, or just go with the leaves alone– they WILL compost by themselves as long as they are kept moist and get some air. Others don’t bother with turning and just let the pile sit all season; they have a nice pile of compost after a few months.
Be aware that especially when using only leaves, the compost reduces in volume by almost 2/3 as it matures. Your huge pile may not be so huge when you are ready to us it. In my opinion, more is always better. So it’s better to make too much than skimp on your piles.
One caution: Do NOT compost wood chips of any significant volume in your compost piles because they basically bind all the nitrogen in the breakdown process of the wood, and you lose all your nutrient value in that batch. Use the wood chips as mulch and just rake them aside and reuse on your rows and walks.
Finally, when the compost is ready, generously mix as much of it as you can into the soil with a garden fork or a lightweight tiller. You shouldn’t need too much power since the tilled soil should be fairly loose. Just pile it on top with a bucket, spread it around a little and then deeply mix with a long-tined garden fork to get the soil thoroughly mixed with the compost. And I truly mean as much as you can apply or can afford. You can never have too much compost in your soil.
I hope this helps somebody who may have erroneous ideas about gardening, especially starting one from scratch, and the need to get started sooner rather than later.
Part 2 of this series will cover garden fencing, varmint defense, and garden maintenance.