I’ve had a garden on and off again over the past 30 years, depending on where I lived, whom I was married to at the time, and whether or not my job allowed me to be at home frequently enough to care for it. So I have followed the recent spate of gardening posts with some interest, especially those who have struggled to start a garden. I thought I would take an opportunity to add my own two cents on how to create a garden that can support you and your family in good times or bad.
Gardening is a learning experience. The more you do it, the better and more experienced you will become. Once you have seen blossom end rot or leaf blight, you’ll spot it earlier the next time, know how to respond, or even how to prevent it. Even though you may be able to learn by doing, it is best to have some basic knowledge before you start. Articles like this one cannot make you a gardener, but they can point you in the right direction. I suggest you read books, search out online articles, scan forums, and get related magazines. Look to your county extension office, local agricultural universities, and local garden clubs for printed and online information that are specific to your locale.
You will definitely have more success if you start your garden before a disaster strikes, and it is easier to expand an existing garden during hard times than start one from scratch. There are also obvious advantages to plowing and installing a fence now, while there is power, plentiful fuel, and stores are open and well stocked. So, if you plan on gardening your way through TEOTWAWKI, I recommend you get started this fall. Why this fall and not next spring? We’ll get to that in a minute.
Get your whole family involved. Gardening is a good experience, good exercise, and while it is work, it can also be fun. It’s also an easy way to be prepared without scaring the kids.
Where to place your garden is critically important to its long term success. Look for three things in this order: 1) Full sun for all or most of the day (at least 8 to 10 hours); 2) a mostly level or gently sloping field that is well drained but not steep enough to have significant run off and erosion; and 3) room to expand in the future, because you will probably find that your first garden is not large enough. Less important considerations are proximity to your house and proximity to water, because you can run a hose or even a pipe pretty easily. However, with no sun, all the water in the world won’t make a difference, so pick a sunny sight first and foremost.
In general, a garden needs at least an inch of rain per week. If you do not have this much rain, you will need to provide water, especially when fruits and vegetables are setting. That may mean hauling water from the nearest source in a grid-down situation. Look into water catchment systems and drip irrigation if you have limited natural water resources as drip irrigation is far more efficient than spraying water from a sprinkler.
If you plan to dig up the lawn to put in a garden, I recommend you stop treating the lawn with any chemicals at least one year in advance (18 months or two years is even better), especially herbicides that are designed to suppress broad leaf weeds, crab grass, and the like, as these could cause problems with your garden plants. I also suggest that you dig up or turn over the grass and till your garden the summer or fall before you plan to start planting. Then work in plenty of natural soil conditioners such as compost, composted animal manure, and whatever your county agent or extension office suggests, based on the soil sample you give them to test. Getting ready in the fall will give you a big leg up in the spring, both in terms of time and soil conditions.
After sunlight, the quality of your dirt is probably the second biggest factor in the success of your garden, so condition your soil every chance you get. Good soil is rich, dark loam that in which you see worms in almost every shovel full. It is not solid like clay, nor sandy, but somewhere in between the two extremes.
While there are some things I insist on doing in a garden by hand, turning over the soil is not one of them. Use a tiller, get the appropriate implements for your garden tractor, or ask someone with a tractor to help you out, especially the first time you break new ground. If you are using a tractor, it might be best to do the plowing and discing before you put up the fence. Tractors need turning room and fences constrain them.
Once you are done digging, get some garden catalogs and order the seeds you will need. Pay close attention to the zone you are in and be sure the varieties you buy will be suitable for your locale. I also recommend having more seed on hand than you think you will need. Rotate your seeds like you would your food, using the oldest first, and keep good records so you know what varieties did well for you in which locations. In addition to keeping records related to seeds, keep a garden chart that shows what was planted where so you can rotate your crops to avoid depleting your soil by planting the same crop in the same location over and over again.
Fencing, as BPW said in his recent article on starting a garden, is critical. I have found that metal T-posts or metal U-channel fence posts and welded wire fencing is an excellent way to put up a decent fence relatively quickly and inexpensively. Woven wire fencing is more expensive and might be a bit of overkill, unless your garden fence is also part of a livestock enclosure, but if you have the money, go for it.
You should use at least 7-foot posts for your fence, which have about six feet above ground and will therefore accommodate six feet of wire fencing. This is the minimum height necessary to discourage deer and other large pests. If finances allow, go with the 9-foot posts, which can use one 8-foot roll of fencing or two 4-foot rolls placed one on top of the other. This latter approach allows you to use a fence with smaller, tighter holes (2”x2” or 2”x4”) on the bottom half to keep out small critters, while a less expensive fence using 4”x4” squares is used on the top. Check out your local farm store, such as Tractor Supply, or building supply places, like Home Depot, and price out the different options. While you are there, you may see some plastic or poly fencing. I do not recommend this, unless you require a fence for only a few years or if that is all you can afford.
I definitely recommend you invest in a manual fence post driver with a handle on each side. I cannot begin to explain how so much easier and safer this is than using a sledge hammer, plus it will make your work go faster. If your wife is helping you, the fence post driver is a marriage saver!
On the last garden I put in, I used metal fence posts intended for chain link fences at each corner and cemented them into place. This gave the fencing a degree of sturdiness that cannot be achieved with T-posts alone. I also installed a 6-foot wide chain link gate between two similar posts to allow easy access for people and equipment. You can buy the gates pre-configured and ready to install. In this case, having the gate post held into place with 50 pounds of cement was more than enough to support the gate.
I should note that wooden fence posts also work but cannot be driven in using a fence driver. You will need to dig or drill an adequate hole. A properly constructed wooden fence is a thing of beauty compared to one with metal posts, but it is significantly more work, and I would not attempt it without renting a post-hole auger that runs off a tractor’s PTO. If you have sufficient timber to harvest and produce your own posts, however, this could be a winning combination for you. Be sure to read up on how to properly install a corner or gate post when using wooden fence post to support a wire fence.
When installing your metal fence posts, keep them eight feet apart, and use a string guide to assure you keep the fence nice and straight. I find it easiest to put the corners in first, using a long roll-up tape measure and some simple geometry to keep things square. Remember, measure two or three times and dig once. Be sure to pull the fence tight between the posts so that it does not sag or buckle.
It’s a good idea to size your garden to match your fencing budget. Since fencing is often sold in 50- or 100-foot rolls, aim for a total circumference that will allow you to maximize your materials. For example, instead of a garden 100’ x 50’, I would actually go with the dimension of 96’ x 48’ to allow 8-feet between fence posts and only 36 posts (37 if you add an extra to install a gate). Sure, if you buy 300 feet of fence, this leaves you 12 feet of extra fence, but you will probably lose some when you go from one roll to another. Besides, having a little extra is a heck of a lot better than being 3 feet short!
Speaking of sizing, I believe it is always better to go bigger, if you have the land and can afford the fencing, especially since we are talking about sustenance gardening, where you need to generate as much food as possible. A 96’ x 48’ plot is 4,608 square feet, which sounds really big, but it’s only about a tenth of an acre. If you can double your materials to 600 feet of fencing and 74 fence posts, you can fence a space 200’ x 96’ and have four times the space, or 19,200 square feet, which is 0.45 acres. This larger plot will also be much more useful if you grow rows and rows of grains or beans, and it allows you more room to rotate crops from one area to the next from year to year.
A large garden also gives you room to space out your rows to allow both roots and the crop to grow and to have room to walk or move equipment down the garden. At the very least, you should have a four or five-foot wide path down the middle that can accommodate a lawn tractor, 4-wheeler, garden cart, or wheel barrow.
There are worse problems than what to do with too much harvest. First, not every plant or crop will live, so a large garden gives you some redundancy. Second, you may well have additional friends and family you need to feed. Third, you may be able to trade or barter with it. Fourth, you can store some items to eat during the off season. Finally, if you have too much of a crop, allow it to ripen and harvest the seeds, then throw the remnants in the compost pile or use it to feed the livestock, and use their byproduct for the compost pile. Plow under the remaining plants, but try to avoid plowing under the fruits or vegetables; otherwise, the seeds could ripen next year, and you’ll find a “volunteer” squash vine in your patch of peppers.
Now you can probably tell from the size of these gardens that I don’t do raised beds. Raised beds are great for urban gardeners who do not have a great deal of space and need to concentrate their crops, and they’re helpful for those who cannot get down on their knees and work in the dirt or bend over and use the hoe. They are also good where the soil is poor, because you can load them up with top soil imported from elsewhere.
In my opinion, raised beds are good to supplement your storage food or in urban areas where you do not have the acreage for a full-size garden, but you will be hard pressed to generate sufficient food to keep hunger at bay with a couple hundred square feet of raised beds. You cannot plant enough corn, oats, beans or potatoes in a few raised beds to keep your family fed over a long-term event.
Traditional garden vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, melons, and zucchini are relatively easy to grow, and while they deserve a place in your survival or sustenance garden, they should not make up the bulk of it. If you expect to live largely on your garden bounty, then you want to concentrate on foods that provide maximum calories and can be stored over the winter. So eat all the tomatoes and zucchini you want in the summer, but plant corn, oats, beans that can be dried (like lima, beans, pinto beans or black-eyed peas), potatoes, onions, several varieties of thin-skinned winter squash, cabbage, beats, Jerusalem artichoke, rutabaga, and parsnips. I would also encourage you to grow greens that might not be part of your diet, as they can be grown quickly and often early or late in the season, stretching the amount of time you can eat out of your garden.
We all know that fruits and vegetables can be a key source of nutrients in a TEOTWAWKI situation, but fruits will not store well, unless you have stored sufficient materials to can them– jars, lids, pectin, and sugar, plus the fuel for your heat source or the equipment and low humidity required to dry them. Apples are a notable exception as some varieties can keep for months in cold storage.
Tomatoes are also great for canning and can be an important ingredient in meals all year around, but storing potatoes is much less labor intensive. So make sauce from your tomatoes, pickles from your cucumbers, and sour kraut from your cabbage, if you have sufficient supplies, time, and labor, but be sure to plant enough root vegetables that can over winter without canning or drying so that you have something to eat all winter. Many of these root vegetables are great in soups or stews throughout the year.
Other vegetables we like for canning include green beans, sweet corn, and peas.
Starting seeds indoors is important when you want to get a jump on the growing season, if you live in a cold climate (or if we were to have nuclear winter or the volcano-induced equivalent), but there are plenty of times where planting seeds directly in the ground is the best bet. You can start most anything indoors, but I find that some plants, like cucumbers, melons, and zucchini, are so prolific that there is no need to start them indoors. They will do fine on their own once the ground has warmed up.
I have a long growing season, so others may argue with this list, but here are vegetables that I do NOT start indoors:
- Corn and other grains
- Greens, including spinach, kale, Swiss chard, mustard, collards, lettuces
- Root crops, like carrots and potatoes
- Late-season crops, like cabbage and turnips
Just remember that it is better to plant a week late, when the soil is warmer, than a week early. Even if there is not a frost, cold soil can cause problems with rot and fungus.
When it comes to starting plants indoors, pick a very sunny window on the South of your house, as we will probably not have artificial light in a TEOTWAWKI situation. There are lots of options suitable for starting plants, from peat pots to commercial plant trays to paper cups. My favorite is the Jiffy 70-cell “self-watering greenhouse” available at Walmart for around $16. (It is neither a greenhouse nor self-watering, but it is convenient.) I have accumulated several of these trays over the years and buy the little peat disks separately now. You can buy a box of 1,000 compressed peat cartridges for less than $80, which is very cost effective.
I like the idea or organic gardening, but the practice is harder. I have found that it is relative easy to use natural substances to avoid commercial fertilizers, as long as you start out with good soil. Proper weeding (i.e., continuous) is also sufficient to eliminate the need for herbicides. Going organic when there is a fungus or an infestation of bugs strikes your garden is much more difficult and avoiding the use of pesticides and other chemicals will reduce your garden’s productivity. You’ll have to make the final call, but I recommend you keep some Sevin dust in your garden shed, just in case. It might mean the difference in a grid down situation when you really need that food.
If you are counting on your garden to feed you and your family, then you have to work on it just like you work at the job that puts food on the table right now. You need to weed constantly. You need to water regularly. Most importantly, you need to be in the garden looking around for something that might be going wrong. This means getting to know each plant and keeping an eye on them. Look for signs of infestation, like a bug eating the leaves, or rot starting to form. (Cutworms, aphids, or mites can do significant damage if you do not control them.) Look for plants that need poles or something else to climb, and construct it for them. Look for fruit or vegetables that are doing fine and suddenly die or rot. Inspect the fence. Keep an eye on what you can harvest early and plan what to do when the full crop comes in.
Keeping your garden healthy and producing might require spending the night in the garden with the .22, or being the human scare crow during the day. It might mean shooting four-legged or two-legged critters that want the bounty for themselves.
Even when the harvest ripens, the work is not done. Not only do you have to pick the garden’s bounty, but you must prepare it for storage. Canning, drying, pickling, and storing in the root cellar are all good options, if there is no refrigeration or freezer. You also have to let some items go to seed, so you can save seeds for next year. Then, when the harvest is done, you need to turn the plot over, add more organic material and compost, and start planning next year’s garden.
Gardening for sustenance is not easy, but it has been done for centuries. All it takes is hard work, perseverance, and knowledge– which you could say about pretty much any survival skill. Start a practice garden today, and you can have the skills and materials you need to see you through hard times. In the meantime, you’ll have fresh fruits and vegetables to lower your food bill, sell at a road-side stand, or simply give to those in need.