What Will You Do When Your Stored Food Runs Out?, by Woodsman
Among the multitude of preparations conducted by would-be survivalists, gardening is often minimized in value compared to the physical purchases of beans, bullets, and band-aids. However, in any long-term TEOTWAWKI event, gardening would probably become nearly the sole means of subsistence for your family and as such, it is critical that you make the efforts now to learn the ins and outs of how to produce a year’s worth of fruit and vegetables from your own land.
Prior to moving to our retreat, my family lived in a moderate-sized city and neither of my parents grew up with any genuine country-life experience, be it with gardening or anything else to do with growing your own food. Due to God’s providence, we fell into company with a master gardener, himself concerned about world events, and over the first winter after we moved to our retreat we jointly plotted how the first garden would be planted. Since then, we have learned how to consistently produce enough vegetables to carry us through a year, and many lessons were learned the hard way. The following article sums up many of those lessons as well as other important principles. It is my hope that you would carefully consider them in regards to your own garden.
First, A Word on the Importance Of Gardening
Gardening ought to become a priority for everyone. No matter how many buckets of grain you have stored away, no matter how many cans of freeze-dried food are in your closet, you can count on running out eventually, and the food supply grid may not yet be restored. A large garden, plus orchards of fruits like raspberries, strawberries, and apples, and hopefully a few chickens, pigs, goats, and cows, will supply you with a large portion of the food necessary to survive.
Those of you who are, like us, preparing on a shoestring budget, can go a long way in stocking up by growing your own vegetables and canning, dehydrating, or otherwise storing them for future use. It will be much cheaper and in many cases, healthier as well (and WTSHTF, you’ll need all the health you can get!). This year we put a lot of effort into the garden, and by the end of this season we will have two years of canned vegetables and fruits stored away. Not only will this leave us with our current goal of a complete, well rounded, one extra year’s food supply, but it will also safeguard us in case next year’s garden does not produce as well. Two years ago, we canned two year’s worth of carrots, and last year, we hardly harvested any. That extra year of canned carrots saw us through that lean year until now, when we once again have a large quantity of carrots that we will be soon canning in massive quantities.
Even if a major TEOTWAWKI event never occurs in our lifetimes, we can all clearly see the faltering economy and the skyrocketing prices of food. We can begin combating inflation right now by taking control over what we eat and growing it ourselves. My family of six lives on a food budget of less than $200/month, and we eat heartily with no lack of good tasting, nutritional food.
Your garden should be located where it will obtain full sunshine. It should not be in a low area with poor water drainage, or on a relatively steep slope, and should be convenient for frequent access.
After the initial confusion and frustration over when to plant seeds, how many to plant, and how far apart to place them, the main lesson we learned the first year was the value of consistently summer fallowing a new piece of ground. Throughout our first garden season, we battled quack grass and numerous other weeds that filled our entire plot. Looking back, I remember that we did a very poor job of weeding and the amount of vegetables obtained suffered greatly because of being choked out by weeds. During that season, however, we used a garden tractor pulling a small disc to regularly run over a larger garden plot that we planned to use the next season. Every time the weeds began to show above the surface, we took the disc over them. Of course, it wasn’t until the next year that we truly realized the benefits of this technique. When the next season rolled around and several weeks had passed since the first seeds were planted, my family was delighted to discover that there was almost no quack grass in the entire garden, and the only weeds to deal with were less noxious ones like pigweed, lamb’s quarters, and shepherd’s purse. Those were easy to chop off with a hoe several times per week.
A year ago, we took a shortcut and planted quite a few fruit trees into an area that we had not kept well fallowed, and within a month or two we were once again reminded of the value of keeping the weeds tilled down for a season previous to planting. Grass and thistles sprang up everywhere and even now we are forced to work hard to keep on top of everything. Please, if you’re going to garden in a new plot, fallow it regularly for a year before planting there. If you have to, do like we did and plant in one (albeit weedy) spot while you prepare another section for next season.
Extend the Season
Unless you live far enough south that you can garden practically the entire year round, it is important to take certain steps to extend your season, allowing a head start on planting to ensure a virtual guarantee of a harvest—prior to the frost! There are many varied ways of doing this, but most methods involve some form of greenhouse and starting seeds early indoors. If your house has plenty of windows on the southern side, and plenty of ledges for trays of seeds to sit on, it is a great way to extend the season all the way back to February for the longer-season transplantable plants like tomatoes, peppers, herbs, and the like. An attached greenhouse is convenient and will have much more space.
When the ground is beginning to thaw but the weather is still cold, a hoop house works well. Ours consists of a framed 12’x8′ wall and rebar extending out behind that in multiple half circles, connected by horizontal pieces of rebar. Six mil plastic is placed over the rebar and nailed down with slats to 2x8s running the length of the structure. A barrel wood stove is used to keep it warm on the cold nights. Once the temperature is warm enough, we remove the plastic. In the fall, we often decide to reinstall the plastic as a temporary shelter for tools and implements that we’re using, and to allow more time for any vegetables that are not fully ripe.
A key to not becoming overwhelmed by all the produce is to stagger production. Corn can be planted in one-week intervals; beans can be staggered by at least a couple weeks, and peas can be planted very early so as to ensure their harvest prior to the larger crops. Root crops, such as onions, carrots, and potatoes can wait until the very end of the garden season to be harvested.
Mulch is important in a garden for several reasons. Number one, it retains moisture in the ground so any rain you do receive is used for maximum benefit, and it is not necessary to personally water as frequently. Second, mulch will help keep soil compaction down to a minimum. Third, it will add organic matter to your soil to help replace the nutrients that are drawn out over the years of leaving the soil bare to the elements and harvesting plants from it. To a certain extent, mulching also keeps weed levels reduced but you need to make sure you use a thick enough layer or else you will regret it later. When hay or straw mulch is put on too thinly, the weeds will come up as numerous as ever and it is much more difficult to hoe and nearly impossible to roto-till without clogging the tines on the tiller.
Watering Your Garden
As I mentioned above, your garden will hopefully be located near a water source. This can be your well, but in our case we have been told that our well water is not good for the soil as it will leach nutrients out from it. Thankfully we have a good-sized body of water a couple hundred yards from the garden. It’s not ideal to have the garden located that far away, but it frosts much earlier down in the valley so we are safer to do it on top of the hill. However, we do plan on plowing up a smaller plot next to the water and planting the shorter-season vegetables and root crops down there. If electricity failed and we couldn’t operate our pump system, at least we wouldn’t have to carry buckets as far. (By the way, stock up on as many 5 gallon pails as you can afford, it seems there is a use for them all the time and you will never have too many.)
Currently, we have a two horsepower electric pump at the water, and a two inch black poly pipe running from there up the hill. Various smaller pipes extend from that central pipe into different areas of the garden, with fittings that allow one-inch hoses to be inserted for further reach. Of course, our system isn’t exactly a self sufficient setup unless it was run by solar or wind power. That is certainly possible, but with electricity currently remaining cheap and in abundant supply you will still be able to beat the effects of inflation by a long shot.
Lots of Water!
Everything should be kept well watered. Don’t allow anything to become really dry, especially the peppers and tomatoes. If they begin to wither, it’s too late for them or at least your harvest will be significantly delayed. Believe me, I know what I’m talking about from experience! Just stick your finger in the dirt and if it doesn’t feel moist. You know what to do. When you do water, it’s not necessary to do it every day unless it is extremely hot and the soil dries out rapidly. You need to water the plants heavily, so that it soaks down for at least three or four inches. That means probably an inch of water or more at a time. Don’t worry about it puddling. You’ll figure it out after you do it a few times and keep checking the moisture level with your finger. Water is the life-giver, and without it, your garden will be slowed, yield will decrease, and your plants may even die. Don’t hesitate to use a lot! Like our master-gardening friend said, you’ll be sick of watering long before you put enough water on to drown the plant. Of course, you must be careful with smaller plants but the larger ones tend to be plenty hardy.
You will need between 150 and 200 canning jars per person to store a year’s worth of vegetables and other food items. In addition, you should stock up on as many canning lids as possible because it is much more difficult to preserve large quantities of vegetables without them. It is possible to reuse them but they tend to not seal consistently, so it is best to use new ones. Make sure you have a wood stove handy to be able to can on if the power is out.
Of course, the other methods of sustainable food storage include using a root cellar and dehydration. The short bibliography at the end of this article gives references to detailed books on these subjects, which are beyond the scope of this paper.
The only sustainable way to garden is to save your own seeds every year. Although seed saving is relatively basic, it does involve some forethought and planning on your part. First, you must plant only open-pollinated seeds. The hybrids that most stores carry will not stay true to their kind. There are many sources of open pollinated “heirloom” seeds, but our favorite is currently Baker Creek, found on the web at Rareseeds.com. While you’re at it, get an extra two or three years worth of seed in case your garden doesn’t do well, or for bartering purposes.
It is easiest to plant only one variety of each vegetable to prevent cross-pollination, but you will probably want to hedge your bets by planting more than that. It is much more labor-intensive to do so, but possible. I highly recommend Suzanne Ashworth’s book, “Seed to Seed,” for detailed information on preventing cross-pollination, harvesting, and seed storage. Depending on what plant it is, you will use hand pollination, time distancing (such as planting an early variety of corn, and then a week or two later longer season variety), and physical distancing although most plants require such far separation that it is impractical for the homesteader.
Seeds, once dried, are best stored in air-tight glass containers in a cool, dark area. As long as the electricity still functions, this means a freezer or refrigerator. Prior to planting, you can test the germination rate of your seeds by placing a small amount in a moist paper towel that is placed inside a plastic bag and set in a warm portion of your house—in our case that means near the wood stove Wait a few days and check it to see how many seeds successfully germinated. If only half of them did, and you are not able to purchase new seeds, you will have to plant twice as many.
It may seem obvious, but plain-old diligence is the key to raising your food supply. Observe the “windows of opportunity” and take advantage of them accordingly. You need to research ahead about how to do it, order your seeds in plenty of time, plant the seeds as soon as it is the right “window of opportunity” for planting, and then weed your garden daily. No, daily weeding isn’t a chore when you keep up with it, but it definitely becomes a pain when you leave it for very much longer. Just run through with a hoe for a half hour or so a day and you will go a long ways in keeping a well-maintained, eye-pleasing vegetable garden.
Don’t put anything off until later, because with most garden-related duties they must be done as soon as you discover it is necessary. There is a certain period of time within which you must plant. There is a certain time wherein you need to harvest the corn. Beans will be too big if you leave them too long. Potato bugs will kill your plants if you don’t pick them off right away and keep them off. Carrots won’t grow very large if you don’t thin them while they’re small. For everything, there is a time and a season and life runs a lot smoother when you stick within the parameter of those windows.
My family uses a simple technique to stay oriented and getting everything accomplished on time, and it’s something that I recommend to everybody I talk to. Keep a running list of everything that needs to be done. One column on the page could list longer-term projects like “build chicken coop,” or “dig root cellar,” and the other side will be filled with smaller items such as “pick beans,” “weed strawberries,” “give goats water,” or “put away the pitchfork.” Even the smallest item is placed on the list and then crossed off as someone completes the task. In the mornings, I’ll often look at the list and place a little star beside the items that are most critical to get done that day, and we will focus our energy on those. The younger boys will be assigned a few of the easier projects, and the rest of us will tackle the difficult or otherwise labor intensive ones. It’s rewarding to come in at night and review the list and see all the rows crossed off. The next day, we might take a new sheet of paper and write down a few new things we just thought of and also include the projects we did not complete the day before. List keeping is simple, takes a small amount of time, and does wonders in keeping everyone productive all day long.
How Do You Get It All Done?
It may seem overwhelming trying to keep up with a garden large enough to supply your family with a year’s worth of food, but as long as you tend to it each day, it isn’t as difficult as one might think. If you have children who are old enough to understand instructions, you can put them to work doing some of the more mundane tasks while you take on the more advanced projects that require precision. I’m 17 years old, and my 14 year old brother and I actually do most of the garden maintenance (although Dad helps a lot with watering frequently in the mornings while we do chores). The two younger boys help with various projects that need more help, such as picking and snapping beans or cutting up apples in preparation for making applesauce. Mom mostly handles the indoor work; primarily cooking the meals to keep us going, canning the thousand or more jars we do each year, and processing other foods in preparation for freezing.
Of course, if you are serious about survival, it is important to actually live the self-sufficient life. This means severely reducing trips to town, for both shopping and various extraneous events. Get rid of the television, and minimize time spent on non-productive entertainment. We are a homeschooling family, and that gives us a flexible schedule with plenty of time to focus on what is important to us.
If you live in town and can’t do everything you would like to, you can still eliminate wasteful uses of time, plant every spare space you have, and read many good how-to books. You can visit the country to practice outdoor skills, and help out a farmer to get some good exercise.
In conclusion, I want to encourage everyone to begin gardening on their own, regardless of location or how much land they own. Even if you are in an apartment, you can grow plants on a balcony and begin to learn the techniques of growing food.
Food is necessary for our survival, and nothing makes more sense than controlling your own food—because when you control your own food, you are free from the chaos that most of the country may soon face. You will not only be able to continue to live relatively comfortably long after your stored food runs out; you will become part of the solution to the crisis. You will be there to show other people how to provide for their own families.
Now is the time to learn how to garden, not after TEOTWAWKI. Go out in your backyard, till out a plot, and get busy!
–Square Foot Gardening, by Mel Bartholomew/ (for smaller gardens)
–Seed to Seed, by Suzanne Ashworth and Kent Wheely
–Preserving Food Without Freezing or Canning, by the Gardeners and Farmers of Centre Terre Vivante
–Encyclopedia of Country Living, by Carla Emery/ (The best general reference we’ve found, on gardening but also on everything else related to homesteading)
–Root Cellaring, by Mike and Nancy Bubel