Friday, March 13, 2020

A journey toward food self-sufficiency, part 4

In year one, you had a 4 x 8 (more or less) bed of vegetables, and while it was fun and tasty, you'll have noticed it didn't feed you much, or for long. You'll need more growing space to feed yourself all year, plus plenty of gear, like glass jars and pressure canner, a chest freezer, and thousands of square feet of gardening space, not just 32 of them. You need more trellising materials, and you need several tools beyond your fingers and your junk-drawer scissors. You'll want compost bins and leaf-mold bins for soil improvement every year. You need fruit trees and bushes, which cost more than 25-cent seeds, and the trees likely won't bear fruit for 3 years from planting. If you eat meat, you'll need a meat source. You might want to build a smokehouse or solar dehydration system for jerky and a greenhouse and rain collection barrels. You need, in short, money to get into gardening in a self-sustaining level.

Now it’s time to get into the crux of the situation. Survival farming. What do you need to do that?

You need tools and seeds and skills. You also need more land than I have.

you won't need this many tools, but you'll need some

How much space do you need to live on your own land?

There's a lot of debate about this, but I've experimented in my climate and think the most optimistic estimates you can find online are far too low. In 2000 square feet (and that includes some paths--to get around to weed, water, and harvest), I can grow enough veg and fruit to feed myself for a year, assuming normal losses to pests and surprise freezes and too much or too little rain. I think a second person could eat from only another 500 square feet, if we were careful with our planting and did trellising of squash and melons so they didn't sprawl and take up so much ground.

In a normal world, that 2500 square foot garden for a couple is all you’d need to eat for a full year. With 2500 square feet of space in garden, you would never need to spend a dime on fruit or veg at the store. You could build up to that much space in 3 years, and if there were a limited disaster (truckers all went on strike, so no veg/fruit were being delivered), you could eat. You could barely survive on that and possibly whatever meat you had the in your fridge and dried beans in your cupboard.

But let's imagine the worst-case scenario, and we need land to create everything we'll need, year in, year out. If I had 4 hens for eggs and 3 breeding rabbits for meat via their offspring, even if I tractored them on pasture, I'd need a lot more space to grow their hay and grain. If I had a dairy cow in addition, it'd take 5 acres minimum…plus a few acres of woods both to burn for heat and to attract deer that I'd also hunt for meat. If I had goats and not a cow for dairy, I could get by on 3 acres.

Still, I’d want you to own 8 fertile acres if you really wanted to plan seriously for a survival scenario. 5 cleared, 3 in woods, ideally abutting another property with more woods on it. (More woods = more deer.)

And even in this situation: rabbits, hens for eggs, hunting deer in your woods, a cow for dairy products, you need to breed a dairy cow or she'll stop giving milk, so who has the bull? When your hens stop laying in year 4, how do you replace them? And farming 5 acres with hand tools (we're assuming a total collapse situation right now, so there's no diesel or petrol to run tractors) is one heck of a lot of work. 3000 square feet even is a lot of work, as I can attest!

Whew! You're not ready for the jump from year 1's 4 x 8 bed to the 8-acre farm in year 2, even if you could afford the land right now. For now, you expand slowly on the property you own/rent, and you quit expanding when you run out of land or time or patience. But in expanding, you're always developing those skills that might keep you alive in some distant future. Understand that food self-sufficiency isn't the work of one year or two years for most people. Getting to that point will likely take you five hard years of gaining skills.

Remember my 4 x 6 foot plan as a sample for your year 1 garden? You'll need 100 of these to feed two people.

Some other issues to consider. If you're a vegan or vegetarian, or if you think a SHTF scenario might force you to be one, you need crops that have fat and protein and calories, which many vegetables are short on. In my climate, that's likely to mean potatoes, peanuts (barely doable for me—they need a long growing season, and we had an early frost this year that might have killed a peanut crop), sunflower seeds and storage (or shell) beans, like pintos or Great Northerns, cowpeas, and lentils. Pumpkin and squash seeds are also good, though they are more like a bonus to the main crop of the flesh of squash, and remember to save some seed for next year's crop first! Corn, Brussels sprouts, peas, and artichokes are good protein sources, though artichokes are quite particular about climate. Potatoes, peanuts, and squash take a good deal of growing space. Squirrels love peanuts and sunflower seeds and took my whole crop of sunflower seeds last year. (I assume it's the high calorie/fat thing that attracts them so, lots of energy for very little work.) So I'd have to kill them anyway to save the crop, and it seems to me if I kill them, I may as well eat them. Vegetarianism in a survival situation makes little sense, though you might well eat meat less often after collapse of civilization, and one squirrel might be the only meat your family gets in one week.

What you also notice quickly with gardening at my level of self-sufficiency is this: you get sick of crops that tend to come in all at once. When tomatoes are coming in, you eat tomatoes two meals per day until you can't bear it another day. When summer squash is coming in, you get sick of summer squash. Sometimes you have a big lettuce salad every day for lunch for 10 days running and would just about tackle a stranger to steal their turkey sandwich to get some variety into your diet. So preserving is important, and getting used to less variety is important as you mostly eat crops that are in season. If I crave a spinach salad in August, tough, I can't have one. In my climate, I'll need to wait until October when I can harvest one again. You begin to value crops like potatoes and winter squash and onions that store easily, don't need canning, or electricity to freeze, and can be eaten either at harvest or up to 8 months later. In a SHTF fan scenario, if there's no electricity, it's storage crops like that which will feed you. You could always water-bath can on a wood stove or over a barbecue pit--if you have access to woods and saws and axes to cut your wood. If you're in an arid and hot climate, you can dehydrate veg in a screened box outdoors. But it's traditional root-cellar crops plus any meat you can hunt that'll feed you most of the winter, and with the least effort.

You'll also learn to succession plant (you plant carrots and cucumbers every 2 weeks so you always have a few coming in and never three hundred at once because what can you do with 300 cucumbers beyond can pickles?) You grow 2-3 varieties of a crop that'll come ripe at different times (summer and fall raspberries, for instance).

And there's a lot of tedious work in preserving. Shelling peas and storage beans is BORING--at least for me it is. That's the time you want some audiobooks. And if SHTF, yeah, no more audiobooks. In that world, you have your 12-year-old kid read to you from a paper book, both to practice reading, and to entertain you while you shell and shell and shell those peas you're going to can. A day of canning tomatoes and tomato sauce and salsa can be six hours long and involves a lot of cleanup. You'll appreciate having done so in the dead of winter, to be sure, but don't think it's no work at all. It's work.

Of course, in a SHTF scenario, you don’t have to show up at a job, so you have the time to do it all. Good thing! Spring and autumn are busy times in the garden and kitchen.

You'd have to learn how to make your own vinegar to preserve foods in a SHTF scenario, or rely entirely on the crock process of making pickles and sauerkraut where anaerobic bacteria create the vinegar and preservation. And then you'd need one massive store of salt on hand, or a salt mine on your property. If you have the right climate, or can pull a lemon tree in and out of your home, there's another natural source of acidity to help preserve foods.

I'm hoping to be 85% food self-sufficient this year as an experiment, though that includes fishing and hunting offsite, so you might not count that as truly self-sufficient. I'll be vegetable self-sufficient, I believe, in 2020, which is my third year of gardening here (and seventh gardening year of my life, in three different climates). In 2021, I should be vegetable and fruit self-sufficient. In 2022, I'll have more fruit variety and can finally harvest the asparagus and rhubarb I planted this year. For the other 15% of what I eat this year, I'll still need to buy dairy products, eggs (unless I decide to get hens, which now that I’ve found a local source for $2/dozen free range eggs, I probably won’t!), and staples like oil, salt, vinegar, flour, yeast, and spices that I can't grow like cinnamon and nutmeg. And bacon for my BLTs. Bacon is crucial! ;-)

If a SHTF scenario came, I could live without that 15% extra food, but then I'd also have to defend the large garden I have going—it'd be very attractive to any hungry person passing by. To be blunt, I wouldn't survive for long in a true apocalypse. So for me, this effort is about safer and healthier and tastier vegetables and fruit, a way to get daily exercise that I enjoy far more than I enjoy going to the gym, and making this land that it cost me to buy (and still costs me, with my insanely high property taxes) pay me back financially in some way. Also, I hate lawns, which seem to me the most ridiculous crop ever grown. (Unless you’re a cow and can eat grass.) I'd rather weed and plant and pick two hours a day than mow one hour per week. If there's economic collapse of a limited sort, if Amazon quits taking books like mine, or if vegetable prices soar, I'll still be able to feed myself for as long as I'm spry enough to work the garden and walk to the nearest river (only 1/4 mile, and only 3 miles to the nearest pond) to fish it.

Is the effort worth it? For me, yes. I'm not only eating well, I'm having fun. For about $300 spent per year, plus my time, I can grow $1000 worth of food. With seed saving, I won't need to buy many seeds in the future. (I don't buy any plants at all and start all my own plants indoors under shop lights, from seed.)

Admittedly, I can't write 5 books a year and have that garden both, even once I'm past the hard part of creating the new beds out of lawn. I couldn't work full-time at a non-writing job, commute, and care for this much garden alone. If I had three small children, it'd be hard to manage both them and the garden. A 3000 square foot garden/orchard plus preserving the harvest is close to a half-time job for one person, though two healthy people and a teenager could manage it in their off-hours.

But the taste of a carrot pulled after the first two frosts in the fall? That first BLT? Tomato soup like nothing you've had from a can? Foods like ripe currants and ground cherries that don't appear in any local store? Salads I'm sure don't have e coli in them? Yes, they make the work totally worth it. 

What I ate on July 30 last year: scallion, carrots, tomatos, ground cherries

2 days later, more food. Kale and chard in addition
Try a garden, and see if you agree. I hope you never have to live 100% from your own mini-farm, but if you do have to, by starting the process in 2020, you’ll have the skills already. Good luck!

Friday, March 6, 2020

Food self-sufficiency, part 3. Problems you may encounter

As your first garden season progresses, or perhaps not until your second season, you're likely to see a few problems. Diseases. Insects. A lot of fungal diseases that tomatoes and cucumbers and squash get can be kept in check by spraying your plants with water + cow's milk or water + baking soda. Don't use chemicals from the store when you can treat with innocuous substances. You're going to eat that stuff, so watch what you spray on it! If you have tomato hornworms, pluck them off and kill them however you wish. (Squish. Stomp. Or cut in half with pruners.) If bugs are eating your kale and broccoli (and plenty love that family of plants), you need a fine mesh net to put over them the instant you see damage. There’s pricey stuff called “row covers,” but I use remnants of tulle fabric from Walmart to net my plants. Also, hunt for little green caterpillars on your broccoli leaves and pluck them off. If you have hens, give the worms and caterpillars to them. Otherwise, smoosh them and drop them on the ground. A bird will come along and enjoy it once you've left the garden. If bugs aren't doing much damage, I leave them be. I can eat lettuce that has a couple of slug nibbles at the edges, no prob.

If you grow squash of any sort or melons in North America, you may well end up with squash bugs or vine borers. They eat the green parts of the plants, and because you can lose a whole huge bed of squash in a week to them, there are organic remedies you can use. ONLY use them once the sun goes down and bees and other pollinators are bedded down for the night. The most common such spray is neem oil—an oil people in India even use in the kitchen, available at most stores that carry gardening supplies. Any bug who is eating neem will die. Bees don't eat leaves or stems; vine borers and squash bugs do, so it's relatively safe for you and for the pollinators, but again, spray it at sundown to make sure you're not hurting the insects you need to pollinate your crops (and the commercial crops, and flowering trees, including all fruit trees. If we like apples or coffee or pumpkin pie, we need those bees!)

Squash vine borer. M McMasters via Wikimedia

And if you see a monarch or swallowtail caterpillar eating your carrot greens or dill or fennel, as a personal favor, please leave the poor thing alone. It won't eat your whole crop. Give it a plant. You get butterflies as a result of your kindness.

As you garden more years, not using chemicals will mean you attract predator insects which will help keep your bad insects in check. (it often goes: year 1, few insects. Year 2, lots. Year 3, predator insects figure out your yard is like a wonderful smorgasbord and you'll have less damage from then on.) You might later also learn about trap plants (plants the pest insects like more than your veg) and plant them in the corner of your yard away from the garden.

Some bugs can get knocked off a plant with a spray of the garden hose. Some won’t eat plants you spray with a weak solution of dish soap. 

mildews that appear on squash and cucumber plants. Baking soda spray it

For years one and two, I've given you some innocuous tools to use on diseases and pests. As you've no doubt intuited, the more often you go out to glance at your plants, the sooner you'll catch the beginnings of disease or insect infestation. You'll need to go out once per week at least to weed and possibly to water and to harvest, but more often would be good to catch insects and diseases at their first signs. Certain crops like summer squash and cucumbers will produce so quickly, once a week isn't often enough to harvest. Every other day is needed. Walking your garden with a cup of coffee in hand every morning is a nice way to start the day (if you don't have the Asian mosquitoes I have!)

Harvest your crops on the day you eat them. They'll taste best and be most nutritious. The first BLT of the season always makes me get a tear in my eye, it tastes so good. By August, I've had so many tomatoes that I preserve most of the rest. (Toss them in the freezer, cored and halved and packed into zipper freezer bags. They'll be good for sauces and soups throughout the winter and taste far better than anything you can buy in a can).

The first year, you want to consider planting a spring crop and main crop. Peas, lettuce, and spinach are good spring crops. The first of the summer, rip those out (lettuce and spinach may have gone to seed already) and replace them with summer crops like tomatoes, peppers, green beans, cucumbers, and summer squash. Crops that take a long time to grow (leeks, Brussels sprouts, parsnips) will be planted in spring and not harvested until late summer or fall. Garlic is planted in autumn and harvested in mid-summer of the next year. In subsequent years, you'll probably want spring, summer, and fall crops. Maybe you'll even have a covered bed (covered by a low tunnel or cold frame) for a winter crop, which is actually a fall crop that you didn't pick all of in the fall. Things don’t grow in winters, but they will stay alive under plastic low tunnels or cold frames.

In general, gardens need 1 inch per rain every week. Note the rain in your area, and water when you must: do it deeply once a week, not a little bit every day.

It's fall of season 1. You're picking the last of the tomatoes and peppers. Did you enjoy it? If so, get cardboard and wood chips and set them up so that you can expand your garden space for year 2. How much should you expand? I'll address that in part 4.