Friday, February 28, 2020

A journey toward food self-sufficiency, part 2 Watering, trellising, tomatoes

Imagine picking a warm, juicy tomato, perfectly red, straight off the vine. The sun is warming your shoulders. Birds are singing all around you. You take the tomato inside and slice it for a sandwich. Or you put it in a salad, or in your omelet. Or you stand in the garden and bite into it like an apple, and the juice runs down your chin. Perfection.

It takes a bit of work to win through to that experience.

When last we were together, I had you put in a 4 ft-wide bed—either 4 ft long or 8 or 12 feet, (1 meter square, or 1 meter by up to 4 meters) whichever size you think you could handle. I don't recommend going any grander than 4 x 12 your first year ever of veg gardening. It's easy to be overwhelmed and burn out, so go small at first.

If you have a rainy spring as I do, you can forget about watering for now. Your only job that first spring is to pull any weeds that pop up. Which are weeds and which are plants? It's hard to tell in year 1! You can google "radish seedlings" or "lettuce seedlings" or whatever to see photos. By year 2, you'll recognize all your seedlings just fine, but year 1, it can be confusing. If in doubt, let it grow a little longer until you decide if it's food or weed.

You need 1 inch of rain per week. If you don’t get that much one week, you have to water. Set out a tuna fish (or equivalent) can outdoors and measure the water and toss out the can every Saturday. If you had an inch in there, great. If not, add water to your garden.

If something eats your seedlings, don't be shocked. Birds can. Rabbits can. If this happens, plant again and cover your bed with deer netting or bird netting and see if that does the trick to deter the hungry critters. If not, you may need to fence your garden to get food. If netting doesn’t work, sometimes draping chicken wire over a bed keeps things out. Or you might have to put that chicken wire onto 3-foot-tall t-posts and make a fence. If you have deer, you'll need to fence in a major (and expensive) way. In Arizona's deserts, there were a lot of thirsty pests who'd eat anything in my garden just to get the moisture, and many gardeners built six-sided cages of chicken wire to protect their garden. I grew my tomatoes there in containers up on a picnic table or rabbits would eat all the flowers off. Learning to live with wild animals is a challenge. In a survival situation, I'd trap or shoot all of them I found in my garden and make critter stew later that day. In this current life, living in a town that frowns on gunfire, I fence and net.

If you have climbing plants, you need to put in trellises. The cheapest alternative is branches, about your finger width size, from off your and your neighbors' trees that perhaps fell in a wind storm, stuck into the ground in teepee formation, wrapped with cotton string or jute to give a climbing plant (peas, pole beans, cucumbers) something to attach to. For tomatoes, you need a heavier stake, like a 1 x 2 wooden post sunk into the ground a foot, or a t-post, or a 8-foot metal electrical conduit post, with or without a cage of heavy-duty wire mesh (like 2 x 2 fencing from a roll) attached to it. The cheapest choice is probably the EMT (electrical metal) conduit, unless you happen to have some scrap 1 x 2 lumber sitting around, which would be (sort of) free. When I moved in, the prior owner had left some scrap lumber in my shed that worked well enough for year 1.

Tomatoes are great tasting. Tomatoes are also complicated compared to every other crop. First, there are 1000 varieties, and that can get overwhelming to choose from! Ask your gardening neighbors or garden center what variety people around you grow, and grow that your first year. (Around here, it's the F1 hybrids Early Girl and Jet Star and the yellow cherry F1 Sun Gold.) You have to decide what sort of trellising you'll give the plants, and that will determine how you care for them. In most places, you want to remove the lowest leaves once every 2 weeks. You never want leaves touching the soil—it's likely plants will get one (or more!) fungal diseases, and that just accelerates the process. The less trellising you have for them, you more you want to pinch out suckers. (again, Pilarchik and OneYardRevolution on Youtube will explain how/when/why to do that). And you need to tie them to their posts somehow. I use cotton twine. Some people use masking tape or jute or old t-shirts cut into strips. If you have a cage of 2 x 2 fencing, you can weave the growing tips in and out of the fencing instead and won’t need to tie.

heirloom tomatoes from Slow Food Nation

See? Complicated! And I didn't even touch on determinate vs indeterminate tomatoes, or hybrids vs open pollinated. Short version of that discussion: eventually, for survival reasons, you don't want F1 hybrids like those varieties I mentioned and what you’ll probably find as plants in your local stores; you want open pollinated varieties because then you can save your own tomato seeds. In a SHTF scenario, you aren't going to be able to order seeds online or run to Lowe's for plants, and you'll have your own seed bank, collecting seeds every year as part of your harvest. But in year 1 of your garden, to make life easier, I suggest buying 1-2 tomato/pepper plants of a variety people in your locale like growing, and those are likely to be F1 hybrids. Get used to growing with those, okay? Later on, switch to heirloom or open-pollinated varieties and the hassle/expense/joy of starting them yourself indoor from seed.

All right, we've gotten you started with your first veg garden and dealt with the topic of tomatoes. Next week, some more advice

Friday, February 21, 2020

A journey toward food self-sufficiency, Part I

I've received a surprising number of notes from fans about my attempt to reach food self-sufficiency. If you're interested in moving in this direction, I’ll give you some hints. It's going to be a four-part series.

Because “in a survival emergency” is not the ideal time to begin to learn how to grow/hunt all your own food, I'd like everyone reading this to start at least a small garden now, in 2020. It can be a simple 4 x 4 ft bed (or 1 meter square) with just one plant each of your favorite five or six veg, but starting is crucial. Your soil, your climate, and your pests are going to play an important role in your gardening future (and if you believe in a real SHTF scenario, in your survival). It takes a few years to learn how to garden, and to learn the peculiarities of your situation, so the sooner you begin, the better. Even if you gardened that one small bed for two years and gave up because you are too busy to keep it up, if an emergency arose ten years later that you needed to grow all your own food, you'd remember those skills. Maybe your kids would remember too.

Therefore, there's no time like the present. Grow something this year!


The perfect garden would be on the south side of your house, unshaded, with a gentle slope to the south. (in Australia/NZ, make that sloped to the north.) Choice B: a western exposure clear of trees and afternoon shade will give you a full afternoon's sun, which is enough to grow summer vegetables. A steep slope can be terraced. A bit of empty land on the east of your house would be a good place to grow salad greens, as the shade during the hottest part of the day would keep them growing longer into summer, but you'll likely have problems growing tomatoes there. If all you have is a sunny patio or balcony, you can grow your two favorite plants in big pots. Growing something is better than growing nothing.

I'm a fan and advocate of no-till gardening. Here's what I did to create 3000 square feet of garden space so far. (I’m going to stop at about 7000 square feet, half in fruit, and half in vegetables, and leave 3000 in lawn so as not to overly upset the neighbors). For free, in the autumn, I got wood chips from local tree services (call and ask—they usually have to pay to dump these, and they're thrilled someone will take it off their hands instead). I put down free cardboard from stores (plain, dull, uncolored cardboard only and remove all plastic tape from the top flaps). That goes straight on a lawn of grass or a patch of weeds in the autumn, and then you water the cardboard, and then you pile 4-6 inches of wood chips over that. By late spring, you'll be able to plant into those areas by pushing aside remaining woodchips and tucking in seeds or plants. Worms will eat all of the cardboard quickly and the wood chips eventually and convert it to better soil than you likely have now. (Most of us cuss our clay soil, and some of us cuss our sandy soil, but few of us have perfect soil to begin with.) A few pernicious weeds may fight you (Bermuda grass is probably the very worst around here and maybe couch grass in England), but keep yanking it out when you see it pop up, cover your beds with 2 inches of new woodchips again the second winter, and you'll win out over your perennial weeds.

However, as you can see, that over-winter system to prepare garden beds for the next year doesn't help us in year one if we’re starting in spring—but it's a way to make yourself subsequent beds for years 2 and beyond. So in year one, pull or hoe most grass and weeds out of an area (you don't have to be perfect. Get 80% of them and you'll be fine) no bigger than 4 feet wide, and from 4 feet up to 12 feet long, cover it with newspaper 4-6 sheets thick, and then cover that with bagged planting medium from a garden or box store.

For planting medium in year 1, I suggest mixing half a big bag of peat moss (or, if you're in the UK, coco coir), two large bags of top soil, one large bag of Black Kow compost (or any other aged animal manure), one bag of mushroom compost (as large as you can find, if you can find it--if not, any bag of vegetable compost will do), and a small bag of organic slow-release fertilizer pellets like Plant Tone—ones designed for tomatoes will also serve you for most veg and are easy to find. You can sort of sprinkle each one of these ingredients over your growing area, or you can put out a tarp, pile everything in those bags on, and then mix it with your hands (kids love this part) and by tugging up the corners of the tarp to flop it over on itself. If you have a 4 x 4 bed, you'll end up with a mound of dirt, which is fine. If you have a 4 x 12 bed and use that recipe, it will only be an inch or two over grade, which is hardly noticeable but will keep the newspaper in place until the worms eat the newspaper and suppress grass and most weeds.

Do you need raised beds with wooden sides? No. And they're expensive to buy or build and fill, so unless you have a disability that requires you to garden well above ground level, just plant into the new (weedless) growing mix spread over newspaper over your regular ground.

Many veg are best started from seeds sown directly into the ground: squash, French beans, peas, cucumbers, lettuce, spinach, and root crops among them. Unless you're in a semi-tropical climate, tomatoes, eggplants, sweet potatoes and peppers need to be started as plants. You can buy those plants (may I suggest the local plant sale of a garden club, rather than a big box store?) or start them yourself indoors under grow lights at about 2 months before they'll be planted out. I'm going to send you to Youtube and Gary Pilarchik for details on that process. And big brassicas  (broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels Sprouts) attract loads of pests if they're out there a long time, and so most people set out plants instead, which helps shorten the weeks that pests might find them. In my locale, summer temps can hit the second week of May, and brassicas hate summer, so it’s good to get plants out as soon as possible. (They can take a 28 degree F night (-1/2 C), but no lower.) For your very first year, in a small garden plot, it’s going to be cheaper and easier just to buy plants, plus packets of seeds for lettuce, carrots, spinach, and radishes.

For your first bed, pick 4-10 vegetables that your family likes to eat. Pick ones that are expensive at the store or taste like crap at the store (hello, Florida tomatoes that taste like water and have as many as 36 poisons sprayed on them). Organic lettuce or spring greens at my nearest store are $8/pound on sale. Obviously, that's a good choice of crop if you like salads. Put in your seeds or plants when the packages/tags tell you to for your locale, spaced as the seed package says to space them, and wait for them to germinate or grow. Keep seed packs, which you might refer back to. Any brand seeds will do. Those 25 cent seeds at dollar stores are fine! As you probably spent $25 on the soil mix for your new bed, don’t break the bank on seeds.

I’d steer you away from pumpkins, melons, and winter squash the first year, as they take up a lot of space to grow. Maybe in year 2, okay? : )

Year 1, harvest your crops when ready and eat them the same day if you can, at the peak of nutrition and taste. And that’s a brief version of how to start your path toward food self-sufficiency. And if you enjoyed it, use my cardboard-plus-wood-chips method to expand your garden for next year.

Note: if you don’t have any land at all, look into community gardens or walk around your neighborhood. Ask someone to use their back yard and offer them half the produce as “rental” for their land. Be a good renter, keeping things tidy, and they’ll likely approve an expanding garden in subsequent years.

Back to me for a moment. My land is 1/3 acre, and 1/3 of that is house, garage, shed, and pavement. This leaves 2/3 of it to grow on, or about 10,000 square feet. That's plenty of land to grow all my own fruits and vegetables and to supply space for laying hens. If I were an ovo-vegetarian, that'd be great. I'm not—I eat meat and cheese—and so I supply some food off the property. More on that in part 4 of the series.

I learned what I could about gardening from experience, from books, and from Youtube. The best book I found for the US is The Vegetable Gardener's Bible, though there are several almost as good.

Stay tuned for parts 2, 3, and 4.
this could be your yard, in year 3

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

I'm anti social media

Just a note to new fans: I don't like social media. If you find someone actively posting on social media claiming to be me any time since early 2019, that's a fake account. (And yes, people will fake being writers online. I'm not sure what's wrong with people! Why don't they take that time and energy and get a nice volunteer job and help people instead?) There's an old Facebook account that might still be visible, but I haven't been there in years.

To stay in contact with me, sign up for my newsletter or follow this blog. I don't send out chatty newsletters, just notices of new releases and, twice in five years, a note about upcoming book plans. I hate getting spammy emails, and I assume you do too! The blog is a little more chatty, so if you're curious about what I'm thinking about, reading, or doing, this is the place to look.

If you like social media, that's fine by me! I'd rather talk with actual people face to face. We're kinder to each other face to face, I find. If you email me, I'll write you back. I enjoy hearing from fans. If that makes me old-fashioned, then I'm pleased to be old-fashioned.

In book news, I have a book out with a proofreader, due to come out in April. Another book is drafted and needs revision and editing, and it will come out in September or October.  Two books per year is my planned pace for the future. I know it was more fun for readers when I was putting out six per year, but I'm unable to keep up that pace and stay healthy. I decided it was more important to stay alive than to die at the top of the best-seller SF lists. It was a harder decision than you might think, but looking back, I wonder why it took me so long to make what now seems the only sane decision!