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

No comments:

Post a Comment

moderated twice a week, so please be patient!