I don't care how big your food stockpile is, eventually it will run out, assuming that you are faced with a crisis that lasts long enough. With some of the potential disasters facing us as a country, such as an EMP attack that we are totally unprepared for, recovery may mean learning to survive without. In such a case, your stockpile is all that stands between you and starvation.
At that point, you're going to need some other source of food. If the coming disaster happens to vaporize 90 percent of the population, before they can clean out the grocery stores, you might be able to scavenge for food. But that's not very likely. There will probably be people starving to death, before your stockpile runs out. So you're going to either have to find food in the wilderness or produce your own.
While finding food in the wilderness sounds like a great option, it's not all that practical. With more than 320 million people living in the United States today, wild game will become scarce quickly. Things aren't like they were back in the days when this country was settled. No longer are there vast herds of buffalo covering the prairies and while there is game, there really isn't enough to feed everyone.
So that leaves us with the option of growing our own food. While that's not an easy one to accomplish, the good news is that it is possible. You see articles every once in a while about people who are feeding themselves entirely off of what they grow in their backyards. Well, if they can do it, you and I can too.
One thing I need to mention here is that this is going to require a major lifestyle change. Some things, like grains, are hard to grow, harvest and grind on your own. They're not impossible to grow, but they are difficult. In addition, you need to dedicate quite a bit of space to growing them, in order to have enough to make it worthwhile.
Basically, we're talking fruits and vegetables here. While that may not be enough to satisfy, it will be enough to keep you alive. That makes it worth doing. Besides, if you start gardening early, you'll be augmenting your food stocks at the beginning, rather than just eating from your garden. That will make the transition easier.
That's not to say that you can't raise any animals for meat; just that I'm not covering that in this article. In addition to growing fruits and vegetables, you should grow some animals. However, it's easier to start with a garden and add the animals later.
The one thing you absolutely have to stockpile, if you are going to have a garden, is a good stock of seeds. In a sense, the only thing that makes a garden, a garden, is the seeds that you plant in it. I guess otherwise it would just be part of your lawn. However, not just any seeds will do. To start with, seeds are broken down into three categories:
- GMO Seeds - Regardless of how you feel about the genetically modified produce that's being pushed today, the cold hard fact is that GMOs are reproductively sterile. So, even if you do get a great harvest and are able to eat, you can't replant the seeds from those plants, as they won't grow.
- Hybrid Seeds - Hybrids don't have the same stigma attached to them that GMOs do. Nor do they have the same suspected danger. However, the seeds that you get off of Hybrid plants will either not grow or will not produce what you expect. The seeds will be of one of the varieties that were mixed to make the hybrid in the first place. That's because hybrid plants are not naturally pollinated; instead, specific pollination is accomplished to mix the characteristics of two plants.
- Heirloom Seeds - These are the old varieties of seeds. As such, they are naturally pollinated, which ensures that they will produce seeds that carry the same genetic traits. So, you can harvest the seeds to plant the next year, keeping your garden growing, year after year.
Heirloom seeds also give you the most variety, as there are literally hundreds of varieties of each type of vegetable. You can select between the various types, to receive a harvest that is just as you want.
The other consideration you need to think of is the growing zone you live in. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has broken the country down into growing zones, by temperature. You need to grow plants that will survive in the zone you live in. That's one of the reasons you will want to look at the various varieties of heirloom seeds. Plants that are not recommended for your growing zone will probably not survive.
When Should You Start?
It would seem natural to start gardening as soon as a disaster hits, to ensure that you'll have food to eat once your stockpile runs out. I used to think this way. We had a six month supply of food and a stockpile of seeds to plant when a disaster hit. Then I learned otherwise. If I had waited for the disaster to strike, before planting, I would probably starve to death.
The problem isn't the amount of time it takes to grow the plants, although that is an issue, it's the time it takes to prepare a good garden. Without proper preparation, you won't get a good harvest, no matter what you do.
More than anything, preparing a garden means preparing good soil. That soil is the single most important part of any garden. If you have good soil, chances are you'll have a healthy garden that produces a lot, assuming you do everything else you need to do. But if you have bad soil, it doesn't matter what else you do right, you won't have a bountiful harvest; in fact, you might not have any harvest at all.
It takes a good year to get your soil in shape, even if you work at it. So, you actually need to start your garden a good year before you'll need it; in other words, start it now. It actually took me two years to get my soil in shape, but we had really bad soil to start with.
Preparing Your Garden
Since the soil is the most important part of a garden, then it only makes sense to start preparing the soil well in advance. In order to do that, there are a few other things you need to prepare as well, most notably, the planting beds that you are going to use. After all, you want the soil in those beds, not along the walkways.
Advantages of Raised Beds
Raised bed gardening is much better than simply planting in the ground. While it costs more, this is an investment in your family's survival. The additional investment is worth it, as it increases your family's chances of survival.
There are a number of advantages to using raised beds, such as:
- Gives you someplace to put the gardening soil that you are going to create. Without a raised bed, you have to spread that on the ground; which either means wasting a lot of soil in walkways and other areas you can't plant, or piling it up as raised beds without a border.
- If there is something wrong with your existing soil, the raised bed ensures that you have good soil to work with for your garden.
- Placing landscaping fabric in the bottom of the raised bed, before filling it with gardening soil, helps keep grass and weeds out of your garden.
- If you have a problem with gophers or other underground burrowing animals, you can put chicken wire across the bottom of your raised beds, keeping them out of your garden and keeping them from eating any root vegetables.
- You can actually get a higher plant density in raised beds, increasing your harvest.
- Raising the garden up off the ground makes it easier on your back, with less bending. Of course, the higher your beds, the better for this.
- Raised beds help you control your water usage, which is an important consideration in a survival situation.
- Since there are walkways between the beds, there is less chance of people walking on your plants.
- Raised beds make it easier to erect temporary greenhouses, extending your growing season.
- Raised beds are attractive, making your garden stand out as part of the landscaping. This helps keep friends and neighbors from thinking that it is part of your prepping and makes it look more like part of your normal home maintenance.
You can make raised beds out of just about anything. I've seen cut off barrels, old tires and even old bathtubs used to make raised beds. However, most people go for a more conventional design, opting for either wood or masonry.
I recommend wood, rather than masonry. Not only will it be cheaper, but you have to level the ground very carefully before using masonry to build a bed. You don't need that extra work. As for what wood you should use, I recommend using only pressure treated. That way, it won't deteriorate, but rather last for a number of years.
You can build your beds any depth you want. As far as I'm concerned, the deeper the better. The extra cost in using 2"x 12" pressure treated construction lumber over 2"x 10"s or 2" x 8"s is offset by the fact that it gives you a deeper soil bed for growing root vegetables. Ultimately that works out to bigger harvests through the years.
Beds should be three to four feet wide, and as long as the space you have allows. Don't build them wider than that, because you'll have trouble reaching the center to work on the garden. I have 4 foot by 20 foot beds in my garden, which work out very nicely.
The next thing to consider is how you are going to water your garden. As you consider this, don't just think of now, when things are normal; think of how the various systems are going to work when the SHTF and you are limited in your water availability.
There are several ways of irrigating your garden. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. Personally, I like to use as automated a system as possible, so that I don't have plants dying because I forgot to water them. I'm a bit famous in my family for that, so I spend the extra to avoid the problem. At the same time, using an automated irrigation system helps me control my water usage.
- Soaker Hoses - Soaker hoses are permeable hoses that are planted underground. Water is carried to the soaker hose through a hard plastic hose, preventing waste. The water traveling through the soaker hose seeps out into the ground, allowing the plants to soak up the water through their roots, naturally. This system uses the least amount of water. The only drawback, from a survival point of view, is that I have to use a water tank and pump to irrigate, if there is no water pressure.
- Drippers - Drippers are much more complicated to work with than soaker hoses. A dripper system is installed above ground, using thin plastic hose to carry the water to individual drip heads, which you locate at each plant. This makes setting up the drip system a time-consuming task. But once set up, it is hands-free. Like the soaker hose, it is highly efficient, not wasting water, but requires a tank and pump if you don't have any water pressure.
- Sprinkler System - The standard sprinkler system is the most wasteful means of irrigation you can encounter, as it tends to spray a lot of water to areas which you don't need to water. It also sprays the water through the air, allowing it to start evaporating before it reaches the plants. In a survival situation, a sprinkler would be harder to make work, as it requires more water volume and water pressure.
- Hand Watering - This is the lowest cost system to set up, but it is also the most labor intensive. For that reason, I personally try to avoid it. I've always thought that I'd have enough physical work to do during a survival situation, without looking to give myself more. While hand watering allows you to control exactly how much water your plants get, that comes at a price of carrying the water to each plant or area of your garden and pouring it out.
Another good way of saving on water is to do your watering at night, somewhere between 1:00 AM and 5:00 AM. That way, the plants have the opportunity to start absorbing the water, before the heat of the day evaporates it. Once again, this helps ensure efficient use of your water.
To make any of these irrigation systems automatic (other than hand watering), requires the addition of a timer and some valves. The typical timer can control up to four valves, allowing you four watering zones. It will probably come with two valves and you'll have to buy two more to use the full capacity of the timer. Nevertheless, for an investment of a couple hundred dollars, you can save yourself a lot of time spent in watering your garden.
Since the soil is so important, you'll want to put some effort into making sure that you have good potting soil in your garden. Buying actual potting soil in bags would be extremely expensive, so you might want to mix up your own. There are a number of different recipes that you can find online for your own potting soil, but most have these ingredients:
- Compost - Good plant matter that is decomposing; a great source of nutrients for your plants. All potting soil should have compost in it; but you don't want it to be more than 50% compost, or better one-third, as too much compost generates heat that could kill your plants.
- Perlite, Vermiculite or Sand - These are added to the soil to help keep it from clumping and to cause it to retain porosity. If soil isn't porous, the plants' roots have problems growing. Water has trouble seeping into the soil, so the plants could die of thirst, even while it is raining. These should never exceed 1/3 of the soil's volume.
- Topsoil - Some people use existing topsoil as part of their potting soil, to add bulk. This is not a problem, as long as the soil does not have a lot of clay in it, the pH is balanced correctly and there are no toxins in the soil.
- Peat Moss - Adding peat moss to the soil adds bulk, helps keep it porous and adds plant matter that can be broken down to form more compost. Many recipes call for peat moss, usually asking for it to be one-third of the bulk.
- Manure - Animal manure is a great means of adding nutrients to the soil. If you buy composted animal manure, it will be broken down, making it more like rich soil. That will eliminate the odor, as well as the visual appearance of being manure.
- Fertilizers - If your potting soil doesn't already have enough nutrients in it, it doesn't hurt to add some fertilizers to it, either natural or chemical.
- Chemicals - Before planting in your garden, check the pH of the soil. If it is too acidic or alkaline, you'll need to add some chemicals to it to balance the pH.
As you can see from this list, organic matter is an important part of any potting soil. That organic matter will break down, becoming soil once again, so that the new plants planted in the garden can recycle the nutrients. The process of breaking this organic matter down is accomplished by a combination of insects and bacteria. Check the population of subterranean insects that you have in your area. If it does not appear to be high enough, you can help your garden by adding some earthworms.
You can buy earthworms in bulk online. It's much cheaper to buy a container of 500 or 1,000 earthworms and have it shipped to your house, than it is to buy them from the local bait store. Adding 1,000 earthworms to a garden isn't anything. They'll help your garden and some will migrate from there to the rest of your backyard, helping your lawn.
You might also consider adding mycorrhizal fungi to your garden soil. These are subterranean fungi, which form a symbiotic relationship with the roots of the plants in your garden. That means that the fungi help the plant while the plant helps the fungi. Specifically, the way that the fungi help the plant is to extend the root system, helping to bring nutrients and water to the roots.
Planting Your Garden
You should always have something planted in your garden. Gardens that are left unattended tend to grow weeds and the soil is worn away by erosion. You also lose the subterranean insects and fungi, as there is nothing for them to feed on. You're better off throwing some beans out there and letting them grow, even if you know that the cold weather is just around the corner and they're going to die. They can help in the meantime. Besides, beans add nitrogen to the soil, a necessary nutrient.
In most cases, you're better off planting in starter trays and then moving your sprouted plants into the garden. This does a couple of things for you. First of all, it's easier to tell if something is growing in a starter tray, than it is in the garden. Secondly, you won't mistake it for a weed and pull it up. But the best reason to use starter trays is that you can increase your growing season.
Starting seeds in trays, indoors, allows you to start growing the seeds before the last freeze in spring. Most seeds need three to four weeks to germinate. With your seeding trays indoors, it's like your spring came a month early. That will help you to get more out of your garden. Plant only two or three seeds per plug, using tweezers to get them underground. Don't waste seeds by sprinkling them in the plugs.
You can use the same thing once again, planting the seeds for your second harvest while the first one is in the ground. That way, you can plant the new seedlings as soon as you harvest, increasing your overall yield and making it possible to get two planting seasons in a year, rather than just one.
When you transfer you seedlings from the trays to the garden, space them apart the distance that is indicated on the seed packet. Keep in mind that you don't need to have space between rows, when you are planting in a raised bed garden. So, if it tells you to plant your carrots two inches apart, plant them like that, with two inches between seedlings and two inches between rows. That gives you more density and ultimately more yield.
Another strategy you can use is to plant slower growing and faster growing plants together. Radishes only take four weeks to grow. So, if you plant them together with cauliflower, the radishes will grow and be harvested, before they are in the way of the cauliflower.
You can also take advantage of the difference in plant height to get more out of your garden. Some plants only grow six inches tall, while others grow four feet tall. If the shorter plants grow well in the shade, you can plant them under the taller ones, making double duty of the space.
Your key here is to look for means of getting the most plants into your garden, so that you can get the greatest harvest out of it. Ultimately, that will help your family the most, providing the most food to augment your stockpile.
Don't Forget to Fertilize
You need to keep up the nutrient level in your garden's soil. The plants will be constantly pulling nutrients from the soil, so you must periodically add nutrients back in. one way to do this is to start a compost pile and start making compost. At the end of the growing season, top your garden beds off with a layer of compost, so that they can get ready for the next year.
Even with the compost, you'll still want to use fertilizers. These should be added during the growing cycle, about four weeks before harvest. That way, the plants have a chance to utilize them. If you think your soil is depleted, fertilize before planting, as well. You really can't over-fertilize, as the plants will only take in what they can use.
One of the best and most complete fertilizers is fish emulsion. You can buy this or make it yourself. To make it, save all fish scraps, either cooked or raw. A good way to do this is to have a plastic container in the freezer where you save them. When it's time to make the emulsion, take the container out and thaw it. Then, run the fish parts through a blender, chopping them fine. You might want to have an old blender that you keep just for this, rather than using your kitchen blender.
Mix the fish parts 1:2 with water and put them in a large glass container and cap it. Adding a tablespoon or two of molasses will help jump-start the process. Set it out in the sun, preferably far enough away from your house that you won't be able to smell anything (although the glass container should prevent that anyway). Shake the container every couple of days, mixing the contents and allowing the fish parts to be broken down by bacteria. It will be ready to use in about a month.
You can either use the fish emulsion with the solids or you can strain them out. If you are going to use it all at once, by all means leave the solids in. But if you are going to keep it more than two months, it's a good idea to strain out the solids and add them to your mulch pile.This fertilizer is so concentrated that you only need to use about 2 to 3 tablespoons per gallon of water, drenching the soil with it. That will add a lot of nutrients and you can save the rest for later.