Sorry folks, he sent me the title to this in a separate email but I must’ve spaced it out and deleted it. What you see is what you got. Real original, I know.
I had a friend from across the state contact me, “I see you’re writing for Wirecutter on Knuckledraggin.com”. How did you know? I asked him. “You’re one of the few people I know that’s really doing it and I know your style” was his response. Heh, so much for anonymity.
One of his comments really stuck with me. “You know, no matter how much information is given to people, they will not understand until it’s too late just how dire the situation is going to be.”
Another of his comments triggered this reminder. The premise of these articles is the growing and preservation of your food supply after TEOTWAWKI. This is different than weekend or summer gardening, not implying there is anything wrong with growing a smaller garden. However if that is all your goal is, having a few tomatoes, a fresh cucumber or two and a couple of ears of corn and whatnot, then I’m sorry to tell you, you’re gonna die if or when it all goes south.
The question you have to ask yourself right now is, are really serious about growing your own food. If you aren’t then don’t waste your time by reading any further.
Long ago in another life time I used to pound out custom MIS code for corporate america. Entering a development review my favorite question was “Why?” I would question every premise and business rule spelled out for me. “Why?” It was a great question that forced them to examine their conventions and practices.
These days my favorite question for survivalists and preppers is “Then What?”
After tossing flies to hungry trout all afternoon a few days ago, I got into a stream side discussion with a fellow about survival preparations. In the course of the conversation he informed me how he was all set to weather whatever came down the pike because he had three years of freeze dried foods at his BOL. The look on his face when I asked him, “Then what?” was priceless. He apparently had never considered what comes after the preps ran out.
You need to come to grips with the reality you most likely will not be running down to the corner store for a loaf of bread and gallon of milk after a collapse no matter the cause. Read the accounts of folks like Ferfal and Selco for some more or less modern day survival stories of the most grim kind. If you haven’t read them it will be a real eye opener.
Let’s examine a few things.
“I’m going to prep myself to survival.”
I don’t care how well you prep nor how much you store, at some point your preps are going to run out. This thinking is akin to being told to keep three days of food, water and critical needs on hand in case of an emergency. What happens after the three days runs out? I see the CDC is now recommending two weeks worth of food and water. Ok, what happens after the two weeks goes by? “I’ve got that handled.” you say, “I’ve got (insert how much you have) years worth of canned, frozen and freeze dried food stored.” And what happens after that supply is used up, or what happens when you have to relocate and you can’t take all those supplies with you? I could poke holes in this one all day long. The simple truth is, you can’t prep for the rest of your life and the continuing life of your progeny or group. What do you do then?
“I only need to store enough to get us through the winter, we’ll be gardening next summer.”
The first problem with this line of thinking is, you don’t harvest as soon as you plant. Next, most of the time you only have around a month, maybe two, of fresh harvest from your garden. Sure some things run longer but the bulk of the harvest is over in less than two months. This implies you need to store at least ten months of food. I’m going to go even further and state you need to store enough food until the harvest of the garden after next. If we are measuring from this harvest that works out to a full twenty four months of food.
Look at a couple of the comments to my last article to put the meat to that twenty four months time line – Sanders “Corn came up but most sprouts were eaten…”, Angel “put up 18 quarts… everything else was meh, enough to put up a few quarts.” (This is not to pick on you two, only using your comments for illustrative purposes)
What would have happened if Sanders was counting on that corn crop or the other things that failed, to carry the clan over to next harvest? The 18 quarts of tomatoes Angel put up wouldn’t last my family more than six weeks in the winter. Even adding in the few other quarts she put up it’s a far cry from a minimum of ten months of food storage. (remember I’m not picking on anyone here) When you factor in a lost harvest for whatever reason, having only one years worth of supplies on hand is a sure way to have your belly tell your brain your throat’s been cut.
The simple fact is you can not count on any harvest until you have it in hand and preserved in some manner. Weather, bugs, diseases, animals and accidents are some of the things that will conspire to wreck all your labor in growing a garden.
The last few paragraphs have set up where I’m going next.
It’s one thing to grow food it’s another to preserve it. How are you going to store your food? Freezing and canning perhaps? Maybe vacuum packing? – What happens if there is no electricity to run the appliances for processing your food. What if instead of a total power collapse the electricity is only on intermittently? Even if you have power where are you going to get the resources – the jars, lids, freezer bags, vacuum pak bags etc. to do your food storage?
On the canning aspect, how many canning lids do you have in storage? Do you know how long those lids are viable? A more basic question, how many jars and lids do you need each year to meet your needs for storing your harvest for the next one or two years and beyond. What happens when you run out of your stock of canning lids?
To give you the answer to one of the above questions, Jarden Homebrands, the parent company of Ball and Kerr canning lids, have told me their lids have a shelf life of three to five years. Some sources on the web report up to 10 year shelf life w/proper storage. What then?
There are other methods of food preservation than canning, freezing or vacuum packing. A good exercise is to read some historical accounts of how they did it in the old days. When you read what they recount give consideration to the fact we’ve lost most of the technology and institutional knowledge of their time and how they did it so you will need to improvise with “modern” materials and techniques. To give you a leg up there’s drying, smoking, salting, pickling (even meat) to name a few of the less esoteric means.
A problem with a lot of the foods we grow today is they are hybrids, bred to enhance a particular aspect of the fruit or yield, be it color, taste, conformity of shape, quantity of yield or even pest or disease resistance.
That yellow hybrid sweet corn really tastes good. Problem is, being a hybrid it doesn’t necessarily breed true. It also doesn’t dry and mill as well as a dent or flour corn will.
Not to belabor the point, you really need to give some thought to the varieties of veggies you are going to grow based on nutritional requirements, what your family will eat and how well you will be able to propagate them from the seed you collect.
On the topic of varieties, consider the things you might grow to get beyond the idea of raising just a “survival” garden. Many of the spices and seasonings you purchase from the store can be grown with ease in your garden and these will definitely spice up (pun intended) your menu.
We raise nearly two hundred different varieties of plants in our garden. Some are different varieties of the same plant species such as tomatoes, potatoes, corn and peppers so that two hundred varieties can be a little misleading.
I’ve stated we grow all that we do on a little over half an acre. That’s not the whole story though. Someone in one of the comments (and I’m too lazy to go back and find it) mentioned tripling the space or something like that. In that they are correct. We have around two acres involved in our garden complex, three half acre plots for gardening and another half acre for fruit, storage and work areas. We have space (away from the garden) dedicated to raising livestock as well.
The reason for tripling your space is you need to give your soil a break to so it can replenish itself. This is especially important if you are building soil from dirt. In order to give your soil a break you need to rotate crops off it. You might leave it entirely fallow or you might plant a cover crop on it. It all depends on what you might be trying to achieve with the soil. Do take the time to make a planting map so you can remember in two years time where you actually planted what and when. It will help avoid problems when you plant again.
In order to know what you need to do to your dirt to make it soil you really should get a soil test (or several) done. Some folks will send out samples to a lab to get a precise evaluation. We’ve had pretty good results from some of the do it yourself testing kits. Sure these are not as exact as having a lab do it but do you really need that degree of accuracy? I’ll use blueberries, ph (ph is a measure of soil acidity or alkalinity) and a cheap ph meter to illustrate. Blueberries like a soil ph between 4.5 and 5.5. I can get a cheap probe meter for around 8~15 bucks at a lot of garden centers. The one I currently have is around four years old. My base soil ph is around 7.0~7.2 according to this meter. A lab might tell me my ph is actually 6.8 or maybe 7.4. The point is, no matter where in this ph range my soil is, it’s still much too high for blueberries and the cheap meter is good enough to tell me that. The roughly ten bucks I spent on the meter four years ago is a lot cheaper than even one soil test and I can test whenever I want all around my garden.
One of the single most beneficial things you can do for your soil is to start composting if you already don’t. I’ll get into a discussion of my method of composting in another article. The important thing to remember is, if you feed your soil, it will feed your plants and they will feed you. A quick note on composting. You might be inclined to till partially ready compost into your soil to let it finish breaking down the organic matter. This can have a couple of downsides for your garden efforts. One it can steal nitrogen from your soil. Another is, there is evidence some plant problems, like potato scab, are worse in soils with high organic matter. Let your pile do its job and completely break down the compost before you use it.
No matter what you are going to grow you need to have realistic estimates of how much you need to grow to ensure enough harvest to meet your food needs for an entire year and have some left over for seed.
If you don’t already, I suggest you start keeping track of how much food you go through each month per person and take into consideration how this varies over the course of a year and as individuals age. This will let you develop a rough idea of how much you need to grow to meet your family or group needs. I can most certainly assure you, it takes more food than you think to meet ALL of your needs for an entire year and more.
I’ll toss out a few for my family.
Let’s get the heavy lifting out of the way first. Although the focus here is on gardening I don’t intend to become a vegetarian. We like our meat and will continue raise it. Meat animals are also a means of converting and storing plant growth from ground that will not support a garden. We go through a whole beef and two to three hogs each year. A steady parade of chicken moves from the hen house to the dinner table as well. This completely ignores the contribution of wild fish and game to the dinner table. We also milk and make our own butter, cheese, cottage cheese, sour cream and several other things.
We raise around twelve hundred pounds of spuds each year. We’ll consume right at five hundred to six hundred pounds and generally figure on loosing around three or four hundred pounds to storage rot or sprouting. The rest are a buffer and for seed. We high grade the harvest to collect our seed potatoes and store them apart from the others. Sometimes you can store your spuds in the ground, cover them with heavy mulching and dig them through the winter as needed. We have a problem with wireworms so we can’t store this way and instead we dig, then store our spuds in a trench root cellar in the ground.
Carrots are frozen or canned, beets are canned. Beds of both, two and a half feet wide and forty feet long meet our needs for the year. Some years we can ‘in ground’ store them with a heavy layer of mulch on top to prevent freezing (they don’t seem to be bothered by the wireworms). Broccoli and cauliflower are preserved by freezing, we grow around one hundred each.
We hardly ever store lettuce, instead extending our growing season to nearly year round by using the greenhouse and cold frames.
We grow four thousand corn plants. This includes the sweet corn hybrids, an heirloom variety every few years (for seed) and a flour corn for milling. We figure we’ll loose around thirty percent of the crop to racoons and birds. We currently freeze most of our corn and usually have around four hundred fifty quarts in the freezer. If we lost power the plan is to thaw and then can the corn to see us through. Then we would cut out the hybrids and grow more milling corn.
We grow five fifty foot rows of pole beans in three varieties. Two are hybrids and insurance against a crop failure, like occurred with blue lakes a few years ago and the third is an heirloom (kentucky wonder) grown to insure a seed source. We’ll pick around a five gallon bucket of beans per row per picking and we pick two to three times a week. Each bucket will have a net weight of about twelve pounds of beans. We have around five hundred quarts of beans labeled as to year and variety and more are being put up daily. Just as with the corn, we sell our surplus.
My wife is a little of a tomato fanatic. As a result she grows a couple hundred tomato plants of up to eighteen varieties. We can tomatoes, we paste tomatoes and can that. We make and can a salsa that is used for everything from a chip dip to base for several meals. We freeze whole tomatoes as well. In all she will have the equivalent of around a thousand quarts of tomato product stored at any time.
Twelve hundred onions in three varieties are stuck in the ground each year. A good portion of these are to ensure variability of our seed onions. Here’s a storage trick for you. Grab some nylon stockings and put an onion in the toe of it. Tie a knot above that and put another onion in it. Rinse and repeat. When you get five to eight onions in a ‘string” hang it from a rafter in a cool, dry place. When you need an onion you just cut the stocking off below the knot. Onions stored not touching each other will last for much longer than if they are stored in a bin.
The above mentioned salsa is where a lot of our onions and sweet peppers and chili peppers end up. We additionally dry strings of chili peppers.
Cucumbers are converted to pickles and there are over a hundred quarts on the shelf.
Summer squash is stored by either drying it or baking it into zucchini bread and then freezing the loafs.
We routinely store over four hundred fifty winter squash and pumpkins (note, we find we get better ‘pumpkin’ pies from squash than pumpkins). Your squash will store for much longer if you let them harden off before you put them into storage.
There is close to two hundred pounds of four different berries in the freezer. If we loose power we’ll dry it as fruit leather. (I built different food dryers that are operated by electricity, propane, wood and solar)
Most the herbs are dried and stored in glass jars.
A footnote to this is we intend on moving from wheat flour to corn meal in our cooking if we actually go into survival farming. We also use honey instead of refined sugar for taking care of our sweet tooth.
The above is not an all inclusive list and is included only to demonstrate some of the volume of food we put up to get us through the year. You need to base your garden needs and what you grow based on your family size and what they like (or will) eat.
A full sixty to seventy percent of my time, spring through fall, is spent in the production of food. My wife contributes a considerable amount of time as well as my children. Even in the winter I can eat up five to seven hours a day between care of stock, milking and processing dairy items. This occurs seven days a week. Separating cream, making butter, cheese, cottage cheese and sour cream occurs every few days as well.
Subsistence food growing becomes a lifestyle due to necessity. It is a lot of hard work that never ends but the alternative is to die. It’s going to be even more work if we don’t have the use of modern conveniences like like garden tillers and so on.
What I tried to do with the above is get you to thinking about the big picture of growing food. Next time I’ll share some specific things I do to thwart mother nature and all the impediments she throws at our garden and explore some really cheap ways you can extend your effective growing season.