One Foot at a Time
Look, I don’t want to bring you down, but as someone interested in all things edible, I think it’s my duty to let you know that we may all be starving by 2050 (according to a Forbes estimate).
In times of abundance, food rationing seems preposterous. But those who remember the days of World War II—when 40% of food in the United States was grown by household victory gardens—know the possibility of food scarcity is only one major catastrophe away.
Indeed, with all the news reports—including increased drought, wildfires, contamination, and flooding (not to mention labor shortages and rusting infrastructure)—the commercial food production, storage, labor, and transportation systems so many of us rely on to indefinitely fill our bellies is on shakier ground than we like to think. The recent romaine lettuce scare is only one example of how quickly a problem can clear out shelves at Hannaford’s.
What to do? The answer, as any stoner from the mid-’70s can attest: Grow your own.
A small, people-powered garden can be planted anywhere you have about a 10- by 6-foot outdoor space with six to eight hours of direct sun. It can also be done on rooftops and decks in containers, or a community garden bed, and added to as your skills and harvests grow. The secret is to start small and intensive, planting simple larder vegetables; growing the variety of crops with each success; and learning from each failure.
Square-foot gardening is a concept pioneered by Mel Bartholomew in his book Square Foot Gardening (St. Martin’s Press/1981), which I highly recommend if you like this system. It requires less space and work than other forms, and is the easiest entry into food production for new gardeners. Instead of planting crops in rows, which take up a ton of space and are labor- and water-intensive, you prepare a bed that is 4 by 4 feet and divide that bed into 16 12-inch squares (you can do this with string). You can dig directly into the ground, or use 2- by 4-foot boards to describe and build your bed and fill it with topsoil. If you want to grow vining vegetables (for example: tomatoes, cucumbers, melons, zucchini), you will need a vertical support structure at one end of your 4-foot-square bed.
You can also make do with containers set up in a similar fashion if your soil is poor or you just don’t have much outdoor space. You will need decent-sized containers (like half-barrels or tubs) and you may need to limit your “squares” to however many containers you have, but even if you just choose to grow a couple of vegetable species this year, try it. You may enjoy it so much, you plant more next season. I still recommend keeping your garden area contained in one place and organized. It will help with maintenance and save you time, water, and labor (a huge reason most people quit the activity).
For a family of four, I suggest starting with two 4-foot-square beds and rotating squares with different crops as you harvest them. This may not fill all your vegetable needs, but it’s a start. You should be able to get two harvests out of some squares, depending on what you plant. When you consider where to put your beds, keep the following in mind:
Light: Most vegetables need a minimum of six to eight hours of direct sun, and some warm crops (tomatoes, bell peppers, melons) need more. Some crops can handle afternoon shade and, in fact, need it in the hot summer months (like lettuce and celery).
Moisture: In Maine, we get regular rain from early spring into July, and then we dry up for most of August and September. Locating your bed where you can easily water through the dry months is important. Buy a water barrel or two to collect rainwater and position at the corner of your garden bed. Connect it to a drip line for later use. Here in the East we don’t think about drought as much as we should, but start getting in the habit now of recycling grey water from your tub and sinks to use to water your beds.
Soil PH and amendments: To quote Ben Franklin: “If you fail to plan you plan to fail,” which applies to most things including soil. If you want to spend an evening down the rabbit hole, start Googling soil amendments. There are tomes of information about the proper ones for every blessed seed under the sun.
The important thing to know is that hardy, healthy plants begin with nutritious soil. So do the work ahead of time on the soil before you plant. As soon as the ground is unfrozen, prepare your beds by digging in compost and manure (if you can get it) and any amendments to help with your soil consistency (sand if your soil is clayey, peat if your soil is sandy). Some of my friends who are better gardeners than I swear by blood meal as a necessary amendment for any vegetable garden soil, so I am going to try it this year. As for PH, I am lazy; I choose to simply try to keep planting soil to a neutral PH of 7.0, which should work for most veggies. If you get a soil tester at the nursery and your soil is acidic, add some lime before you plant. If it is too alkaline, add sulfur, then test again in a week.
Once you have sketched out where you will put your beds, you may decide how you are going to fill them. Print out a piece of graph paper and use a ruler to draw your beds, outlining each internal 12-inch square, and then write in each square what kind of vegetables you want to grow (keep in mind the positioning of the beds, your vertical structure if you have one, and how the sun will cross them). From there it is easy to decide which seeds to buy and sprout, and how many might fill the allotted 12-inch space. Bigger plants, like cabbages, need more space, so if you want three cabbage heads, you might devote three squares to “cabbage.”
You have now created your map to plant each square after the ground thaws. If you’re like me, you enjoy growing herbs but don’t want to devour an entire square to them. Add a few herb crops in containers around your beds instead.
Seeds or Seedlings? Most vegetables are more successful when planted as seedlings. This means you need to plant most of your seeds soon, in peat cups on your windowsill, and sprout them over the next six to 10 weeks (or purchase seedlings). The good news is that because you have organized your garden beds with your map, you will know exactly what you are planting and how many seedlings go in each square. As your seedlings grow, you can thin them to the appropriate number. Keep in mind that some crops, like greens, seed directly in the beds and can be reseeded after harvest for another yield. Seedlings will need to be “hardened off” before being planted directly in ground.
In Winslow, we have a sensational local seed company called Johnny’s Selected Seeds. They will send you a free catalog and have a great variety of heirloom seeds (it’s a tab on their website) that grow well in our climate (johnyseeds.com).
They also give great advice and have pretty much everything you need to make a go of your own garden. Each description will say whether the seed is native to this region.
Plant the seeds according to the directions on the packet. Before you order, remember that the secret to creation is moderation. Don’t take on too much. Stick to a handful of vegetables that you and your significant others like to eat. During World War II, the government asked people to grow food that kept well, otherwise known as larder crops: onions, tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers, cabbage, melon, runner beans, peas, squash, etc. If you are planting a survival garden, I recommend starting with these varieties.
Planting your beds: Cold-weather crops can be planted early in spring, when the ground thaws. Milder crops should be planted after the last frost (here in Maine, it is usually after the first full moon after Mother’s Day), and hot-weather crops do best when planted after soil has warmed to 60°, so usually not until end of June. Check the seed packets for growth measurements and apply to each 12-inch square. You can plant six to 16 small plants per square, three to six mid-size plants per square, and one to two large plants per square. Use a popsicle stick or other weather-proof marker to label your squares.
Remember to feed your crops as they grow. You can buy commercial fertilizer, but I prefer to use “compost tea” because it is natural, cheaper and I have a compost heap.
My rule of thumb for fertilizer is that if I wouldn’t eat it, my plants probably shouldn’t either since eventually I’m going to eat them. Again, there’s a lot of wisdom out there in the hive mind about appropriate levels of nitrogen, etc., and you can do as you like, because this is a learning experience. However, I am interested in survival, and using what I have on hand is a good way to stay organic and self-sustaining. Remember, if everything goes to hell, we won’t be driving to the plant store anymore. We need to make do with what we have on site.
Pests and Predators: With budding and fruiting plants, you will have to deal with uninvited guests. Many insects can be deterred by spraying plant leaves with soapy water, or specific treatments to your problem. Natural is best (this is your FOOD after all) so consult with other gardeners in your area about specific pests. Remember that fruits and flowers need pollinators, so if you can, steer away from the lethal pesticides. Deer and rodents are the big eaters we need to worry about, and there’s not much I can say about the latter, except that if you put your beds fairly close to your house you can scare off squirrels and skunks (it also helps to have a dog). You can also set traps, and some people swear by sprinkling moth balls around their beds, or bear pee. In regard to deer, if you live in a rural area you will need to put up deer netting. If you start small as I am recommending, you will probably be able to get away with temporary fencing around your beds. As your garden grows, you may need to invest in something more permanent and serious.
Propagation: The beauty of planting heirloom seeds is that you can use the seeds from your ripe, mature vegetables and fruits to plant your garden next year. Hybrid seeds may also reseed, but they more than likely will not to sustain their genetic make-up over successive generations. Heirloom seeds stay authentic to their roots.
To store seeds through the winter, make sure they are dry before putting in a cool dark place. You can test for dryness by smashing one of the seeds with a hammer. If it shatters, it’s dry enough to store. Remember to label the containers. According to my friend and extraordinary Maine gardener, Mary Pols, some plants, like tomatoes, will overwinter and reseed themselves if you let a few of the ripe fruits rot on the ground. The seedlings that come up the following year are called “volunteers.” But save some of their seeds anyway, as you never know when a volunteer can be relied upon.
As the seasons pass and you become more adept at handling your beds, or if you are wildly successful and want to grow more, you can just keep adding new beds and more varieties as your confidence and appetite grow. That’s the beauty of this system.
Lastly, I want you to know that I am an aspiring food gardener—by no means an expert—so please supplement my guidance with your own research (Ah! Such a world awaits you), and maybe buy a share in a local CSA to supplement your backyard yield as you educate yourself. (It can help allay the sting of failure, too, when something doesn’t work). Supporting local farming is important, but so is learning how to sustain yourself if you can’t access food grown by others. My mother grew up on a farm in York, and when I visited, I had the great fortune to eat meals grown entirely by my grandparents, harvested with their labor, and served with the pride and resourcefulness that comes from providing for your own table.
As we stare down the uncertain future, we need to go back to the past and learn the methods that previous generations assumed we’d never forget. The most elemental being how to grow your own food. You don’t have to be a farmer to do it, you just have to decide you need to do it. And, if ever there was a time to start, it is now.
Genevieve Morgan is a Maine-based writer and editor and host of the Spectrum Cable TV show, “The Writer’s Zone." She is also an author, most recently of The Kinfolk (Islandport Press/2016), book three of The Five Stones Trilogy.