Monday, February 24, 2014

Survival Gardening: Starting a Garden

Some food plants are essential parts of your diet, others are not. You don't eat grains and peppers in the same quantities. Your garden should be laid out in two main areas: one for the "major" crops and another for the "minor" crops. The major crops provide most of the carbohydrate, protein, and perhaps oil in your diet, as well as vitamins and minerals. The minor crops provide other vitamins and minerals, and their varied flavors add pleasure to our meals. The area for minor crops is what is sometimes called the "kitchen garden"-- a small plot, close to the house.

About 90 percent of the cultivated land should be devoted to major crops. Major crops are grown differently from minor crops. Grains are generally broadcast, although corn and sorghum should be planted in rows; it's also possible to broadcast beans. All of the major crops are grown without irrigation, even on the day of seeding, whereas minor crops (vegetables) may be more sensitive to a lack of irrigation.

The other 10 percent of the land will be devoted to minor crops. Vegetables (in the narrower sense of the word) don't make up much of the human diet, whether we are vegetarians or omnivores. For a typical vegetable, an adequate planting for one person might be something like 20 feet (6 m). If we multiply that figure by 3 feet (1 m) for an average row width, and multiply that by about 10 for the number of kinds of vegetables, we get a figure of 600 square feet (50 m2) per person. That's only a very rough figure, but it gives the general idea. Some people might prefer more vegetables in their diet, some might prefer less. Some people might like a real variety of vegetables, whereas others would be content with a smaller number. Perhaps the main reason for variation is digestibility -- I once tried to live on rutabagas, and I gave up after the first day!

A third area you may want is for perennials: fruits and certain herbs, such as those mentioned above. This is the only piece of ground on which you will not be practicing crop rotation, so it must be separate from everything else.

New land should be broken with a plow, a device that generally requires either a tractor or a draft animal, but a fair amount can be done with hand tools. Much depends on the time of year and the weather. In the spring after a good rain, it is possible to dig up about 500 square feet (50 m2) in a day, even if you are not especially muscular. In August after a long drought, however, digging even about 50 square feet (5 m2) in a day might be hard. But there are ways to the task easier: if the grass is long, it can be cut with a scythe before the digging begins, and hot weather can be avoided by starting work at sunrise. When the sod has been dug up, it can be shaken thoroughly to release the soil, and then piled up and burned.

You might want the type of spade that is most common in Europe, with a D-shaped handle and a flat rectangular blade. The very opposite would be the American-style shovel, with a long, straight handle and a pointed blade. (The terms "spade" and "shovel," however, are used somewhat interchangeably.) The reason for using a flat blade is that you can make 4 cuts into the sod, at right angles to one another, so that the sod can be lifted out in neat squares. With a pointed shovel, the sod is cut into less-workable semicircular chunks; however, the long handle gives you more leverage. You'll need to get that spade or shovel well into the ground, so that you get to the bottom of the roots. When you've made those cuts, lift the sod up as if you were removing a carpet. If you shake off most of the dirt from the bottom of each piece of sod, it will be lighter to carry, and you won't be depleting the garden of so much topsoil.

Whichever tool you use, give it a good sharpening at least once a day. The cutting edge of the tool should be pointing towards you as you press the file into that edge (in a forward direction only). A spade or shovel is filed only on the "outside" curve (the side towards you as you dig), whereas a hoe is filed only on the "inside," the side facing toward you as you work. (Some "experts" will tell you the opposite.) Files don't last forever, so get a feeling for when a file has outlived its usefulness.

In spite of its slowness of cutting sod into squares rather than merely chopping it up, there are a few advantages to this method. In the first place, it means that you can use a section of land as soon as you've finished removing the sod, instead of having no garden for your first summer. What is more important, you're doing a thorough job: the task will never have to be repeated, except for a certain amount of vigilance. Yes, the sod will try to come back, but it would be easy to spot and remove an occasional blade.

It's possible that the ground is so irregular that the sod will rarely come up in neat chunks, and in that case you may find it easier to use a hoe. I don't mean the ordinary light-weight type, but what is sometimes called an Italian hoe, a heavy tool with a blade 6 inches by 8 inches (15 x 20 cm). On even tougher ground you might want to use a mattock or even a pickax.

Since breaking new land can be so difficult, you might consider using an old pioneer trick for your first year or so. In Ontario 200 years ago, it was common for settlers to leave their fields unplowed for the first few years, simply because the abundance of stumps made plowing impractical. Even the heavy, mattock-like hoe of those days could barely get through the root-filled soil. The ground was disturbed only by a primitive harrow, consisting of a crooked branch or the top of a tree, dragged over the land before wheat or oats were scattered. By poking holes at intervals of several feet, the pioneers could also plant corn on unplowed land. Potatoes were planted by a similar technique: 3 or 4 pieces of potato were dropped on the ground, and a hoe was used to heap soil over them; these "hills" were separated by about 2½ feet (75 cm) in all directions.

Another way to get rid of sod is to cover the ground with black plastic sheeting (3-mil is fine; you don't have to use 6-mil) weighted with rocks. Do this as soon as possible in the spring. If you leave this plastic in place throughout the spring, summer, and fall, you'll kill most of the sod. Because the land is covered so long, it will be out of production for an entire season. On the other hand, the technique is neither expensive nor laborious.

You might want to consider digging up the ground before you cover it with plastic; that isn't entirely necessary, but it will help to kill the sod. Besides, the rocks you turn up will be very useful for holding down the plastic; you'll need perhaps a 10-pound (5 kg) rock every 3 feet (1 m) if you're going to resist the occasional strong wind.

When the ground has been plowed, tilled, or dug, you'll still have to deal with weeds to some extent. One way of dealing with them is to start with another crop and crowd out the weeds before they get a chance. You could, for example, plant clover or alfalfa and dig it back into the field before it flowered. By doing so, you'd be adding a lot of nitrogen to the soil (because these plants are legumes), increasing the organic component of the soil (as the plants decay to become organic matter), and loosening the soil (as the roots dig deeper), as well as smothering the weeds. Or you could plant buckwheat, which would not add nitrogen but would create plenty of organic matter and provide you with excellent grain itself, before your principal grain crop.

If your land has too many trees, you could use an ax or a saw to cut them down, or you could just ring the trees -- cut a ring around the bark, so that the trees slowly die -- and later chop them down. Five years later, the stumps will have rotted enough to be pulled out of the ground.

Peter Goodchild

Author of Tumbling Tide: Population, Petroleum, and Systemic Collapse (London, Ontario: Insomniac Press, 2014)

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