Jan Blum in her Idaho garden, one of my garden heroes.
Why a Garden?
The new word for an old idea is "permaculture". This augments what we think of as a traditional garden of annual vegetables into a landscaping project that is mostly perennials. There are several layers to this landscape from trees to undercropping. I'm not going to bewilder you with the details on this page, but let us just say, that it's possible on a 1/4 acre lot with a small house or a larger lot and a large house to grow enough food to be self-reliant if you have to be. My estimate is that you have to have, minimum, about 2,000 square feet per person. John Jeavons, author of How to Grow more Vegetables, estimates 1,000 square feet, but he doesn't allow for food allergies that wipe out high caloric foods (like potatoes) which yield almost one to one, (one pound food per square foot) or more or people who have less than a ninety day growing season.
There are some huge problems with growing your own food. Some of them are daunting enough so that even the most survivalist kind of gardener pretty much gardens as a hobby.
The first problem is space. I lived in a community with a shared garden of which the owner was very proud. He imagined that when the system collapsed, he would have a chance at survival and was working toward that goal. Although he was very smart and had some great ideas, a lot of man-power and had done an incredible job with his property, he had, in total, 700 square feet under cultivation for eight adults. You do the math.
I hate end-of-the-world scenarios where everyone becomes a cannibal and people run around raping and looting and stealing, yet, with our kind of culture, that is a plausible scenario for a crisis. Why? Take your average house and yard. The house is two storey, and has a footprint of about 2,000 square feet. The yard is a 1/5 of an acre, or about 7,500 square feet. The lot is about 50 by 150 for convenience. Across the front of the yard, is what is called a hell strip and a sidewalk, or a sidewalk or a ditch or a place where people park. This is usually 50 by 10, or 500 feet. There is usually a garage, about 20 by 20 and a driveway, another 15 by 20 or more. So there is another 400 and 300 feet for the car. Add a porch, a deck and a walk way, and that's usually another 400 feet. So, realistically, a "normal" yard might have 3,500 to 4,000 feet for growing, total. You can roughly figure (in any configuration) that for every 4 feet of bed, you need one foot of path. So another thousand is gone, right there, to get to your plants. Already it starts to look grim. If you have a family of four, you might be trying to feed them from 2,000, 3,000 at best. That's less than Jeavons's estimate. And the growing trend is toward these huge houses with itsy-bitsy yards or condos.
Solution? Less house, more yard. No cars, or park on the street. But if people work in neighborhoods, there will always be more for one house and less for another and it will spread out. The bigger problem is that people want grass and play space. So most of them take more than half of that yard and turn it into play space or a lawn to mow. The average garden size is less than 300 square feet. That's a hobby, not survival. You can augment your food, certainly grow salads and herbs, but that's about it. Which isn't bad, just not going to "save" you when the system breaks down.
However, the problem is not without solutions. One of them is to choose plants widely. The following two lists show the differences in caloric content of a 100 gram sample of each of these greens and roots.
- Goutweed (ground cover in the umbell family) - 39
- Celery - 15
- Amaranth - 45
- Orach - 20
- Cress - 30
- Chard - 14
- Collards - 37
- Chinese cabbage - 15
- Endive - 16
- Chicory leaf - 27
- Good King Henry (perennial spinach) 38
- Cleome - 42
- Melokhiya - 76
- Fennel leaf - 24
- Arugula - 15
- Lettuce - 11
- Parsley - 50
- Plantain - 19
- Purslane - 11
- Sorrel - 21
- Spinach - 16
- Chickweed - 7
- Dandelion - 27
- Stinging nettle - 55
- Celeriac - 18
- Horseradish - 63
- Beets - 41
- Turnip - 25
- Rutabaga - 29
- Chicory root - 42
- Carrot - 26
- Yam (real yam) 99
- Sunchoke - 31
- Parsnip - 59
- Parsley root - 50
- Radish - 14
- Salsify - 18
- Sweet Potato - 108
- Potato - 70
As you can see from these two short lists, there is a huge variation just in caloric content in similar foods. If you want calories, you may want to stay away from foods that are very mild tasting, watery, and over-bred like apples, lettuce and radishes. On the other hand, growing melokhiya is easy, bug free, and gives you excellent greens that are extremely high in energy. This is why I urge you to garden with your plate, not from a gardening book that is more traditional.
The second big problem is time. Who will take care of the garden? Who will water it, weed it or plant it? Do you only have time on the weekends? Grow perennials. Do you only have a small amount of money to start? Grow survivor plants from seed. Although a garden is a commitment, it can be a joy. It also doesn't need to take all your time if you can use your head and not just rush in and hope that you'll have hours and hours to tend to problems.
What do you eat? I talk about this more on the "Eating out of the Garden" pages. If you're allergic to ragweed, you can't expect to eat sunflowers or lettuce. If you hate zucchini, why are you growing it? If your kids won't eat veggies, are you growing them to torment the kids or give away? Be honest. Any beginning is a beginning. If you love fresh spinach, then start there. Start with what you want, with what you love. If you start with a duty or a chore, you will hate it more later. You may think that it'll be good for you, but that's mom talking, not you. Is your mom around to force you to go out and do the weeding? Neglected gardens are an eyesore and more problem than a lawn. You're not going to get one of those beauties in Home and Garden just by wishing. But it will be yours and yours alone. Your own piece of Eden.
And then there's the fun part: deer, bugs, disease, hail, flood, drought--all the lovely problems that have given farmers indigestion since day one. Did I say the fun part? When I introduced myself to a permaculture guild, I said, "I expect 90 percent failure from seed to the plate. Any less than that, and I'm not pushing the problem." Silence. Yes, 90 percent. NINETY. For every 100 seeds I plant, I'll get ten plants. It usually runs like this. I plant 100 seeds. I lose half in the transplant or don't sprout or bite it for some reason (and I'm very good at starting seeds). So now I'm down to fifty starts. I'll put these out and the birds, bugs and critters will get twenty of them and disease or weather will take twenty more. But I've got ten plants. On an average year, for my 2000 foot garden, I'll plant 10,000 seeds or more. That's a lot of seeds. Granted, many of them are scallions or carrots, but that's still a lot of seeds. Has to be. 10,000 seeds gives me 1,000 plants to eat. The average person eats about five pounds of food a day, if vegetarian. If I have 1,000 plants, that's only 2 and a half plants a day, thereabouts. If each of those plants is a pound of goodies, that's half what I need. But each foot I have in my garden averages more than that, so I can just about get what I need out of 10,000 seeds.
The cure for all this (backbreaking) work is perennials. PERMAculture. An almond tree needs 125 square feet and gives about 25 pounds of nuts a year. But almonds are high in energy, at 3000 calories a pound. So that tree might give me enough calories to keep me for four months. Of course, I need more than almonds, but it's a start in the right direction. To create a grocery store out of your yard, you have to start thinking beyond tomatoes and lettuce and the few strawberry plants or a pumpkin. I hope to show you how.
I'm not against hoarding, just against doing it badly. If you're going to hoard, you have to toss out a few "old" ideas. One is that freezer full of food. One of the first things that happens in a strorm are power outages and the meats and frozen veggies and fruit in your large freezer are going to melt. Don't do it. I store grains, legumes and my seeds in the freezer as well as dried fruits and nuts. I don't store anything that will thaw out and melt for long-term.
Canned goods are okay, but I don't do it. Why? One, because they're really only good for six months, no matter what you've been told. Two, they are among the most unhealthy foods you can buy, cooked to high temperatures, usually of poor quality, often not good food to begin with. I don't even do my own canning. No way. Too much work and it defeats the purpose of eating raw food. There are three ways to store and root cellaring doesn't work in the modern burbs or apartments. The first thing I buy and store are dried stuffs. Anything you can get dried, you can hoard. There are a few rules though. Pick up herbs that are as green as the plants. If they are not green, often they've been dried at a very high temperature and don't taste good. Always buy spices and seeds in their most original form. Spices should be whole and your money better spent buying several grinders, either pepper mills or coffee grinders. But beware, if they are electric, you might not be able to use them in an emergency. I have a manual back-up for every electric appliance. Mortars and pestles work just fine. Grains and legumes should be whole and stored in jars with bay leaves for the bugs. Nuts can be stored in a cool room, if they are in the shell. If not, they will go rancid and must be frozen or eaten. The only exception I make to the canned goods are some olive oils and fish products.
The best dried foods to hoard are seaweeds, lentils, mung beans, rice, barley, (whole barley, not pearled or smashed), winter wheat berries, herbs (especially nettle, burdock root, and garlic flakes), and fruits. The fruits must be very dry or they will mold. Buy some of those little packs that they put in dried foods to keep them dry. You may want to store some jerky or powdered potatoes and such, but I don't. Also try to store oils that are fairly stable like coconut oil and olive oil and sesame oil. Don't forget to have some raw cider vinegar on hand. Potaoes, onion and winter squash will keep all right at room temperatures and don't require a cool room.
Re-discover the art of pickling and krauting. I keep homemade saurkraut around in crocks. If you're a serious hoarder/survivalist, have on hand every kind of homemade pickle and kraut you can make. Keep cider vinegar (organic raw) on hand. Also store plenty of sea salt and chile peppers, bleach and baking soda as well as Espom salts and a lot of rags or diapers or other soft cloths, which are useful for everything from wounds to making cheese. Also get your hands on as much charcoal as you can and beeswax or parafin wax. Save as many glass jars as is feasible. Other good things to store are honey and some kind of medicinal alcohols. If you want a pharmacopia, get several herb books and make up a "first aid kit" of herbs. Keeping medicinal supplies like needles, splints, even toothpicks and floss is better than keeping all that soda and cheap wine that seem to be so attractive.
And water--how many people forget water? Distilled water or pure water will keep for a long time if it is sealed in glass or treated with a drop of bleach. I don't store anything in plastic--plastic is permeable and will not keep things as dry as glass will. Water will evaporate if stored in plastic. The large five-gallon containers can be delivered by a local water people, sometimes even distilled water. You can fill these containers for water to use for the toilet and etc., but most city water is very toxic. If you don't store anything else, store dried seaweed, some kind of organic "sproutable" grain and legume and water.