I like to brag to people, in a passive-aggressive SWPL way, that I don’t have a TV.
RANDOM PERSON #1: “What the heck? You made a bust of Nebuchadnezzar from broken glass, cheerios and string? You have too much time on your hands!”
ME: “I don’t have a TV.”
RANDOM PERSON #2: “How in the world do you find time to garden?”
ME: “I don’t have a TV.”
RANDOM PERSON #3: “Omigosh… what, do you have, like a half-dozen kids? You must not have a TV!”
ME: “Bingo! High five!”
Anyhow, despite not having a TV, I have managed to get addicted to the new NBC series Revolution. (Thanks, Internet, for making me a total hypocrite.)
Revolution imagines a world where the power has been shut off and various factions have redrawn the borders of the United States. Can the power be turned back on? Will the bad guys win? Is Charley going to give up her virginity to that shifty guy that keeps hanging around and showing up at odd times? (Don’t do it, Charley! Wait for a ring!) Is the former militia leader uncle actually trustworthy?
Despite its typical Hollywood portrayal of female characters managing to hold their own against trained military men… and the curious fact that one of the main characters is an IT guy that’s managed to stay overweight even while trekking across the country for years… and the nice clothing and strange lack of body hair on gals that have been roughing it for a decade and a half with a distinct lack of modern conveniences (even though the men have stubbly faces)… and even though having an entire nation named after one guy is a bit silly… and the idea that the “rebels” want to restore the previous USA in the name of freedom… I can’t stop watching.
Why? Because not only have I gotten caught up in the epic story arc, I’ve also been fascinated with how they portray the ruin of a post-industrial society.
Of course, rather than all this following of characters and their battles… I really want to see more on how they’re growing their food, making their clothing, dealing with sanitation, handling childbirth and pumping water.
Yeah, I’m weird. But that’s the way I think. Along those lines… let’s take a look at gardening without electricity. In my research, it seems there are two main problems to consider if the grid goes down and you need to grow food: irrigation and preservation. Let’s dig in.
“Hey,” you may be thinking, “there ain’t any electric in my garden right now – so sure, I could garden without electricity after an electromagnet pulse!”
Really? I’d find it hard. I have a well that’s powered by a pump that runs on… you guessed it… electricity. Even if you were on city water – what would happen if an EMP strike took out the grid? Would the water keep flowing? Would it be safe for watering your garden?
As I’ve written before, most modern gardening has been taken over by intensively planted raised beds. This method requires a lot of watering – and that watering will be really hard to do without running water.
As best as I can figure out, you have three watering options when the power goes out.
Option #1: Drawing Water From the Earth
Just because the electric is gone, it doesn’t mean you can’t run your well. If you install a solar system now, you’ll be able to still fill a pressure tank if the grid goes down… that is, unless an EMP blows your system out too. The next option for getting water out of your well is to install a manual pump. Unfortunately, that’s not the easiest or cheapest thing in the world to do. Bison and Simple Pump both make deep-well hand pumps, but installation is a bit tricky – and the pumps are expensive. Of course, “expensive” is a relative term. How long could you live without water in your house? Spending a a grand or two now would look brilliant if things ever went down.
I mentioned the hand-pump idea to one of my neighbors, who thought it was rather silly.
NEIGHBOR: “Why not just run the pump with a generator?
ME: “Eventually, you run out of gas.”
NEIGHBOR: “We ran ours after the last hurricane without trouble. They got the power back on pretty quickly.”
ME: “But what if they don’t?”
And there’s the crux of the matter: installing a hand pump means you rely on yourself for water. Hoping that someone fixes the grid – or that you can get enough gas – puts your water supply in the hands of others. If your water supply fails, your garden will too – as will your own body.
Of course… there’s another way to get water for the garden in a crisis… catch it!
Option #2: Capturing Water From the Sky
Rainwater is excellent for gardens. It contains a small amount of nitrogen as well as a (generally) perfect pH. Catching enough is the big problem, since gardens consume a lot of water.
I have two home-made rain barrels that are 55 gallons each. That doesn’t go very far when you have, say, 4000 square feet of garden space. Even small gardens are thirsty. Fortunately, you can catch a lot of rain off a roof. My barrels fill up in the first five minutes or so of a good rainstorm. If you got a 1500-gallon tank, you’d be able to water your gardens for a long time. One nice rainfall and that sucker would be full. Roofs are water-catching machines. Put the container at the top of a slope or on a platform and the extra pull of gravity will even let you water with a hose.
Another way to capture water is through ponds. Put a big enough pond in the ground and you’ll at least be able to take care of your gardens. I have a few old hot tubs in my backyard that are filled with water and growing some aquatic edibles. Yet they also serve another purpose: they’re back-up water for my animals and plants. If needed, I could water the chickens, ducks and garden beds from them through an extended drought.
A final way to utilize water from the sky is to build your gardens in a way that holds moisture or perhaps uses a lot less of it. Which brings us to option #3.
Option #3: Gardening Without Irrigation
Now this is where you get to bare-bones simplicity. I live in a sandy patch of Florida where you’d think the ground would be terrible at supporting plants without irrigation; yet, right here in my neighborhood, there’s a farmer named Jake who grows sweet potatoes, corn, watermelon and other crops with only the rain that falls from the sky. The guy is dark as coal, tough as nails, wears a white hat and looks like an all-American cowboy. The first time I saw one of his fields of southern peas I thought, “Whoa, how is this guy managing this?” So, I asked him.
His answer? “I just grow with the rain the Good Lord send me.”
Jake smiles. “My son is a preacher. I pay the Lord, and the Lord gives me rain. I always get just the rain I need.”
The secret to Jake’s success, beyond “paying the Lord,” starts to reveal itself when you take a good look at his fields. Rather than planting crops tightly, he’s got generous 3’ spacing between single rows. He also keeps the ground cultivated around his crops so the weeds can’t suck away moisture.
Here’s what we’ve managed to forget during our fat years of gardening with abundant irrigation and tight spacing: plants, especially certain plants, are capable of taking care of themselves if they have enough room to do so. Root competition is fierce beneath the surface – and root systems are much more extensive than you might think. Corn, for instance, can put roots 6 – 7’ deep into the earth.(1)
Wide spacing wasn’t originally created for the sake of industrial machinery. It originated with observations made by farmers long before tractors arrived. When you have to carry water in buckets, making full use of rainfall becomes vitally important.
It works for this reason: when plants are not fighting with their neighbors, their roots are pretty good at finding water and resources in the soil. You can help them out by loosening the ground with a broadfork or double digging so your crops don’t have to fight through hard subsoil to reach moisture. My sandy double-dug beds conserve water significantly better than my perfectly amended raised beds. Deep mulching is another option, if you have enough organic matter to pile on. I usually don’t, so I save the mulch for perennials and trees.
Another way to maximize the water available to your plants: lightly hoe the surface of the ground after a hard rain. This breaks the capillary action and creates a “dust mulch” which will hold in water rather than letting it evaporate away. (You’ll find a lot of information on dry farming in Steve Solomon’s book “Gardening Without Irrigation,” which is available as a free e-book on Amazon here.)
Problem #2: Preserving the Harvest
So… now you think you’ve got things figured out on the irrigation end of things? Don’t forget: you can’t freeze or refrigerate anything. You’re going to have to go pioneer. It’s time to dry, ferment, can or root cellar your crops.
Beyond those tried and true methods, you can also plant perennial roots that will store in the ground. Other crops, like nuts, are excellent for long-term storage without needing processing.
There are a few plants that really excel in the storage department: winter squash, dry beans and grain corn. Some varieties of squash can sit happily at room temperature for six months or more. Interestingly, these three crops make up the famous “Three Sisters” gardening method used by the Iroquois.
Pro-Tip: Beans and corn kernels, when used as buckshot, can take out a zombie at up to a ten-yard range.
Grains other than corn also store well; however, the labor involved in harvesting and threshing is rather ridiculous. I’ve grown and harvested test plots of oats, rye, wheat and barley – give me corn any day. If you want to be smart, go with the tried and true methods and crops grown by Indian tribes and the pioneers.
Some root crops, like potatoes, sweet potatoes and turnips, may store well if you have a root cellar and a good climate; others, like carrots, can stay in the ground for quite a while – but I’m still a fan of corn, beans and squash for storable long-term room temperature calories.
So… here’s the question: knowing what you know now, will you be able to feed yourself if the lights go out… or are you gonna be joining the Monroe Republic militia just so you can get a daily ration of oatmeal?
I’m going with option #1, ‘cause there’s no way Charley would go out with me if I joined the militia.