We all know that when the SHTF, we will need to dig out our stored seeds and grow a garden. After all, our stored foods will only last so long, and knowing how to grow nutrients and calories that our bodies need to survive will be crucial when the time comes. One can only hope that the seed vault that was bought and stuck in the freezer will be sufficient to get started. And also hope that the gardening knowledge and experience on hand will be adequate. But the question is, can you grow a tomato when the SHTF?
Let’s start with soil. Every gardening book you pick up will stress the importance of a healthy soil being your number one priority when it comes to gardening. First, test your soil by sending a sample to your local agricultural extension office, and get a report about how your soil is deficient. Go to the store, purchase the ingredients or soil conditioners that you need, and there you go, perfect tomatoes. But what if there is no local extension office to test your soil samples? What if there is no store to purchase all the amendments that you need?
Then there is the crucial aspect of seeds. Buy some packets at the store, or a seed vault from your favorite prepper website, put them in the ground, and perfect cucumbers to go with your tomatoes. But what if you can’t go to the store to get seeds? Or the store isn’t selling any? Or they are so expensive they are beyond your means? Or worse yet, what if the frozen seeds in your freezer have been through several freeze-thaw cycles because you didn’t know your freezer was on the brink of going out, and now these seeds aren’t viable?
Of course, no garden is successful without water. Right now, that part is easy whether your are in a major city or in a rural location. Your water comes either from city water for which you pay a small monthly fee, or your well, that requires electricity to pump the water out of the ground. But what if electric power is beyond affordability and you can’t pay for that easy flowing water? Or the power is out completely and you can’t pump the water out of the well? Can you water your garden this way? You certainly won’t be able to rely on your timer to run your soaker hose every morning at a set time to give your veggies and fruits the perfect amount of water.
Then there are weeds. Regardless if you choose organic or non-organic methods, it doesn’t matter, the weeds will grow. If you choose non-organic methods, then you will have to stock up on herbicides, and eventually, you will run out. If you choose organic, chances are you are either pulling these weeds, or using other methods such as mulch for control. But now you have to stock up on these other methods, or find a way to make your own weeding tools or mulch.
What gardening article would leave out pests such as earwigs (insect pests) and moles (small animal pests). Sure, you can buy sprays, deterrents, have-a-heart traps, or even ammo now, but what about after TSHTF? How will you control your pests? What if you don’t have water pressure to squirt off aphids? Or ammo to shoot gophers? Or even traps to catch and release? What if you don’t have access to deterrents that are laced with coyote urine, or noisemakers, or netting, or fencing, etc.? You can read about my recent pest experience with this here.
Did we forget something here? I think we did. Let’s talk about weather, and those unexpected frosty nights. It makes minimal difference what zone you live in if you do not know when to cover up those sensitive plants like tomatoes or cucumbers, and they all freeze and die in just one night of light frost. I personally can’t truly predict my local weather, not even with all my education. Can you? Do you know when it will frost? Get above a 100 degrees? Rain? Lightning? Sure, I can look at the sky, feel the moisture in the air, look at my barometer, and read my farmers almanac; but I can’t really predict the weather. Even the weather “experts” get it wrong, and they’re trained professionals.
Even if you live in perfect conditions, where the frost comes exactly when you expect, or you never experience any, and there’s no drought, and it’s time to harvest, there are still realities you have to consider. Do you have the equipment to efficiently harvest certain foods? How many people are you planning to feed? Do you know the return on energy investment for the crop(s) you are growing?
Sure, you can garden. You can buy your transplants after the last frost is long gone, with your genetically modified grown plants, and your perfect tomatoes the size of a melon.
Or you can get real, and learn how to garden with just what you have on hand and on your land.
Let’s start with soil, because soil is one of your most important tools. Compost is your new best friend in a SHTF scenario. Take all your decomposable matter, and mix it with compostable plants such as leaves or weeds you just pulled, and make compost. Forget making measurements, forget making it exact, as that won’t be practical after TSHTF. Learn to work with what you have.
If you have alkaline (basic) soil you will need to add something acidic (pine needles work well). Mix that with your alkaline soil, and you can make something grow. Or if you have acidic soil, you can add wood ash or peat moss (if you have access to it) to raise the pH of your soil and make it more alkaline. Otherwise you’ll have to stock up on lime, or resort to growing acid loving plants like blueberries. Wood ash can also add potassium, calcium, magnesium and trace minerals to your soil. You will just have to be careful not to add too much, or the soil will become too alkaline (basic). The appropriate amount will depend on your soil and what you are growing. Since soil pH effects the availability of nutrients to your plants, I recommend you consider getting a pH home test kit or meter.
Regardless of soil pH, you will also need some form of nitrogen, usually manure of some sort, to add to your soil. Nitrogen is an essential nutrient for plant growth.
You will also have to consider soil composition. Soil composition varies by geographic location, and depends on local geology. Soil composition is typically evaluated in terms of some percentage of clay, sand, and silt. This is important as soil composition determines a soil’s structure, and therefore aeration, drainage, and water holding capacity. A balanced soil will have roughly equal portions of these components. Balanced soil makes it easier for your garden to grow, as it will have neither too much nor too little water, nutrients, and room for root growth. If your soil is dominated by one type of component, you should try to find a local, naturally available source of one or more other components to balance your soil. For example, if you have a clay heavy soil, it would be a good idea to find a nearby source of sand to add to your soil for improved aeration and drainage. Or vice versa. Here’s a link that offers more information.
Additionally, you can’t just amend your soil once and expect the soil to permanently be fixed. You will have to keep re-applying, keep re-feeding that soil with nutrients as the plants you grow deplete it. You can learn to make your very own homemade compost bin.
It’s amazing how much people waste by not composting.
In addition, since you will have to adjust your soil on an ongoing basis, you may want to consider getting home test kits for your soil to determine what your soil is lacking or what it may contain in excess. If there are no testing labs available for you to hire, you will have to evaluate your soil yourself.
You might have to experiment a bit, or even consider changing what crops you grow, but eventually you’ll figure out what will grow with the resources you have, without spending a dime on expensive amendments to make everything perfect. Most importantly, you’ll figure out how to make food grow with the resources that you have, when you can’t buy the things you need at the store. But it won’t happen over night. And you don’t want to start the steep learning curve when your life might depend on it. Start now; sometimes it can take up to three years to get your soil properly amended! Or better yet, learn what plants will grow in your area.
Another skill you will have to learn, since you will eventually have no choice, is to learn to save your own seed. No matter how much seed you stock up on, you will eventually run out. Saving seeds may seem simple, but it’s not. You often have to give up the very food you would eat, in order to save the seeds. That means you might one day have to make the decision of going hungry in an effort to have food in the coming years, or eating now but saving no seed to grow food with in the future. This is something no one ever thinks about anymore. It is unfortunate, as when TSHTF this will be imperative. Learn how to save seeds from the foods you eat now, and how much it takes to save the amount of seed you need. You can learn more about doing so from my article here.
Also, learn proper storage of seed so that when the time comes, you’re not cursing a chipmunk for eating your sunflower seeds, or you’re not wasting energy planting crops that won’t germinate because the seed is already ruined. And no, do not put all seeds in the freezer. Seeds such as corn and peas must have all water removed before freezing, otherwise the freezing process can cause the water in the seed to expand, thus ruining the seed. Know your seed, and know how to properly store it.
Also learn which plants are better to root from cuttings (propagation) rather than starting from seed. Some plants won’t grow from seed, but you can easily root them. Here’s an article on how to root plants.
For water, you must know what resources are available to you. First, figure out your water source. If you don’t have a good one, MOVE NOW! You cannot survive without water. Once you determine your water source, consider how you will move the water. Hoses? Buckets? Pumps? Whatever your plan, try it, practice it, and come up with a backup plan. A generator needs fuel, and eventually you run out of fuel. A generator also needs parts, and those parts might not be available. Solar panels? Those can have issues too. Come up with plan A, plan B, plan C, and then plan D. A garden will not grow without water. Yes, some crops do well in ”drought” conditions, and some don’t; but learn what that means. “Drought tolerant” might mean the plant survives, but produces minimal edible parts. Research what specific plants and grasses will grow in your area and have deep roots that allow for minimal watering, and result in well fed livestock. Plants with shallow roots will need much more water than those with deep roots. If you live in an area that has an ample or excess amount of water, consider yourself fortunate, but also research what plants will do well with heavy rainfall and potential flood conditions; some crops do not tolerate such conditions.
And weeds? Don’t count on petroleum based products to get you through. Learn to recognize weeds, learn which may be beneficial (dandelions are great for bees, and you can eat them, Lamb’s quarters grow with minimal water and are edible, etc.). Know your weeds, and know which ones are invasive so you know what to pull. Don’t just hoe your garden, make sure you get the whole root. Depending on how you use your hoe, the root may survive and come back stronger than before, then you have to weed again. If you use mulch now, then learn how to make your own mulch later. Learn now what you can use as mulch, and grow it yourself. There are various methods of suppressing weeds, figure out what works based on where you are and what you have on your land.
Do you know how to get rid of aphids without the pressure from a water hose? Or without store bought sprays? You can use water pressure from a simple hand spray bottle to remove insect pests. Do you have chickens? Let them run through the garden once (but make sure you don’t leave them un-attended, as they might go after the garden once the bugs are gone). Better yet, plant flowers amongst your garden that will attract beneficial predator insects such as ladybugs, dragonflies, and lacewings. Plant crops that deter ants that would plant aphids. If you plant Chrysanthemums, they will deter many insect pests, as they contain the natural pesticide pyrethrum. You can actually make your own natural insecticide by drying Chrysanthemum flowers, crushing them into a powder and dissolving in water or ethanol.
You can also make your own bug spray out of garlic, hot peppers, and a small amount of soap such as the one found here.
Figure out what you need to grow, and study the life cycle of the plant, and it’s predators. Learn to create traps that you can make out of homemade ingredients that you can make or grow yourself. Learn to make your own sticky traps, and your own pest deterrents. You can make your own homemade small animal traps with buckets of water and homegrown sunflower seeds. If you have to buy it somewhere, or get it from someone, it’s not your own, and you need to find a better way. Figure out what pests are rampant in your area, and come up with alternative ways to control those pests without stepping foot in the store.
As far as weather goes, know that it is never predictable. No matter how good you are at reading the clouds, the weather has a mind of its own. Learn to keep track of the time of year in some way, whether it’s printing a calendar for the next 20 years and checking it off day by day, or by knowing how to read the stars. Whatever your method, know the dates of any chance of frost or heat wave in your area, and plan accordingly.
Know your gardening zone, you can find a map here. Here is my favorite book on growing plants off season. Build some kind of cover for frosts to regulate the temperature for your plants. Remove the cover in the morning, and re-apply at night. Don’t miss a day because you’re tired, because that’s the night you will have frost. Don’t skip watering with your buckets, because that’s the day it won’t rain. Don’t skip weeding because you’re ill, that’s the day the weeds will take all the nutrients from your favorite plant and slow their growth. Don’t ignore symptoms of bacterial or fungus problems, because you won’t have the sprays to deal with them.
As you can see from reading so far, producing your own food after TSHTF takes a lot a lot of energy. As a result, you must consider your return on energy investment for the crops you are growing, and the number of people you plan to feed. Return on energy investment is an important concept if you are going to be using manual labor to grow food, in a time where calories may be scarce. For example, if you “invest” 20,000 calories (food calories) of physical labor planting and tending a potato patch, and your “return” is 100,000 calories (kcal), then you have a “return” ratio of 5 to 1, or 500%. On the other hand, if you invest 20,000 calories in a broccoli patch that returns only 10,000 calories, then you have a negative return of 10,000 calories, or a 50% loss of calories! This does not mean that you should not grow broccoli, as it obviously has other nutritional benefits and considerations other than just calories. What this does mean is that you need to plan carefully what you grow so you have an adequate mix of “calorie producing crops” and “nutrient producing crops”. In a similar manner you will need to consider the calorie inputs and outputs of any livestock you may decide to have. But that topic is beyond the scope of a gardening article.
Don’t just buy gardening books and leave them on the bookshelf. Read them, buy the tools now you won’t be able to get in the future, and learn how to work with what you have. Learn how to use tools to help harvest, and learn how to preserve the excess harvest so you have it during the off season. You can read about how to dehydrate here. There are tools you need that you might not be able to get later. Learn what those are now, and get them now or at least figure out how you will build them.
Realize that if you are counting on your garden harvest for survival, you have many of nature’s creatures competing for that same food.
Most importantly, practice now, and practice as if TS has already HTF, because very soon it likely will. Practice for the worst case scenario. Your life just might depend on it one day; possibly sooner than you think.