Gardening 101 – or – Surviving the Debt Crisis Collapse
Gardening 101 – or – Surviving the Debt Crisis Collapse
Our country is bankrupt; it owes more money then it can pay back. Leaders from every region and background have chosen to accumulate debt in proportions that mankind has never witnessed. When these issues are raised by good, thoughtful citizens, they encounter scornful, dismissive rebuttal, the thrust of which is, “you simple minded fellow – you just don’t understand.”
There is no need to mount the soap box and deliver hot, excoriating invective directed at folk who have not lived frugally nor prepared to take care of themselves. They generally have been swindled into an American Dream which has become a “house of cards.” Easy money, earned or borrowed, has empowered us to be consumed by the NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB, MMA, NCAA, Nascar, and remarkably cheap GMO food. Most of us live from paycheck to paycheck and purchase what we need and most of what we want including lavish helpings of other entertainment until we literally have no money and no credit left. We have swallowed, hook, line, and sinker, “bread and circuses.”
At this very moment, NGM (Nice Government Men) are reconvening in Washington, D.C. to address the dilemma of the nation’s debt. New legislative authority to borrow even more money will be the result of their “solution for America.” On each occasion the “moment of truth” presents itself, the treasury is empowered to “sell more paper.” Country boys know “hell’s a comin’.” It is not a matter of more insulting flatulence from the NGM, it’s a matter of their dastardly deeds generating colossal problems that will rip our system asunder.
When the “music stops” and the “lights go out,” what shall we do?
Substantial numbers of our unprepared folk will join small farmers, homesteaders, and gardeners in order to survive the cataclysmic dislocations and chaos that will descend on the broke society. The actual back-to-the-land event will be upon us. Our ability to endure will depend on our knowledge and skill in the art and craft of making the soil provide our food.
My gardening career extends from the late 40s to the present. I am not a certified master gardener who has achieved acclaim and fame. Vegetable production has been fairly substantial with a scope of hundreds of jars canned, quarts frozen, and bushels dried almost every year. Eighty-five percent of the food we eat is produced on our farm and in our gardens. As we have worked in the agrarian life style, we have learned many lessons which have come in the form of failure – missed expectation. Perhaps some of our experiences will help you.
The pages of this journal are filled with discussions which enunciate the concept of “appropriateness of scale.” Study and possess the details of what those words mean in your backyard or on your farm. For example, our two garden patches are 28 feet wide by 116 feet long and 60 feet wide by 125 feet long – that’s 10,748 square feet – not quite ¼ acre. Those patches yielded 850 quarts and pints of veggies preserved, 500 pounds of Irish and sweet potatoes, and endless mustard, turnips, collards, kale, and rutabagas which are not counted in the 850 number. The point I wish to make is that small spaces still provide bounty. Many of us have access to space on that scale – plow up your front yard!
I know a crowd of SFJ subscribers. We’ve met in far flung festivals like the swap-meet, Horse Progress Days, regional horse events, and here at our store. Most of these contacts have revealed that the majority is composed of beginners. They sense that there is a need to be closer to the land and less dependent on purchasing stuff from the network of stuff sellers. I have a profound respect for all those folks – “our people.” With that in mind, I have written a “blurt out” that is focused on new gardeners to a greater extent than you experienced and seasoned “old guard” types. A new awareness resides with us; we know that statements and cultural practices that we share are being accepted and acted upon by others. Our program is not all horse drawn because we know that a family who just escaped from a multi-family housing unit to a 3 ½ acre plot with a rehabbed mobile home does not have a horse, horse barn, nor tools, and equipment for a H.D. homestead experience. The first garden might be 5 rows of 6 different veggies. They have actually taken their most important step. They’ve started the journey. I know the “old guard” joins me in encouraging the “newbies” to “come up, Samson.”
It is important that we homesteaders and small farmers become students or deliberately remain students. Remember Thomas Jefferson’s famous quotation, “Although I am an old man, I am but a young gardener.” I think of this statement in July when I “stand on my nose” to pick lima beans. I am an old gardener and an old man! But, I have chosen to continue to learn.
If I were a new vegetable grower, an out of practice grower, or a person who senses peril for the first time, the following describes what I would do and refrain from doing.
Take a thorough inventory of the food you have eaten in the last two weeks. How much of it was made by you? Are there vegetables you do not enjoy? Beets? Swiss chard? Okra? Do not plant things you don’t eat. Consider your location and your climate; identify the plants that can prosper where you are. Some varieties require too many days to mature so you would exclude them from your plans. Come to understand planting dates and growth habits. After a careful review, you will arrive with a list of cultivars for your area. It is also necessary to think through the nutrition that your group will need. One half row of string beans and three rows of lettuce is probably the wrong mix. Four nice zucchini squash plants are enough for us; they provide more then we need. The survival garden would probably have string beans, lima beans, crowder peas, corn, tomatoes, broccoli, cabbage, peppers, and cucumbers along with fall greens. Early plant items like onions and Irish potatoes can be followed by a big bean or pea patch. Folks, salad greens and a few tomato plants are not the scope of the campaign – neither is 17 300 foot rows of limas. Our quarter acre of garden, in 2011, worked our buns off. I urge all start-up people to diligently seek guidance from resource persons in your close proximity. In my recollection of our efforts last year, one of us spent 5 hours in our gardens 6 days a week from the first week in June to the first week in September.
We plowed, planted, picked, hoed, mulched, dug, staked, weeded, sprayed, gathered, side dressed, laid by, and watered throughout the season. Then, we put it by. “We done sompin ever day.” In the late fall when the plantsome is mostly complete, we share an embrace and whisper, “we’re going to be ok.” And, we have been! We also prepare saved seed for storage for next year– we claim the promise!
Acquire open pollinated seed. Also referred to as heirloom; these seeds produce seeds that are like their parent stock. One can grow these varieties and save their seed until the end of time. There are 5 ears of field corn on my desk–all heirloom. They are from 10 ½ inches long to 12 inches long. Do not be influenced by the scurrilous lie that heirlooms are not prolific. Learn to save seed; there are several good books on this subject.
Just in case you need a shove in this direction, consider this. One of our wholesale seed vendors, whom we love, sent us his 2012 catalog. Merit yellow hybrid sweet corn is offered for $1,000,000 per 50 pound bag and Peaches and Cream, another famous hybrid, is $824.00 per 50 pound bag. Some of us have suspected that when nothing but hybrids are available, we are going to be in trouble. Be the counter measure – heirlooms only!
Soil PH is one of the most vital components of your successful enterprise; it might be the origin of most failure. A scale by which we measure acid and alkalinity exists. The acid end starts at 0 and the alkaline end stops at 14. Seven is neutral. Here in the middle of the south, most of our garden plants need a soil PH of about 6.5. In the west, I’m told that y’all encounter readings that are in the alkaline side which you could reduce by adding tree needles, leaves, or pine straw. Acid soils can be amended by adding lime. Lime acts slowly so we use hydrated lime which raises our soil PH numbers more quickly. County agents and farm stores often times can assist you with PH measurements.
The more quickly you get the neutralizing agent in place, the better chance you have to succeed. Your plants do their work by using sun light, producing carbon, absorbing nutrients in solution, and manufacturing carbohydrates. Each one of those pieces of the puzzle will abort if PH is out of balance. Yes, I know blueberries must have a high acid reading of 4.5 to 5.0. We’re talking about garden vegetables. If your native, previously unused, patch has a ph reading of 4.5, you are probably not going to have a harvest. Said another way, if fertility is fantastic, humus and tilth are the best, moisture is optimal, insects are controlled, your yield could still be zero with a bad PH number on either side of neutral. The plant simply can not perform. All you will get are stunted, asymmetrical plants that don’t bloom. In spite of your hard work and your money invested, you will be whipped.
I do not know much about alkaline soils, but I do know about acid. East of the Mississippi, most soil is naturally acid. My rule of thumb is to add 5 pounds of quick acting hydrated lime to 100 square feet of space. Good soil tests are a much safer rout to proper PH than guesses. Before leaving, let me urge you to add the soil amendments, even though you are late because late is better than never.
The information that has been observed and recorded pertaining to the plant kingdom is vast. I’m including a 50 cent discussion about germination, photosynthesis, absorption, and transpiration. Knowledge of what the plant is doing helped me figure out how to meet its needs.
Germination occurs when the embryo in the seed consumes the stored energy in the endosperm and produces a sprout which grows upward toward the sunlight. The event occurs in the presence of correct temperature and moisture. For example, our string bean seed germinated in much cooler soils then our okra seeds do. If the seed bed is too dry, too wet, too cool, or too tightly packed, we get reduced germination and sprout emergence.
Green plants can do something that we cannot do. They can convert the sun’s energy into carbohydrates that are essential to our survival. Plants combine hydrogen taken from water absorbed by roots and carbon taken from carbon dioxide in the air to manufacture carbohydrates-photosynthesis.
Absorption occurs when the hair roots take nutrients from the soil and push them up the plant stem to the leaves. It’s important to know that all nutrients enter the plant in solution. If adequate moisture is not present, the most fertile soil will not produce. When the plant is blooming it is essential to make moisture available. Some folks might not be able to irrigate very easily. Even if you have to water with a bucket and a dipper you might “save the blooms” and get fruit set. Maybe the shower comes a week late. Gardening requires a lot of work. We improve our chances by using a soaker hose at night. That hose will provide ample water to two rows in 5 hours. Our thinking is that we get good moisture 70% of the time – two or three waterings keep the plants in an optimal state of production; usually when the weather warms up, transpiration increases. We think about 1 inch of water per week is necessary to keep all processes firing. Do not water too much!
When plants acquire moisture through their roots and pass it with nutrients from the soil to the leaves, the nutrients stay and the moisture exits through openings in the leaves called stomas. A sort of “vacuum” occurs which causes the process to continue. That’s called transpiration.
Soil fertility needs to be addressed as though it is a savings account which becomes more and more valuable as you build its value over a long period of time. Sure, you are removing value in the form of beans and greens, but you add compost, humus and minerals on an unending basis. We build soil capacity with barn yard manure, wheat straw, and composting. In the winter of 2009- 2010, we spread 30 skid steer buckets of compost in our gardens, it’s plumb scandalous how our gardens “erupt.”
You might not have the manure asset. Remember that “animal people” in your area might have manure, with which you can make compost, and that manure might be free for the hauling. Leaves, grass clippings, non meat kitchen scraps, and many other organic material, can be composted in a way that builds your soil. Learn to do that.
There are many other non-petrochemical soil additives that are available from the garden store – bone meal, seaweed, wood ashes, oyster shells, sulfur, borax, iron, manganese, and zinc sulfate to name a few. You can probably “scrounge” soil builders all around where you are.
If you decide to use chemical fertilizer (it might be the best you can do) in the start-up phase, read the tag on the bag or package. The label will announce the analysis of the mixture and express it in numbers, 6-8-12, for example. The big 3
“6” 6% Nitrogen by volume
“8” 8% Phosphorous by volume
“12” 12% potassium by volume
But that’s only 26%. About 2% of the fertilizer will be secondary elements like calcium, magnesium, and sulfur. Trace elements will probably be in the mix as well.
Twenty-eight percent of the bag of chemical fertilizer is the good stuff that the plants need. 72% is inert filler material. As you spread the fine pellets, the inert portion of the contents do enable the grower to achieve a more uniform distribution than you would get with a more concentrated mix probably.
Measuring fertility will require you to observe your plants regularly. Are they green and growthy? Are discolorations apparent? Are they fairly symmetrical? The list of remedies for a particular malady could be extensive. Once you decide something is not right, try to come to a plan of action fairly quickly. Plants do not have an ability to solve moisture, nutrition, nor other problems by themselves. That is our job.
Insects are going to come looking for your garden handiwork. The “gold standard” to which we subscribe is an organic practice that uses no chemical fertilizer, petrochemicals nor chemical insecticide.
First, let me explain the idea that we choose to accept certain insect damage that we do not spray for nor curtail in any way. A few very small green “inchworms” get in our broccoli heads under the florets. They gnaw on the sides of the stems and are almost invisible in the patch. Cut the broccoli head and place it in a vessel of cold salty water. The worms quickly come to the area of the head which is above the water line. Just pick them off. Don’t spray anything you are going to eat without peeling or shelling.
Applesauce and dried apples are always on our list of stored goodies. This past season a good friend gave us about 3 ½ bushels of never sprayed apples. Many of them were flawless; some had minor damage; some were wormy. We cut around the worm damage which provided a pile of clean fruit from which we made apple sauce and apple rings for dehydration. All of the peels, cores, and cut up wormy apples become wonderful “treats” for the milk cows; they smacked and slobbered until the last seed was eaten.
The corn ear worm makes the tip of the roasting ear sort of gross and nasty; remove the shuck and the silk and the tip so that nobody but you knows there was ever any worm damage. When they attack the side of the ear, we cut the “bad” places off and use that ear for cream corn.
In a gallon hand pump sprayer, we mix one cup soy bean oil, one cup of hand dish washing detergent and a gallon of water. Spray that mixture on plants under attack. It will kill insects like Japanese beetles on contact within a minute or less. You can see them fall to the ground; the problem is that it has no residual effect. We must continue to spray those bugs very regularly. This critter is our most formidable foe because they eat leaves off the beans, silk off the corn, and orchard fruit as well. They actually arrive in these parts toward the end of June so early planting helps reduce their damage particularly in corn.
The little folks in our lives can help us control the tomato horn worm. They are hard to find so it’s a sort of game. The contract is one cent per worm, but the worms must be placed in the hen yard. Otherwise we buy the same ones more than once – product of hard times. Deliberate, thoughtful crop rotation is a good counter measure to combat insects. Plant brassicas, behind corn and beans. Do not plant cabbage in the same place you planted broccoli last year and so on.
There are two organic sprays that we have used successfully. Spinosad will defeat chewing insects like Colorado potato bugs. BT is a bacterial product that curtails caterpillars and worm damage.
This last measure is going to get me in trouble with the purists. So go ahead and find your whips now. Squash is traditionally one of our favorite yellow veggies. We grow only four varieties – straight neck yellow, black zucchini, butternut, and green acorn. Over many years the squash bug killed the plants – literally. This creature enters the succulent stem right at ground level and deposits eggs, which quickly become worms which quickly kill plants.
There is an insecticide called Seven which we make into a mixture just as the manufacturer prescribes. With a big agribusiness store bought hypodermic needle, we inject 2 cubic centimeters of the insecticide directly into the main stem just above the ground. It kills the pests DEAD. Our yellow squash and zucchini plants were waist high last year and redefined the word abundance. Several learned gardeners that I know say that of all the insect killing sprays on the market we can probably live with Seven best.
All of us are going to need to continue to create counter measures for insect control – I think they are getting worse. Extensive use of hell fire petrochemicals is not wise – as time passes we’ll continue to observe the danger. There are plants on which we have never experienced insect damage – bell pepper, hot pepper, onions, cucumbers, lettuce, sweet potatoes, beets, okra, and fall greens. It could very well be that the reason insects are not so destructive at our place is that the organic (almost) process restricts their occurrence.
Cultivation methods are about as varied as farmers are. We start with a single horse or mule which pulls an Oliver Goober mold board plow or a rastus. The rastus is a 1 horse-drawn, wooden beam plow with three evenly spaced shanks which are equipped with a 2 ½ inch, 1 5/8 inch, and 1 inch scooters. The rack on which the shanks are mounted is installed with a 45 degree angle to the beam. Our next step is leveling and pulverizing with a spring tooth harrow. This 4 foot wide implement is heavy; it’s a load for our single critters. Be careful not to set the spring teeth too deep particularly on the first passes. Preparation of this kind enables us to lay off shallow rows with a bull tongue to accept big seed like corn, beans, peas, butter beans, and squash.
Seedbeds for all small seed like lettuce, carrots, chard, beets, greens, and brassicas, are prepared with a rear tine rotary tiller. We found it essential to plant on top of a perfectly constructed seedbed because furrow planted seeds were eventually covered too deeply by spring rain. Later in this piece I described the techniques of planting these tiny seed. Two or three large seed are dropped per hill.
We destroy some of the plants by thinning, so that the competition for space, sunlight, nutrients, and moisture, is not too great. A practice that helps us is to plow immediately before planting. We can’t always see them, but weeds and grass seed are sprouting all the time. Cultivation right before seed drop interrupts that cycle and gives our cultivars an even chance to germinate and emerge. Although we have to be careful not to cover up our emerging sprouts, we still plow middles because we know it takes one twentieth the labor to kill weeds with leaves the size of pin heads as compared to one inch high. The contest is to help the veggies grow to the point where they cast shadows. The shade that our plants create retards the growth of weeds. Tall plants like corn and okra hold back weeds to the extent that we lay them by when they are two and a half feet high.
Weeds must be fought continuously because they never stop. Most of our weed control is done with our push plow. Of all the gardening tools, including the hoe, we use the push plow the most.
If you can get clean wheat straw, mulching your middles and around your plants is a wonderful weed control measure. It also holds moisture and helps keep soil soft and cool. By and by, it adds humus to the soil. Old hay, or even new hay for that matter, might be full of seed, fescue, clover, or weed seed. You will have introduced another worthy foe to the project. Remember that mulch consumes some nitrogen as it decomposes. A side dressing of good compost will help.
I urge y’all to use these suggestions unless your program is already better than ours.
1. Make a clear plan of what you will grow and when and where you will plant.
2. Acquire heirloom seed and develop plans to save seed.
3. Understand the PH of your garden spot by taking several samples for analysis.
4. Prepare to provide “artificial” water if at all possible.
5. Try to execute timely weed control by mechanical means not chemical. Probably, most of you do not now have the garden mule that would be so useful. Let me suggest that you offer your neighbor an apple pie to come over with his Kubota and make your patch ready. A used front tine “whirly gig” roto-tiller can handle the task from there. Or, you can finish the prep with a short tooth rake and hoe. An old push plow with five snake head tines is a wonderful tool to help get the weeds and grass out and prepare the seed beds. Further, when we plant on top of the ground for small seed varieties, we stretch a carpenter’s string so that our rows don’t “wobble around”. In our case, Samson, our Belgian gelding, is going to have a very high standard to meet in terms of straight rows. Preparations for planting are important; plumb straight rows are not.
6. Gather your produce when it is ready. The plant will interpret unpicked veggies as the normal end of its growth cycle. It will not provide another set of blooms; it will quit.
7. Use insecticides that are organic or homemade. Do not employ mega doses of petrochemicals.
8. Share heirloom seed from your garden with your neighbors.
The following list contains practices and techniques that we have learned from the many defeats we have experienced.
1. We’ve learned to cut yellow squash and zucchini into chunks about the size of a large hen egg and cook them on charcoal fire with soy sauce bastings. Folks lick the plate.
2. Side-dress broccoli and cabbage with aged chicken manure.
3. We enjoy lettuce; we plant at least 10 varieties. Because lettuce seed is so small – 12,000 to 20,000 seed per ounce, we had to find a process that allowed us to drop seed that were not so close together. Thickly planted seed have too much competition to grow in an optimum way; they are impossible to thin. We take about 125 seed (1/2 a packet) and mix them thoroughly with a cup of sand. Mix very well. I get on my hands and knees and drop the mixture under a string line on top of a completely pulverized seedbed. Then I tamp the row so that the seed has good soil contact. The random selection of varieties will germinate and grow at different rates which produce lettuce into July.
4. Crows are clever. I have seen them scratch and peck in a freshly planted corn row until they discover the exact interval of the planter – plate – seed drop. Beyond the area where they have scratched, one sees 1 single “stab” where the bird extracts the corn seed – one after the other.
In a two row John Deere #999 corn planter, we fill each seed hopper about ¾ full. Then we slowly pour about ½ cup of kerosene on the seed; most of the coal oil drips out the bottom of the hopper. We have not even observed any bad effect on germination, initial plant growth, nor color of leaves. Of course, we use a lesser amount of the oil on a much smaller planting of sweet corn. Of all the times we’ve used kerosene, we have never found more than 3 or 4 instances of crows eating seeds – two or three hills each time. Upon scratching up the planted seed to determine its germination progress one will still smell kerosene – that’s probably why the birds can’t take it.
Although coal oil will defeat crows, it will not defeat wild turkeys. We have monster turkey populations in middle TN. They seem to like kerosene. Four years ago, we planted Hickory King in a somewhat remote 3½ acre field. We admired the stand and how remarkably precise the old planter had spaced the crop. When the plants were 8 inches high with 2 inch pairs of leaves, the turkeys moved in and pulled 90% of the corn and ate the big seed kernel from which the plant had come. The only thing we have found that works is to be in the field at dawn with a shot gun and fire a few rounds at the turkeys and a few in the trees so that they hear the pellets hitting the limbs and stems. Your department of natural recourses probably, will not bother you. Don’t try to kill the turkeys and use tiny bird shot so that your actions will not be perceived to be “hunting.” After emergence, somebody has to go shoot about two and a half weeks! The plants finally get too big to be pulled out by wild turkeys.
5. We grow cucumbers on a trellis just like pole beans. You can see the fruit more easily and pick more thoroughly and quickly.
6. We have discovered that our pepper plants – sweet, mild, and hot – do much better with artificial shade in late July and August.
7. Our gardening tools are a mule or horse and all the plows, a rear tine rotary tiller, a 75 year old but refurbished push plow, and hoes. We use the push plow more then all other tools combined.
8. We are asking ourselves the question – does it make sense to preserve food that requires energy to keep? 70 regular ears of golden bantam sweet corn cut off the cob and dehydrated will fit in a 1-gallon plastic bag. Rehydration, butter, salt, and pepper make it delicious.
9. Never, never let garden plots grow up in weeds. Plant a cover crop like buckwheat in the fall if you don’t plant greens.
10. If all of the sudden you have “helpers” who are untrained without work backgrounds, be careful not to work them too hard. Around here, we invite them to quit at about 11:00 am and assign them to other work. They do get tougher as times goes along, but this is an idea that all of us are probably going to need to handle. It may be three years before we really have a knowledgeable, proficient, and tough teammate.
11. Spinach grows well in middle Tennessee. It takes about an hour to pick enough of those greens for supper. Because they “melt” when exposed to heat. We grow Swiss chard instead of spinach; the taste is very similar. Enough chard for a meal can be picked in three minutes.
12. Enough fall greens for a meal can be cut with a weed eater in less then a minute. They always have to be thoroughly washed as one prepares for cooking. We wash them in a front-loading clothes washing machine in cold water on delicate cycle. We really never “crack sand.”
13. The gold standard of perfection eluded me all these years. I continue to experience disappointments like our tomatoes, which would not ripen in a timely fashion last year. Truckers’ favorite made a half harvest. However, year in and year out, they have provided most of our food which have been free of chemicals and growth hormones and have, with the Lord’s help, allowed us to thrive more then 68 years. Milk, numerous handmade cheeses, jersey beef, home-baked bread and our garden vegetables have sustained us. We are very close to being selfsufficient. If the wheels come off of our society, our money turns empty, and the American Dream turns into a nightmare, folks like us can take care of ourselves and others. We can build back a new system which honors appropriate scale agriculture, freedom, rural prosperity, and a rebirth of frugality and husbandry of the earth.
Most of us do not perceive the danger of the preponderant overburden of debt which continues to grow and stalk us. Certain rebuttals have been offered me. They sound like this.
As they pat my white hair, they say “Paw Paw, chill out. There was an event in the recent past called Y2K – the sky was going to fall because all the computers were going to crash. We stored hundreds of pounds of food and other supplies in preparation for the bust. Nothing happened. We ended up throwing most of our stash away and the worms ate the rest of it. Trust the NGM; they know what they are doing.”
So let us analyze that point of view. This is not Y2K; it is about borrowing money that cannot be paid back. My urgings do not suggest that one acquires massive personal debt nor takes any actions that place you in a high risk financial, emotional, nor dangerous place. Assume that the NGM do perfectly reduce spending over a several year period and that business activity redevelops so that everybody has a job. On a national level, we work things out.
You will have heirloom seed, stored, clean homegrown food, a new set of muscles, a beautiful homestead garden patch, and a confidence in the future “that we’re going to be ok.” If in fact things do work out, you may choose to return to “bread and circus.”
The risk that NGM are not going to do things correctly (because they haven’t in the past) is too great for me to accept. If I am right, folks I love most and other folks as well get to survive. If I am wrong, I’ll have homegrown “goodies” to share with whomever would like them.