Now is the Time to Grow Food
We will kick off this preparedness series in an unlikely place, but I think it is a place that makes sense given the current state of things. I’d also like to mention that this preparedness series will not be consecutive, but rather it will be ongoing over a few months, intermixed with my usual writings of small everyday observations and stories. As much as I look forward to sharing this topic of preparedness with you, it is not my favorite kind of blog writing to do and can feel a little tedious. There is also this undercurrent of not wanting to put myself out there so much at a time like this. I'd love to be helpful, but I also desire to be quiet if you know what I mean. Little bit of a dilemma. For now though, let’s talk about growing food.
This post has been weeks in the making, filled with many false starts and even more deleted paragraphs. I couldn’t put my finger on it until today, when I realized why I’ve struggled: to me, the topic is one of high priority, and somehow that has made me feel like I need to persuade and convince anyone reading that they must must must grow a mountain of food this year. And how exactly does one convince others of anything? Well, you don’t. We all need to do and learn for ourselves, in our own time, and we each need to figure out our individual obstacles when we are ready (we all have obstacles). So I’m not going to try and convince you of anything, I’ll just offer a few words then get on with sharing our approach to growing food.
Normally, planting food would not be my number one preparedness recommendation, but at this point in time it is a critical action we should all think about taking. It is finally clear to most Americans that our Just-In-Time supply chain is limited and fragile. Bottom line is we need to depend more on food grown close to home. Even better, we need to do the growing. All of us who are able. We need it for ourselves and to share with neighbors and family members who may not be able. We need to grow more than a few dainty summertime salads worth. We need to network within our community to learn who has honey or maple syrup or lard or manure for compost, and who might like to trade a bushel of carrots for some ground beef. We need to host food swaps and potlucks and cooking/gardening/preservation classes (when all of this is over, of course). It is hard to talk about any of this without the risk of proselytizing, so I will simmer down and just implore you to turn the soil and plant seeds, even if you live somewhere that mandates against it. Especially if you live somewhere that mandates against it.
There seems to be a tone of urgency in this post, and that is not my intention, but time is of the essence and if I can persuade one person to narrow their food sourcing scope to outside their back door and within their region, then that is one person who will be closer to food security. The good news in the face of much global uncertainty is that the very thing (I think) we must do at this time, is also incredibly joyful and hopeful!
It would be an impossible feat to write a how-to-grow-a-garden post, given the number of different climates you are reading from. I am in the north, and we have a short growing season. My approach to growing food is to do it like I mean it. There is a common sentiment out there that encourages folks to grow anything, in any way that they can, even if that means a couple of containers on an apartment balcony. While I think it is never a bad idea to grow any amount of food, if I may be the Debbie Downer for a moment: a pot of lettuce isn’t going to feed your family. Sure, it’ll bring joy and you’ll most likely learn something from the experience and those few lettuce leaves will be tastier than anything from a grocery store, but you’ll likely burn more calories hauling your pot and soil than you will consume in eating the few bowlfuls of lettuce. Which I suppose brings me to the heart of this post: if the idea of growing food seems riddled with obstacles, keep thinking. Keep turning the stone until an idea comes to you. If you do not have your own patch of earth to turn, maybe someone you know does. We lived in the city for eight years and there was a substantial community garden for those without land to use. Very often elders who still live on their own do not have the ability to garden anymore, but they’d love for someone else to use the space while receiving a small portion of the produce and a few friendly visits in return. This is not a time for “I can’t because...”, this is a time for creative ideas and work-arounds and resourcefulness. Times are challenging enough without us putting nails into our own coffins. Can’t grow food? Maybe you can trade clothes your children have outgrown with a gardener friend who needs the next size up for her kids (I’ve begun to notice parents scrambling with thrift stores being closed and a new season upon us. Their kids do not fit into last summers clothing!). Maybe offer a couple hours a week weeding time in exchange for a big basket of produce. If we become fixated on what we think we can’t do, we lose sight of the many things we can do.
This next section will share the framework for our food growing efforts.
Our Approach to Growing Food
Grow What We Eat - There is no sense in growing turnips or radish if we’re not going to eat them. We’re better off growing a large amount of twelve different vegetables that we love, devouring as much as we desire in season and preserving the surplus for winter food security.
Grow Enough for Winter - Speaking of surplus, we grow to eat year round. The bulk of our grown food is destined to feed us for the eight months out of the year that the garden cannot. Even with such efforts, there is a hunger gap in springtime as storage food dwindles and the earth slowly awakens. This is the time of year you might go down a notch on your belt. This is fine after all of that delicious high on the hog wintertime eating.
Grow Enough to Share and Barter - It’s not something we advertise, but if you are close to us you know we grow extra to share with others who are not able to, or choose not to (yes, we have their backs, too). Harvest season is also a great time for us to give back to friends and family who’ve recently helped us in a specific way. Canned goods, maple syrup, herbal medicine, meat, and baskets of vegetables all make wonderful gifts or currency.
Seed Saving - Open-pollinated seeds can be saved for future planting. This is a big money saver but even more so it is an insurance policy for times when seeds may not be available, such as some people are discovering now. Different seeds have different methods for saving, but all methods are easy enough to learn. Some seeds, such as winter squash, tend to cross-pollinate so you’d only want to save seed from plants grown well off on their own (some say at least 1,000ft from other squash plants) so the seeds you save are true and when planted in subsequent years will yield the vegetable you are hoping it yields and not a potentially inedible hybrid. Crossed seeds will not grow fruit that is harmful, they just might not be great eating. The two books I recommend for seed saving are Seed to Seed and Seed Sowing and Saving, but you could also hop onto YouTube and enter “saving tomato seed” or whatever vegetable you’d like into the search bar and you will find helpful info. Currently we routinely save seeds from tomatoes, peppers, beans, peas, sometimes squash, all sorts of herbs and flowers, kale, sometimes lettuce, corn, and potato. Although potato “seed” isn’t really the seed of the potato plant, but that is the term gardeners use when referring to the saved potatoes that are sprouted and planted each spring.
Perennial Food - In terms of preparedness and overall food security, perennial plantings are considered by many to be more important than the annual vegetable garden. I tend to agree. For the first time in our married life we feel like we are in our forever home. It might not turn out that way as life is full of twists and turns, but for once we are not living with the certainty that we will be moving on. This means we can plant all the perennial food with wild abandon! Food that gives so much year after year asking for so little maintenance in return? This feels like a solid place to invest some time and money each year. There was not a lot established on this property when we moved here, but after this planting season we will be well on our way to perennial food security.
High Calorie, Belly Filling Crops - This is perhaps the point I am most passionate about. We place high priority garden space on foods that will sustain us. I love lettuce as much as the next person, but try eating just lettuce for a week and you'll be pretty darn hungry. Beans and potatoes though? I can make a meal out of that! With this in mind, a lot of our gardening efforts are given to root vegetables, winter squash, beans, brassicas, potatoes, corn, shelling peas, and perennial fruits. Hearty fruits and vegetables that fill the pantry and freezer. I think this is especially important if you are growing in a small space; focus on getting the biggest bang for your buck.
Tending - Gardening is not about planting in the spring and walking away until harvest. Daily or near-daily tending is required. This does not have to be back-breaking, but it does need to be consistent. The system I’ve landed on over the years is doing a full garden walk through at least once a day to check for early onset of pests or disease, and a daily tending of at least two beds, possibly three. This is actually easier for me to maintain here where summers are much cooler and it is a pleasure to be outside all the time. At our former home, I would often abandon our garden for nearly the full month of July (except for filling the harvest basket) because the heat and humidity were unbearable. My goal was to get everything well-established and mulched by the end of June, then lay low until August. It was a lot of work to return to once summer began to cool down! Much better to rotate through on a 2-3 bed per day schedule all summer long.
Soil is Everything - Saving the best and most important for last. I know, soil doesn't feel like a fun place to place much effort, but without well-amended, well-composted, well-covered soil, your produce will be sparse, anemic, and riddled with more pests and disease. We are currently in year two on this land and do not yet have the livestock required for truly sustainable food systems, so building our soil from off-farm imputs is a big financial consideration. Relying solely on kitchen compost for a several thousand square foot garden is not going to cut it, animal manure is the real contributor. It is recommended to test your soil comprehensively to develop the best plan for amending. Logan Labs is a great place to check out for that. If that feels a little unrealistic this season due to all that is going on, try mixing up some Complete Organic Fertilizer using Steve Solomon’s recipe.
All of that might seem like a lot to take in, but maybe it'll help you develop your own framework. Think about your needs, your goals, your space, etc. There are so many factors!
If you do find yourself growing on a small balcony with no other options even after looking, then go ahead and grow that pot of lettuce and enjoy every last bite. And if you can squeeze a few more pots, grow culinary herbs. Oregano, parsley, sage, chives, basil, thyme, lemon balm, and rosemary. You may not be able to grow enough food to contribute much calorically, but you can grow enough herbs to season your food for an entire year, and that is not a small thing.
In my next post (which will not be two weeks away!) I will share the full list of things we are growing this year: varieties, quantities, general garden layout, and planting methods. After that, we'll get into some of the more obvious preparedness topics, I just couldn't let this brief springtime window pass us by without addressing the most important thing we can do this year. Now is the time to grow food.