I mentioned in a previous post that I was interested in writing about some hands on ideas concerning self reliance. The peak in global oil production will necessitate a relocaliztion concerning the things we need and use. It doesn’t get more local than your backyard so just how can you produce more of what you need at your very own home. This is the first in a number of postings I have planned on topics including basic ways you can take responsibility for your own needs. I will cover a number of focus areas including the basics we all require: water, food, shelter, clothing, energy, transportation, and communication. This is not a closed list. Please feel free to request specific topics of interest.
How many of you are old enough to remember Victory Gardens? I remember the PBS television show The Victory Garden originally hosted by Jim Crockett, but not World War II or the back yard gardens that war necessitated. Originally victory gardens sprung up out of a sense of civic pride and a need for self sufficiency. I find it interesting that the Federal Government didn’t immediately endorse the program but warmed to the idea when it recognized the amount of food Americans were able to produce for themselves. In 1943 there were about 20 million Victory Gardens, or personal home gardens, producing more than 30% of the vegetables grown in America and more than 70% of the vegetables eaten by those on the home front. That’s a lot of food!
These days the average food item we eat travels more than 1,500 miles to get to us. Chances are most of those food items aren’t vegetables either. Our current commercial agricultural system requires heavy inputs of fertilizers made from natural gas and pesticides produced from petroleum. It also relies heavily on diesel fuel to power irrigation pumps, tractors, combines, and other modern farm machinery. This is followed by a trip to the processing plant where corn becomes corn chips and wheat becomes wheat thins. Then there’s the final journey mentioned above from the far-flung factory to the grocery store you reach by driving your car. After peak oil the world will produce fewer barrels of oil (our energy lifeblood) each year. Have you ever given any thought to the effect peak oil will have on your access to food? A quick glance at the first part of this paragraph should have provided you a vague notion. If you’d like to explore the implications further you should read, “The Oil We Eat”, an article from Harper’s Magazine Feburary 2004.
So how can we go about once again raising our own food right in our own backyard. It’s not as hard as you might think. Below are some of the basic considerations you should make followed by some of the principle practices of Biointensive gardening that might increase your yield and reduce your labor load.
Select a sunny spot. Most vegetables require more than 6 hours of full sun during the day to produce a bountiful crop. Be sure to take into account the shade of buildings or trees.
Select a well drained location. While vegetables like water, few will tolerate standing water. Make sure excess water can drain away after a heavy rain.
Choose fertile, friable soil. This means selecting soil that breaks apart easily and is rich in organic material. Good soil has an unmistakable smell that even inexperienced gardeners can recognize.
Check with local sources including county and state agricultural extension offices, nurseries, farm and feed stores, and even local farmers to ask about what grows best and when to plant it.
Start small. Nothing will destroy your enthusiasm more than planting a huge garden you are unable to keep up with. Begin with a modest amount of land under cultivation and grow your garden in size each year.
Try perennials as well as annuals. Annual crops must be planted every year to produce food. These include tomatoes, potatoes, corn and carrots, etc. These foods are excellent candidates for your garden but don’t forget about the plants that come back every year on their own. Fruit trees like peaches, pears, apples and plums as well as nut tress like pecans and almonds will grow year after year. Berry bushes like, Raspberry and blueberry bushes do not need to be replaced annually. We call these plants perennials. They also include strawberries, rhubarb, asparagus and many more.
Plan your garden. Decide what you’re going to plant, how much room you have and sketch out a plan of where to put each vegetable. Remember not to plant tall vegetables like corn where they will shade shorter ones. Also plant early vegetables like lettuce and spinach together so that when they’re done for the season you can replace the entire area with other vegetables that thrive later in the year.
Keep good records. Write down notes about which vegetables and varieties you plant. Keep track of when you plant them and when you harvested them. Make sure and record problems you encountered and improvements you think possible the following year. This may seem like a waste of time to those of you beginning to garden but this information will prove invaluable in the future. Not to mention it will give you better results faster.
Consider security. There are plenty of unwelcome critters that might like to visit your garden and even eat your vegetables. Be aware of the types of animals that visit your potential garden area and take steps to limit their access.
Don’t be afraid of the front yard. Plant vegetables where ever conditions are favorable. Front yards, especially those with large areas of grass are often well suited to vegetable gardens. Don’t dismiss these areas because of tradition.
Mulch with leaves. This is an excellent way to reduce the amount of water you’ll need for irrigation. It will also almost eliminate your need for weeding. That’s right I said almost no weeding! Spread out a layer of 1 - 2” of leaves from last fall over your garden after your plants are at least 3 inches tall. You will be amazed and you can turn the leaves into the soil next fall when you put your garden to bed for the winter.
Start composting yesterday. Begin a program of recycling kitchen waste as well as fallen leaves and grass clippings. This cyclic system of returning nutrients to your soil is the lifeblood of a good garden. The material will take a while to break down and provide nutirents so start today.
Biointensive Gardening goes farther towards utilizing the natural systems in your garden to maximize your production. Here are a few techniques you should consider.
Double Digging your garden bed. Instead of just turning over a few inches of soil to prepare for your vegetables, dig down and break up the soil at least 24” to allow for greater drainage and to give your vegetables room to grow extensive root systems for water and nutrient uptake. This will also allow you to work compost or other organic materials deeper into the soil. You can achieve this 24” of loose soil in part by building raised beds. This means using timber, bricks, stones or even logs as walls to hold up soil above the existing grade.
Intensive Planting. Instead of placing each individual plant a considerable distance from the next plant in a row spaced far apart from the next row, crowd the plants closer together. Alright don’t “crowd” them together but place them close enough so that the leaves of the mature plants will just touch. This will shade the soil below encouraging moisture retention and eliminating the sunlight necessary for weeds to begin growing. Spacing distances will vary by vegetable. I’ll provide resources at the end for estimating spacing distances.
Companion Planting. Some vegetables grow better when grown near certain other vegetables. Beans for instance grow better near strawberries. They are companion plants. However, Beans and onions do not grow well together and are best kept farther apart. Some companion plants take advantage of each other in more tangible ways. Beans and corn for instance have an obvious symbiotic relationship. As the corn ears begins to ripen, plant beans at the base of each stalk. The beans will use the stalk as a trellis on which to climb. The beans will also fix nitrogen from the air into the soil replacing the nitrogen used by the corn.
Carbon Farming. Up to 60% of the garden should be considered for crops that produce not only food for consumption in the form of seeds or fruits but also a large amount of carbon material in the form of stalks and foliage that can be turned back into the soil to improve its character and encourage the positive microbial community that is a part of the ecological system in the soil. Corn for instance produces a lot of carbon.
Calorie Farming. Up to 30% of the garden should be considered for crops that offer high yields of calorie intensive harvests. Potatoes, Sweet Potatoes, and Turnips are a few of the crops that will provide a large number of the calories in a small space.
Use of Open-Pollinated Varieties. This means moving away from hybrid varieties. It is a commitment to genetic diversity and keeps gardeners from relying on specialty plants to produce food from the garden. It’s best to begin with the basics and that includes understanding how non-hybrid plants react to in your specific environment.
Understanding the Whole Garden. A productive garden is not simply a math equation 1 + 1 + 1 = 3. It is a complex system of interconnected cycles and species. This is not to be feared or dreaded. It is a coordinated structure that takes time to understand but will reveal itself if you pay attention to everything at work on your little plot of land. You’ll learn faster than you think.
If I could only keep one book on gardening it would be “How to Grow More Vegetables: And Fruits, Nuts, Berries, Grains, and Other Crops Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine” By John Jevons. It’s a really long title but it’s an excellent book and you can pick up a used copy for less than $15.00. It is invaluable.
Below is a list of references including information on general gardening, the Biointensive method, seed catalogs and much more. This spring try planting at least a few of your own vegetables. It’s a rewarding experience that might lead to a life less dependent on modern commercial farming and its petroleum inputs that are destine to decline in the near future. Get ahead of the curve!
Growing Vegetables in the Home Garden
Small Space Gardening
Garden Mulching Questions and Answers
Mother Earth News Article
Anioleka Seed Company
Vermont Bean Seed Company
Seeds of Change
Pinetree Garden Seeds
Territorial Seed Company
Path to Freedom (6,000 lbs. + of vegetables on 1/10th of an acre!)