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The Human-Powered Veggie Garden- Part 1

A small amount of land, in some cases as little as half an acre if managed correctly, could supply a bountiful vegetable garden even without the luxuries of fossil fuel-driven technology or animal power. The key to the survival of an individual or a family who is either under-prepared or through the course of events is somehow unable to use any fossil fuel-driven technology or animal power is being able to quickly produce edible crops on the ground that they have using nothing but hand tools. The methods necessary to do this are inexpensive to implement, physically rewarding, and beneficial to the long-term health of your garden. Implementing them on a small-scale now will be immediately beneficial to your health via increased nutritional quality and physical activity. You will also gain the confidence of knowing that if gardening should ever be forced upon you as a full-time job, you would be able to put food on the table for the people who are relying upon you for protection and guidance.

I will detail my own experience, gathered over the course of the last four years, which was inspired by the book, Gardening When It Counts by Steve Solomon. It is a brilliantly presented, scientific, yet accessible step-by-step guide to maximizing the production and minimizing the chemical input (to zero, in his case) of your garden. This guide will be a description of how to do it on a small scale. Deciding how to implement it is really up to you and depends on a lot of factors, all of which will vary from one person to the next.

The double dug garden is not a new concept, but it is rarely practiced. Most people use rototillers. Generally speaking, that works given that the power is on and the modern, relatively intense gardening practices can be kept up. (I have more on this later.) Double dug means that all the digging is done with a shovel by hand. Double means you do it twice, until you can bury the entire head of your pointed shovel in loose soil. Does it sound like a lot of work? It is, but after I describe the technique in detail, I will tell you a little more about why it is worth the effort.

Location

To begin, a location must be chosen. If you already have a garden established, you can either use a part of that one or expand it nearby with this technique. For those using this as their first garden, the top priority when choosing a location should be sunlight. Be realistic, and make sure to account for spring growth and summer foliage when looking at nearby tree shadows. Enough sunlight is relative. Read up on what you are growing, considering how often you get a day of full sun, and choose a place where you can generally expect to get at least six full hours of direct exposure to the sun. In the northern hemisphere, orienting towards the south or southeast exposure is the best. I like having the morning sun hit my garden, because I can water it early in the day and the roots get warmed up relatively soon. Drying off the dew early in more humid climates will also benefit the health of your crops when it comes to mold. An easily overlooked but very important aspect of site selection is proximity to the house. The closer you are to your tools and your plants, the better care you will give them and the more and better food you will get in the end.

Tools

Speaking of tools, here are the bare essentials:

  • Shovels– pointed and transfer/scoop style.
  • Sturdy hoe
  • Stone rake
  • Hose with a switchable shower-style nozzle
  • Hat with 360 degree brim
  • Metal file

That’s pretty much it. There are things that would make life easier, but if that’s all you have you can garden.

Sharpening Tools

So, to get started, the single biggest effort and time saving advice I can give you is to grab that file and sharpen the hoe and pointed shovel. Most of the hand tools you buy, in fact any of the ones I have seen for sale even if they are of fine quality, are not sharp. The difference between having a 1/8” piece of flat steel of a sharpened bevel at the end of your implement many seem trivial, but when it comes to slicing through hard ground full of rocks or simply flicking your wrist to kill a weed with the corner of the hoe, the effort pays off immediately and requires little initial input and even less upkeep. Sharpening these tools is pretty simple. Secure them with one hand and a sturdy object like a workbench, and file a bevel onto the leading edge of your pointed shovel up to about five or six inches out from the point. Do the same to the working edge of the hoe. The first filing takes a few minutes, since you have to grind through the thickness of the metal to bevel it, but once the edge is ground maintaining it after a day’s work takes literally seconds.

Killing the Sod

Now that the site is chosen and you have a sharp shovel, it’s time to kill the sod, which is a mat formed by the grass and its intertwining root system. Ideally, the ground breaking takes place in fall, but with proper timing you should be able to follow this advice and still at least grow some summer and fall crops, even if you have to start this project after the ground thaws in the spring. Killing the sod is pretty simple. Using the pointed shovel, start at the “top” edge of your garden. You will be advancing to the rear as you dig, so keep in mind that going downhill, if grade is even slightly a factor, is much easier. Using your foot, drive the shovel through the sod. There is no need to go for big chunks of dirt. The only goal at this step is to turn shovel-sized chunks of sod over roots up so that the grass dies. Lay the first row of sod on the ground in front of you, laying subsequent rows onto the bare ground that is now where the first row of sod was growing. Repeat for the entire length of your growing area and after all the sod is turned over, you can walk away for a week to ten days to let it die.

Check Out Soil and Gather Amendments

During this time, check out your soil and gather your amendments. For me, amendments fall into two categories: nutritional and water/root management. Nutritional amendments, like fertilizers, compost, and wood ash, feed the plants throughout the growing season. Amendments, like peat moss, vermiculite, and sand, are used to alter the quality of your soil regarding how roots can grow in it and how water is held and drained. Since everyone’s needs are different, I will describe the amendments that went into my garden. I had a lot of rocks to deal with and a slight tendency towards clay but nothing that wouldn’t drain. I decided to add approximately an inch of peat moss across the entire garden to give some improvement in water retention and also to help break up some of the clay. I could have used more, but since my nutritional amendment, composted alpaca manure, would also help with soil tilth I decided an inch would suffice.

Compost

Compost is a touchy subject and opens up huge debates that I’m not going to weigh in on. The stuff I use is made from the composted manure of my parents’ alpacas. When their pens get shoveled out, the “beans”, straw, and whatever urine is mixed in gets piled in rows about four feet at the base and maybe three feet tall. I turn them and let them sit for a few weeks; then, I turn them again until it reduces down to a dark brown, highly potent, all-natural fertilizer that has never failed to grow large and bountiful versions of whatever plant I nurture with it. There are plenty of other ways to make compost, and depending on the quality of the stuff you end up with you may or may not need other methods of fertilization. For my garden, the compost I make is the bulk of the nutritional input. I also dig in some fall foliage to the garden bed, and both wood ash and plant waste are tossed onto the manure pile throughout the year.

After the week has passed, spread half of your amendments onto the overturned sod, which should be mostly dead anyway. You are about to finish it off for good on the first of two rounds of real digging. Start in the same position as when you were removing sod. Drive the shovel through the amendments, dying sod, and as much soil as you can bite off with a good kick. Rock the shovel a little to free any small stones and scoop the load forward, away from you, just like you did with the sod. Unless they come up easily, disregard any large stones you clang the shovel off if they are more than a couple inches down. They will be dealt with in the next round. Once you finish a row, you should have a small trench dug with a pile of dirt in front of it. Go back about six inches, or half a shovel head length, and dig the next row, using the materials you turn over to fill in the trench you just dug. Take your time to chop up any big chunks of sod that are left and cover anything green that happens to have survived. Do this for the entire garden. It’s tough work but not the worst, and when you are finished with this round you will already have a result on par with rototilling. An adult man in decent shape should be able to dig a 10×5 area in about an hour, maybe 90 minutes. In subsequent years, the input is significantly reduced, so don’t fear that this admittedly difficult part of the process will have to be repeated annually. After digging, cover with the second half of your amendments, and get ready for the final dig.

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Prepping 101 – Food Preps: 30 Days Worth Of Food

When you start to consider prepping, one of the first things you need to start prepping for is food. Simply put, food is one essential you need to live and your family must have a supply of food on hand regardless what the day or your situation is. Because of our just in time supply chain model, most grocery stores do not have more than 3 days’ worth of food stocked. In any type of emergency or disaster situation, the store shelves are cleaned quickly. You do not want to be one of those people who realize you have nothing in the house for dinner and a major snow storm, hurricane or  other event is imminent. You will go to the grocery store and find bare shelves like they did during hurricane Sandy. This happens in every instance where people could face the possibility of going hungry. The stores are cleaned out and the larger your city, the quicker the shelves are bare.

Not only will there be no food on the shelves, but the shelves could stay that way for a long time. What if the roads are impassable? What if there is some supply disruption. You could be out of food for a long time and this should never happen. You eat every day and so does everyone else. Running out of food should not be an option for your family at least for a reasonable amount of time.

FEMA recommends 3 days’ worth of food and water to last most common emergencies and I would say 30 days is a better goal to shoot for. If you have a month of food stored in your house you can worry about other things like getting back to your family if you are away from home or not going out in the first place to fight the lines of panicked people who waited until the last-minute.

Storing food can be complicated and costly but it is possible to start with a very simple list of items that you can purchase from your local grocery store or big-box chain like Wal-Mart, Pick N Save, or Sam’s Club. I have compiled a simple list of common foods that you can go get today that will allow you to feed a family of 4 for 30 days. If you have more or less people or giants in your family tree then you would need to adjust accordingly.

Basic Foods

I shop at Pick N’ Save or Sam’s, but you can get all of these at your friendly neighborhood grocery store. You may have to adjust the quantities. I like Pick N’ Save and Sam’s because I can buy larger containers and have to worry about fewer items, but you can also use Amazon or our website. At a store, you can also throw these into your cart and nobody is going to look at you like you are a deviant. If anyone does ask you what you are doing, just tell them you are having a big Chicken Stew or some other neighborhood type of event.

  • Rice – First off, buy a 50lb. bag of rice. These contain 504 servings and I don’t know too many people who won’t eat rice. It is simple to cook and stores for years if you keep it cool and dry. This bag at Sam’s costs about $19 now.
  • Beans – Next buy a bag of dry beans. This will check off the Beans part of your Beans, Bullets and Band-Aids list. A good size bag is about $5 and makes 126 servings. Buy two if you think your family would like them.
  • Canned meat – Cans are great for fruits and vegetables and anyone can find something they will eat. For canned meat, I recommend tuna or chicken because it tastes a heck of a lot better than Spam and you can easily mix that into your rice. For the meat you will need approximately 35 cans. Each can has about 3 servings and this will be the most costly, but they last over a year usually and your family probably eats chicken or tuna on a semi-regular basis anyway so restocking this should be simple.
  • Canned Vegetables – you will need about 40 cans of vegetables and again this can be whatever your family will eat. Expect to pay around a dollar each so $40 for veggies to last your family a month.
  • Canned Fruit – again, simple fruits that your family will eat. These can even be fruit cocktail if that is the safest thing. At Costco they have the #10 cans of fruit like pears or apple slices and each of these has 25 servings. 5 of these will cost about $25 and give your family their daily dose of fruit.
  • Oatmeal – Good old-fashioned oatmeal is simple to cook and store. A normal container has 30 servings each so purchase about 4 of these and your family won’t starve for breakfast. At $2 each that is about $8 for breakfast for a month for a family of four. Could you exchange Pop-tarts? Maybe, but I find oatmeal more filling and less likely to be snacked on.
  • HoneyHoney is a miracle food really as it will never go bad if you keep it dry and cool. Honey will last you forever and Sam’s has large containers that hold 108 servings. You can use this in place of sugar to satisfy the sweet tooth. Honey even has medicinal properties and you can use this to add some flavor to your oatmeal for breakfast.
  • Salt – Same as honey, salt will never go bad if you keep it dry and helps the flavor of anything. You can buy a big box of salt for around $1 and that will last your whole family a month easily.
  • Vitamins – I recommend getting some good multivitamins to augment your nutrition in the case of a disaster or emergency. Granted, rice and beans aren’t the best and you won’t be getting as many nutrients from canned fruit and vegetables so the vitamins help to fill in the gaps and keep you healthy. One big bottle costs about $8. You will need to get a kids version too if you have children small enough that they can’t or won’t swallow a big multivitamin.

All of the list above will feed the average family of 4 for right at 30 days and makes a great start to your food preparations. The meat was the most expensive part but the bill comes to around $500 give or take but this will vary by where you live. Should you stop there? No, but this is just a good starting point and you should expand from here. I would keep all of these items in your pantry along with your regular groceries and rotate these to keep the contents fresh.

What Next?

Once you have 30 days of groceries in your pantry I would recommend looking into storing larger quantities in Mylar bags or purchasing freeze-dried foods and bulk grains to augment your supplies. You would also need to plan for basic necessities like hygiene (hello toilet paper!) and different food items.

What else should you have? I would recommend several large candles (we make emergency candles that burn for 140 hours plus) or a propane powered lantern, matches or lighters, batteries for flashlights, a good first aid kit, radio and plenty of water. You should also add bullion cubes and spices in to make the meals more palatable. Is this going to be as good as some toaster strudel or 3-egg omelets from your chickens in the morning? No, but this list above will keep your family alive.

Water is another post, but for a month you will need 120 gallons at a minimum. Storing this isn’t as easy as groceries but there are lots of options.

This should get you started on your food preps and you can build on from here. One important thing to do is rotate your supplies. A good rule to remember is go through all your supplies every seasons. Let me know if you have other ideas I missed.