Deep Digging and Rock Removal
The second round of digging is the hardest work of the whole project. The process is much like the first round, except the goal is to be able to bury the whole head of your shovel in loose soil when you are done. This time, if you hit a rock in the process of achieving that, it has to go. As you back up, some of the rocks will expose an edge you can get under with the shovel. This is where buying good tools, and sharpening your shovel is really going to pay off. Use the shovel to poke under an exposed edge of a stone to create leverage and pry it out. You may have to go slightly off track or attack from a different angle, but if you stick with it for a few seconds, you will find a way to easily pry most of them out. In the instance where you hit a rock that extends far back under the ground you are still standing on and have yet to dig, skip it and remove it while digging another row that exposes enough of it for you to extract it easily. Stay hydrated. Keep your eye on the prize, because when this is done you will be left with the beginning of a great garden bed that only improves with time.
Make Rows and Beds and Smooth the Paths
At this point in the project, if the amendments you used included any non-composted manures or fibrous organic matter, like grasses or leaves, I would let it sit for at least two weeks. If you amended the soil with “well-rotted” compost, you can begin the next step immediately. Depending on how large it is and how your garden is configured, you will need to dig some paths and create more than one bed for the plants. The idea is to not have to step on the beds, thereby eliminating a lot of potential damage to roots. When you avoid stepping on the beds, they stay loose and well-drained, allowing maximum root penetration and oxygen delivery. Dig your paths according to how easily you can reach into the bed to tend to the plants. To dig the path, simply use a transfer shovel to move soil from the intended path up and onto the beds that you will be forming. Dig it down about 6-8” below the tops of the beds you are making. Even out the beds and smooth the paths. Finally, rake the tops of the beds with a ***stone rake to remove rocks and loosen up a seedbed. The beds are now ready to be planted.
Spacing of Plants
The spacing of your plants is critical in the philosophy behind a garden like this. I mentioned earlier about the highly intensive gardening practices used and recommended as part of conventional wisdom. Growing as many plants as possible in a given space is fine for modern society, when we can be reliably sure that we can run irrigation in our gardens on-demand. This works fine when we have chemical fertilizer and literal tons of compost and soil amendments available at multiple retailers in every community. The point here is that if gardening is to work in a survival situation, you may be forced to largely rely upon the rain that falls for your watering.
Spacing becomes an issue because when a canopy of leaves forms, the plants generally stop getting bigger and hit their peak of water consumption. Plants that are spaced closely will be small when this happens. This means they have shallow root systems with small footprints. They don’t penetrate deeply, and if a drought hits, they will need constant supervision to survive until the next rain. Although you can most definitely recover a plant that wilts in the sun from lack of water if you address it quickly, the stress this places on the plant will set it back days and possibly weeks. Plants that are allowed room to grow large before a canopy forms will have deep roots and large, sturdy stems. They can better survive both harsh weather and longer periods without water than plants that are spaced close together.
Every plant has different requirements, so my general rule of thumb for spacing is whatever the seed packet says, I at least double it. The first year of this garden, I grew sweet corn. I did two 10 foot square beds and put four rows of corn in each bed with individual plants spaced 12 inches apart within the rows. These plants had plenty of room to grow and were over six feet tall before any of their leaves touched. They ended up topping out over eight feet, with some plants growing lateral branches and secondary sets of ears. Conventional wisdom might say this is wrong, but if you offset the rows, there is still enough wind protection, and I didn’t have any fall over in that particular year. The second year, I grew peppers in that bed. I did a total of 12 plants in both beds, arranged in four corners, plus two in the middle arrangement. There were bell peppers in one bed and habanero peppers in the other. I was pushing the spacing way out this time, trying to see how it would affect the yield. When I grow habaneros in a raised bed, I might get a dozen or so ripe peppers from a healthy plant. These plants each had over 75 ripe peppers, with the best three having more than 100. Give your plants room to grow. Their odds of surviving long enough to produce go up when they get bigger faster. The payoff in yield will be worth the weeding.
Remember the sharp hoe? This is the primary weeding tool, and if you take it with you on your daily patrol of the garden you should never have to dig a weed by hand. If you see a green shoot that is in a position you didn’t plant a seed, use the corner of your hoe to lift it up out of the soil. That’s it. If will almost definitely shrivel and die as soon as the sun hits its now exposed tiny roots. If one happens to slip by you for a couple days, the sharpened bevel of the hoe will easily chop it off just below the soil surface, cutting off the energy supply of the root below. That will die just as easily as the ones you pluck out. The key here is discipline. You can weed once a week if you choose to, but your plants will grow more slowly and the weeding will be more difficult every time. You don’t want to skip a week. Just weed every time you visit the garden. Be diligent about not letting any plant that you don’t want growing in your garden steal vital nutrients from your vegetables. Weeds die very easily when they are young. Once your plants get big and form a canopy, this chore diminishes, but if you are disciplined it never gets hard in the first place.
Here’s a note on “weeds”. A lot of the plants that we typically don’t want growing in our gardens, like wild spinach, dandelions, wood sorrel, and sheep sorrel to name a few, are not only edible but nutritious and delicious. I grow some of each in my garden every year. In a survival situation, simply turning over sod and letting the “weeds” grow could provide you with a lot of food in the form of leafy greens that grow very quickly. The seeds are already in the ground, waiting for the conditions to germinate. Turn the soil over, and they will grow. You would still need something to eat while the garden grows.
Watering is pretty simple if you space your plants properly and live in a place with consistent rain. Where I live, rains tend to be concentrated in spring. We also have frequent afternoon thunderstorms in summer months, making the amount of watering I do for my double-dug gardens nearly zero. Even on a hot, dry day, if you go down an inch or so into the soil, you will find plenty of usable moisture. As long as the grass isn’t getting crispy, a garden like this with properly spaced plants will not require much watering input on your part. If you do water and you chose a sunny, well-drained location, it’s pretty hard to overdo it if you are watering by hand. I prefer to water in the morning rather than the evening, so that I am not soaking the roots with cold water before hours of darkness. Soil temperature makes a big difference in how quickly things like germination and early growth take place; therefore, I try to water when the sun is coming up so the plants get warmed immediately. There are innumerable strategies for storing and moving water in a grid-down scenario, and they have been covered on this blog in great detail. Your individual strategy will vary from mine, but I plan on running a hose to my garden to gravity feed from an artisanal well.
The ongoing, year to year maintenance of this type of garden is much simpler and less time consuming than the initial start-up. Your thoroughness and diligence in removing large stones and digging in deep the first time through will be rewarded with deep, loose soil that roots can penetrate easily in search of the space they need to make large, resilient plants. When you are finished growing for the year, remove all the above-ground vegetation. I don’t put much thought into whether or not I get the roots out. If you leave them in the ground, they will rot down and add both nutrition and organic matter to the soil for next year. If you remove them from the garden, they will presumably become part of a compost pile and the end result will be nearly the same. After the vegetation is removed, you can be finished and come back when the ground thaws, plant cover crops, or spread amendments that might take some time to break down. These would include un-rotted manure and fall foliage– two that I have used in the past. When you are ready to start again the following spring, you simply spread any amendments you want in the soil for the season and make one pass with the shovel to incorporate the amendments and prepare the soil for planting. It will be easy work this time, since the soil is loose and previously worked. Dig your paths to form the beds, and you are ready for another growing season.
At this point it would be natural to conclude that this is a ton of unnecessary labor for what you might assume to be similar results to a rototilled garden. This is partially correct in that the labor is currently unnecessary. There are easier ways to garden, and there is currently an abundance of relatively inexpensive, high quality tools, seeds, fuel, and soil amendments. It is also partially incorrect, because if this method is followed and worked with discipline, the results end up far superior. For me personally, gardening was originally inspired by a combination of nutritional reasons and the desire to prepare for harder times by learning a valuable skill. This style of gardening satisfies both requirements for me, while training and instilling confidence in me for the type of gardening that would be required during an extended crisis. This practice will give you a good gauge based on how many hours per week you put into your garden for the yield you get. You can multiply this out to plan for how much land you could personally cultivate as a full-time endeavor. This will give you a good estimate as to whether you currently have enough manpower to grow as many calories as you are planning to need. This information can be used to adjust food storage plans now.
I hope you will find this to be an informative guide on how you can hand-dig a garden that can easily adjust from the current bounty to times of crisis, and that it can be accomplished with a small budget and dedicated work. I’m not recommending you sell your tractor or rototiller, but this is a good way to expand your survival skill set in the comfort of modern luxury with enjoyable and rewarding results.