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Guerrilla Gardener: Some Thoughts and Observations on Vegetable Food Production (Or, Gardening for Knuckle-Draggers)

January 14, 2019

One of the truisms of gardening is that “Your first year of gardening will result in abject failure.” There’s so much to learn, about the plants, about starting seeds, about your local soil conditions and what amendments are needed, about weather and climactic conditions, etc.

We had gardens when I was a kid. We successfully raised rocks, tomatoes, rocks, okra, rocks, and peas, as I recall. Of course, as any gardener will tell you, those are some of the simplest crops to raise in a kitchen garden. In fact, they’re so easy to grow, you could almost grow them without even planting them (especially the case with rocks…).

After leaving home for the Army, I had never had a garden. Hell, I’d never had a potted plant.

My wife had never, as far as I know, had a garden in her life.

So, when we decided to start raising most of our own food, to increase our sustainability, my first instinct was to raise small livestock: chickens, rabbits, etc. Of course, I’m a meat-eater, both literally and figuratively, so that makes sense. My wife on the other hand, likes her veggies, and we want the kids to eat well-balanced meals, so a garden, it was decided, was a necessity (And, to be clear, by “it was decided,” I mean, HH6 said, “We’re going to plant a garden this year!” and I responded with, “Roger that, boss!”)

So, as is my norm, when confronted with a new, unfamiliar—foreign—mission, I started doing my “Area Study” research. I dug out a couple dozen books on subsistence gardening, organic gardening, no-till gardening, and etc.

Let me set your mind at ease: there’s a metric fuckton of material available out there on gardening, and it’s fair to say that any given reference book on the subject will contradict what every other available reference book will say.

In the end, between our research, and my wife and I bickering about differing visions for the farm’s production, here’s what we ended up trying (read to the end to find out how it turned out):

We used a combination of “Lasagna Gardening,” and Mel Bartholomew’s “Square Foot Gardening.”

Lasagna Gardening has nothing to do with meat, tomato sauce, and noodles. It is simply a technique for creating your own topsoil for planting. In a nutshell, it involves laying down something to act as a weed barrier, such as old carpet or cardboard, or even old newspaper (we used old cardboard and old newspapers, collected from a local lady that owns a shop in town, and I’ve known her since I was a kid), followed by alternating layers of straw and compost. If you could cut away the side and look at it, the resulting product would look like a shit-and-straw dish of lasagna, with its layers.

The benefit of this is that you end up with an almost perfect ratio of nitrogen:carbon, and—assuming you’re using decent compost, you end up with a pretty good base of plant nutrients as well.

Square-Foot Gardening, on the other hand, originally utilized a specific blend of store-bought soil amendments, in ratios developed by Mr. Bartholomew—which we promptly ignored as both unnecessarily expensive, and completely unsustainable, in the long-term. What we did find useful was his method of laying out planting beds, divided into square foot sections, with the distribution of seeds, within those square foot sections, predicated on what the plant was, and how much room it needed to grow.

Since we were planting only heirloom, heritage seeds, that are considerably more expensive than the shitty cast-off seeds you buy at the Wal-Mart or Lowe’s gardening section, the reduced waste of not planting then thinning, was appealing.

So, we used Square-Foot Gardening, with Lasagna Gardening for the soil building.

We built four-foot by four-foot garden beds. We bought straw the first year, but only because we had too anyway for animal bedding and for part of the house construction. We ended up with a tractor-trailer load worth of straw. When some of it got wet, after the neighbor’s cows knocked down part of the pile, it was a no-brainer to go ahead and use it.

We started a compost pile, as soon as we bought the property, combining cut grass, animal droppings, and those kitchen wastes that we didn’t feed to the animals (we also use a composting toilet, which could be applied to the garden, but for my wife’s sanity, we reserve it only for use on fruit trees in the orchard, and even then, only after it has aged for a year or two.). So, when we started the garden, we had a half-dozen 4×4 boxes, 12 inches deep, filled with alternating layers of straw and compost. Then, we scraped up enough topsoil to cover the top, and to plant the seeds in.

Did it work?

The first years, we had so many cucumbers, squash, tomatoes, and other shit that, even with eating it all summer, and the kids getting into the garden and eating off the plants, I would guess that something like 60% of what we grew ended up getting fed to the livestock.

Now, this was partly because we weren’t set up yet for long-term preservation. The house wasn’t built, and the temporary cabin we were living in was only a 12×32 foot structure, with the “kitchen” taking up 6×8 feet of one corner. With myself, the missus, and two young children, it was a little….tight.

Last year, we didn’t raise anything in the garden. The wife was pregnant, and ended up delivering the youngest in the middle of the summer, and she had zero interest in being out in the heat gardening, when she was roughly the shape of a beach ball with legs…

This year, she’s already got her garden plan set. She’s got her seeds organized and catalogued. She’s got another half-dozen beds built and filled. She’s got the kitchen set up for canning and drying.

There are multiple benefits to the blend of methods we used. With lasagna gardening, there is no tilling. I didn’t need to spend money on a tiller or plow. We’re not tearing up the subsurface structures in the soil that break down nutrients so the plants can utilize them, requiring the addition of chemical fertilizers to provide adequate nutrients. A couple years in, what we have, atop our clay soil, and 4-6 inches of native topsoil (this was farm ground and grazing pasture for 200 years, before it started going back to feral shrubbery when we bought it), is 12 inches of the richest, most thoroughly lively top soil you could imagine. It’s what I expect the top soil looked like in most of the eastern US when the forests were first cut for farming.

An additional benefit is that we don’t need to do much to refresh the soil. We toss a couple shovels of compost on the top, in the early spring, a few weeks before we are ready to plant. Then, a week or so before planting, we toss on a couple shovelfuls of fresh rabbit shit (the nitrogen levels are lower than other manure, so it won’t scald the young plants). Then, we put the seeds in, already spread to appropriate growing distances, and we watch.

Because of the amount of organic material in the created topsoil, it does an amazing job of holding moisture that the plants need to grow, even when it gets up into triple digits in the summer, and we don’t see rain for a month or so at a time. This is a bonus benefit, because we haul water for the garden in five gallon buckets, from rainwater catchment off the garden shed, so the less we have to water, the better.

It takes, at most, an hour, to put in the compost addition in the spring, and that is basically it for garden prep.

Planting might take two days of leisurely effort. Honestly, so far, the hardest part of this method has been actually harvesting the crops…damn it…

————-

So, is the point of this that “well, actually, you DON’T need to practice this stuff before TSHTF?” Of course not. What worked on our garden may not work on yours, given local environmental considerations. More importantly, we had already started a great compost pile, and had the livestock in place to provide more compost than we could possibly use.

The point is, I can still go to the grocery store—either the local big box grocer, or Wal-Mart, or even the local hippie co-op—and buy groceries. I can buy pretty much any vegetable I could ever want, from anywhere in the world, with considerably less direct effort than it takes to plant it…except it doesn’t take any effort. It takes approximately three man-minutes per plant, if my numbers pencil out correctly. Let’s look at tomatoes. I would guess we get a dozen or so tomatoes off each plant. Tomatoes at the local co-op (and let’s use that, to be fair, because ours are also organic, non-hybrid, etc, etc, etc) cost about $4 each. So, three minutes, divided by 12 (for the dozen tomatoes I’ll get off that plant, is 12 (60 secondsx3, divided by 12. So, I’m putting in 12 seconds per tomato…let’s round it up to 15, for the three seconds it probably takes to pluck one off the vine. We won’t factor in driving to the store to buy them, and the cost in gas, truck insurance, etc…So, 15 seconds per tomato is 4 tomatoes per minute. Time 60 minutes in an hour is 240 tomatoes for an hour. Times $4 per tomato, and we’re suddenly at $960/hour to BUY those tomatoes….

But, let’s just say my family is slightly more moderate in our tomato use, and we only eat a dozen tomatoes a week. So, we’re at $50 in tomatoes, for the week, or $200 per month. Versus, the actual time and cost we put into them, which is roughly an hour, and $5. You know what I can do with the other $195? I can buy training ammunition. I can buy gear and equipment that I cannot grow. I can buy medical supplies. I can pay for training.

——–

“But, John! I live in an apartment in town! I don’t have room for a garden!” Well, there’s the benefit of the square-foot gardening method….You can do it in a couple of five-gallon buckets on your balcony, or even in your kitchen window. Hell, you could find a spot in an abandoned lot nearby (and there’s a LOT of those in every city I pass through, all over the country), and plant something there. Sure, you MIGHT lose it, if the economy suddenly does a Lazarus and somebody buys the lot and starts a building project on it….

You could do the same thing in a deserted spot in a nearby park. I’ve seen a lot of spots in city parks in Portland, Oregon, where a “guerrilla garden” would not only be easy to grow, but would be safe, even from the homeless population, because I had to get off the pathways to find it. A compost bucket on the apartment balcony, with a smaller bucket with lid, that will fit into a small backpack for transport, a couple packets of seed, and a hand trowel. Hit the park, find a deserted spot in among some trees, that still gets some sunlight, and voila! You’ve got a spot to start a guerrilla garden. Now, you’re not only practicing sustainable food production, albeit on a very, very small scale, probably, but you’re also practicing your tactical skills, getting in and out without being seen and followed, and having your garden fucked up by ne’er-do-wells.

Worst case scenario? You’re out a couple hours of work and a couple dollars worth of seeds, if someone does find it and tear it up (and honestly? I’ve done enough “guerrilla camping” in urban areas to be confident that, unless you’re being a dumbass about it, you’ve not got much to worry about.

The same applies, on a much easier scale, if you live in a city, in a house. “Oh, but I’m in a HOA, and we’re required to have a lawn!” Okay. So, along the edges of the lawn, against the house, put in some “flower pots/beds” and plant vegetables that produce pretty flowers before they fruit.

The possibilities for vegetable food production on a small, sustainable scale, are endless. You just have to be able—willing—to think outside of the box of “agriculture,” and then, “Do the Work!”

 

———————————–

Finally, these are links to the books I mentioned above, on Amazon. They are NOT affiliate links. I don’t get fuck-all if you order them. I just think we got a lot of benefit from reading and applying them, and I bet you will too. In fact, I would go so far as to say, if someone told me, “I’m a prepper/survivalist!” and they didn’t have these books on their shelves, I’d assume they were full of shit. We have multiple copies of each, because we loan them out so frequently.

Lasagna Gardening

Square Foot Gardening

The Humanure Handbook

From → Uncategorized

13 Comments
  1. Mike M. permalink

    Lasagna Gardening is the only one I don’t already have, but it’s on the list to buy now. We use 4 x 8 foot beds and I dug underground pipes to deliver water by the drip method. This spring will be the third year.

  2. I’ve taken aspects of several different gardening methods (Mittleider, Back to Eden, Hugelkultur, The Market Gardener, Eliot Coleman , etc.) and melded them together for what works for us. I’ll tell you what, I’ve grown to like gardening as much as I like hitting the range.

    For the garden, we always start from seed unless I’m a lazy ass and forget to start them till it’s too late. The hardiness of the home-started vs store-bought plants is night and day. We keep the healthiest and give the rest away – building rapport with our neighbors and friends.

    We’ve been using Mason bees since they’re easy to keep and are better pollinators than honey bees, though they don’t produce honey. Next season, we’ll add honey bees. So please do an article on your experience as new beekeepers.

    We grow lots of tomatos. My personal favorite is an heirloom variety called “Mr Stripey”.

    We went to local orchards and sampled dozens of apple varieties, then picked the ones we liked most and planted those trees. Now I make the perfect apple sauce for our tastes and can it. So easy and so rewarding. My son now refuses to eat any store-bought apple sauce.

    We have about 60 feet of blueberries and blackberries. Pick enough blueberries that we have plenty in the freezer all year long for pancakes, muffins, etc. If you like huge, thornless, seedless and sweet blackberries, give Primearc Freedom a try!

    I love growing potatos. Tried many varieties but have settled on Yukon Gold, Red Pontiac and Beauregard. Tastes so much better than store-bought and digging them up is a great family time for kids.

    Congratulations on the new child, and happy belated birthday to your little Ranger in the Sky.

  3. We’ve grown our own veggies where we live now for 17 years.
    The hardest part was the first few years, putting up fencing to keep the deer out-
    ( live inside a national park, so that’s the only option)- and amending the mostly yellow clay soil.
    Compost, peat, horse manure from neighbor who uses sawdust in stalls.
    Tilled it in first 3 years. Now just add layer of compost mixed with the sawdust/ horse manure in fall, add an inch or so of compost in spring.
    No more tilling, yields are great.
    We can a lot, give a lot away to friends, trade some for various things, even sell enough to cover cost of Mason jars, lids and rings, and some new pkgs of seeds.
    We also save some of our own seeds, buy some fresh heirloom seeds every year as well.
    We have a good natural population of bees, I let grass grow in summer so clover blooms, which helps attract bees.
    Growing your own veggies this way also means you ain’t ingesting chemical fertilizer and pesticides.
    Well worth the effort.

  4. Cavguy permalink

    I hit up my local 84 lumber for the plastic used to cover the lumber during shopping, it’s trash to them. Use it extensively in the garden rows to block sun, weeds and retain water in the garden. It’s like magic. Drip line/hose for the rows and a manifold to control the flow. Just enough soil exposed for the plant. Cut holes for stuff like peppers, squash and no weeds. Dip hose placed first. Oh you did plan and draw up your layout right? It’s all good

    Get a good pressure canner and an Excalibur dehydrator too. Oh the vacuum attachment for the dehydrated foods in canning jars with oxygen absorbes.

    You got me started!

  5. JnotJ permalink

    If you’re no longer buying hay for livestock, mulching and a chicken coop, where do you get it from?

    • Some was bartered for. In other applications, I’ve used my grade-school aged slaves….err…kids….to gather wheelbarrow loads of dried leaves off the ground, and we have enough building projects going at any given moment to provide a LOT of sawdust.

  6. Mas Casa permalink

    I usually start tomatoes and peppers from seed in early February here in South Carolina. Do all of you find better success in direct sowing?

    Our garden consists of a couple 3′ x 12′ beds. Not alot, but the difference in taste and quality is worth it.

    I’ve been reading your blog for a couple years now, John. Keep up the valuable work.

  7. revjen45 permalink

    Dealing with cardiac issues greatly reduced our ability to garden this year, but we did manage a reduced effort. We haven’t gardened on a subsistence level, more of a supplement to what we buy. ’19 will be a better year for gardening.
    Re: tomatoes – If you truly love tomatoes that taste like a tomato, try the “Cherokee Purple.” You will never see one in the supermarket because they are too fragile to store and ship, so if you want them you have to grow them. Pick when they show some blush and ripen by the window. You’re welcome.

  8. Harvey Schlepp permalink

    I always grow some of the higher-calorie vegetables like beets and carrots and I try to grow one new plant that I haven’t grown before. This year it’s green English peas. We’ve been in this new house since May 2016. I started with some handmade raised garden boxes. Now I have a 20′ x 35′ bed that I just keep adding garden mix and compost to. I just added three 8′ x 4′ 10″ high boxes for carrots so they’ll be able to grow straight. The horses really like them and expect them every day.
    There’s a time in the Summer when most things are dead, except hot peppers. I cover the whole place with visqueen and I can get it up to about 120 F a few inches down. Kills weeds and nematodes and I’m ready for a Fall garden.
    Thanks for your blog, John. I’ve been reading it a long time and have bought one of your books.

  9. Swordsmyth permalink

    I highly recommend this gentleman from the UK: https://www.charlesdowding.co.uk

    I also recommend this gentleman from Washington State: https://www.backtoedenfilm.com

    You may also want to consider Steve Solomons Gardening When It Counts, he was the originator of Territorial Seed Company back in the day. He has a great website that has a plethora of downloadable books for free! https://soilandhealth.org

    Thanks for all you do JM, those that have eyes to see, ears to hear, and minds willing to do work are listening!

  10. Bill permalink

    Thanks for your posts. You always bring a smile to our faces.

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