I've had a funny feeling about 2012 ever since the new year hangover wore off. I'm not one to worry about ancient prophecies, and I dunno, maybe I've just got too much time on my hands, but with the next great depression predicted, potentially disruptive solar activity about to peak, and the US/Israel/Iran conflict threatening anything from a fuel crisis to world war three, everything seems to be spiralling deeper and deeper into turmoil, and I've been thinking a little about taking a few extra precautions to make sure we could get through a crisis. It doesn't take much, after all, to stock up on a few extra dried/tinned goods and some bottled water, and think a little about how you might get by without utilities or if you were forced to leave your home. Failing to plan is planning to fail and all that. And I know what you're thinking - nothing bad ever happens here in the UK (except the occasional crippling snowfall, and the odd mindless riot, and devastating floods in some areas...), but our food supply chain is more fragile than we'd like to think, as the petrol crisis in 2000 showed when supermarkets warned they were running out of food, schools were closed, and public transport, the Royal Mail and other services were threatening to shut down - all within just a few days - and if the brown stuff hits the fan on anything more than a local level, do you really think we can rely on the government to provide? When was the last time you securely relied upon the government for anything?
Even if you think I'm being dramatic and all that's a bit unlikely, one thing's certain - I ain't earning too much money right now, so for me at least, taking steps to be more self-reliant makes perfect sense. Being a veg-grower already and having the allotment is a great advantage, but we're not nearly as self-sufficient as I'd like to be. Of course, veg-growing advice for beginners is to focus on luxury crops - those that you really enjoy and save a lot of money on by not buying them at the supermarket, such as tomatoes, runner beans, aubergines, peppers, purple sprouting broccoli and asparagus - and that's a really great start. But you can't live on those things, and with a bit more time, experience and space, the goals get bigger... While I'm hardly about to start growing enough wheat to keep us in bread and pasta all year round, there's plenty more that I can do to improve things - and if we ever did have to grow food to survive then we'd need to follow the very same principles:
1) Grow as much as you can. Yeah, like I needed an excuse. The allotment is fully in use and another one is out of the question, but I'm planning to grow more in the home garden this year, utilising lots of my smaller pots that don't often get used - for individual chard and spinach plants - and some large growbag-style planters. If you think you haven't got room to grow food, remember you can still grow a significant amount on windowsills, indoors and out - explore Vertical Veg for some amazing inspiration and tips! Also think about nurturing edible plants in public places. Get to know your native wild edibles, find out how to use them, and nurture them in your local area. Some people have even grown-their-own in public places by sprinkling seeds out of the way here and there (but remember it's illegal to dig plants up without the landowner's permission).
2) Save seeds from one year to the next, and always keep a good supply. This ensures you always have free seeds to grow, develops micro-varieties adapted to conditions in your growing space, and means you're not relying on seed companies every year. Popular f1 hybrids don't reproduce true-to-type - that is, if you save the seed and sow it next year the results will be unpredictable and not the same as the parent plant - so use only heirloom and open-pollinated seeds. Some seeds are trickier to save than others, so it pays to know exactly what you're doing, and I don't know a better place to learn than Real Seeds - take a look. Seeds need to be kept dry and cool to remain useful - keep them safe.
3) Extend the growing season as much as possible, by starting early
under protection, sowing successionally for repeat crops, and making
late sowings under protection too. A big greenhouse or polytunnel would
be ideal, but a cheap plastic greenhouse and a roll or two of
horticultural fleece are a great start.
4) Get the most out of what you grow. This means saving extra seeds to sprout indoors for winter greens too - brassicas are especially good for this - and looking out for opportunities to get second crops from plants. Broccoli, calabrese, cauliflower and even cabbages will give you new shoots if you cut the heads and leave the plants in the ground. Radish seed pods can be added to stir-fries. Lettuces will produce new leaves after cutting. Pea pods can be made into soup (or wine!) Pumpkin leaves are great edible greens! (Don't eat the tomato-like fruit of potato plants though - they're poisonous.) I must get better at doing this kind of stuff!
5) Grow more substantial vegetables. Since grains are pretty much out of the question for me, that means more potatoes (spacing several sowings throughout the growing season), more starchy root veg, and more beans for drying. (Once dry, freeze beans in an airtight container for three days before storing, to kill any bean weevil eggs and avoid results like those below. Ugh.)
6) 'Three sisters' planting is ideal sustenance gardening. This traditional Native American method means growing sweetcorn, beans and squash together. The beans climb the corn and add nitrogen to its soil, and the low-growing squash leaves shade out weeds, slow moisture loss from the soil, and even deter rodents with their prickly stems. All three store well and are excellent nutritional staples, with corn high in starchy carbs, beans full of protein and fibre, and squashes packed with vitamins. Again, I'm not about to grow a meaningful amount of dried maize on my little plots, but this planting method is one I've always wanted to try, and this could be the year.
7) Preserve more. Pickles and jams are the most obvious examples, along with dried beans and peas. But you can dry pretty much any fruit or vegetable with just a little bit of knowhow, and I know I could be making much better use of my freezer too. Most veg can be frozen after blanching, and of course you can freeze sauces, pestos and herbs too. If things go to plan this year, I hope to have a freezer full of chopped tomatoes for cooking next winter, and I'm thinking about getting into dehydrating too...
8) Grow for winter as well. This is something I've always slowly worked towards and this spring, for the first time, I have purple sprouting broccoli, kale and some salad greens which have made it through the winter - hurrah! But now it's time to up the ante and grow more cold-weather crops, earlier, so we can use them all winter long. Great winter crops include many brassicas (swedes, turnips, cabbages, broccoli, Brussels, kale), endives, chicory, celeriac, leeks, parsnips, and lots of leafy greens such as chard and spinach. Some lettuces and salad greens can be grown under cover during the winter too, as well as radishes, carrots and spring onions.
9) Feed the soil and the soil will feed you. I have a terrible confession to make: I've been tossing my kitchen and garden waste in a green wheelie bin for the council to take away for the last two or three years now. Enough! I've reinstated the compost bin at the bottom of the garden and ordered a replacement missing part for my bokashi bin. Buying fertility from the garden centre is expensive and makes no sense! Remember to include a good mix of 'wet' or 'green' waste (raw food scraps, teabags, leafy plant material) and 'dry' or 'brown' waste (cardboard, paper, shredded woody plant material).
10) Include animals in your garden! As well as providing another source of food, they add more fertility to the soil and put even uncompostable scraps to good use. (Vegans and veggies may disagree of course, but then I do wonder how a lot of vegans and veggies might get on if the deluge of exotic grains and fruits imported into this country ever dried up.) I'm not allowed to include animals in my garden... But if things do ever get tough enough to change that - or when I get my own patch - chickens or rabbits are first on my list!
11) A sustainable garden must be an organic garden. Ban chemicals, which harm beneficial insects as well as the pests, and instead nurture your garden's ecosystem by growing plenty of variety, adding nectar-rich flowers to attract pollinating insects, providing insects with places to hibernate over winter, always removing dead matter that may harbour disease, improving your soil's microbiological health by adding lots of healthy organic matter, strengthening crops with seaweed extract or nettle/comfrey tea or similar, and paying your plants plenty of attention to make sure you notice any pest/disease attack before it gets out of hand. No-dig gardening supports better soil health and worm activity - and is something I want to try this year if I can. When you must deal with pests, do so manually wherever possible.
12) Practise, practise, practise. Did you know you can buy (from America) canisters of 'survival seeds' - freeze dried and vacuum packed heirloom varieties certified for up to 25 years - to stash for emergencies? Sounds all very good, but do people that buy these things expect to just sprinkle them over some bare ground and get any measure of success? I'm always learning in the garden and on the allotment, and if my survival ever depends on my ability to grow things, at least I'll know what I'm doing. If you want to feed yourself and your family in the future, there's no time like the present to begin.
Bonus Principle No. 13) In real times of anarchy, it'd be best if your veg garden didn't look too much like a veg garden, since you probably wouldn't be the only one whose cupboards are bare (not saying you shouldn't share, of course, but no-one likes to share with looters and thieves). Three sisters planting would be quite good for this, as the whole thing looks like a bit of a jungle. Avoiding long obvious rows of veg is another strategy - go for a more random look with different vegetables dotted about. Too survivalist for you? Remember four- and six-legged pests will do more damage where lots of the same crop are grown together, and less where plants are intermingled! Fleece might help too. The best strategy of all is to have a back up plan: more seeds to grow, more plants elsewhere, food stored indoors.
So what do you think? How far along the way are you to being able to keep eating if the shops stop opening one day? (I still have plenty of work to do!) Or are you happy enough just to keep saying it'll never, ever happen?