Overcome Food Shortages And Eat Better Too!
Shelter in place,” “keep your distance” and “stay at home” are all phrases that have recently become part of our everyday language. People are stocking up on paper products, buying chest freezers and trying to figure out what their next move will be. Other things we’re seeing are rising prices and shortages of food in the grocery stores, along with long lines at food pantries and food distribution centers. We haven’t seen anything like this since the Great Depression of the 1920s and 1930s.
Although there’s no “visible” enemy, we’re on a war footing. The country has been mobilized not unlike it was during World War II. There was a food shortage then as well; and, at the same time, the United States was feeding the world. Food produced here was being sent overseas to feed American troops, as well as Allied civilians and troops. Everyday Americans were asked to sacrifice for the greater good.
They were also encouraged to grow as much of their own food as they could. Thus, the “victory garden” was born. It’s estimated that more than 20 million victory gardens of various sizes had been started by the end of World War II.
Today, we need victory gardens again, perhaps more than ever. This article will discuss how all of us can start a garden, no matter where we live. I’ll discuss how to begin, what to plant and what you need to make your garden thrive.
Why start a victory garden? For the same reason you should be wearing a face mask, observing social distancing and regularly cleaning surfaces: It helps keep your family, and mine, safe. If that doesn’t work for you, how about the fact that every squash, cucumber or tomato you harvest from your garden is one less that you have to purchase (if you can find one) from a store. Put in different terms: The more you can do for yourself, the less reliant you are on others. In addition, perhaps you can help others who don’t have access to fresh veggies and can’t have a garden of their own.
The first step is to have a plan: Figure out the best place for your garden and what kinds of crops you want to grow.
Regarding the size of your garden, I suggest starting small. Many people find home gardening is a great form of stress relief—which is good—but having a garden that’s too large might be too difficult to manage and could become overwhelming.
Unlike a “normal” garden, for which you’d need some land to make it really work, a victory garden, as well as where to have one, is open to your own imagination. It can range from a small plot in the backyard to a vacant city lot. It can even be a few pots on the balcony of your apartment. All you need to start a victory garden is some soil, water, sunlight and the desire to get it done.
The size of your garden is not only dictated by the amount of space you’re working with, it’s also determined by the number of people you intend to feed. Obviously, the larger the garden, the more food you could possibly produce. If your intent is to feed only two people, you can probably get away with a few pots.
On the other hand, if you have a larger family or you intend to help feed your neighbors, you’ll need a larger garden. My garden measures 12 by 14 feet, and I’m able (when all goes right) to feed my wife and myself, with a little extra to share with my daughter and her family.
Alternatively, starting a community victory garden in a vacant lot is a great way to bring people together and also feed many people who need help.
What to Plant
There are a few factors involved with deciding what to plant.
First, you need to start with what your family will eat. If you don’t like eggplant or kale, don’t waste your time or garden space growing them.
Second, look at the size of the garden you’re working with. Some plants, such as corn, require a great deal of room. The good news is that there are many plants that do very well when grown in containers, including cucumbers, squash and tomatoes, to name a few.
What works for the size of the space you have? There’s a lot of information to be found on seed packets, as well as from state cooperative extensions and via Internet research. There are also many books on the subject; in fact, this is where I turn much of the time when I have questions (see the “Resources” sidebar at the bottom of this article).
Third, keep it simple. If you’re new to all of this, stick to crops that are really easy to grow. Peas, beans and radishes are good crops for the first-time gardener. If there’s such a thing as “foolproof” crops, these fit the bill.
Fourth, you need to look at the climate of the area in which you’re planting your garden. Where you live is a major factor with what you can grow, along with when you can safely plant. Some areas have longer growing seasons; others have water issues.
All the previous sources I mentioned will give you the information you need to choose the crops you want to grow in your area. You can also ask friends and neighbors who have gardens what works best for them. Their success won’t always be yours, but they can help you narrow down your options.
Prepare for Planting
You’ve made your plan, gathered your seeds or started plants in trays or pots. Where do you go from here?
It’s time to prepare your soil. If you’re growing your plants in containers, this is as simple as getting some good soil mix from your local garden center. If you’re turning part of your backyard into a garden, this will require a bit more work.
Not all soil is created equal. Some might be low in nutrients, high in acid or both. There are soil test kits available to help you determine what you’re starting with. I’ve never had my soil tested, but I’ve added lime to offset any acid problem, and I constantly add organic material to my soil.
The more organic material you add, the healthier the soil will be. (I included a couple of links for learning more about composting in the “Resources” sidebar at the bottom of this article. For now, just remember: The more organic material, the better.)
Gather your tools (see the “Tools” sidebar on page 68) and get to work. If you’re working with a small area, hand tools will be enough. If it’s a large area, such as a community garden, a rototiller will make your job much easier. Even with a small garden, if you have, or can borrow, a rototiller, you’ll save time (and your back). I like to use hand tools to work my garden.
After marking off the area, begin turning the soil. Once the soil has been turned, use a garden rake to remove large clumps of sod, roots and rocks. When that’s done, add the organic material and turn the soil again. Rake it out again, this time using a common leaf rake. At this point, you’re just trying to smooth the planting area.
The soil is now ready for planting. However, before you start putting seeds or plants in the ground, mark out where you’re going to plant each crop. Make sure to leave room to walk between each planting area.
Patience Is a Virtue
The hardest part of having a garden is having the patience to let the plants “do their thing.” When it comes to having a garden, there’s no such thing as instant gratification. Rather, the gratification happens when you’re able to harvest the crops that you grew and can feed to your family. In due time, you’ll reap what you sow. And, the second year is easier than the first, especially if you take notes and find ways to become more efficient.
Everyone has to do their part—both at home and within a society—and a garden is a great example of why this is true. We’re all in this together, and anything you can do to be more self-reliant makes you less dependent on others and less vulnerable to radical changes in the food supply chain.
Long before power tillers and tractors, hand tools and animal powered plows were the norm. Here are the tools I recommend for your Victory Garden.
Long handled shovel: Use for turning the soil as well as prying out some of the larger rocks.
Iron-tined garden rake: Used to rake out large clumps of sod, rocks and moving soil.
Lawn rake: Used for finish raking and smoothing the planting area.
Hoes, both long and short handled: Used for weeding between plants and close-up work while planting.
In simple and familiar terms: If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. Standing in lines and complaining about the situation aren’t going to put food on your table. Taking care of yourself, helping others and working together can definitely make things better.
Seeds or Started Plants?
Using seeds or started plants is up to you. Some plants can’t be started before planting in the garden but need to be planted as seeds directly into the garden. Root crops, such as radishes, turnips, carrots and others, need to be started by seed.
While they’re not root crops, beans, peas and lettuce are all best if planted by seed. Tomatoes, squash, cucumbers and peppers are best grown from started plants, especially in areas with short growing seasons.
There are many resources available to help you get started. Many are accessible on the web, while others can be found in magazines or books. Here are some you might find helpful.
Crockett’s Victory Garden by James Underwood Crockett.
This is an old book, published in 1977. This is an older book, but if you can get your hand on it, pick it up. Check online, local used bookstores and yard sales to find it.
Published by Little, Brown and Company, 1977
Extreme Simplicity: A Guide to Urban Homesteading by Christopher and Delores Lynn Nyerges.
This book deals with all aspects of urban living, including home gardening.
Published by Dover Publications, 2013
The Self-Sufficient Home: Going Green and Saving Money by Christopher Nyerges.
This book has a complete section on home gardening and composting.
Published by Stackpole Books, 2009
One of the best home gardening websites I’ve found is Burpee.com/findgrowzone. What is really good is the section called “My Grow Zone”. This section lets you use your zip code to access a map that gives a clear view of the best time of year to plant many garden favorites in your area.
Good Housekeeping- “An Easy Guide to Start Composting at Home” This helpful article can be found by following this link-
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a short piece, “Composting at Home”, that also provides numerous links to other helpful resources. Here is the link- EPA.gov/recycle/composting-home
I really like these three magazines because they give helpful hints that you may find useful.
“Practical Ideas for Self-Reliant Living”
“Celebrating Rural America Since 1882”
Mother Earth News
“The Original Guide to Living Wisely”
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the October, 2020 print issue of American Survival Guide.