I would like to welcome my first guest writer, Karen Wolfgang. She is owner and project coordinator of Independence Gardens PDX. She has written an outstanding piece on being a new gardener and being prepared. Thank you Karen!
Thanks to a few spectacularly sunny recent days, Portlanders are in the throes of garden fever. But behind the excitement of getting out into the spring sunshine is another growing trend (so to speak). This season, many people are beginning to seriously consider gardening for preparedness, a.k.a. resilient gardening, or gardening when it counts: developing the skills, habits, and resources for growing food for ourselves and our people, wherever we are and whatever comes next.
As it turns out, however, many of the people who are getting excited about growing food have little to no previous experience doing so, not to mention performing associated preparation and preservation tasks. Not to worry: I, for one, believe that this lack of practical understanding is a tremendous opportunity for learning and growth. All steps taken toward food awareness and security–even the baby ones–contribute positively to the long-term resilience of our community. I count myself lucky to be able to help people take those steps on a daily basis through my business…but it certainly is possible to DIY, here!
Before I hit upon three big steps toward preparedness and describe how I interpret those in the garden, I’ll just offer one caveat: it is not a piece of cake to be food self-sufficient. In fact, given a variety of modern constraints, it’s not at all possible for the vast majority of us to grow everything we need, even with presently plentiful inputs. Therefore, unless you’re in a very special situation, it is not reasonable to expect that even with highly developed gardening skills you could plan to be totally on your own, living off the fat of the land (or the fruits of your labor) in an emergency situation. Using your garden as your only approach to preparedness will not be sufficient; you should still keep 3 days to 3 weeks of emergency supplies on hand. Got it? OK. Now, get ready to start prepping your garden.
MAKE A PLAN
There are too many “what if”s out there to create a food production contingency plan for each and every possible scenario. Suffice it to say that most of the emergencies for which folks might like to be prepared involve some type of break in the conventional food supply chain. A variety of disruptions are conceivable to currently-available resources (including your own time, money, and work, as well as gas, fertilizer, water, seeds/starts from the garden center, etc.); growing food for ourselves has the potential to help us survive in the event of such disruptions, and thrive even if disaster never strikes.
As you lay out a plan for your garden, remember that growing your own food is first and foremost a great way to become more aware of your environment and build confidence in yourself. It won’t always yield what you expect, but as a gardener, you’ll be taking ownership of a vital set of skills that (under the right circumstances) will be of great benefit to you, your family, and your community. But even if you’re a garden guru, you can’t necessarily predict what might happen in the future to your established garden space or to the food that you’ve put away. Knowing full well that you’ll always be vulnerable somewhere…what might your plan for a “prepared” garden include?
- Discovering (and pushing) your own limits. We all have resources available, just as we all have constraints: time, energy, space, time, money, experience, mobility, and time, for example. Yep–most of us are pretty busy, and for now our gardens need to fit into whatever else we’re doing, unless we are able/willing to switch some things up to be more available to tend/try/learn. But keep in mind that other people have different limits, and good garden buddies can be transformative.
- Keep it small and simple (KISS). If you don’t really have the desire to garden but you do have space, consider inviting someone in the opposite situation to grow food on your land. If you do decide to give gardening a try, start small by growing a few herbs, salad greens, or a tomato plant or two. These edibles are not ones that you’ll want to count on to supply a significant portion of your calories. But they will take a chunk out of your food budget, and such a limited-scope introductory effort will give you a sense of what you know and what you need to know without inducing overwhelm.
- Gardening naturally. Practice forgoing synthetic chemicals and utilizing other external resources strategically, so that if and when those inputs become unavailable, your garden remains a balanced system that can continue to function. If you need help transforming an area, don’t be shy about asking for it: we’re lucky to have resources available for every budget in the Portland area.
- Always learning. Based on what you know about yourself, set some specific goals for your own education. Learn to preserve fruit, control pests organically, or plan your garden for maximum production. A robust practical skill set is a much bigger component of a good garden plan than you might think.
MAKE A “KIT”
Indeed, in changing circumstances, having more is not always as important as being more experienced, creative, and aware of how to make the best of any given situation. As you diversify your preparedness in other ways, like making contingency plans and stashing supplies in multiple locations, you’ll absolutely want to consider cultivating a variety of skills.
Remember, however, that just like with wild plant identification, fire- and shelter-building, hunting, herbal medicine, and other fundamental survival skills, knowing what you’re doing in your garden does not by any means guarantee that you’ll be able to implement those skills effectively in a tough situation. Gardens provide for us thanks to a combination of care by the gardener and favorable external circumstances, so you also would do well to to facilitate an environment where you will most likely have an opportunity to put your skills to use. So what combination of “kit” contents–what portfolio of available resources–is appropriate?
- Healthy soil. Fostering the community of microorganisms in the soil is the absolute best thing that you can do to get garden spaces ready for ongoing food production. Even if you don’t have a plot to call your own, investing time and energy in building soil somewhere is valuable. When it’s needed, the more land throughout our area that is immediately available (and no, that doesn’t mean under lawn or blackberry!), the better.
- Open pollinated varieties and saved seeds. You would have no problem planting hybrid seeds the first year you needed to grow your own. But after that, you would be up a creek, because planting the seeds harvested from hybrid plants will not give you the result you expected. So start now, growing heirloom/open pollinated plants whose seed you can save for future use.
- Right plant, right place. Select disease-resistant varieties well adapted to grow in our climate, and plants that do not need your constant attention. Include perennial food producers in your landscape, as well as annual vegetables in a designated garden area.
- Effective interdependence. Build networks of people now with whom you have a good rapport, and with whom you are willing to share resources. Be sure to reach out! If yours is the only garden in the neighborhood, you better believe your family is not going to be the only one relying on its yield.
The people piece of your garden preparedness strategy leads us to the “final” step in a journey that I hope you can enjoy for the rest of your days: meeting and working with other people who are similarly interested in gardening, preserving, and skill-building. Friends in the gardening world can help you learn new ways to prepare and store your harvest, develop new garden spaces, find existing resources, and create new ones. If you can, be on the lookout for people who are doing this optimistically and joyfully. I hope that you will become one of them.
Some of many resources for connecting to other interested folks include:
- Friends of Trees
- Naomi’s Organic Farm Supply
- No Ivy League
- Portland Fruit Tree Project