Back in March, 2012, I wrote a short piece titled “What Would You Plant in Your “Subsistence Garden?” The question generated a flood of thoughtful comments. To my surprise, yesterday a new voice popped up on the same, now-antique post. The writer, John, is an actual subsistence gardener. Please read his comment — it’s addressed to all of us — and then answer John’s timely question, “What are you doing in your garden to deal with food shortages?”
Again, my original question was “What Would You Plant in Your “Subsistence Garden?” Here’s John’s response:
Goodness where to begin!
When Kevin asked this question 8 years ago it was one of those speculative, philosophical questions one discusses while sitting by a warm fire with a full belly sipping Bourbon or Brandy.
Things have changed.
So let me introduce myself. My name is John. I am a ‘subsistence’ gardener who lives on five acres in the woods of the Southern Appalachians (western North Carolina) on the boundary of 6b and 7a growing zones with my wife of 12 years who was raised in this region by her grandparents who were subsistence farmers. We are retired-she is 68 and I am 74- so adjustments must be made for our physical capacity limits.
To ‘Subsist’ means to survive, to continue to exist; air, water, shelter and warmth, food are all necessary components. It’s not about what you enjoy, but merely staying alive. We’ll assume everyone reading this has all five, but the last one -food security-is the question. Especially now, during this pandemic, the error of being dependent on complex international food distribution networks became dramatically apparent. When I went to my local Walmart grocery and saw a 40 foot empty space where beans and rice should have been and and another 20 feet where there should have been pasta as well as empty fresh meat cases I knew we had a problem. So did you.
Subsistence farming is growing the macro nutrients..Fats, protein and carbohydrates to sustain yourself. The great majority of the world subsists on a grain and Legume diet….beans and rice, beans and corn, beans and wheat, etc. with a few fruits and vegetables and occasional meat. Growing up my wife was raised on beans and cornbread or biscuits with some vegetables from the Kitchen garden- either fresh or canned-and a chicken or some pork on Sunday with the occasional trout, catfish or wild game. They had some chickens (for eggs), a cow (for milk) and a Pig (for meat and fat).
Our subsistence garden is about 4,000 sq feet in two spaces-one is 100’x20′ and the other is about 50’x45′. ALL our food for one year would take about 5 times that space but we are stepping up gradually.
In the first plot I have about 1/3 flint corn for grits, etc. In the middle 1/3 I have 8 hills of squash and the last 1/3 is half Kennebec and half are Russet potatoes that were growing in my potato bin in the kitchen! Rule number 1 for a subsistence gardener-if it’s growing in your kitchen, throw it in the ground-might work! The other plot is pole beans, tomatoes, more squash and the start of a fall garden – cole crops and root crops.
So if you are going to try to grow more of your own food what should you grow?
Answer this question…What did the native people in my region grow? The second and related question is what did the new Europeans grow? Well, I have descendants of both groups in my extended family and the answer is clear. Beans, Corn and Squash. The new immigrants added potatoes and over time root crops (carrots, beets, turnips and rutabagas) cabbage and greens, a few herbs as well as chickens and pigs. You can live on that diet, survive, ‘subsist’. Then the ‘niceties’ show up in the Kitchen garden…peas, lettuce, radishes, shallots, exotic herbs and vegetables for variety. Daddy grew the main crops, momma ran the kitchen garden with herbs and flowers (bees make honey you know) and the kids helped everywhere.
It is estimated the Indians needed an acre to grow food for a family of four (beans, corn, squash) supplemented by hunting and gathering. Their diet was VERY basic. We all want to grow a grocery store and it can’t happen.
So what to do? If you don’t have even an acre of ground (an acre is over 43,000 sq feet-210 feet on a side). Learn to can and freeze. My local farm stand provides bulk items in season. Gallons of strawberries in the spring, peppers, squash, pole beans and cukes in late summer and potatoes, apples and tomatoes in the fall-in bushels, totes and pecks at decent prices, as well as fifty pound bags of cabbage. If wal-mart is having a sale on something ask to buy a case. My local store does this all the time.
2-Borrow or rent some land if you live on a city or suburban lot. Carol Deppe wrote the definitive book on subsistence gardening, “The Resilient Gardener, Food Production and Self-reliance in Uncertain Times”. She has her Doctorate in Botany from Harvard Un. and suffers from Celiac disease, as in Gluten doesn’t just make her grumpy-it can kill her. She grows all her own staples-corn, squash, potatoes, beans and no doubt other additions as well in her kitchen garden. And she has ducks (she lives in Oregon). She is in my wife’s age group and has a bad back. If she can do it so can I ….and so can you. She also lives on a city lot and has done just what I suggested…rent or borrow land.
3-“No man is an Island” a title by Thomas Merton. You cannot simply go off half cocked and survive purely on your own effort. It takes a neighborhood, a community of like minded people who can co-operate and assist each other. When there was no chicken at Wal-mart I immediately ordered 50 Cornish X meat chickens in two 25 bird shipments. I have the equipment to process them. I then asked a neighbor for a hand-he has a tractor and would he cultivate my 4,000 sq foot garden. He said, “sure, be over tomorrow night”. He had a 16 inch plow so he turned both beds…took about 30 minutes. He said, “let’s give it a week to dry and I’ll come back and cultivate.” He came back a week later with the cultivator attachment – like a big 6′ wide rototiller-and another half hour it was done. “Don’t owe me a thing” as in I didn’t have to pay, but obviously I owe him…to return the favor in some way in the future if he has the need…which I would be honored to do. He has allowed that if I had any blueberries (I have a 1/4 acre patch) his wife could make her wine. If I get any this season you can be sure that will happen and I made get a bottle or two to boot. That’s how it works in subsistence communities-trade and barter.
So I would like Kevin to re-issue the question on this thread– but more along the lines of, “what are you doing in your garden to deal with food shortages?”
John, thank you for your thought-provoking comment. Also, thank you for updating my original question to suit the current time. I look forward to reading every response to your question..right after I plant another packet of pole beans!