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!
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Patricia Sylvester says
Wow, what a fascinating and thought provoking article from John. I have been concerned with the rise in new Covid cases in the US, that may cause food shortages this fall. I’m in Ottawa Canada, so a bit late to add to my garden, but I may put in a some potatoes, and take better care of my butternut squash, as well as planning to freeze more tomatoes than usual. Not too late to stock up on some basics at the store however, and I will do so.
Thanks John and Kevin.
I really enjoyed John’s commentary on a subsistence garden. My kitchen garden includes squash, beans, a variety of tomatoes, swiss chard, herbs, carrots, daikon and a pumpkin patch. The problem we are having in our area of eastern Canada, is that weather patterns are changing and summers are becoming increasingly dry and windy. And HOT. Put all three together and that spells drought and disaster for my little garden plot, as well as for many others. I’ve been watering diligently every evening and at best keeping everything alive, but nothing is flourishing except for the pumpkin patch and acorn squash. We are on a well and have animals, I’m praying the drought doesnt affect the water table. Here’s hoping others are having better luck with their grow season.
Kevin Lee Jacobs says
Hi Patricia – Like you, I’m keeping a keen eye on my butternut squash. It’s one of the main “keeper” crops here.
Hi Colleen – Same difficult growing conditions here in the Northeastern United States. Hot, humid, and no (meaningful) rain. Boo-hiss.
I’ve had a Victory Garden for my front yard planned for years. I’m in Southern California so drought was an issue to getting started for a while. I was still working. I’m retired now but have had a series of injuries that have kept physical activity stunted, the latest being a hyperextended knee. (Thank you, Diana pawPrints.) The delay was actually of a benefit as I was able to revisit my plan and in the meantime new building materials came on the market that changed my construction design. Old Castle corner blocks made of concrete allow 2×6 boards to slide right in. Any length you want. You can stack the blocks up to 4 high and drive rebar down the middle to stabilize. That was my answer. Raised beds 18 inches high. Three stacks.
I’ve finally got the old PVC dug up and dug new trenches and laid the new line. What was once a “lawn” that consisted of weeds and old Bermuda grass will now contain four raised bed planters. Boards across the top to trim will provide a bench while I garden. Beds are between 4×8.75 and 4 x 9.75 so I’ll have about 148 square feet when I’m done. All on drip irrigation to keep the water bill down. Not close to subsistence but for a single person, I’ll be able to grow plenty of fresh vegetables on rotation.
I chose a Victory garden design for my front yard because my house was built in 1922 and I believe it is more consistent with what a house of that period would have had than a front lawn. Lawns are beautiful but useless and wasteful. Lots of water and work to maintain them. And I hate to mow.
I don’t have enough space to grow wheat, nor the means to process it. Or rice. But you can freeze flour, semolina and corn meal and masa. Rice and some legumes will last quite a while in proper storage. I only wish I could grow lentils as I love lentils but they do store well. So does pasta. When there is a sale, I stock up. Nothing is stored in it’s original packaging. I have sturdy plastic bulk containers and a vacuum sealer.
I have a pergola in the front that is covered in grape vines and every year I get more. Black Manuka and possibly a Thomcord in there too. I don’t make wine. I’ve made jelly. But mostly they get eaten quickly.
I preserve so have already started Roma and San Marzano tomatoes and plenty of basil plants for pesto. I’ll also be growing carrots and have a plant each of bell pepper, zucchini, eggplant and a chili pepper.
We have a long growing season, pretty much year round so at the end of summer the cool season crops will go in. That will be new territory for me but I’m looking at root vegetables and spinach. Eventually I will add beans and peas and I’m hoping some corn. Probably next year when I’m a little more adventurous.
At some point I am going to have to learn how to rotate the crops too so that the beds don’t get depleted or I have problems with disease.
The middle of the garden will have a large shallow birdbath for both the birds and the bees and butterflies. I’m already seeing more butterflies this year and I’ve seen in years. I’ll be sowing pollinator friendly California natives as well as edibles. Everyone’s gotta eat. I am also in a Monarch Butterfly corridor so Milkweed will have a space.
I have more in the back yard. Not as much space but different. I have two apricot trees, Katy and Royal and am planning a third next year when bare root season returns. I have two columnal apple trees that have done OK in pots but I am going to move them into the ground, hoping for more fruit. I have a Eureka and a Meyer lemon, a Valencia and a Moro orange. I’ve added two blueberry bushes this year: Sunshine blue and Bountiful blue. I will get two more next year to encourage more berries. I also have strawberries. I make jam so I also have a rose geranium plant. Well, many of them.
There is a large Sweet Bay Laurel tree, plus Rosemary, Sage, Thyme, Marjoram, Oregano and Chives. I’m trying bunching onions too. When the next season is right I’ll be planting garlic. Plenty of it. At some point I’ll be buying potato and onion sets.
Nothing is sprayed with anything stronger than insecticidal soap. I had an outbreak of spider mites this year that seems to be under control now.
I have a modest chest freezer in the garage. Currently it has a few roasts and some whole chickens, plus other items. Everything was removed from packaging, rewrapped twice in film and then again with butcher paper, then labeled with date and contents. I will be eating that empty over the next two months as I will be ordering a mini-cow order from a rancher in Wyoming I have purchased from in the past. A small assortment of cuts and ground beef, grass fed and finished and organic. It’s enough for one or two people. Will likely last me a year or more. I’ve been buying the occasionally whole chickens, one to eat and one to freeze. I eat, and eat again (leftovers, even though they are “out of style”), pick the meat and keep the bones, freeze both for future stock and making of pot pies or enchiladas. Tortillas aren’t an issue yet but at some point I will have to learn to make them I suppose. Tortillas also freeze very well. I can get lard and tallow locally and it does freeze. I’m still perfecting my pasties. I freeze them too.
The main issue in Southern California is water. If you’ve got water, it grows. Year round sometimes. You cannot maintain any garden on just rainfall as there isn’t that much of it. If I had the money I would put gutters on the house and have a series of connected rain barrels running along the entire north side of the house, elevated to allow for watering. I have a lot of roof space and when it rains I could fill up a barrel or more each time. Perhaps someday but right now it is a cost issue. I have been known to bail the bath and keep a bucket in the shower.
Kevin Lee Jacobs says
Hi mlaiuppa – Sounds like you are well on your way to an abundance of food. Oh, to have citrus trees. The only citrus I can grow here is Meyer Lemon in a 5-inch pot!
Katie Zack says
I’m also in Southern California. I have raised beds and my issues are water, ground squirrels and gophers. Put hardware cloth under beds. Using food dehydrator quite a bit. Making jam with fruit and drying. Have chickens for eggs and the get fruit and vegetable scraps. I get fertilizer! Cooperation with neighbor so we try to grow different things and trade. We do not want to be dependent on corporate America for our food.
Zola Denio says
Great info, & Comments ! Loved all the suggestions…Thank You !!!
To everyone commenting about drought/water issues, I cannot recommend deep root watering enough, specifically the Ross deep root waterer (available on Amazon for $30). I first learned about this type of watering from a YouTube video of a man in California who claimed he could keep an entire orchard of almond trees alive using a fraction of the water normally used. He built his own waterers, but I knew I would *not* build my own, and discovered the Ross brand version of his system. There are also some brilliant ideas using drilled PVC piping laid underneath a raised garden bed that are on YouTube with clear instructions how to build, etc. I only grow flowers, but my gardens are deep root watered once every two weeks (occasionally more often in severe drought/high temperature spells) and they are ridiculously lush and healthy, since well-watered plants can fend off disease more easily. I pop the tool into the ground near the bush/tree/shrub/plant I want to water, turn it on a slight flow, set an alarm for an hour (for the bigger plants) or 15-30 minutes (for normal perennials), and then I move it to the next spot. Zero water waste, and the device itself helps regular water flow so you’re not just dumping gallons in water into the ground. At the very least, it saves me much more than $30/year on my water bill, so it paid for itself in the first summer alone.
Rosie S says
Hi Kevin, great topic! In Minnesota, we have a short but productive season, aided by the long days. I planted more tomatoes this year, along with lettuce, carrots, radishes, Swiss chard, cukes, zukes, herbs and Butterscotch butternut squash (a must try if you haven’t). I will freeze the extras, after giving some away. Fresh produce is what we miss most! Just don’t run to the store like I used to.
Kevin. A 5 inch pot isn’t near big enough. Get yourself the biggest most beautiful terra cotta pot you can find and put it on one of those pot holders with wheels. A good sturdy one. Then transplant. Make sure you put it outdoors in a sunny spot when weather is good. Bring it in when it gets to freezing and put it in a sunny spot. Be sure to feed it citrus fertilizer 3-4 times a year. My aunt had a dwarf lemon tree for years and even got fruit. She lived in Bozrah, Connecticut so it can be done. I think you will love having your own Meyer lemons. (my favorite lemon) Once you get the routine going, you can add a dwarf key lime. You can prune them if they get too big to wheel around or get through the door.
Sherilyn Peters says
Much to my neighbors dismay I put three raised garden beds in my front yard. I have tried to make them visually appealing. I use garden structures. The tomatoes, green beans, corn, cucumbers and herbs love all of the sunshine. I have a small area in my backyard that gets 6 hours of sun. The squashes, beans and corn do ok. The front is where everything thrives and produces. I edge the beds with colorful nasturtiums. Spokane has very hot summers and usually nice growing season extending into the Fall. Thank you for all of your useful information and inspiration Kevin and John.
Kevin Lee Jacobs says
Hi Sherilyn – An artistically-arranged veggie garden is a beautiful thing, no matter where it is located. Sounds like your front yard garden has terrific curb-appeal!
Thank you to you and to John for the valuable information. John brings up a good point that we “want to grow a grocery store.” We live in the midwest on 1/3 of a suburban acre, and have a mix of perennial and annual fruits, vegetables, herbs and medicinals, and a couple dwarf fruit trees. John’s comments have made me re-evaluate what we grow, so in the future I plan to focus more on high calorie staples like beans, corn, squash, potatoes, and root crops. My garden is now much more than a fun thing to do before and after work-it is a necessity!
I also wanted to thank you for the rhubarb recipes -your recipes will be recipes we use every year!
Thanks for sharing your expertise,
jackie serba says
Hi Kevin, I have 2 small gardens and plant beets, carrots, peas, brussell sprouts, peppers. onions, garlic and cucumbers. Along the garage I have tomato plants and a small garden where I plant Kaki pumpkins as the seeds are hulless and delish. I heard some people say they have critter problems. I put egg shells all over my garden as it keeps out squirles and chip monks as they are sharp. I plant a row of marigolds in the garden as they attract ladybugs and the ladybugs eat aphids that can destroy the leaves of anything u plant. I never by vegtables as I freeze and store everything I grow. Thanks for all the info u give and I hope eggshells work for every one like they do foe me..
Wow, Kevin! This is terrific and John has given each of us food for thought! I’m 73, live in SW Florida. As we live on a small subdivision lot, we are blessed to have abundant local farms and produce. I freeze some fruits and vegetables, but have been concerned about the very real possibility of power loss, such as that we experienced with Irma. Time for the ol’ gal to learn canning! Thank you, John and Kevin, for motivating me.
Hi Kevin. I am in Saratoga County. I’ve had a garden for years and do a lot of freezing and canning. I don’t have a great spot for cold storage of root crops or potatoes and squash so my husband and I process the produce right away. We even freeze the potatoes. We feast on green beans all winter right into the next growing season.
Our daughter lives next door. Their garden is 3x the size of mine. Her children help with planting and weeding as well as harvesting. They raise chickens for eggs and meat.
I started a couple apple trees and peach trees 3 years ago. Looks like I will have my first peach harvest! My blueberries are coming along but I have struggled with the soil PH. Working on that. My strawberry patch has produced 6 gallons so far this year. And I planted a couple grape vicnes which actually have grapes starting too! Maybe some wine…. one last thing- I am a beekeeper with 8 hives.
I have always had a garden. It’s work but you can fit the care in between your work schedule and other activities. You do need to prioritize. Enjoying the work and the satisfaction of the harvest are important but nothing beats eating your own food in the dead of the winter!
I’m curious, Kevin, what you think you might change in your gardens in view of the real possibility of food chain disruption? I have 2 blueberry bushes, and I’m thinking I should have a few more. This year I haven’t planted butternut squash (as I have in the past), but I may try throwing a few seeds in now to see if I can get some storage squash. Other than that, I have only the typical kitchen garden in thirteen raised cobblestone beds – tomatoes, cukes, lettuce, spinach, tomatoes, peas, string beans, one hill of summer squash, strawberries, cabbage, cauliflower, green peppers, carrots, garlic, and raspberries. I think I’ll do a second planting of carrots now, in addition to the buttternut squash. Thanks to you and John for pointing out the obvious. We all have our heads in the sand in view of the rapid advance of this pandemic.
Belinda Block says
I enjoyed this post and am learning from the comments. We live in the Adirondacks for part of the year. The two big issues we face are wind (remedied with burlap) and the failure of summer squash to get completely pollinated. Last year I was hauling some green waste from the transfer station when I saw a summer squash overtaking the area. It turned out to be Lemon Squash and I have it planted this year as a trial. I’ve upped Spaghetti Squash because we love it as pasta. Butternut Squash, pole and bush green beans, carrots, cherry and Juliette tomatoes, a variety of greens, turnips, onions, lettuces, berries, potatoes sweet and regular. I haul produce home to the midwest in late fall, just as we also haul our own seedlings here to NY for planting. I’m learning how to best use droppings picked up after Canadian geese and shredded leaves a-la Kevin. I think I do this for the wonderful memories of helping my grandmother in her huge gardens, which fed 3 families for many years.
Ann in London says
I would like to add to Jacki Serba’s advice on using eggshells , I have used this method for protecting tender plants from Slugs and snails but first put empty rinsed dry egg shells into a low heated oven or grill to bake them harder . Feeling frugal? put them in the oven after baking with heat off and although slower ….you may need several sessions …it works ! Kevin your emails always contain so much thats inspiring and educational but this one has been exceptional . The information given by all these strong ladies sharing advice is SO timely and has for me in Urban London U.K. created an exciting way forward to greater creativity in the garden and kitchen . Thank you all XX
Jennifer Barrett says
This rekindled my desire to really learn preserving techniques. But what really resonated with me was the beauty of community. I think we have lost a lot of that in recent years and neighbors really knowing and helping neighbors gives us security in so many ways, food or otherwise.
Pat Greenleaf says
Thanks Kevin and John. Excellent article. I raise my tomato seedlings starting in January. In February, I exchange a few of my tomato varieties with my brother’s varieties. This year I planted 13 different varieties. All the other seedlings were given away to neighbors. Lots of “Why did I start so many” happens every year. I can’t help myself. This year I planted zukes. Oh my goodness, I must of found the right spots for them! The neighbors have been nice enough to relieve me of these over-achiever plants. John’s comments about helping each other, well every neighbor wants to return the favor by making zucchini bread or stew. We are slowing returning to a Victory Garden way of living. Children will once again understand where fruits and vegetables come from. Happy growing to all and thank you, Kevin for sharing.
Nancy R. says
I am using produce overload this year to give to food banks in the area. So many people up here in the Northeast are really suffering from loss of jobs and layoffs. I’m sure they are all over the country.
Linda Kalbler says
Interesting thoughts. Our family grew up in western Minnesota and our parents had a small cafe. We grew pretty much everything that was used at the cafe. We truck farmed corn and melons. Since then I have had some sort of garden in my yard this year i planted a few vegetables that I had not before but always have tomatoes,peppers, eggplant,carrot beets potatoes and cucumber. Have raspberries and black caps.. Both my sisters also have large gardens.
Cynde in Scituate says
I’ve been gardening and preserving the harvest on the South Shore of Massachussets for 50 years now and my 8000 sq ft garden has evolved to be completely double mulched in order to minimize water use and keep weeds at bay. I use landscape cloth covered with hay as the mulch and remove it every Fall so the soil can regenerate. I find now that I have very few disease problems with this system. I started doing this after the tomato blight hit us hard a few years ago. I grow much more that we can use and donate the overage to the food pantry. I make lots of pickles and jams and sell them at our church fair. The proceeds of this fair are donated to local charities like the food pantry and salvation army who help so many people. I am proud that we are doing our part. I have been so excited to see so many new gardens in our town this year and have been asked many questions about gardening by young people who never thought about having a garden.
Elizabeth King says
Hi Kevin, I am writing from Southern Ontario Canada. I am in zone 5b I believe. I am a senior (very senior) & I have a 4×6 & a 4×4 raised garden. The smaller garden has herbs & the larger has vegetables. I am just feeding one person but this year my garden won’t feed even me very well. I am very disappointed with it. My herbs are thriving but my veggies aren’t. I have planted beans, carrots & multiplier onion twice & they just aren’t germinating. The carrots are almost none existent & the rabbits are eating any beet tops that emerge. My spinach did poorly too. The beans have produced about 6 plants & no onions have sprouted. My kale is flourishing as is my lettuce & the tomatoes are coming along slowly. I had hoped to put in garlic & potatoes but didn’t get them in in time. It has been difficult to get things due to the virus & being able to get out to get things. Next year if I am still able to garden I would like to increases the length of my garden or add another one & will consider some type of enclosure to keep out the pests & I will plant garlic this fall & potatoes next season.
I found the above article very interesting & the comments had some interesting things as well. I am going to look into the Ross deep root watering system. I am not sure I could use the soaker system you use Kevin. Not sure how it would work & my neighbour & I are just lucky they let us have a garden at all. In the mean time I will support our local farmers buying their fresh veggies & fruit.
Hi Kevin and thanks for the question John! We’re in western MA and due to the rocky terrain we have raised garden beds. I always over-plant but have learned to dial it back. We added a third bed this year and hope to add a 4th and a small kitchen garden next year. I’m going to try my hand at pickles this year. I make strawberry jam every year; we give as gifts along with honey from our bees. I’d love to be able to preserve more but I don’t have the luxury of time to devote to it. Any surplus is shared w friends and I barter w a young fellow who is like-minded. I’m curious about growing beans now…! Thanks all and I hope you’re well! ~NorseArcher in MA
Sue in Oregon says
I am a senior…Very senior, like Elizabeth above. We have had a garden for going on 25 years now. And, before moving here, we had a garden in every home we lived in. I am always experimenting with new ideas or at least considering them. For inspiration, I watch lots of gardening and homestead shows on YouTube. Aren’t they fun? I noticed that no one has talked about saving seeds. Did you notice the shortage of seeds this year? Empty racks in stores and Sold Out signs on line. Wow. I never thought we would see that.
Saving seeds is addicting. I have been doing it for years, and this year I used them more than ever before. There is lots of information out there about saving seeds. You should try it, but do some research first. Also, you need a place to start your seeds. I prefer transplanting where I live, but many can direct seed. It is such a nice feeling to realize you are growing something completely your own, from seed to table.
As a descendant of Florida crackers my family has been farming in north central Florida long before it was a state. My beloved late Memaw explained to me that the great depressions was that time that we did’nt have no money. I grow food in her honor and share with every one I can.
Sue in Oregon, the seed shortage here in Western NY is crazy, too. My bell peppers came along too slowly this year, so I went looking for starts. Not a one to be found in my County. I think I’ll look at seed saving. I have a very good friend who does this, and she’ll be available for my questions.
Elizabeth King, this year’s Spring in Rochester, NY, was TERRIBLE for starting a garden. Very cool well into June. I’ve planted carrots 3 times without results. The bell peppers I do have are about 2″ high. Keep the faith! We must persevere. 😉
Elaine from BC says
I was an inner city child but learned to garden after marriage. 50 oddne years later, my garden has gotten smaller while I grow even more food crops. We have a deep freeze and a cold room and a short cool growing season (in the B.C. Rockies) but I manage to grow and store close to a year’s supply of potatoes, onions, beets, assorted squash, garlic and cabbage for the two of us plus. I usually end up with some vegetables to freeze or pickle as well as strawberries, raspberries etc and some tree fruit.
I always keep a stock of basic foods and when lockdown started the only thing I ran out of was powdered milk..we didn’t go to town for a full month…the shelves that I noticed empty were flour and other baking supplies and the powdered milk. I was asked about t.p. And said I didn’t notice as I had bought a lot on sale in January and skipped that aisle. Didn’t even need pet food as we had bought that on sale before lockdown!
Frederique Jennette says
I concur with all the comments and suggestions in the above comments – these are things we all should be thinking of doing! Excellent article to begin with. Thank you.
Linda Greiss says
Great article & I really enjoyed reading all the comments!
I love looking forward and then getting your email in my Sunday email! Thanks Kevin for everything!
Hi Kevin, read your wonderful weekly updates, love the garden, house and recipes! John’s reply to your subsistence gardening was very interesting. Here is what I am doing. First I’m in the same age range as John so have to keep that in mind, alto. usually I don’t. I live in ‘the village’ in Montreal, pretty much downtown, so modern high-rises and lovely old triplexes,3 storey houses built with one or two apartments per floor and iconic outside staircases. I live in one of those, ground floor. The area was very working class, most people in the early 20 century working in small factories, many of which in the area have been turned into condos and lofts.We are lucky enough to have many community gardens, I have had one for 15 years. We have 42 plots each 20’X10′, run by the city. Due to covid it looked as if the city would not allow them to open this year, so I started all my salad seeds at home, determined to use every inch of my balcony 4’6″X 16″ and a tiny ‘garden’ area 5’X3′, all of which I have previously used only for flowers. I planted lettuce in the balcony boxes and on the balcony itself planted herbs and rocket and mixed premium greens. In the garden space I built a raised bed and planted komatsuna and more greens mix this one ‘elegance’ – all seeds from Johnny’s in Winslow Maine, wonderful seeds. I figured that if the community garden DID finally open it would be too late to plant salad type seeds as they like cool conditions and here we go from snow and real cold to 30 degrees in the blink of an eye. Well instead of opening May 1st. (but we can go into the garden by mid April when the soli is usually unfrosted) we were not allowed in until May 18th and then could only garden every other day depending on whether you had an even or odd numbered garden and hence gardened on even or odd days.
Having successfully grown the salad type crops at home I cut back on those in the comm. gdn and planted kale, basile, chard, radicchio – a bitter italian lettuce, with strong leaves almost like a cabbage.
Here you see it in stores as a tight deep red ball – very pretty and delicious. Also peas, beans and leeks. I have a perennial sorrel which makes a delicious soup, using potatoes and onions and just putting the sorrel in at the end as you blend it – very popular in France. I also have a large patch of rhubarb which seems to love our climate and has been a favourite since childhood. I did add a few more salad items, mustard and wasabi arugula – a very strong peppery arugula or rocket – adds a real punch to the salad! As you can see I do not waste an inch in the garden and when the peas and beans are finished I plant a second crop of something. In between I put nesturtiums as I add the leaves to the salad and have a little vase of the flowers in the house nearly all summer. I do not usually buy any salad which I eat every day between June and end October and my rocket crop planted mid August is usually the best one I get. The kale is pickable now either to put in salad or to cook, likewise the chard. I grow the tuscan kale which is a beautiful plant and very tender. We are not allowed to grow potatoes(disease) anything taller than 6′ and I do not grow courgette or squash owing to the lack of space. We have 2 7day a week farmer’s markets in the city and I make full use of them particularly when the glut of local veg. arrive, freezing tomatoes, or making tomato sauce for freezing, freezing peppers, making squash soups etc. etc. I am only one person, but basically I do not buy any veg. in the summer and I am a vegetarian. One positive from this crisis our government has determined that we must be much more self reliant for produce here – it is not an easy climate to farm in but with modern technology and vertical greenhouses, so much is possible. We rely heavily on California and Florida particularly in the winter and self reliance or working towards it, would make sense. The US/Canadian border has been closed to people visiting since end March/mid April and will only ‘possibly’ open end July. Produce and other goods are getting through, but who knows what might happen in future, as nobody would have believed closing the border was a possibility before this health crisis. I really admire John and his set-up, a lot of work, but without a large amount of land, with good planning one can achieve a lot and have a fun rewarding time as well. Happy gardening to everybody, it is a very relaxing and happy occupation in these anxious times.
Thank you for all your weekly news, videos and tours. I so enjoy everything.
Suzanne Wood says
I have enjoyed reading your weekly Newsletters and reader comments. This week’s inclusion of your interview with John was especially noteworthy and your reader comments.
We live in Southeast Alaska and have been growing a subsistence garden for a number of years. We started off with potatoes, turnips, radishes and carrots being sowed prior to our departure for the commercial fishing summer season that starts annually on July 1st. Upon arrival back home in mid to late August it was always surprising to see what Mother Nature had grown.
We live in the Tongass National Forest in Southeast Alaska, a temperate rain forest, however, with climate change we now experience drought (just went through a 3-years where our dam/reservoir went below the safe level so last year our three community partnership had to switch from hydro to diesel for electrical generation). We do now experience more severe short-period torrential rainfall rather than the ‘traditional’ sprinkling and rains that nurture and sustain a rain forest–it may normalize back to that in the future (Spruce bark beetles and Sawtooth wasps are spreading). Anyway, back to Mother Nature’s vegetable garden–and appreciating the power of a single seed, or a seed potato, or a transplant–they only want to grow if given light, clean air, water, and suitable soil.
The Covid19 pandemic has transformed our grocery store shopping experience from routinely stocked shelves to less variety for that item or out of stock.
We have a 15′ insulated Growing Spaces geodesic dome and use it year-round for vegetables even with temperatures getting down to 5F (use to be the norm but our winters have become milder). In the winter, our greenhouse provides bok choi, collard greens, kales, spinach, Swiss chard, lettuces, peas, carrots, radishes, and turnips. Some of these are transplanted out into raised beds in the spring and their spot in the greenhouse is filled with tomato transplants, and beans. It truly is rewarding to be watering in the greenhouse and eating ripe vine peas, or a tomato or two, a leaf of Swiss chard, etc.
Sincere thanks for your outstanding and informational newsletters featuring your hands-on and real-life authentic moment capture videos.
Suzanne Werner says
I grow a lot of our own food as well. I’ve been growing Three Sisters ( dried beans, flint/popcorn/winter squash) since I was a teenager. this year we tripled the size of our garden and hope to add more next year. We have 15 hills of squash, 30 tomato plants. Hundreds of carrots, over 200 garlic plants and over 130 potato plants just to name my favorites.
An important thing I’ve learned is how to properly save and store your food. That is the big difference between subsistence growing and regular growing. Growing food for later. Much of the American garden is focused on food you need to eat NOW – tomatoes ( unless you can), lettuce, zucchini, cucumbers. Many of the foods that are good keepers have fallen out of fashion or Americans are only used to eating fresh.
You can keep those fresh from the garden foods like tomatoes longer by learning to can safely by following the guidelines set out by the National Center for Home Food Preservation. Drying/dehydrating also extends food storage.
I’ve learned how to dry beans, corn, peas, herbs, and berries and fruit and I’ve learned to cure squash. A properly cured squash can last at room temp for more than 6 months. I just ate my last cured squash from last year’s harvest this week.
I’ve learned to grow all year long no matter where you live (gardens aren’t just for summer). Plant foods that you can leave in the ground and harvest through winter (like carrots and turnips and brussels sprouts and kale).
I’ve learned which wild foods and weeds are edible – you can eat for weeks off garlic mustard in the early spring, when there isn’t much else.
And as much as I agree with John on other points, I strongly disagree with him on the point of Native American diets.
They were far more varied than he suggests. Tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, green beans, lima beans, wild rice, salmon, pumpkins, peanuts, chocolate, vanilla, blueberries, corn, blackberries, raspberries, dewberries, cassava, cranberries and sweet potatoes were all native to the Americas and actively traded among tribes. They ate deer, buffalo, elk, caribou, and rabbit; ducks, geese, turkeys and other birds; fish clams, and other shellfish. Their diet was plenty varied well before the settlers got here.
Interesting reading, loved it.
And if I had some land I would grow my own veggies,as I now live in Spain in a pandemic,,,,well it has to be the grocery store but when the farmers markets reopen I will be 1st in line.
What a kind and thought provoking letter John wrote. It is very timely and of our time. You may shop at Wal-Mart and you may grow many fruits and vegetables, chickens and hogs, these are not separate ideas or actions. They can intertwine and they do it appears. I appreciate an honest look at how one does subsiste. We live in a modern world and yet it is so important to remember to be kind, share and be of service to those in need. I recently got to share some turnips (not too many people ask for turnips). She was so happy with them I’m going to plant a row just for her and leave the greens on this time! I’m very touched by what you do Kevin and by John and his attitudes on life and his way of life. Keep up all of this wonderful work.
Simply outstanding. Thank you, both, Kevin and John.
John in the NC Mountains says
Hey everyone , John here, coming up for air! I have been busy since the week-end processing our meat birds-a big task-and then getting the last elements of our summer garden done ASAP and finish up prepping the part of my garden for fall/winter gardening-the seeds are already up and raring to get into the garden soon! So my apologies for not responding sooner.
I want to thank each and everyone of you for your kind words and compliments on my piece that Kevin published this past Sunday on Subsistence Gardening. At this point I can’t respond to each comment, but would like to select a couple to comment upon.
Valerie (comment 13) noted the comment I made about “trying to grow a grocery store” and she got it. Most of us have been gardening as a hobby, something we love to do with the added pleasure of delicious fresh food for our table and a little pride in saying, “I grew that myself.” And we get food that is so much better tasting than most commercially grown food!
We are now in a national crisis. A global pandemic, an almost total shut-down of our economy and now social unrest . I reads like a plot line for a Dystopian movie, but it’s the news.
It’s at times like these that we must rely not only on our knowledge, but also our instincts- our inner wisdom.
There’s an old Zen tale that says, “When you give an apprentice carpenter a perfect piece of wood he’ll make a mess of it. When a journeyman carpenter selects his wood, he’ll select the best piece for his work and reject the misshaped one . The master carpenter will take the wood rejected by other carpenters and examine it then make something that uses its unique character that is beautiful, elegant, exquisite…” And he will do so with gentle grace and ease.
So today I want to talk about Mastery. We heard from many masters in this thread, because, being masters they don’t think of themselves in those terms. It sounds so arrogant! In a Zen Monastery many come in pursuit of ‘enlightenment’. When asked, a Zen Master will say he/she is not or else say nothing at all. The only thing that is certain is the one who says he is ‘enlightened’ clearly is not.
As best we know we do not choose the time of our birth, the color of our skin, our gender, our shape and form. We are born in a specific place at a specific time not of our choosing. You could say in some way we are like the unique piece of wood rejected. The real issue is what will we make of our time and place as it’s given us. We are the masters of our fate which means we don’t choose our fate, but master it.. So it’s not that you need to move to the Southern Appalachians and buy five acres and ‘do’ me. Or move to New York and copy Kevin. Grow where your planted and work on your craft. The outer circumstances are barely relevant. I found myself here and used the resources that were available to me.
We all have skills: a good head, a good heart, good hands a good spirit. We have time and place. We merely need to change our thinking to change our lives…to succeed, to prosper and to thrive regardless of what gets thrown at us. Start to see in a different way.
Take Elaine in BC (comment 30) who has been gardening for 50 years in the Canadian Rockies (growing season of 60-70 days maybe?) says, “each year the garden gets a little smaller and the food quantity is increasing.” When I hear something like that I know I am in the presence of a master of her craft. A master doesn’t brag and Elaine wasn’t either, merely stating a fact with the grace and ease she probably does many things-like buy toilet paper and dog food in quantity at the perfect time! Ah intuition!
Many thanks too to Myrtle in Montreal (Comment 34) who lives in a flat in a downtown area. Doesn’t carp or complain about what she doesn’t have , but makes masterful use of what she does have. “without a large amount of land, with good planning one can achieve a lot and have a fun rewarding time as well. ” perfect Myrtle.
I also want to say that because I was focused on my way to self-sufficiency I wasn’t trying to imply it was THE WAY. It’s just a way…I am working with what I’ve got to maximize it’s potential, as are all of you. I mentioned in my piece some alternatives if you want more space-without having to buy it. Borrow/rent land. I was surprised no one asked about it. “Maybe they don’t have the time or maybe they don’t know how to do it.”, I thought to myself. On the off chance it’s the latter, here’s how to do it.
Now 52% of Americans live in suburban communities (that’s 175 million people) 98 million live in core urban areas and 63 million live in rural counties. That means about 50% of the people reading this post are suburbanites. That means you live on a city lot with limited space. What to do if you want to grow more? You’re gardening, you’re gifting you family, friends and neighbors the excess. You’re talking to your neighbor Tom who appreciates the gift and he says, ” man, your garden is beautiful. I wish I had the time.” “Did you like those Tomatoes?” “Buddy” says Tom, ” I haven’t tasted Tomatoes like that since I was a kid!” “Well Tom let me ask you a question. First I know you work hard because I often see you coming home at 7, 8 even 9 PM. Long days, then I sometimes see your office light on pretty late. On Saturday you’re usually working pretty hard on the front yard during the growing season and it looks awesome. (Tom’s front yard is immaculate…mowed, edged with mulched flower beds and foundation plantings-pretty much the pride of the street and Tom’s pretty proud too.) Then you have to spend more time on the back yard and the little kids are now teenagers with smart phones surgically attached to their lefts hands. All they do is slouch on the couch and their vocabulary is a series of grunts. I know-me too. If you had more time what would you do- besides having a vegetable garden like mine?” “Oh man…I’d play a round of golf on Saturday with my buddies. They play every Saturday, but I don’t get to participate during this time of year and that’s when they are playing.”
Bingo! You are about to close your first land deal! How do I know? Because I was in direct sales (straight commission-IE-no salary) most of my adult working life. The first principal of sales/negotiations is “Find a need and fill it”. How? You ask pertinent questions as I did of Tom.
If you find no need, why make the proposal? Then it becomes an argument not a proposition.
What do we know about Tom? He admires skillful execution-your sharp looking garden. He delights is the quality of your product – Tomatoes. And he gets all the strokes off his front yard. His back yard is a dreary, pointless chore that is preventing him from doing what he would like-golf with his friends. This is what is know in the trade as a ‘hot prospect’. “Well Tom, as you may know I sell at the Farmer’s Market downtown every Saturday and another in a nearby community on Wednesday afternoons. What you may not know is that I have several folks in the neighborhood who let me grow a garden in their back yard. It’s all organic, it is fully maintained -just like the one you see in my back yard -and they get a share of some of the produce. I’ll develop and plant the whole space if you like and you can go play golf with your buddies. What do you say?” DON’T ASK ‘WHAT DO YOU THINK?’ CAUSE THEN HE FEELS LIKE HE HAS TO THINK-THAT CAN TAKE MONTHS OR YEARS! AND IT’S PAINFUL! He says something to the effect of ‘Sounds interesting’ then says, “I was home recently in the afternoon and saw you headed down the side walk with your roto-tiller and said to my wife ‘Oh look, John’s taking his tiller for a walk-hope he doesn’t let it poop on the lawn.'” Tom loves his lawn and he’s a comedian. Gotta love Tom. Jane used to laugh at all of Tom’s jokes when then were dating, now all he gets is that raised eyebrow. It raises fear in the hearts of big, burly men. But we’re not here to analyze Tom and Jane’s marital issues-were are here to make a deal. So let’s be totally up front.
When you are an honest salesman, an honest negotiator when you are a person of integrity and authenticity the world will beat a path to your door. Happened to me and it will happen to you-so no surprises, no tricks, no mealy mouth mumbling. “Here’s the usual agreement.You pay the water bill and if you get a pet you have to install a fence sufficient to keep it out of the garden. I can help with installation labor. I will develop, maintain and harvest produce appropriate to the season. Aside from water and possible fencing I will provide all the seed and other components necessary to accomplish that task. I will bear the risk of insect and wildlife damage. You provide a copy of your water bill the last full month before we begin and the subsequent bills to determine the average monthly increase after and up to that day-typically the end of the season.
I will provide the names and numbers of all my partners so you can be sure that I am a man of my word. If you participate you will also be on that list and give an honest assessment of my word and work to any future partners I may talk with. Generally the cost of water is below the retail cost of the produce you receive and most people not only have enough for themselves, but extra to share with family and friends. The term is one season. If it works for you and me we can continue on a five year arrangement and I will agree to install a drip system, if necessary due to drought, at my expense for the privilege for that period. That equipment remains my property as do any materials I bring in. We will hold each other harmless in the case of hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and earthquakes and we may want to add civil unrest from anarchists, Marxist revolutionaries and disturbed individuals with a profound hatred of all things vegetative. You will allow me access to the plot during reasonable daylight hours…say seven am to 6 pm max.
and one day a week with no access if you wish. If there is a lock on the gate you will provide me with a key and and finally this contract can be dissolved by mutual consent of both parties at any time, without cause.( do you really want to go to court with you good neighbor and friend because you insist on gardening in his back yard against his will. Really? Over a 500 to 1,000 sq ft. garden plot? Really? If the judge is a woman I guarantee you’ll get a raised eyebrow you don’t want to see! Judge Judy would eat you alive! Just agree and stay friends if it comes to that.) What do you say?” This my friends is the most important moment in your negotiation. You don’t say another word. Utter silence. Now frankly I have been accused of being more than a little chatty. OK, really frankly, I am a walking flood of words, of ideas and I can’t stop, but at this moment? Moss grows on my lips.
I did time in Zen monasteries-as a layman-I would ask a question, my teacher would say, “Just sit.” Every question would end up with the answer, “just sit”. So I sit. I look at the aquarium fish or the plants or books or decor , quietly. I don’t look at Tom and I don’t say anything. Tom’s thinking , his face is a frown, he is squirming in his chair because he is try to figure out how I am trying to trick him, but I’m not. It kinda makes people a little crazy for a few minutes, leave him alone with his thoughts. He’ll work it out. Tom, “Will all that be in writing? ” Me, “Yup” or “yes”. Please don’t say ‘Absolutely!’ please ? Just let your yes be yes and you no be no, that’s sufficient. More silence. “What if I want something different?” lets talk. If we both agree we have a deal and if we don’t there’s no deal, but we’re still friends, right? Right says Tom.
You may soon be on your way to expanded garden space right next door.
If you think this is crazy you’re wrong because hundreds, perhaps thousands are doing this exact thing. The concept and system was developed by Wally Satzewich, a life long farmer in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. His system, Spin Farming, uses sub-acre parcels with high intensity crop rotations to sell in The Saskatoon Farmers Market and to local restaurants. At the point I heard of him he was ‘farming’ 25 plots in his neighborhood totaling a half acre and making a fine living selling radishes, green onions, salad greens and carrots.
My point is not to sell the SPIN concept, but to show those of you who want or need more garden space that it’s not hard to find in urban and sub-urban areas. In fact it maybe right next door.
I am off the my gardens. Talk again soon.