I think it's a fair assumption that most people reading When/If don't have acres on acres to convert to farmland. Most probably don't have much of a yard. But for those of us that do, myself included, there is a lot that can be done even on a thin scrap of soil, and that work is absolutely crucial. Today we'll go deeper into how we might provide food for those around us in urban and suburban areas, how to utilize the land we've got, and take advantage of land that comes available.
If you're reading this from a home that you own, and you're looking out your window at your yard (or garden, even), chances are you've entertained the same idea that I mentioned in last week's post: getting more land. It makes a lot of sense–how on earth can you be expected to feed yourself and others on 1/10th of an acre? Surely you need your own parcel, set away from everyone else, with several acres, some trees, maybe a creek? I get it. I really, really do. You live close enough to civilization to want to be away from it, and you've got enough land to realize how nice it is without really knowing what kind of labor it takes to make it yield life-sustaining benefits. But you're better off than most already, owning (probably) your home, having that space, that land. Getting more shouldn't be your starting point. Your starting point is making use of everything you've got.
Get Rid of Your Damn Lawn
While we're at the end of the traditional gardener's growing season, there's still plenty to be done before next year. First, here's a pill to swallow: lawns are ridiculous. They contribute very little to the environment, they soak up water and labor, and most folk maintain them with fossil fuel-burning equipment. Quit fucking with a lawn. Stop using any pesticides or herbicides. Whatever grows, (within reason) grows. Let that crabgrass be. Go weeks before you pull out the reel mower. Make your yard grow food.
Second order of business is to plan out your space–whether it's your yard or an empty lot. I live on about a tenth of an acre and have a 4x4 chicken coop, a 3x10 enclosed run, and multiple raised 4x8 garden beds with a good bit of open space remaining–some of it needs to remain open for the dogs to roam and poop on, but some more can still be made productive–and then there's the untouched scrap of front yard. It doesn't seem like much to look at it until the chickens lay and the garden produces, then you realize that, despite being a far cry from a farm, you're actually making a fair bit of food. Contrariwise, you also realize this is not enough food. I planted an entire bed of beans (soy, black, pinto) this year and got about two cups in return–total, not each. Plan out your space as best you can so that you're maximizing its utility–before you wind up growing one meal for a summer's worth of time.
Starting from scratch, chances are the dirt you're going to try growing your food in isn't the best. Chances are also pretty good that you don't have a ton of money to dump bags of store-bought soil on it and call it a day. If you want to be sustainable–and if you want to be able to do this after the nearest Lowe's has been looted–then follow these basic, cheap, but time-consuming steps.
- Compost. Food waste, yard litter (leaves and such), wood shavings, waste from animals like chickens and rabbits (but not dogs or cats). Bin this waste and let it cure for several months. Some of it, like leaves and grass clippings, can go straight on the garden bed this fall.
- Have a fire or three. Collect the ash, and spread on your garden space. For the truly extra among us, pee on the ash. Seriously. (Seriously.) Pee in a cup, dilute it, pour on your ash for a potent soil additive.
- Cutting brush. Got tall weeds, a bush you want to be rid of? Cut it down and throw it where you want your future garden. Heavy brush, like thicker limbs and such, you may prefer to burn because they'll take a while to degrade, but smaller brush and leaves decompose to form a layer of soil additive below your brush pile (additionally, twigs and the like will help keep your soil loose). Usually I'll clear out my brush pile at the start of spring, build a fire for ash, and remove the new, thin layer of topsoil with a shovel to add to the garden bed.
There are many other techniques and tricks, but these will get you on your way to improved soil without buying anything extra. For much, much more assistance on these matters, consult The Poor Prole's Almanac.
Everything you're going to do on your property requires water. Generally speaking, water infrastructure is long-lasting and not likely (I stress again I am speaking generally) to become inoperable, poisonous, or dry up entirely. Unless you live in a drought-prone region, you should be able to rely on existing infrastructure to provide for you, your livestock, and your produce for the time being. That said, being independent of that infrastructure will become increasingly important as society falls farther and farther behind on maintenance, repair, and supply.
While it's not realistic to expect that you can simply catch all the rainwater you need or get buckets of it from a nearby creek, supplementing your municipal supply will be critical. It's also important to remember that weather patterns are changing, and it's likely, as the climate warms, that more of your rain is going to fall in deluges than in gentle spring showers. That's when rain catchment systems become valuable–you're capturing water that's oversaturating the landscape and keeping it for a drier time.
Get in the habit of water conservation now, so that you're not suffering another shock when the scarcity hits. We've talked about home conservation before, but there are techniques for land use that will be helpful as you try to limit your garden watering. Perhaps the most important of these is no-till farming. The typical, even pop-cultural image of farming generally involves a plow–whether a combine crossing a field or a simple sodbuster, churning up the ground behind them. This, briefly, is tilling; digging up or turning over the soil in order to plant seeds, weed, or mix in new soil materials. But many folks these days, especially on smaller properties, are switching to no-till practices, in which they leave the soil largely undisturbed. No-till farming has a number of advantages:
- Water evaporation through the soil is dramatically reduced. Not only do you decrease the surface area by leaving the soil alone, but you allow a less-permeable layer of organic matter to cover it, keeping more moisture from rainfall or watering where you need it.
- Your typical wild, healthy soil is shot through with networks of bacteria, fungi, and root systems that all interact and benefit each other. When you turn over the soil, you're disrupting these systems. Leaving the soil as untouched as possible allows these networks to remain in place and benefit your crops.
- Less effort. On a small-scale this won't make much difference to you, but if you wind up with a piece of land or a lot of gardens to manage, you'll be saving time and your back if you don't till your soil before beginning the next season.
Importantly, these points factor into how sustainable you're able to be. Conserving water, limiting petro-fertilizer, and limiting herbicide (for weeds) will go a long way toward making your garden or farm sustainable through any crisis, and limit your ecological footprint.
Grow What You and Your Neighbors Need
Being, more than likely, in a suburb or neighborhood with arable land, you're going to have neighbors. As you begin growing food, it's vital that you coordinate with people close to you to ensure you're growing useful foods, herbs, and any medicinal plants you may choose. It's a huge waste of time and resources to use your land to grow food that's going to be left to rot. Consider what you like to eat first, and then consult with neighbors and more distant friends in your city or town to see what is most likely to be of use. You may live in a micro-climate due to a particular configuration of shade and sun, or live in a more low-lying part of town than others, and therefore what you are able to grow looks different from what someone across town can grow. This diversity can be useful and bearing it in mind will keep you from growing redundant crops or plants that are not suited to your area–meaning you pour resources into them rather than using those resources other ways.
The idea here is not necessarily that you grow all of your own food and tuck yourself away in your 1/4 acre–it's that you participate in a community so that you're able to best make use of what you've got, and give sustenance to others. If your time is better suited to some other practice–community medicine, construction, what have you–then see if someone else is able to tend your space. Building off last week's letter, you should also take into account any land which you are able to cultivate that society has abandoned (a subject we will predictably expand upon later). Whether or not we are to witness a collapse or something else, at the least you are divesting in part from capitalism and fossil fuels, fostering community, and cultivating a bio-diverse environment. You heard it here first: if I'm wrong about the collapse, you can blame me for trying to make a better world.