It may be a nuclear disaster, or even a deliberate nuclear strike. Or may be extreme weather and the effects of climate change. Perhaps it could be an epidemic, or even a zombie apocalypse. Whatever the case, let’s assume some scenarios in which traditional food sources have all but disappeared, food networks from field to supermarket are disrupted, and self-sufficiency is at a premium in the matter of keeping yourself and your family fed via an off-grid vegetable garden.

We’ll assume, in this scenario, that you have access to other food stores for a few months. Perhaps abandoned grocery stores full of canned and dried goods, perhaps and a supply of dried venison or other dried meat. If you’re not prepared ahead of time and are starting from scratch, then you’ll need that time to find the most suitable plot of land on which to launch your own small-scale farming enterprise.

Garden Security

In a catastrophe situation, you’ll want to give thought to keeping your garden secure and out of the hands of intruders. One way to do this is to site it behind natural barriers such as hills or stands of trees. Failing that, place it in a tucked-away corner by a collapsed building or wall. Especially in hotter climates, plants can’t stand to be covered for long during the growing season, so you’ll want to conceal them in other ways—by, for instance, growing a screen of bamboo, honeysuckle, or sunflowers.

Farmers in Africa often put beehives on the edges of fields and throughout crop rows, mostly to keep animal intruders away. It’s obvious that bees can be a good deterrent to human pests as well, and raising healthy crops of bees for their honey is an excellent way to supplement both income and diet, giving you something to trade with. Crops such as potatoes and root plants (turnips, radishes, onions, and the like) are more easily hidden than more conspicuous ones such as squash, melons, and corn.

As to other critters, suffice it to say that anyone who gardens or farms is already at war with them, and in an apocalypse, it’ll only be worse. For that reason, if you can, grow in raised beds or containers above the ground. Halved 55-gallon drums put up on blocks are ideally to this purpose, so long as they haven’t been used to store gas or chemicals, and plastic or metal horse troughs are even better. Protect the plants in them from birds with screen or netting. Basil and peppermint will help keep pests away, but you’ll want to stock up on insecticide—now is not the time to worry about the niceties of organic, chemical-free growing.

A Healthy Foundation

Healthy soil retains water and distributes it evenly where it’s needed. A well-prepared garden bed will do much of the heavy lifting where water conservation and retention are concerned. One strategy is to amend your soil so that it both retains water and drains off excess,

balancing that can be achieved by careful attention to soil consistency and garden geometry (shaping the garden bed, for example, so that it slopes to shed excess flow). The idea is not just to move water from one place to the other through harvesting and redistributing it, but also to allow it to penetrate the soil and nourish your plants. Dig a tree well, a low moat, or some similar basin around your trees and garden beds, which will allow water to find the lower level it always seeks.

Earthworms help aerate the soil, and adding a healthy population of them as you prepare your garden will help your soil make maximum advantage of sinking water. Turn the surface soil frequently to keep it from developing a water-resistant crust, too. We’ll assume you don’t have access to a tractor or disc plow, so this is work that you’ll literally have to put your back to.

Soil Health

But we can’t always assume that the soil available to us is healthy, especially if the garden plot lies in a city, near a busy roadway, or close to industrial activity of any kind. A common soil pollutant is lead, which can cause terrible health problems. The National Institutes of Health projects that about a quarter of all American households are on ground in which lead levels exceed 400 parts per million, the dividing point beyond which it’s considered hazardous for children to be exposed to on playgrounds with bare soil—or, more to the point, in gardens. Nearly one in ten households exceeds 2,000 parts per million. It’s for just this reason that public health officials have recorded elevated lead levels in the eggs produced by chickens raised in New York City’s community gardens: the eggs and the chickens and their handlers are blameless, but the soil is a mess.

The most comprehensive cure is expensive and back-breaking. It involves stripping off a layer of old soil, as much as a foot in depth, then installing a water-permeable cloth barrier, sometimes marketed as a “geotextile,” to separate old earth from newly installed soil, which must in turn be brought in from elsewhere. Faced with such costs, some gardeners have dispensed with soil stripping and have simply laid down the cloth atop the ground and added new soil on top of it.

A vegetation barrier of some sort, such as a hedge that will also help conceal your garden, can help screen windborne exhaust and other particulate matter. Just so, a layer of mulch can protect soil from any new inputs of pollutants. Raised beds made of nonpolluting wood or brick and filled with new soil make a good strategy overall, and they won’t break the bank.

Put Dirt To Work

In Chicago, health workers have planted abandoned gas station lots with purple coneflower and yarrow, wildflowers that help clean hydrocarbons out of the soil. Poplar trees are thirsty, and as they drink they remove nitrates and other pollutants from the soil. In an example of “phytoremediation,” researchers planted a thousand poplar trees on a former industrial site near Chicago, badly polluted with hydrocarbons and other substances, and let nature do its work. Within four years, the soil was clean enough to use to grow food without further concern.

Finally, soil incinerated to a temperature of 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit becomes free of almost all organic pollutants. Ordinary kilns can reach such temperatures, but most home gardeners do not have such tools. However, a quick fix is to build a hot bonfire atop suspect earth. Just be sure to use natural wood, not treated stuff, and to burn it all the way to ash, which has the added benefit of fertilizing the soil as well once it’s mixed in. This heat treatment is fast, but of course it involves sending up plumes of smoke, which would not be desirable if concealment is an issue.

Build Up The Soil

Once the soil has been decontaminated as best as you can, then you’ll want to build it up. The obvious strategy there is to find a garden store and take away as much organic potting soil and mulch as you can find. Composting with cured chicken, steer, or horse manure, vegetable scraps, and the like is an essential to healthy soil. It’s not a pleasant subject, but it may be that only human waste is available, and human waste contains microorganisms that can be lethal if introduced to plants and re-ingested.

Like other manures, it needs to be cured by adding a layer of sawdust, mulch, or straw on top of it, then letting it sit for a year so that the bacteria can decompose. Add small quantities of fireplace ashes, rock dust, and seaweed every couple of layers if you want to supercharge your concoction. It’s a smelly enterprise, so site your composting area downwind from your home.

The Crops

Corn provides plenty of nutritional value, especially when added to a diet of beans and squash, the so-called Three Sisters of the Native American diet. Spinach and other greens such as chard and kale are also highly nutritious and are not demanding. Melons provide plenty of bang for the buck, and tomatoes provide essential enzymes. And did we say beans? Runner beans, black-eyed peas, lima beans, beans of all sorts are essential for nutrition—and they have the bonus side effect of cleaning and improving the soil as well.

All of these plants come in countless varieties—just think of all that Svalbard corn—so the best strategy is to seek guidance from local growers about which are best. Peter Gierlach, an orchardist and small farmer, puts it this way: “Much as I love seed catalogs, my advice is to read them and then throw them away. They have no relationship to reality. Go see a local grower for advice instead.”

In our scenario, you’ll want to grow regionally appropriate crops that have adapted to dry conditions—including dates, figs, and amaranth—and to conserve and harvest water however possible. Just so, you’ll want to study the way sunlight falls on your garden patch, planting to maximize shade for more sensitive plants and to allow true sun- and heat-loving plants such as sunflowers to take the brunt of the midday fire.

All In Due Time

Timing the season is a challenge, and getting the timing right is particularly critical in hot climates, where a week can make the difference between harvesting food or desiccated stalks. Study an almanac such as our own Harris’ Farmers’ Almanac for planting schedules. And a third challenge, as we’ve said, is pests. Tomatoes, for instance, grow wonderfully well under hot, dry conditions, as long as rust mites, a common pest, haven’t gotten to them. If you suspect that rust mites might have landed on your tomato plants, then give the plants a bath in a solution of wettable sulfur, which will soon take care of the problem. You can also sprinkle the dry sulfur on the plants, though be sure to wear a mask if you do to avoid breathing it in.

It needs to be said that agriculture is the hallmark of civilization: Without agriculture, that is, there is no civilization, and if you don’t have neighbors to share in the cultivation of sizable croplands, the chances are small that you’ll be able to grow enough food by yourself to feed yourself, let alone a family.

A small garden of the sort that one person can grow alone is a fine supplement to other food sources, even when civilization is humming along well; in a state of crisis, you will want to hope that stores of canned and dried foods, wild game, and other food sources are around. For the time being, fire up the old Vincent Price movie The Last Man on Earth, think about where you are and what you need, and do what you reasonably can to prepare for a future that may be more bleak than anything you can imagine.

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