This is part of an ongoing series of #LowTechResilience to COVID-19. We’re concerned enough about the pandemic and economic effects to encourage you, and anyone who will listen, to start thinking ahead — months ahead.
The Ants & the Grasshopper
One bright day in late autumn a family of Ants were bustling about in the warm sunshine, drying out the grain they had stored up during the summer, when a starving Grasshopper, his fiddle under his arm, came up and humbly begged for a bite to eat.
“What!” cried the Ants in surprise, “haven’t you stored anything away for the winter? What in the world were you doing all last summer?”
“I didn’t have time to store up any food,” whined the Grasshopper; “I was so busy making music that before I knew it the summer was gone.”
The Ants shrugged their shoulders in disgust.
“Making music, were you?” they cried. “Very well; now dance!” And they turned their backs on the Grasshopper and went on with their work.
There’s a time for work and a time for play.
— Æsop’s Fables from the Library of Congress (image and text)
Now is the time to start gardening — not just the time but the perfect time. It is spring in the northern hemisphere, the usual time to get plantings started. You may be home for the next month or two with time on your hands. If you have any sun-lit place outside, it’s much better to grow something productive instead of spending time and resources maintaining a lawn (or follow Malcolm Gladwell’s crusade against golf courses). Plus gardening will tire you out and help you sleep, even in times of worry.
Gardening in Historical Context
Gardening has been around since at least as early as the first agriculture sprang up, 10,000 years ago (I wrote a blog post about it a few months ago). Every small- and large-scale society since then has relied on gardening for a significant portion of their produce. Agricultural societies get their main source of calories and carbs from field crops: wheat, rice, corn, millet, barley, oats, peas, beans, etc. But their nutrition is only made complete with produce from gardens and foraging. As recently as the 1940s, 40 percent of US fruit and vegetables came from home production. During WWI, what were to be later called victory gardens produced over 30 percent of domestic . . . er . . . produce. This waned into the Roaring ’20s but surged again during the Great Depression and peaked during WWII. I’ve given a whole talk on this topic. You can listen here or subscribe to the “Low Tech Lecture Series” on iTunes, Google Play, TuneIn Radio, or Stitcher.
What I mean to say is that growing much of our own produce is within our means. We can gain the skill set.
Gardening: What to do Now
If you have the health, space, and time, it’s not too late to start a garden, no matter where you are in the northern hemisphere. Here I’ll outline some basics, but you should look for a local mentor (or, if you’re an experienced gardener, become a mentor yourself) and check out your state’s cooperative extension service for growing information (if you’re outside the US, please check with your country’s government agency responsible for agriculture).
Space for Gardening
You don’t need a large space, but the more room you have, the greater your flexibility. Look for places that get more than six hours of sun per day. Here’s a guide to how to estimate sunlight hours with your fingers! You can grow with less, but it dictates what crops you can put in and where.
If you live in the suburbs, your lawn is a great place to look. It’s best to plant in the back yard, though, as foods grown within 10 yards of a roadway are likely to absorb heavy metals and other contaminants from exhaust (personal communication from a PhD student at UW-Madison about her thesis).
If you don’t own your property, approach your landlord about gardening. Perhaps you’d be willing to be responsible for organizing a building community garden. Check in your neighborhood for a community garden, which may or may not still be operating.
If that doesn’t work, look around for available empty lots, look up the property records, approach the owner, and ask to “rent” it for a garden, which would generate at least a few hundred bucks for him/her. Some people would also just put in a squatter’s garden on a vacant lot, assuming that the police have better things to do than evict someone’s garden, but as a nonprofit and public entity, we can’t encourage you to do anything illegal.
Don’t worry if the area has grass or other vegetation at this time. If you can get your hands on sheets of cardboard (or a lot of newspaper or other materials), you can quickly establish a bed using the smothering technique. I go to my local appliance store every week to pick up a load of refrigerator boxes. Here is one of my absolute favorite gardeners on YouTube, showing you how:
Plants for Gardening
What to grow is the most important decision you’ll make, because while you can grow many things across a variety of climates, plants have preferred temperatures, latitudes, precipitation regimes, and daylight hours. If you’re looking to grow the most for your time and efforts, pick “boring” plants that are well-adapted to your location. We’re in the north, so while we love hot peppers and eggplants, we limit the number we grow, because these heat-loving veggies have a tougher time here. Brassicas (cabbage, kale, etc.), potatoes, and peas do well in our cooler temperatures.
Then start searching for what grows well in your area. The Farmer’s Almanac has a handy series of pages that gives you an idea for each zone:
In the next post, we’ll look at other considerations for picking plants, but the big rule of thumb is to grow what you like to eat that grows well in your area.
By the time the grasshoppers begin to worry about the stability of the food system, ants will have to have been storing food all summer. Don’t be a grasshopper. #BeAnAnt #LowTechResilience