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Prepper Hacks – Jumpstart That Survival Garden

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Spring Into Planting (Early & Anywhere)

Hopefully we’ve all sited or started making notes of where we want to plant, expand, shore-up and re-do our gardens, whether they’re beds or little containers, a string of tin cans or a tower of 2L soda bottles. Some of us are already sowing seeds directly, many of us have our tomatoes and peppers and squashes started for transplants, but some of us are likely lagging behind a little, whether it’s due to water, effort, space, weather, or time.

If planting is an interest – and it really should be for preppers – we may be itching to go ahead and start. Resisting those false springs and holding on through the last frosts and snows can be painful.

We can always do our germination testing, update our crop rotation plan or garden journals, or make up some seed tapes and mats with trash and a little glue, but sometimes we want to get those tasty edibles in the soil, no matter what the calendar says. The inclination for fresh food is likely to be even stronger following a winter of storage foods and with only dry and canned produce to get us through to mid-summer.

Happily, we can cheat the weather and time a little. We can get our survival garden ready indoors, with almost any amount of space and almost any budget and time available.

Digging Up Dirt

We may want to sterilize soil that’s coming from outside to do up some pots.

We may want to sterilize soil that’s coming from outside to do up some pots. It’s pretty easy, and can be done multiple ways.

We can add equal parts water and boil it for 10-30 minutes, or process it in jars in water-bath or pressure canners as we would tomato paste or meat. We can also bake it (350 degrees for 60 minutes, or 450 degrees for 30 minutes). Or, we can make sure it’s damp and then microwave it for 5-10 minutes.

Being able to use just about any soil means we can run out and scoop a couple of gallons from the yard, established beds, or – in small, polite increments – bits from a nearby ditch or park. We want to skip soil that may have been treated with a broadleaf herbicide, because most of our veggies are dicots.

Dicots – broadleaf plants; non-grasses (hay, corn, wheat and other grains are monocots).

Because we can sterilize our soil, we don’t have to worry about bringing any creepy-crawlies into the house.

Cheating the Calendar

We can start planting with our non-buggy soil right away, even if we live indoors with no windows, or if it’s going to be June before it’s safe to plant anything outside of a greenhouse.

A number of edible plants really don’t need much light. In fact, some of us are likely to grow a shelf worth of beets, radishes and lettuces indoors even if we have lots of yard space because we’re restricted by heat and too much sunlight.

Using just the ambient light from winter and early spring windows, some or many plants grow a little slower, but even doubling a microgreen, radish, or leaf lettuce that takes 14, 21, or 30 days means we’re munching in as little as 4-6 weeks, as much as 60 days in cool, very dim conditions indoors.

Any full-spectrum light bulb can go in any lamp in the home – we don’t have to get fancy there.

If we do get a specialty light for plants, make sure it’s for growth. (Those green-light bulbs make plants look better; plants will eventually die if it’s their only or primary source because they don’t absorb those wavelengths.)

Whether we use a window from across a room or a bulb in a “normal” stand, we’ll likely want to be able to spin our planters. It’ll help plants grow straight and tall instead of bending, and give them equal access to airflow.

Early Transplants

GrowVeg likes to promote the green pea-house gutter transplant method. You fill a shallow container 12-24” long with soil, plant out pea seed at high density, and then just slide the whole thing out when the seedlings and weather are cooperating.

The same can also be done for strawberries, spinach and baby lettuces.

Spinach and baby lettuces are ideal for it, because we can be harvesting the largest leaf of 3-5 leaves while they’re inside for weeks before we send them out to make bigger heads. However, they’re also fine just staying in that shallow dirt – especially if given some used coffee grounds or tea leaves now and then.

Beets can get the same treatment if desired.

A few leaves are sacrificed to salad, keeping it from producing a tuber. The seedlings are transitioned outside in stages, then the soil is slid out and into a bed. With the leaves less disturbed or undisturbed, the plant starts gaining enough growth to make that tuber for us.

Pots for Planting

We don’t have to spend a fortune on our planting containers. Depending on how “cute” we want them, we may not have to spend anything.

Some families are exceptions, but most of us use or can gain access to tins from canned foods, soda and juice bottles, milk jugs, and coffee cans (plastic or steel).

Even if our local fast food restaurants and delis no longer get or pass along food-safe buckets, we can get our hands on tubs the size gallon+ ice cream comes in, and giant condiment jars and tubs. The local humane society and ASPCA may not have kitty litter buckets, but we can cut down the giant plastic pour-bottles two different ways to buy some growing room.

Any plant that’s a candidate for soup cans (green onions, leaf lettuce, baby spinach, chickweed) is also a candidate for peanut jars and cashew tubs, peanut butter tubs, and bottles from bulk vegetable or olive oil.

A few holes for drainage in the sides and-or bottoms, and we’re in business. We may want to go easy on the pickle tubs for indoors, but it might not bother us on a porch or small balcony.

We can also line baskets of various types, or collect pretty lampshades to flip upside down and line, then add a fill like pinecones at the bottom for drainage and air space, and be very, very careful watering for the rest of the season.

Seed Selection

In keeping with this as an article for everybody, no matter their skill, budget or space constraints, I’m sticking with smaller plants that can be grown in anything and focusing on plants with cut-and-come-again convenience.

Cut and come again: You snip the tips or tops, or select-harvest larger leaves, but leave the plant growing; with the established root system and-or leaves still collecting sunlight, plants regrow faster than reseeding, allowing for more harvest total over a period of time even if each harvest is a little smaller.

I’m also mostly going to stick with plants that have low light needs. They can survive in a window, 6-8’ away from a window, or with the standard full-spectrum bulbs mentioned earlier – even the LEDs that burn so little energy. That keeps it open even for people with limited window space.

Using things like coffee grounds we get from Starbucks, McD’s, or our own pots, and tea leaves, we can keep even very small containers and “pots” fertile a pinch or two at a time, right on the surface of the soil to be watered in as we go.

A pinch or so of Epsom salt here and there will also keep our plants productive and flowering.

All of the leaf lettuces are excellent candidates for small “mini” pots and planters with shallow roots. So is spinach that will be harvested small.

Baby beet leaves are commonly included in field green mixes. Sprinkle or space at a half-inch, thin and eat the smaller sprouts to give a 1-1.5” spacing, and they’ll be fine.

Radishes, baby carrots, and even small beets or turnips for roots won’t work well in soup and small veggie cans – they just aren’t all that productive for the space used.

Radishes do work well with gutter sections, glass brownie and bread pans, and milk jugs and bottles that are cut to lay horizontally instead of stacked in a vertical tower.

Herbs go fifty-fifty. Some will stay smaller when grown in 20-oz., cans, and 2L jugs, but most will be fine.

Chives, parsley, thyme & basil especially have a lot of bang for the buck. The first three are also troopers with very long growing seasons, especially indoors.

Green/spring onions also pack a lot of flavor, and can have just a stalk harvested as well, so they’ll regrow from the roots like cutting lettuce.

Fenugreek has some restrictions, but is another tasty additive.

Mustards are salad add-in’s at our house, but can be grown larger and in more bulk for people who dig cooked greens.

Pea sprouts and shoots are an excellent spinach replacement. They can be harvested as “stems” with just little baby leaves, or allowed to grow larger.

Strawberries are happy with half a 2L, milk jugs, wider bean/fruit cans, and coffee cans & tubs.

They work for raw salads, cooking like spinach, or adding to Oriental noodles or lasagna. If you decide you don’t like the stems or if they get a little overlarge, just pinch off the leaves themselves to toss into meals.

Edible weeds are the real troopers of the plant world – which is how they become weeds in the first place.

Dandelion and plantain aren’t overly space efficient for small containers, but chickweed is fantastic, I love henbit, and I specifically abuse soil and find crappy dirt so I can grow purslane (which gets tossed in to roast with potatoes and autumn veggies). Pineapple weed is happy to grow in containers for us, as are wild garlic and onion to use as spicing.

Strawberries aren’t really successful in our soup cans or 20-oz. bottles, but they’re happy with half a 2L, milk jugs, wider bean/fruit cans, and coffee cans & tubs.

We can also start flowers so they’re ready for edible harvests earlier, or so they’re already blooming or established enough to serve as companions for our outdoor plants earlier in the growing season.

Spring into Sowing

We’re not going to feed ourselves off the contents of even a couple dozen small containers (or for that matter, 5-gallon buckets). However, it’s a good way to plan for disaster. Most of those cool-season, small-space, low-light herbs and greens are jam-packed with vitamins that can round out diets heavy in beans and rice or lentils and wheat.

It also gets our feet wet. Growing is both a science and an art, and very situational dependent. Even when we successfully grow one way, we may find switching to “easy” indoor plants – especially over winter – presents new challenges. Anything we plan to do “after”, we should go ahead and give a few tries now.

For a couple bucks worth of seeds, some trash, and some dirt (free or purchased) we can go ahead and start improving our diet, preparing for the future, and – for some of us – scratching the garden itch. They’ll take only a few minutes a day to care for, and using small plants and containers, can be grown in nearly any amount of space.

5 Comments

  1. R. Ann

    March 22, 2017 at 8:37 am

    Two long-skinny add-on infographics. One, light needs by plant/plant type. Two, microgreens using all kinds of seed (helps especially if you have mixes and like one, hate the other(s); also handy for when you germination test seeds – what’s worth growing out to munch cut-and-come-again and what’s worth just putting in the yard and waiting).

    Cheers!
    (Thank you for the title assist, Pat!)

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/9984c2b44e2b18aebd246e83eede13a4b257b202d18308b9c0989abf1ce84823.jpg

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/05b82d5883d585ffe416c6c1ea8229714200c1ea7366b8efd3adc544d65e4c83.jpg

  2. Hart

    March 22, 2017 at 8:53 am

    I’m one of those people lagging behind this year. I haven’t done a thing garden wise and the season is upon us. I had absolutely no idea that you could sterilise your own soil, I’m so glad that you wrote about that.. Very good to know if SHTF as I currently buy all my soil and manure.

    • R. Ann

      March 22, 2017 at 6:05 pm

      Glad it was helpful!
      I like to plan a bed or two that has a high feeder (corn, tomatoes, squash) and use that soil for seed starting the next season. But I’m not overly given to having critters in the house, so … 🙂 Figured out which methods actually work and which don’t.

      It’s also useful because some seeds would survive multiple 7-year nuclear holocaust cycles, but it will kill off some of them, so even if something got through or it’s one of the plots that’s still till-grown, I have a fighting chance at figuring out which little strings need pulled and which can stay.
      (Although, some napkin-paper towel seed mats can at least help a little with that!)

      Cheers!

  3. JD

    March 22, 2017 at 11:33 am

    I still have, AT LEAST, another month until I can get into the garden. Today it’s 23 degrees F and I still have 4 feet of snow on the ground. 🙁 But great article, I learned a few things that I will be trying out this spring!

    • R. Ann

      March 22, 2017 at 6:10 pm

      Yeah … that’s actually exactly the kind of conditions I wrote it for.
      Pretty much annually, in the upper MidAtlantic down to central AL and SC, we get some cold-warm weather cycles that make you want to play even though the almanac and weatherman says “no – wait”.

      Doing up some jars, cans, and tubs to sit around lets us grow fresh microgreens, cutting lettuce and green onions. I’m lucky enough to have space for some lasagna pans and bread pans for radishes on a metal shelf in my window as well, but the little strings of tin cans that can hang along one of the central house archways (6′ from the nearest window) and the ones that can sit in corners are favorites. Then the pots transition to baby strawberries or flowers, or stay inside so we can get greens later into the hot season.

      Soooooo glad I no longer deal with snow, and only rarely had to deal with THAT much snow!
      🙂
      -Rebecca Ann

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