By Paul Helinski
The most difficult thing to set aside for yourself in this day and age is time. But unfortunately, when it comes to surviving the end of life as we know it, time is the one thing you will have to set aside if you plan to get serious. Disasters are easily survivable. Put away enough food and water, and you can ride out most storms, even lengthy ones. But if the food supply never comes back online, what do you do then? Gold and silver won’t be worth anything because, short of the tin pot dictator or monarch who eventually takes over, nobody will have any use for such trivialities. Eating will be everyone’s #1 long-term concern, and if you plan to survive, you have to learn right now how to grow your own food. Right now you have the luxury of making mistakes and still being able to eat. So figure it out! Where can I go, whom can I partner with, what resources can I put together that will give me a long term chance of survival? Since it is spring, and in many parts of America the planting season is around the corner, I figured that this is a good time to talk about seeds. Buying a “survival seed vault” isn’t going to cut it for you if you have never grown food before. You have to get out and get gardening this spring. Don’t be shy. An old farmer once told me that farming is nothing but problem-solving, so get out there and figure out your problems now, and how to solve them.
As you might imagine, the seed industry is huge. For this reason you have to be very wary of the “big business” side of buying seeds. But on the other side, trying to avoid big business can also end up costing you way too much for seeds. Unless you really have a desire to get taken, don’t pay a premium for survival seeds, and don’t get taken in by promises of purity or long term storage life. Most of the misinformation out there comes from “GMO” warnings. There is no such thing as a “GMO” tomato, for instance, in the market today (though they do exist in laboratory greenhouses). So if someone is trying to sell you “NON-GMO” tomato seeds, most likely they are trying to capitalize on your ignorance. GMO is a concern,for corn, soy and potentially zucchini. But other than that, there are no real commercial GMO crops approved in the United States.
If you plan to save seeds from year to year, what you do need to be concerned about is what is called an F1 Hybrid. Think of them like a mule, which is a cross between a horse and a donkey. Try to breed two mules and you’ll get nothing, and that is often what you get when you try to pollinate one F1 Hybrid with another, or save seeds from one in hopes of growing more of that variety. An F1 is usually hand-pollinated from two varieties with vastly different properties, and they have been the poster child of selective breeding for decades. Most F1s are created for mass production destined for supermarkets because they lend themselves to machine handling and long shelf life. But the seeds you get at Walmart and Home Depot are often also F1 Hybrids, grown and marketed for the home garden. They are engineered for large size, great taste and high yields.
Those are all great things if you are able to buy seeds again next year. Seeds are relatively cheap. But if you want to save the seeds yourself for next year’s garden, you may find that the veggies from year two resemble nothing of year one, if the seeds are fertile at all. “Heirloom” seeds are varieties that don’t require any cross pollination, and you can save seeds of those varieties from year to year without a loss of quality or yield. Many of these varieties used to be supermarket standards, until low prices and high margins dictated that machines do most of the fresh vegetable sorting and that a tomato had to have a shelf life of over a month. These days you will rarely find an heirloom veggie for sale outside of a local farm stand, but the seeds are available. Heirlooms usually taste better and look better but have a shorter shelf life. They also may not be as sweet, in the case of corn and peas, but they actually taste like corn and peas, not corn syrup. Many of the packet seeds these days at Walmart and Home Depot will carry an “heirloom seeds” emblem because the home gardener has become more savvy in the last ten years or so. The heirloom package seeds are often also labeled “organic,” and you’ll pay at least $2 a pack for them instead of 50 cents. For casual gardening and seed saving these are fine, but you can get a much better buy, as I’ll cover below.
Seed fertility is also something that you shouldn’t pay extra for, and it is also and more commonly known as the “germination rate.” You can control how many seeds in a pack actually sprout by buying your seeds from reputable sources or sources that other people have verified are selling new, fertile seeds. Just beware that when you see an advertisement for “survival seed banks,” normally seeds only have a couple years of shelf life until fertility begins to fall off , and the “survival” market is historically feast or famine. When it is hot, the stuff flies out at high prices. But at times like today, where most people feel that things are getting better and not worse, survival supplies generally sit on the shelves and in the Ebay stores and don’t move. It is pretty easy today to buy seeds that were saved in 2012 for the 2013 spring growing season.
By some opinions, you can offset the limits of seed fertility life by freezing the seeds, but not all seeds react kindly to freezing. The biggest problem with freezing your seeds is that most home freezers have an automatic defrost cycle, in which parts of the freezer are allowed to defrost so that the coil doesn’t ice up. So depending on where in your freezer they are, your seeds may be thawed and frozen over and over again. And what about power outages? An international seed vault was actually established in the Artic for this reason. You don’t have to worry about the power going out or your coils freezing over in the Artic. But in middle America that happens all the time. You are best to just keep your seeds dry and in a fairly cool constant temperature rather than storing them in your freezer, I think. Then plan to replace them every couple years.If you intend to become an avid gardener, in preparation for Armageddon of course, think about joining The Seed Savers Exchange. It is an Iowa-based non-profit. Membership is $40 per year, and it gives you access to a giant catalog of pretty much every heirloom vegetable you can think of, plus all the standards varieties. Call them at 563-382-5990 if you can’t join online, which I have found to be a challenge. Seed Savers is a group of traditional gardeners who have committed themselves to planting and trading heirloom vegetables and fruits. They publish an actual source book of varieties, and it is often three inches thick. In the source book you will find hundreds of varieties each of beans, peas, tomatoes, carrots, onions, beets, lettuce, melons, etc., all broken out with colors, flavors, yields and growing specifics. You order the seeds directly from the sources listed in the book, not from The Seed Savers Exchange. Once you are a member, you can also view the entire catalog online and if logged in, contact the seed growers directly. It is an incredible resource.
Seed Savers also now sells seeds itself, and for this article I bought a bunch of them, as you’ll see. The seeds from Seed Savers are sold at a premium because they are certified to be exactly what you are paying for, and free of selective breeding or hybridization of any kind. I have also bought premium seeds from Johnnys Selected Seeds. They are far and away not your average Burpee seeds in hardware store packets, because while Burpee seeds will often grow, I doubt you will have as much success growing them two years from now.
The cheapest and most expedient way to buy “survival seeds” is, dare I say it, from survival seed suppliers on Ebay. I recently tested a package of 8,500 seeds from a seller called MySeedCellar, and they nearly all germinated within a week. This week I ordered a bucket of 600,000 seeds from Mozybeau Farms. The tag line on the bucket of seeds is “Heirlooms Forever.” Well, if you save the seeds, it might be heirlooms forever, but first you have to not screw it up. The Mozybeau order was actually a big disappointment because most of the stuff on the page of the ad is not in the bucket. You have to be careful, and if I were you, stick to MySeedCellar (which is also myseedcellar.com btw). I decided while writing this article to try one more, “Survival Essentials,” because they are running it at half price and it might be worth a gander. With anything but MySeedCellar, open the Mylar package and make sure you got what they are advertising. I will add here that there are hundreds of sellers from all over the world selling “heirloom” seeds on Ebay. It is worth some cool, cheap experimenting if you are into it. I have grown interesting heirloom veggies for years and there is nothing like it.
You Will Probably Screw It Up
Screwing it up is your primary concern, and it is why you really have to start gardening now and saving seeds from year to year. Even if you do it on a very small scale and also plan to replace your purchased seed stock every couple of years, you have to get gardening. I am an experienced gardener and managed to screw up a whole bunch of seeds I planted a couple weeks ago, simply because I didn’t check them for a few days when I went away. They sprouted earlier than I expected, and because I had them in closed egg containers and no light, the seedlings grew too long and many today are not salvageable. If you start gardening now, even in containers on your back porch, not only will you witness the absolute something-from-nothing miracle of growing your own food, you’ll also figure out how to not screw up because of a lot of popular misconceptions about gardening.
For instance, water, you will find, is your friend, but also your enemy. You will always have either not enough of it or too much. Therefore you have to make provisions to either carry water to your plants, or drain water away when they have too much… or both. One dry weekend away from your plants can cause them to wither, and a punishing rain and flood can rot them out, all in the same week. You see from the pictures that I use egg containers to start seeds. They are great, but beware that you have to let the young plants dry out or you’ll choke them with too much water. Predators are not going to be the least of your concerns. Pests you call them? I don’t. Try fawning over heirloom tomatoes for two months only to have them successfully flower, and then they are eaten by tomato worms before the tomatoes actually come out. How about watching your beautiful lettuce grow, only to find the patch overrun by rabbits the night before your neighborhood barbecue that you had intended to feed an heirloom salad from your impressive garden. Too late is too late when it comes to garden predators, and if you start gardening now you will get a good idea of who is going to try to eat your garden before you do.
First and foremost, protect your garden with a fence. And while I wouldn’t suggest that you plant your survival garden in the front yard come the day you need survival food; I don’t think that two legged predators are your worst enemy. In many parts of the country, hogs are a huge problem, and you will lose your garden to them unless you have a strong fence with barbed wire and mesh. Rabbits and other seemingly harmless herbivores will generally stop at a chicken wire fence and not try to dig under, but beware of groundhogs and other burrowing creatures, because they can do some damage.Insects are a whole other story. As part of your experimental garden experience, contact your local Extension Service and see what information they can give you for expected insects and pest for your area and crop plans. They will also be able to suggest insecticides that work well in your area, and many of them will even test your soil for PH and trace minerals. If you plan to go “organic,” it takes some real practice, and you have to source the inputs well in advance. Healthy crops are bug resistant but they are not bug proof, and daily attendance in your garden is going to be an absolute must until you get through a season or two of successful growing.
I am not a proponent of organic gardening practices for survival. Is it preferable and “sustainable?” Yes, it is, but it is also fairly risky to not have some fertilizer on hand. Vegetables require a proper PH and certain levels of NPK, Nitrogen, Phosphorous, and Potassium. If you are going organic, you still have to add those things through methods other than chemical fertilizer, in the same quantities that you would achieve with chemical fertilizer. It takes a lot of cow manure to equal a little bit of fertilizer, and the manure has to be tilled in and aged a bit prior to planting. The thing about soil that you have to understand is that there is a limit to how much you will get out of one patch of ground without adding things to it. You may start with great soil in year 1, but by year 3 you better add some manure, or compost that has high nitrogen. Good old chemical fertilizer is much better. I am keeping fertilizer in my survival supplies. You should too.
Bugs are much the same. I have tried a lot of “organic” methods for bug control, including hanging soap on my plants and spraying them with compost-soaked water. None are sure bets. For year #1 of planting, plan to use at least mild pesticides. Then you’ll see what you get, and if it survives. Plants have enemies that are big and fat like caterpillars, right down to microscopic nematodes and fungi. Healthy, vibrant plants that have all the nutrients they require tend to be fairly resilient, but you just never know when one species of moth caterpillar is going to land on your plants and eat them up in a day. After you get through year #1, and you have the freedom to go organic, try a percentage of your crops without fertilizer and pesticides, then as you succeed you can move to a more sustainable system. Unless you want to certify organic with the government, it is no big deal to use chemical fertilizer one year and cow manure the next.
Plants Like to Grow
The most important thing right now is to go buy some seeds and plant them. It is the easiest way to witness an actual miracle in our time right in front of your eyes. Plant a tiny tomato seed into a lump of dirt, water it, and a week later you’ll see the plant start to rise. All of that stuff you see came from that tiny seed, with only the addition of some water and sunlight. If there is evidence of the original “something from nothing” of creation, it is in the growth of that seed.
The Web is full of information about gardening, and a lot of it is actually true. Don’t get caught up in spending a lot of money on intricate methods to grow veggies. If you have some soil that is something besides sand, till it up and plant your seeds, about twice their thickness deep, and water them, but don’t over-water them. Let the soil get dryish before you re-water. All but corn can be started in the house if it is still too cold out there, but corn sends down a taproot first. I’ve started all kinds of things indoors that supposedly you can’t transplant, but as soon as they poke through make sure you get them some good sunlight. You can direct-seed all of the big seeds with good results, as long as you are past your last frost. Don’t worry about blowing it your first try. That’s the whole point. Farming is about problem solving, and you’ll run into your first problems right away, sure enough. Who knows if the Yellowstone volcano is going to blacken the skies. Who knows if the Russians and Chinese are going to nuke us. Who knows if nothing is going to happen bad and the future is so bright we will have to wear shades? Gardening will add a lot of quality to your life and build a skill set that may or may not be extremely useful if Armageddon ever shows its ugly head.