Gardening with Zombies

Not the Halloween type of zombies or the ones that dance with you while you and your teen-aged girlfriend try to walk home from seeing a movie.

Real, honest to goodness Zombie Apocalypse type of zombies.  Over the years we have read a number of survival books from true accounts of people stuck on boats or on mountains to fictional accounts of  little boys crashed in the Canadian wilderness to full on TEOTWAWKI (The End Of The World As We Know It).  The main character of a book I’m reading is a big fan of guns and beans (who isn’t?), owns a cabin as a BOL (Bug-Out Location) and has plans to use an abandoned lot nearby for a garden if he has to bug-out.

It’s that last point that bothers me.  It’s as if to say, all you have to do is turn some soil over, tip the seed envelope toward the ground and “Voila!” – food.  Haven’t these people seen Second Hand Lions?!  You know, where they planted a garden out of various seed packets and it all grew up to be corn.

Ugh.

Gardens take time.  Gardening is a skill.  Canning is darned near an art.  Heck, all of it is an art, one that has to be developed over time in your own climate with seeds that are well-suited to grow where you live…viable seeds that haven’t been sitting in a can on a shelf in a storage unit for 10 years.

So our hero in the current book spends his Sunday afternoons shooting with the guys, practicing tactics for urban warfare.  He has to know how to use his weapon so he is ready if he needs it.  It’s preparedness.  He fills a cabin with beans, rice and pancake mix (yes, pancake mix) because he wants to eat beans and rice and pancakes.  He buys a couple of seed packets at the big box store just in case.  Just in case?

Ugh.

I don’t even know what to say.

Well, I guess I’ll have to figure it out because I can’t drop off the blog post here.

Now, look.  I’m very much in favor of arming your family with an array of handguns and ARs customized to fit each member of the family from ages 3 to 60 (younger than three can pass the ammo!).  You wouldn’t say, “Well, yeah, I now own a Glock so I’m ready for the Zombie Apocalypse.”  You learn how to use it!  I’m very much in favor of beans, rice and pancake mix but you can’t just stop there and call it macaroni!  You have to learn how to cook it.  If gardening is part of your survival prep, plan for it.  Learn how to do it!  I mean, the author is very pointed about the fact that our ‘hero’ is rather useless around the house and doesn’t know anything about gardening.  He just buys guns and beans and pancake mix.  Months worth of beans and pancake mix.  (And he expects his wife to be pleasantly surprised that we’re having beans for dinner.  For the next 9 months. (Oh, and we might have to shoot the neighbors to keep them from eating our beans!))

Do you know how to garden?  Most folks grow a good crop of weeds every year.  Not necessarily bad if you know which weeds are best to eat but not ideal if you’re trying to grow onions.

And you can’t keep onion seeds in storage for more than a year!

I have gone astray.  Let’s get down to it.

Soil.  It takes roughly 7 years to get decent soil in your garden plot.  You need manure, animal or human.  It takes 3-5 years for a grafted fruit tree to grow.  It takes 10-15 years for a fruit tree to bear if grown from seed (and if it’s an apple you might be unpleasantly surprised).  Did you plan that timeline into your SHTF scenario? No?  Well, good thing you’ve got a Glock.  Maybe you can help someone with a garden defend it from marauding vegetarian Zombies.

My friend Linda Brady Traynham died not quite a year ago.  She and I discussed this topic at length over the phone one evening.  She had written about it in 2009 but she makes the point better than I can as she reviews the book Patriot.  Here are the highlights:

 I had been using the term”survivalist” as convenient shorthand, but Mr. Rawles showed me the error of my ways:  we want to be prepared to thrive, not just to survive.  We’re capitalists … and we want a better ROI than just living through the breakdown of commerce and law and order.

“I may have to live through wars in ‘injun territory,’ but I refuse to do so without ample supplies of whipping cream, fresh porto bello mushrooms, and a lifetime supply of OPI nail polish.”  Two years into the bad times our heroes have fended off assorted attackers and formed a Dudly Do Right squad to patrol a big chunk of territory assisting those they think worthy of it.  Their standard breakfast is dried wheat softened with heated water.  Lunch is a big pot of steaming rice.  Period.  Dinner is the elk or venison du jour when hunting is good and more rice.  Dehydrated peanut butter or jerky if it weren’t.  Yeech.  The calorie count is a bit higher, but other than that we’re talking Gulag food.  On special occasions they have a tasty MRE.

…Call me effete, but I’d have turned some of the ingredients into elk-fried rice and told those men that they had enough trenches, go hunting and don’t come back without something that can be milked, and I don’t care if it is domestic or a mountain goat.  One of you other idlers go find a bee hive.

Three years into their communal survival experiment they still haven’t planted a garden!  They keep wonderful around the clock lookouts, of course.  They make terrific IED.  Nothing was more important than a garden, and couldn’t someone not on duty have built a still?  They couldn’t even have made soap out of ashes for lack of sufficient spare fats.

Nail polish.  LOL.  She hit the nail on the head.  In your Red Dawn fantasy scenario you should plan to dig more than the graves of your fallen enemies.  You should plan to garden.  You should find a source of milk and convenient protein.  If you can keep a couple of chickens at your house now you should.  You can pack them with you to your Bug-Out location if needed.  Same for rabbits.  It’s more than just bullets, beans and exploding zombie heads.  Learn to do this stuff now and plan to be comfortable.  What if you get there and the zombies don’t find you?  You just going to watch each other field strip your guns for years?  You need something to do!  Garden.  Keep chickens.  Grow something.  As Linda points out, it may even enable you to make a valuable contribution to your gun-toting community.

Heinlein said, “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”  

Learning to do anything is simply a matter of putting in the time.  If you want to learn about gardening, the time to start is now.  I can teach you to hit a target at 15-20 yards with a 9mm handgun with an hour of instruction.  You’ll need the rest of your life to learn to garden well.  Start now.  I still have a long way to go myself.

Now, we can’t talk about a well-armed family thriving with a productive garden (and composting their manure for said garden) during the ongoing zombie apocalypse without noting a couple of problems.  These are from Survival Mom’s list of 28 Inconvenient Truths About TEOTWAWKI:

22. Growing your own food is a bigger challenge than you ever thought possible.
23. A green garden can be spotted from miles away, thus endangering your food source and your family.

So.  If you believe there is any possibility of a zombie apocalypse, post-nuclear apocalypse, trucker strike, currency disruption, ice storm, 7 fat and 7 lean years or long-term unemployment (nothing stretches unemployment like not buying food!) and, as Linda points out, thriving sounds better than just surviving, maybe you should take a first step.  Besides, who needs that much lawn?

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Drought, Death and Discouragement

It’s hard to get it all done.  Some of the things we do really turn out well.  Some of the things we do could turn out better.  Some of the things we do go as badly as possible…worse than we could imagine.

My wife, parents and even extended family are generally supportive of our efforts here.  Even within that group I am no golden boy.  Outside of that group it is easy to find criticism.  I’m going against the grain.  I am defying convention and tending toward worse offenses.  But it’s easy to get past other people’s opinions of me.  Sometimes there are real problems.  Sometimes you make a mistake.  That mistakes snowballs into bigger problems.  Standing there, with my back against the wall, I ask myself, “Why can’t I do anything right?”

This blog has become more of a “how-we” than a “how-to”.  If you want to defy convention, I want to encourage you.  If you want to try your hand at raising a few chickens or pigs, I’ll tell you what I have found works…and what I have found doesn’t work.  I like to make specific mention of what doesn’t work so you don’t make the same mistakes.  I’m not just spouting off about my experiences/abilities on the blog, I’m sharing my adventure with you…even the bad parts.  Now, before we get too far along here, let me reassure you that I’m fine.  I’m OK.  I’m not frustrated or angry or thinking about quitting.  My goal here is not to depress my readership.  My hope is that by opening up here I’ll encourage you to keep going.  This stuff is hard.  You can do it.  I’ll get through it.  So will you.

OK?  Let’s go.

I do everything wrong.  Not just wrong but as badly as possible.  Experience is a harsh teacher and I am a slow learner.  Let me give you a few examples.  Here is a picture of me, dressing a pig.  You can see from my sweat that it was hot outside.  You can see from the dirt on my back that I carried the pig up the hill on my shoulder rather than kill it in a more convenient spot.  If you could smell you would know she peed on my right shoulder as I carried her.  I had to remember not to wipe my brow with that shoulder.  Why did I carry a hog across the pasture on my back and dress it out on a 95 degree evening in July?

Because we screwed up.  Hot weather is a problem for pigs.  Hot weather without water is a serious problem.  When I realized what had happened 7 of our 8 pigs ran to the drinker to get their fill.  The eighth pig just looked at me.  Poor Zing.  I carried water to her, attempted to cool her with buckets of water over her body and held the bucket down so she could drink out of it.  A few minutes later we lost her.

There is an agreement between me and my livestock (and my tomato plants too).  I provide everything they need.  They provide everything I need.  I dropped the ball, I lost a pig.

Now, there’s only so much I can do to manage the heat.  I can’t save every chicken, no matter how hard I try.  There are things I can do to lessen the stress on my animals.  Some of it is falling into a routine.  Some of it is overcoming personal inertia.  More than anything it’s time management.  But the truth is I don’t have this all figured out.  Some things I do work really, really well.  Other things could go better.  As I get better I’m more able to manage my time.  As I can manage my time better I’ll get more of the things done that I need to do.

Please don’t read this blog thinking I have all the answers.  I have some answers.  I have found some things that work reasonably well.  I don’t think I’ll ever exit the discovery phase.  I don’t think I’ll ever be “good” at this farming stuff.  Not only do I have a lot to learn, sometimes bad things happen.  Sometimes the cows get out.  Sometimes a raccoon eats a chicken.  Sometimes people make mistakes.  All of our safeguards failed poor Zing.  It was a busy, hot day and nobody checked the water.

If there’s a positive outcome here, the next day we wrapped and froze the meat and discovered one of our freezers was beginning to thaw.  If not for the pig we would have lost around $1100 worth of chicken.