Dig for When the Canned Goods Run Out

Digging for when the Canned Goods Run Out #5: Salads

As April showers hopefully fade away towards May flowers, now is a good time to start planting your salad vegetables. Of course, you may have been growing some of these under cover or inside already, but that may not be an option if you’re holed up in a bunker, or even if, like me, your bolt-hole simply doesn’t have any south-facing windows. So, for some of you, now might be the time to start planting out your cucumbers and so forth, but for the rest of us, we can start thinking about sowing directly into the ground.

A great place to start is with salad leaves themselves. You may wish to grow full-fledged lettuces, in which case give generous room, in accordance with the instructions for your variety. However, if your stores of dried goods are depleting fast there’s no reason not to embrace the ‘cut-and-come-again’ strategy. Assuming you followed our advice and looted a goodly supply of seed on your way out of the city you should find yourself with an ample supply of salad leaf seed. Seed packets typically contain hundreds of seeds, so don’t be over-cautious; with the cut-and-come-again strategy you can afford to be generous with your sowing.

Click image for awesome gardening blog.

Prepare the ground by de-weeding as suggested in our previous posts and then smooth the surface – but don’t press down on it! You want to avoid compacting the soil as much as possible. Next, using the edge of a trowel (or just your finger) create a shallow (about one centimetre) trough and dampen it with water. If possible place a marker (anything will do, but a straight stick is good) so you won’t forget where you’ve sowed your seed once you’ve covered it up. Now sprinkle the seed into your trough. Don’t worry about spacing, ignore the instructions on the packet, they’re for if you intended to grow the plant to its full size, and we don’t want that. Cover over the soil and water along the line again to damp the soil down.

I’ve recommended planting in rows as it’s easier to remember where you put your plants. If you do plant in rows you may want to leave 15cm or so between them. However, you could also just liberally sprinkle a small area with seed and them cover over with soil or compost. This method works well for growing in containers, which is great if you’re hemmed in by zombies somewhere without much space for a proper garden.

The seeds will take a few weeks to germinate, and a few more to get big enough to eat, but in the world of grow-your-own it’s a pretty swift return. And the real beauty is that when you come to pick you’re not taking the whole plant. Simply take your scissors (or even carefully pluck with your fingers, if you’re lazy, like me) and nip off the outer leaves from the plants. As long as you leave the smaller, younger leaves in the centre of the plant alone it will be fine, and regular picking will help stop the plant from ‘bolting’ – which is what gardeners call it when a plant starts producing flowers and stops devoting energy to producing leaves, leading it to get tall and thin and not very useful.

Now, you may be thinking: ‘But salad is boring!’ Well, my friend, you’ve just been eating the wrong salad. Iceberg lettuce is dull as anything, but salad leaves like rocket and mustard can be just what you need to create a really tasty, spicy dish. Most garden centres will offer spicy salad seed mixes, and many general salad leaf mixes will include a bit of rocket amongst the milder leaves like lambs lettuce.

Spring onion seeds are tiny and black.

Still, even cut-and-come-again leaves do not a salad make. Why not plant some spring onions (aka scallions or salad onions)? The clue’s in the name – spring is an ideal time to get these in, although you can keep on planting them into the summer if you water the seeds well. Again, these are easy and grow fast. Packets recommend to sow thinly (an inch apart), but in my experience it’s better to take a similar method to that described above. Spring onion seed tends to be sold in large quantities, but they’re unreliable germinators. If lots come through you can thin them out later (either taking the young plants to eat, or carefully transplanting them elsewhere to grow with more room).

And, of course, there’s the old staple of the beginner gardener: the radish. These are easy and very quick. Plant seeds 1cm deep in drills 3cms apart, leaving 15cms between rows. They should be ready to pick in 6-8weeks. If you plant a row a week you should have a steady supply throughout the summer. Don’t plant them all at once, though, or you’ll have more radishes than you can eat before they go off, and if you leave them in the ground too long they will go woody and inedible.

Another great salad plant is the cucumber. These are best grown in greenhouses, but as they tend to be very productive you can plant them outside straight into the ground in May. The cucumbers will be smaller, but unless you’re very northerly you should still do well (for perspective I’m based in North Yorkshire). These are big plants, though, so no planting in rows – you want to leave about two feet between each plant. If you can’t start them off inside plant two seeds together in case one doesn’t germinate – keep the stronger plant once they come through. Cucumbers are vines, so you may wish to train them against canes to keep the cucumbers away from pests, although they can be left to rest on the ground, but this can be done later in the year, once the young plants have been established.

You’ve now got the makings for a really nice salad, as well as tasty additions to sandwiches for the Apocalypse Girl on the move.

 – Apocalypse Womble out.

Digging for When the Canned Goods Run Out #4: First Blush of Spring – Nettles and Rhubarb

by Apocalypse Womble

Despite the mild weather this winter, it’s never an easy time when you know the zombies don’t feel the cold. Still, with any luck, if you did your looting right, your canned goods will have seen you through the winter. There’s not much for the plucky post-apocalypse farmer to do in the winter months – not this first year, at least – but at last, spring is creeping over the hills, and all women who want to survive to next winter should be out taking a look at the warming ground.

If you followed our advice you’ll already have done some of the work, breaking the ground and weeding it out. Alas, some of this work will need to be redone – weeds will have been slowed by the cold, but most will not have died. If you have cooch grass in your ground, go over your beds again, I guarantee you’ll find some you missed. Now’s also a great time to deal with any stinging nettles growing in your land.

Like so many pernicious weeds, the stinging nettle has long, vine-like roots that grow only just below, or along the surface of the soil. This makes them easier to pull from the soil than weeds that send roots deeper, but it’s still no picnic. You’ll face worse things in your brave new world, but nobody really likes getting stung if they can help it, so be sure to wear those good sturdy gloves you looted. One of the real advantages of acting on your nettle-invaders now, however, is that the winter will have sent them into dormancy. At this time of year they will have started to resurface, letting you know where you need to start, but you won’t have to work your way through a forest of stinging evil to get to the roots.

I’m fortunate enough to have some rhubarb growing in the allotment I’ve been cultivating in anticipation of zombigeddon, but the nettles are growing in, through, and around these treasured plants. Early spring, therefore, makes for a great time to deal with this menace. The rhubarb is beginning to poke its head through the soil, so I can see where it is and know where I need to be careful of the rhubarb’s roots, but it’s not yet spread out enough for its leaves to get in the way of a nettle cull.

As with cooch grass roots, loosen the soil around where you’ve spotted your nettle shoot, but then grab hold of the shoot and gently pull – see how much of the nettle you can get out this way before sticking your fork in again. A trowel may also be useful to help clear roots from the soil. Chances are that vine will ave gone places you didn’t expect from just looking at the ground. Nettle roots are typically pinkish near the surface, where shoots form, becoming thick and white as they travel under ground. Young roots will be flexible and rubbery and liable to snap, but older plants will have tougher, more gnarled roots deeper into the soil. Get as much of these out as you can and put them on the compost heap. Nettles are good in compost, and can make good fertiliser as well if left in a bucket of water to soak and mulch.

Of course, you may be tempted to use nettles as a food source – one can make nettle soup and nettle tea, after all, and I’m willing to admit I’ll try and infuse most things if I’m in danger of running out of tea. If you’re interested in nettle soup, there’s a fairly straightforward recipe here, and nettle tea seems relatively easy, not to mention that there are reputed to be a number of health benefits. I don’t know about you, though, but I’ve got better things to grow on my land that aren’t in danger of strangling my rhubarb. And don’t forget: if you’ve got nettles on your growing site there are probably plenty growing wild round about. This is a plant that gets everywhere. And if you’re desperately curious, you can always try cooking the young shoots you pull whilst weeding.

Whilst we’re talking about rhubarb, though, keep an eye out for edible plants already in your ground whilst you’re digging over – you never know what you might already have in your soil! You’d never even know rhubarb was there in the winter, but if you haven’t dug it up by accident it may be peeping through the ground now. The leaves will be tightly coiled at first, the heads either red or green. Easy to miss if you have one eye out for zombies! But rhubarb is a tasty delight that takes several years to establish, so if you have some in your plot it’s worth cultivating. A good picture of what it looks like breaking through can be found here.

Music for the Apocalypse #20: Rejoice in the Sun, by Joan Baez

by Apocalypse Womble

Zombies, plague, robots – we all know the traditional ones, but you better fear when the hippies bring apocalypse to the table. ‘Rejoice in the Sun’ is the opening theme to Silent Running, one of the most haunting and visually stunning apocalypse movies, and one that made a very big impression on my four year old mind as I sat completely not getting that the main character is a few chips short in the casino of the mind. He’s a peculiar kind of anti-hero. He’s not witty or rakishly handsome, he’s just so zealously in the right that nobody likes him except some broken down robots he programs to be his friends after he kills everyone else. Ummm.

Basically, Silent Running is the ultimate environmentalist apocalypse movie. Waterworld eat your heart out. The premise of the movie is that we fucked the world so royally that no plants can exist on Earth anymore. We put the ones we had left into biodomes and sent them into space. Then we decided that even having forests in space was an extravagant expense and told the men who had spent their lives protecting and caring for the forests to destroy them and come home. Lowell doesn’t like that, and that’s where it all starts going a bit wrong…

Anyway, there’s nothing quite like singing in the end of the world with the clear, resonating voice of Joan Baez:

This song features the lyric: ‘Gather your children to your side… Tell them all they love will die’ but carries on cheerfully to recommend Grow Your Own as a solution:

Tell them it’s not too late
Cultivate, one by one
Tell them to harvest and rejoice
In the sun

Let’s just say: it’s a song after my own heart. Even if you’re in space, you still have to dig for when the canned goods run out.

 – Apocalypse Womble out

Dig for When the Canned Goods Run Out #3: Late Autumn and Winter Planting

by Apocalypse Womble

It’s a depressing time of year for the gardener. The natural world seems as cold and dead as the unnatural hordes that roam the countryside. But fear not, there are still things you can do even as the autumn fades out and winter approaches!

First up is that garlic you looted as you were fleeing the city. Unlike most plants, garlic actively likes being planted in the autumn, and will not yield as well if you wait until the spring. It needs a snap of cold and frost to get it sprouting. Old wives say garlic should be planted on Halloween, and if the undead are rising that might have a certain appeal, but don’t worry too much if you missed October 31st this year. You were probably doing more urgent things, like running for your life.

Fortunately, in a mild winter you can go on planting garlic right up until Christmas. Really, until the first snows fall and the ground gets hard you should be OK. As I mentioned earlier, you can plant garlic as late as early spring, but it’s not recommended. For the cold winter months when you’re living off cold baked beans, though, the sight of a little garlic sprouting can bring hope for the future. And it couldn’t be easier to do!

Get your garlic bulb and carefully split it open. Take the cloves one by one and press them into freshly weeded, smoothed ground. It’s very important not to walk on the ground after you’ve turned the earth, as you will destroy the soil structure. Cloves should be placed in rows about 6 inches apart, with about 4 inches between each clove in the row. You only have to poke them in, leaving the tip showing, but firm up the soil around the clove by pressing down about it once the clove is in place.

Bigger cloves will perform better, so if you only have limited space, save smaller ones for cooking, but if you’ve got the space it does not harm to plant them all. Try to leave the skin against the clove itself intact to protect it and prevent rotting. Discard any cloves that are showing signs of damage or mould; you don’t want to contaminate the soil.

Unlike garlic, onions will do fine if planted in spring, but some varieties are more suited to over-wintering, and all should sprout and grow if planted, meaning that you can get a head start if you’re worried about how long your stock of canned goods will last you. You can grow onions from seed, and you’ll probably have to think about doing that for next year, but you couldn’t get seed to grow now, and it’s much easier to just loot some onion sets and use those. They look like small versions of the onions they will become, and can be planted in the same way as garlic. The only difference is that they need a bit more room. It may vary with the variety, but a good rule would be rows a foot apart and onions 6 inches apart within the row. That said, I’ve grown prize-winning onions with only 6 inches between the rows, too, so you can squish them in a bit closer if you’re pushed for space.

Red Baron is a great variety for red onions, both tasty and large for a red. Sturon Globe is a fantastic, high-yielding white onion with a good strong flavour.

Another good plant for late autumn or early winter planting is broad beans. Most other beans will shrivel at the sight of cold, but broad beans are somewhat hardier and should grow slowly throughout the winter to give you a head start in the spring. As with onions they will also grow perfectly well if planted in spring, and some varieties will be happier in the winter than others, but they’re worth popping in the ground now anyway. Why not plant some now and some in spring to make sure not all your beans are ripening at once?

Your broad bean is a large plant that will need its space. Plant in rows at least a foot apart with at least six inches between the beans. Push beans into the soil to a depth of about 1 and a half inches and cover. Don’t firm up the ground as you did for the onions and garlic

If the soil is dryish pour a little water over your future plants to help settle them in the soil, but, to be honest, this time of year, in my part of the world, the soil is usually damp enough, and you don’t want your plants to go mouldy before they have the chance to sprout. I should say that I am limited in my advice for applicability for other parts of the world. Gardening must always be relative to the climate and environment. All of the above are common plants in many parts of the world, but my advice in looking after them is necessarily tailored to my experiences of planting them in the north of England. Challenges in Southern California or South Africa may be different. When in doubt, consult the packet.

Other vegetables may also grow over winter, but these are three that I recommend to you for planting now. Others can be planted at the end of summer to supplement you diet over winter (such as Swiss Chard), but if your apocalypse has only just begun, these will have to wait until next year.

If anyone has any other suggestions for autumn and winter planting, do post them for your fellow survivors in the comments below. Sharing intel is as vital in food production as any other aspect of surviving the apocalypse!

Until next time, stay tuned to this frequency.

Apocalypse Womble out.

Dig for When the Canned Goods Run Out #2: Preparing the Ground

by Apocalypse Womble

So, your apocalypse has happened in November, has it? Bad luck, it’s going to be a long, cold winter, but that’s what your canned goods are for, right? They’ll last you at least until spring, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t work to be done preparing your patch of land for growing edibles. Ladies, it’s time to dig!

This is the hardest, most backbreaking work you’ll have to do, and you’ll have to do it again in spring, because you won’t get all the weeds, that’s just a fact of life. Preparing the ground now will make a hell of a difference, though.

Unless you’re incredibly lucky (and, let’s face it, if you’re in the middle of a zombie apocalypse, Lady Luck isn’t entirely on your side) you’re not going to find weed free, rich, arable soil just lying around near a suitable bolt hole, so you’re going to have to work with what you’ve got. All your life you’ve probably thought of grass as a wonderful, harmless ground covering, but if you’re unlucky enough to find cooch grass on your land, you will grow to loathe it. You’ll know cooch grass by its most evil attribute – it’s roots. I’ve seen these grow up to four feet long, but they snap at the slightest provocation, and even the tiniest portion (no, really, that tiny) can grow to form a massive runner again. If left in the ground they will choke your plants and their roots will grow through even your potatoes. Prevention is your best weapon, in this case, so get in early and get these babies out.

Don’t be tempted by the brute force of the spade, however. Wherever possible you want to get these roots out whole, to minimise breakage. A spade will slice right through cooch grass roots and, unlike worms, if you cut a cooch grass root in half you really will have two cooch grass plants. Instead, rely on your trusty fork. Forking over ground is long, arduous work, but surprisingly rewarding. Make no mistake, you’ll be going to bed for weeks with images of cooch grass on the back of your eyelids, but there is a peculiar satisfaction to freeing your ground of this menace.

Even if you’re miraculously cooch grass free, there will still be plenty of other weeds that will need clearing out before you get stuck in. Dandelions may be enchanting to the feral child you found wandering the streets, but they’re hell to dig up, and you have to make sure you get all the roots to stop them coming again. Thistles and nettles are also common invaders. Be sure to have those good sturdy gloves you looted on hand to deal with these!

There are two ways of going about this, and they depend on how much you’re having to work directly under threat from zombies, as well as personal preference, and how many helpers you have. Always work with at least one other person who’ll be able to stand watch whilst you have your head down, sorting through earth and roots. If you’re on your own, try to pick a place with good views all around. Keep your eyes open, and especially your ears, and take regular breaks to scan around you. If you’re working with a very small patch, or are confident you have enough workers to go over the entire plot, go for it. You’re going to need paths between your rows, but if these can be weed-free too, so much the better. If weed roots can come in from the side of your beds you’ll be fighting a constant battle to stop your good work being undone. But if you’re working on your own or subject to frequent zombie attacks you may want to take a time saving approach. Get your beds dug and weeded, worry about the paths later.

All the books say to start with a plan, but there’s also a growing movement amongst gardeners to take a more liberal, haphazard approach, allowing different plants to grow together. As mentioned in my previous post, companion planting can be beneficial, and placing small plants like chives and other herbs between larger plants like onions and potatoes can help you to squeeze more in. The theory behind the more rigidly planned method is that different plants take different nutrients from the soil and are vulnerable to different pests. By segregating your plants and rotating them you avoid proliferation of pests and share the nutrients around.

The traditional method makes sense, but I’m a ‘jump in and just start digging’ sort of a girl, which can be a beneficial approach under the ever present threat of zombie hordes. Clear your ground and worry about where you’re going to put your plants later. Start in a corner of the patch of land you want to grow your crops on, plunge your fork into the ground, tilt it back as much as you can, and give it a good wiggle. Move back a pace, and repeat, move back and repeat, move back and repeat. Do this for a 2.5-3 by 4-5 foot area. You can go for longer rows if you want, but I like to be able to move about amongst the plants more freely. Plus, you’re not going to manage to clear much more than this in a day anyway, even if the zombies don’t attack. Larger groups of workers can clear a bigger area, but I’m going to assume that if you’re in a group then there will be plenty of other tasks that are urgent, like hunting zombies; locating the zombie-master; finding a cure; looking for other survivors; fighting off the local crazy who thinks we should all play at Mad Max, now; building a radio; finding fuel for the generator, and so forth. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that it’s you and one other person keeping watch.

If you’re leaving the paths for later, you may want to use your spade around the edges of your bed, now, to cut down at the edges and help free long runners. If you want to do the whole patch, it’s fork work all the way. Once you’ve loosened the soil with a good poking, go back to where you started, stick your fork in, and wiggle or all you’re worth. You’ll likely come up with a big mat of roots still tangled up with the roots all around it, but the more you wiggle, the roots will slowly come free, hopefully mostly intact. Make no mistake. The roots will be heavy and the wiggling awkward, but it’s worth doing this properly to save hassle later. You’re also building up good muscles for a leaner, tougher life.

Repeat this forking procedure over the patch you’ve laid out for your bed until there are no roots left. You’ll have missed something, but you’ll reach a stage when you realise you’ve done a pretty good job. Each bed will take you several hours, so you’ll be doing this for weeks, if your patch is of any size. But as soon as you have a single bed you can start thinking about what you’d like to put on it. Fear not! Even in Winter there are plants that will grow and put you in a position to hit the ground running for spring.

Stay tuned to this frequency for food you can think about planting in the autumn and winter months.

Apocalypse Womble out.

Dig for When the Canned Goods Run Out #1: Setting Out

by Apocalypse Womble

So many people go straight for the cricket bats when the zombie apocalypse happens. They forget to loot the carrot seed. In this, the first of the ‘Digging for When the Canned Goods Run Out’ series, I highlight the key things you’ll want to grab on your way out of town if you want to live beyond the first few months of the apocalypse.

When the zombie apocalypse happens property becomes what you can defend, not what you’ve earned and bought. Naturally any girl with her wits about her will want to hit a few stores for supplies. The temptation will be to hit large, centrally located shops – you’ll need clothes, weapons, and camping gear, after all. Resist this, ladies! You have a wardrobe at home, put your most practical gear in a suitcase and hit the road. Head out of town – heavily populated areas like central shops and shopping malls are death zones where the dead will congregate.

Fortunately for you, large garden stores are usually located on the outskirts of town. If you don’t have a garden-specific store, bear in mind that DIY superstores like Homebase and B&Q will usually have a garden section – not to mention other essential gear for starting a more self-reliant life.

Cricket bats may be traditional, but your gardening store will have a wide range of potential weapons, many of which are actually more effective. Your trusty spade is an essential item, not just for double-digging, but for self-defence! A spade with a sharpened edge can double both as a blade and a blunt weapon – perfect for undead with tough brain-pans. A blow to the head is good, but it’s better if you can cut it clean off!

Other essential tools include the fork and trowel. If you’re on a whistle-stop tour you can get by with just these three, but less than these and you’ll struggle further down the line. You’ll also need some bamboo canes. Some stores will also offer more sturdy poles and frames for your climbing plants. As money is now irrelevant you may as well grab whatever looks sturdiest, but remember that speed is of the essence. When in doubt, bamboo is a gardener’s favourite, and is light for the quick sprint back to your stolen vehicle.

If you can find a plastic mini-greenhouse, these things are gold. With a greenhouse you can ready seedlings earlier in the year and keep tender plants like tomatoes away from pests and blight. Don’t bank on finding a full glass greenhouse in your eventual bolt-hole; grab one of these portable, collapsible babies while you have the chance.

When choosing what to grow for your new life of subsistence farming, go for simplicity and bulk. Asparagus is lovely but tough to grow and low yields. Potatoes are a goldmine, but you may not be able to find seed potatoes if the apocalypse happens at the wrong time of year. If you’re unlucky and the apocalypse doesn’t hit in spring, remember that potatoes more than any plant want to grow. Loot some from the supermarket whilst you’re getting your canned goods. Supermarket potatoes may have been sprayed with anti-sprouting chemicals, so go organic if you can, but even sprayed potatoes will sprout eventually. Whilst you’re there, loot some garlic, too. Seasoning should not be your priority, but garlic is easy to grow and will transform even the humblest of meals, and you’ll probably be eating a lot of those. Garden centre bulbs are more likely to be suited to your climate, as supermarkets often import, but garlic, like potatoes, wants to grow – your yields may be smaller for the first year, but supermarket garlic will acclimatise for the next year’s yield.

It may be tempting to loot plants from the nursery, but these will be tender and easily damaged. You don’t want to worry about protecting them whilst you’re on the run. Plan to live off canned goods for as long as you can. Remember: grow your own is for the long haul. Go for seed and grab as much as you can. Carrots and parsnips are essentials, but remember to grab some marigolds to grow as companion plants for your carrots. Carrot-fly is the bane of the gardener, but the strong scent of the marigold is an old favourite for disguising the distinctive smell of the carrot and discouraging pests. If you can find onion sets, grab as many as you can – for flavour, bulk, and storing, you can’t beat onions. Look out for plants that will keep growing through the winter – Swiss chard is a must-have if you can find it.

Beans and peas are great for bulk production and can be dried for storage through the winter months. Peas are vulnerable to pests, though, so grab some horticultural fleece to protect them. Beans are much more robust – choose runners and broad beans for bulk and resistance.

And don’t forget your salad seed. Salad is great for swift production. Radishes and spring onions are an old favourite of the beginner gardener for swift growth. It’s great to plant for lettuce heads, but salad leaves are also good for cut-and-come-again growing. You can be eating salad that you grew yourself within a few short weeks of the apocalypse!

Lastly, remember the bits and bobs that will protect you and promote your plants. Sturdy gardening gloves (several pairs – you will go through them) are a must, and why not loot a knee-pad whilst you’re at it. You’ve got a lot of weeding in your future, and a knee-pad can be a godsend. If you’ve time to grab a watering can, go for it, but remember that anything that can hold water will get the job done, so this isn’t essential. Fertiliser is a big help, though. Compost is wonderful, but bulky for transport when you’re on the run. Grab chemical fertiliser for now and make plans to compost your own for the future.

This may sound like a lot, but remember, most of it is seed! Grab a bucket (buckets are always useful) and just chuck things in as you go. If you’re travelling in a group you can collect all these things in a matter of minutes and be back on the road in no time.

You’re now well set-up for your new, post-apocalypse life. Stay tuned to this frequency for further notes on Digging for When the Canned Goods Run Out.

Apocalypse Womble out.