So, the world has ended and you don’t know where you’ll get your next meal? This is one case where you’ll want to be ON the grid.
In preparation for this or next year’s global economic collapse, I built and grew this garden.
Apocalypse Garden: Not your grandfather’s Victory garden, but it’ll do in a pinch.
Grow (lots of) your own food in a limited space
I actually had a dream one night in February about doing this. Even though I can’t now recall the details, the feeling of the dream was of extreme urgency and it focused on planting and growing LOTS of food, both for my family and for charity.
In hindsight, it was good I had paid attention to my dream. The midwest, where I live, is in the grip of a brutal drought. Temperatures as I write this are expected to soar into the 103-105 degree range today, and even higher tomorrow. It hasn’t rained significantly for over a month now and there is still no rain in sight.
But I’m ok. This garden is thriving due to our mineral-rich, non-flouridated, non-chlorinated well water being sprinkled on it each evening. My corn stalks are twice the height of some of the “drought-resistant” farmer varieties I see today from the roadside.
Anyway, after the dream I had, I wondered how I would do this without having to remove turf (a task which I hate with a white hot hate). Research revealed that a square foot gardening approach, using raised beds made of wood, is the best way to avoid this pain (and a trip to the chiropractor).
After having put it all together, I can verify that square foot gardening is MUCH more preferable to digging up your lawn as with a traditional garden. You can just build and lay down wooden boxes, put newspaper in the bottom, then fill them up with the soil mixture of your choice. It also makes managing a garden a more tailored and specific approach than the row gardening we usually think of. That extra attention for each plant results in higher yields.
So, for the impatient (or for the Johnny-Come-Latelys trying to catch up), here’s how to build an Apocalypse Garden. Later in this article, I’ll talk about planning and cost.
- a piece of property with an area big enough to grow supplemental food for your entire family + charity (your own, or “borrowed” from a farmer or neighbor friend). With square foot gardening, it doesn’t have to be much property.
- 8″ x 12′ lengths of cedar siding, with V-groove on two sides (cedar is rot/mildew resistant)
- 2″ x 2″ x 8′ furring strips
- 3/4″ deck screws
- table saw or miter box with handsaw
- chop saw, circular saw, or handsaw
- cordless drill
- band clamp
- measuring tape
- twine (for laying out grids)
- staple gun (for stapling the twine to the boxes)
- Measure your garden area. Be sure it’s in a spot where there is lots of sun all day long. Also call your local utilities to make sure it won’t conflict with any gas or power lines underground, just in case you do later decide to dig a garden rather than have a raised bed garden. It’s a good idea to “make the math easy” by measuring out in dimensions of even numbers divisible by 2. My garden measurement is 20′ by 44′. This gives me a 2′ buffer/barrier on all sides (for mulch or insect-repelling flowers), and a total of twenty-one, 4’x4′ boxes arranged in a grid so that there is exactly 2′ of space between them. The 2′ space between the boxes is wide enough for an average push lawn mower to get between them to cut the grass and is comfortable for using a weed trimmer to keep the grass from growing too high around the boxes. It’s also just wide enough to get in a comfortable kneeling or sitting position to tend to the grids.
Graph paper sketch of a basic square foot garden layout
4′ lengths of v-groove cedar siding
With the table saw or miter box set at a 45° bevel angle, cut four, 4 foot lengths of cedar siding, with the ends beveled “inward” (45° miter joint) so you can make a box.
To my math and woodworking-challenged brain, this was the hardest part. You have to get as close as you can to complementary 45° angles on each end’s cuts so that you get a perfect (or as near to perfect as you can get) 90° corner when the box is assembled. However, it’s worth it in the long run. Mitering the ends reduces waste. It also eliminates the problem of having to cut square ends, but making sure that the two “inner” boards are cut shorter than the two “outer” boards so that all the sides measure exactly 4′.
Reserve and mark with a pencil or pen the first of the cuts you make as a model for the rest, using it to measure out the other three from your lengths of siding. This is important for consistency of the first box you’re making which will be a model for the others you build on top of it.
If you make a mistake with the miter configuration on a board, set it aside for making 2′ x 2′ boxes later. Two by two boxes are good for “nesting” on top of soil already within a 4′ x 4′ box, or as standalones.
Cut furring strip into 5″ blocks, four to a box
Cut four, 5″ lengths of furring strip lumber. These are for the inside corners.
You usually can’t find these 2″ x 2″ x 10′ lumber cuts in cedar (usually only pine), so they’re not as rot-resistant. Metal brackets like you use for decking would have been better, but they were too expensive.
Besides, if these rot, I can just replace them very cheaply. In hindsight, I might have dipped them in Thompson’s Water Seal or linseed oil to further resist rot, but some gardeners would hesitate to add these compounds to their wood for fear that they might leech into the soil and contaminate the crop.
Band clamping the corners at 90 degree angles
Setting the sides together in a box on the floor, with the “tongue” edge of the siding touching the floor, dry-assemble the box using the band clamp to hold all four sides together. The band clamp working against the mitered ends will have friction enough to hold the box together until you can screw the 5″ long furring strip blocks to the inside corners for permanent support.
Drilling the pilot holes so the cedar boards don’t split
- Place the furring strip blocks in each corner, sitting on the ground.Having them sitting on the ground, rather than trying to center them between the top and bottom edges of the board, ensures that the 5″ furring strip blocks are flush with the “tongue” edge of the box. This is important if you want ease of assembly when stacking boxes as your soil depth needs change. This way, you won’t have to clear dirt off the top of the block when you assemble more boxes on top.
- Drill pilot holes smaller than the diameter of the screws in the places where you will fasten the boards to the furring strip blocks. This will keep the cedar siding from splitting as you fasten everything together.
Use two 3/4″ decking screws to secure each corner
Use two screws on each end (4 screws per side) for maximum strength. At the end of this process, you will have one, fully assembled garden box. Use this one as the “standard model” for building the others so all your boxes are uniform in dimensions and angles.
- Use the first side you cut and marked for the model box to measure and cut subsequent pieces of siding into 4′ lengths.
- Flip the model box over so that now the “groove” edge is touching the floor.
- Assemble the next box on top of the “model” box by inserting the grooves of the next four 4′ lengths into the tongues of the model box’s sides. Band clamp and gradually tighten the band clamp as you adjust this new box so that the corners are nice and square (90° angles). Cut and place more 5″ furring strip blocks in the corners, and screw it all together as with the first.
- Repeat steps above for creating box upon box until you have enough, or the “stack” gets too high to work on. Then separate the boxes (boxen?) by prying them apart with a screwdriver at the points where the ends of each level’s 5″ furring strip blocks meet.
Building boxes on a stack for uniformity
Now, just take these puppies out, toss ‘em on the ground where you want to grow a garden, layer in some newspaper, and fill them up with rich, healthy soil. Plant and eat, my friend!
The planning process begins in the winter, well before you begin to plant, or even build your boxes. You need to figure out things like which vegetables will do well in your zone, which sizes of boxes to have, what your family eats (or will likely eat) the most, adding in nutritional needs, what you can likely barter, and what crops are likely to be “bumper” crops for charity or for bulk usage at home.
Again, it’s important to think of how you cook and what you eat to determine which mix of vegetables and fruits you’ll likely use. It makes no sense to grow, say, boxes and boxes of onions if nobody in your family likes them (unless that’s a good sale, barter or charity item in your area).
With a traditional garden you typically work with a homogeneous soil mixture in a large garden area consisting of rows of plants. The point of a square foot garden, of course, is to garden individual plants using 1′ x 1′ spaces to separate your plants according to their type, nutritive needs, and growing season.
Additional advantages of square foot gardening include easier weeding, more attention to detail for each plant or plant group growing in a grid space, flexibility about where you can plant food (especially in limited spaces), among other things.
For example, if I want to use, say, four of my 1×1 spaces in a box for a certain type of plant requiring a delicate balance of soil mixture, I can easily dig out just the squares in the grid where I need that soil, maybe put some cardboard, plastic, or wooden dividers in to create a barrier between the two soil types, and then introduce my custom mix just into those grids.
I sketched my layout on graph paper. Note that you’re not limited to the sizes and configuration I’ve presented above. You can lengthen your boxes as much as you want (strawberries do well in beds built to 12′ x 4′). The only limitation you’ll want to impose is no more than 4′ wide on a side. That will make it easy to reach in and tend your plants.
For pest control, you can paint the box sides with fox or coyote urine granules dissolved in water. This keeps away the rabbits (fox) and deer (coyote) and, as I found, has the added bonus of keeping Max, my tomcat, from using the boxes for nature’s call.
Also, lots of insects hate the smells of certain flowers such as marigolds. I haven’t done this yet, but you can use the outer buffer space to build a “wall” of insect-resistant flowers around your garden. It’s like a force field against bugs!
For seeds, I went online to ParkSeed.com and Gardeners.com, two of my favorite online gardening providers. They’re not the cheapest, but I was looking for more than my local “big box” gardening store could provide. I picked out varieties that I knew would do well in my growing zone and that my family would eat. I tried to avoid hybrids and “Big-Ag” seed brands and instead sought to buy heirloom seeds wherever possible. That way I could avoid GMO crops and “legally” (blech) preserve some seed for subsequent years’ crops so as to cut my costs even further as time goes on.
I used Word to build a simple table to represent the garden and typed letters of the alphabet in each box keyed to represent each plant. This combats the “what the heck did I plant there” and “is that a weed or is it food” problems I often encounter as the plants begin to germinate.
As a homeschooler, I also tried to get all scientific and began building a journal of data on each plant I planned to grow, and a log where I could record what was working well and what was not. I wanted to use it as a homeschool unit study. But a) my kids just aren’t as interested as I am in gardening, let alone all that data (unlike government schools, we don’t force subjects on our kids before they’re ready or interested) and b) it was starting to get in the way of the ultimate goal of actually planting the garden.
The method behind my madness was in looking towards and beyond a deep, global financial disaster like the one on our doorstep right now. Make no mistake, folks. Just as this garden isn’t your grandfather’s Victory Garden, this financial crisis is not your father’s recession, or even depression. NOBODY knows where this is going, nor how it will end, because NEVER in the history of the world has our society been so complex.
Gold flakes for breakfast again?!
So you’ve invested in gold? You can’t eat gold, my friend. Though, maybe you’ll want to eat it when the bottom eventually falls out of that market and the food supply is dwindling. When the SHTF and TEOTWAWKI happens, there is going to be a big hurt put on developed nations. I shudder to think of what will happen to our brothers and sisters in developing nations. May God have mercy on all of our souls.
I wanted my project to be one that would be sustainable in the event that the Home Depots and the Lowes and the Menards of the local area suddenly ran out of inventory, or shut down altogether. Therefore, the design I came up with was as minimalistic and as modular as possible without sacrificing too much longevity of the final product. I didn’t want to have to repeat the major overhaul cycle very often, but I also didn’t want to spend a lot.
I lost track of specific costs in the middle of the build process, but my estimate for how much I’ve spent on what you see in the photos above is between $1,000 and $1,500. That’s for a fairly big garden capable of supplementing, or replacing if necessary, nutrition for 7 to 9 people. Not too many folks have that kind of money just lying around, and such means will be impossible for most when the end of the financial world comes (which is a good reason to build this NOW). However, you’d be surprised at how quickly even meager means can accumulate if you just do without some non-essentials for a few weeks or months. It’s definitely manageable.
If nothing else, consider this an investment rather than an unrecoverable expense. The first year’s yield will probably not pay for it, but subsequent year yields will.
Still not convinced? Just ask yourself how much you’d pay for any amount of food security in a crisis and you’ll have your Return-On-Investment calculation right there.
See Birth of a Square Foot Garden for an alternate method to the one I’m showing here. That way is more expensive and work-intensive than my method, but also builds in some great convenience features and looks much nicer. My way isn’t pretty but looks better than a row garden. It isn’t cheap, especially when compared to gouging out a chunk of ground, dumping in some dirt, and planting away. But, for those with limited space, bad soil, or bad backs, it is much more scalable and manageable for the money you’re spending than other square foot gardening container ideas I’ve seen. Seniors with walkers, canes, in electric scooters or even wheelchairs can manage a raised bed, square foot garden. Not so easy with row gardening.
I did already have one cost advantage going into this. In another area of my lot, also about 880 sqft, I had placed a traditional garden several years ago. At the time, before we knew the “lay of the land” of our new property purchase, it seemed like a great place. So, we bought several cubic yards of topsoil pre-fertilized with cow manure and hauled it from where it was dumped in the front yard all the way to the back. We planted all sorts of stuff and then sat back and waited for the bounty.
The garden was a flop. The problem ended up being that it didn’t get enough sunlight, what with our yard being in a depleted-and-converted gravel pit and backing up to the incline of said gravel pit, and trees on that hill blocking the afternoon sunlight. By about 2:00pm on hot June days, our plants were starved of direct sunlight, resulting in scrawny, pale plants that died before fruiting.
Fast forward several years, with multiple dumpings of grass clippings and compost on the “failed garden”, and “suddenly” we found ourselves with 12″ of premium, fertile black topsoil. I cannot say enough good about layered composting of grass clippings, folks. Forget the garden waste recycling brown bag kabuki theater your local Waste Management and government puts you through. Just pile that stuff in an unused corner of your yard and wait five years. Add a container, worms and compost accelerator if you don’t want to wait that long. Either way, you won’t be shelling out hundreds of dollars for what I like to call “baggies of soil” at the garden center. You, like the independent American Patriot you are, will have made your own dirt. ;)
Once you’ve built all the boxes you need, get the area ready by mowing any grass as close as you can to the ground. I mean really crop it by setting your mower to its lowest setting. That will give you a head start on killing the lawn under your boxes so that you don’t grow more grass than lettuce.
Next, lay out your grid how you like it. I’m an OCD kind of guy, so all my garden boxes had to be in a perfect grid of 3 boxes by 7 boxes with 2′ of buffer space on each side of a box. But do it however you like. The only things that really matter are sufficient drainage under each box and ensuring that as the sun travels across the sky, the taller plants won’t cast a shadow over the smaller ones. For those of us in the northern hemisphere, that means placing taller plants to the North, shorter plants to the South.
Now, put down a couple of layers of newspaper as a blocking barrier for the grass underneath. It will choke out the grass there and eventually decompose. Besides, all that liberal B.S. “journalism” is cheaper than landscaping cloth and so is good for this at least, right? And, you’re helping the environment, so pat yourself on the back. Maybe. If that makes you feel good or something.
Fill each box with your topsoil mixture. You can go with Mel Bartholomew’s special mix, buy topsoil locally, or use your own compost. Mel’s Mix and his canonical square foot gardening methods (though more expensive) are really good for keeping weeds at bay. If you don’t mind some weeding (I find it mentally cleansing, character-building, and a good squatting exercise for leg muscles) topsoil or compost will do. Weeding is also a great chore bribe for when your kids want something and you want a little quid pro quo.
Like cereal in a box, the soil will settle after a bit, so be sure to have more soil on hand to top it off after the settling has occurred. Break up any clods to help speed this up and make your soil mixture and consistency more uniform. Add earthworms for aeration. If you’re doing the layered compost like I did, you should already have the worms step covered. Follow any other great green thumb advice you prefer or that works for your area with regards to soil.
Of course, it’s not REAL square foot gardening unless you establish a grid. With your boxes laid out and filled, you’re ready to create the 1′ x 1′ grids on top of each box. Some people use thin furring strips cut to fit horizontally across the top of the box. Others, like me, use twine stretched and stapled to the edges of the box. The grid is there to help you place your plants neatly in the centers and to aid you in managing the soil requirements, watering, feeding, and care of heterogeneous plant groupings within a single box, so don’t skip this step.
Completed square foot garden boxes, filled with soil, and getting started with gridding.
Now you’re ready to start planting. There’s a lot to be said for starting seedlings and transplanting. I’m not that kind of gardener…yet. It just takes too much effort for me to find a place in the house in February that the kids won’t disturb, gets enough sunlight, won’t be tempting as a litter box for the cat, etc. I just plant and pray after the first frost, like our grandparents used to do, and 9 times out of 10 I get a good result. I do have plans to convert an old aboveground pool deck into a greenhouse and chicken coop, but that’s a subject for a future post.
So, just stick those seeds in the individual grids according to the instructions. With square foot gardening you’ll want to modify what your typical Burpee-type seed packet says (Park Seed is remarkably square foot gardening friendly in all its labeling, though sometimes they skimp on the seed count).
Use the Square Foot Gardening Plant Spacing table, and common sense, as a key. For example, with carrots, I used the “four finger method” of sticking four of my fingers into the soil as far apart as I could stretch them. This placed depressions for receiving the seed at the optimal distance from each other across the 1′ span. Repeat three or four times to fill the 1′ x 1′ square, then do the same to all the other squares in the box.
But, don’t make the mistake I did. With square foot gardening and thick-growth seeds like carrots, you don’t need to plant every carrot seed in the packet. Just sow between one and three per spot in the grid and you avoid all the thinning later.
Now, for things like pole beans, peas, and other “climbing” or “trellising” plants, I lashed bamboo poles together with zip ties, tied nylon twine between the spaces, and created a structure for them to climb as they matured. This is the fun part because there are literally dozens of ways to do this per plant. Get creative and try different ideas.
For my potatoes (Yukon Gold variety), I’m simply stacking boxes using the tongue and groove of my cedar siding! To add more soil depth for my carrots (Scarlet Nantes), and corn (sweet, of course), I likewise stacked on another box and added more soil.
Political and Social Implications
Be aware that the Obama administration, which is in bed with Monsanto, is working hard to make sure that small farms and maybe even homegrown gardens cannot be used for capitalistic ends. Therefore, if you intend to sell fresh produce or capture seeds from your garden, be prepared for the eventuality that bills-to-become-laws like SB.510, the “food safety” bill, will go down the slippery slope these types of laws tend to go down and brand you a criminal for doing so. [sarcasm] Don’t be surprised if that bill passes with a clause that all produce growers must pray to Monsanto when saying grace over the food. [/sarcasm]
But things We the People are losing the ability to control aside, if you are physically able, it is up to YOU to maintain your dignity and freedom. Take care of YOURSELF and YOUR OWN FAMILY, no matter what the government is telling you it will do for you. The guaranteed outcomes they promise simply can’t be counted on, nor are they worth the cost. YOU are the master of your destiny and the captain of your soul. Don’t fall for the rhetoric that the “smart guys” in Washington D.C. will take care of you in a crisis. They won’t.
Listen to centuries of conventional wisdom and learn to care for yourself and your neighbors through being charitable. Apply what you’ve learned about gardening to helping others through neighborhood or community garden systems. There’s nothing like being the community expert on growing or providing food to buy you “protection” from hoodlums or mafiosos trying to take advantage of a dire situation. Also, charity, the pure love of Christ, is disarming to anyone marching into your house and demanding your food.
Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Feed the hungry, clothe the naked. You will be blessed for doing so.