What do you do when the weather refuses to cooperate, the (figurative or literal) locusts descend, or ill health leaves you no time to garden? You’re counting on it to feed your family – what do you do when the garden fails spectacularly?
Do you have a Plan B?
Although I rarely write about my pet peeves, I am going to mention one. It drives me several degrees of batty when people recommend buying a “seed bank” to store in your bug-out supplies for that day when you must leave the city and head for your country retreat. There, of course, you will hunt for all your meat, grow all of your produce, and live off the land just the way Great-Great-Grampy did.
Can’t be too hard, can it?
If you have never so much as shot a squirrel, forget about bugging out to the country and hunting all of your own meat. It’s not nearly as easy as you think.
“Oh, I’ll just kill something, skin it and eat it.” (Anytime someone says “You JUST ….”, it’s time to run.)
Great-Great-Grampy was likely handling a gun and skinning squirrels before he could spell his whole name. Until you are at least a little bit accomplished, the result is going to look like …. well, NOT like food.
The porcupine pictured was given to us by a friend – the idea was that I would try to butcher it out. I’ve butchered out a whole pig and plenty of chickens. How hard could a porcupine be?
Turns out it was a little harder than I thought, and the final results were less than impressive.
The dog liked it, but I’m not looking forward to skinning another porcupine any time soon.
No one ever mentioned to me (until after this endeavor) that porcupines reek to the high heavens. (Farmgal mentioned soaking them several times in salt water to get rid of the smell!) What you don’t see in that picture is me retching at the idea of eating anything that starts off smelling like that.
So what does this have to do with gardening? More than you might expect.
Just like hunting – and skinning and butchering – no one becomes an expert gardener the first time they put seeds in the ground (or the second, or the third).
And even expert gardeners have bad years.
If you are planning to bug out to the country with your seed bank and learn to grow food when your survival depends on that garden, things may get pretty lean. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with a seed bank, not at all.
Last week I was visiting with my aunt and we moaned and complained compared notes about our gardens this year. My aunt, my mother’s older sister, has been gardening as long as I’ve been alive, she works at a commercial greenhouse, and her garden is faring nearly as badly as mine is this year.
I’m sorry, Aunt Pat, but misery definitely loves company and I feel so much better knowing that it’s not just me!
Unlike many parts of the world this year, we are not dealing with drought. At least for people dealing with that, there are websites and books telling how to grow food when water is scarce. Mulching, planting farther apart, providing shade, drip irrigation – there are so many tips for dry gardening.
There are not so many on growing when night time temperatures have stayed around 10C/50F and the rain never seems to stop. No warmth and little sunlight does not an abundant garden make!
Of course there are other things that can destroy your garden.
While we fret about too much water, other people are watching their gardens shrivel up under drought conditions and watering bans. Poor health or injury can foul garden plans, too. Recently a homesteading blogger that I greatly admire removed her blog and all social media accounts after a serious skin cancer diagnosis – she is unable to be in sunlight anymore and can no longer garden!
For me, this year, there’s a quadruple whammy. The weather is terrible, I have two toddlers underfoot, and I’m dealing with health worries of my own while we also adjust to the Mister working permanent night shift.
So what do we do when the garden fails, for whatever reason?
We don’t despair, we don’t blame ourselves, and we certainly do not force our families to do without food!
Take A Deep Breath
Aren’t you glad you are learning to grow food before your life depends on it? Me, too. Even if you have harvested nothing more than a handful of peas, take a deep breath and look at things calmly.
Chances are you are not going to starve even if the zucchini failed to produce. Instead of panicking over the lack of home-grown produce, try to look at it calmly. If you are focused on being perfect from the beginning, you will never make the mistakes necessary to learn and grow.
What exactly went wrong?
Is it something you can improve upon next year?
And yes, I will hold to my belief that mistakes help you grow. Every year I make hundreds, and I mostly try to make new ones!
Assess Your Pantry
The worst case scenario is that you do not have a pantry built up yet, or last year was also a disaster and you have depleted most of what is in there. Either way, you need to know what you already have and what you will need.
Get in and inventory everything. How much do you have left in vegetables, including pickles? What fruit is still sitting on a shelf, waiting to fill hungry bellies. Know what you already have.
Do you already know how much food you use in a year? Whether growing your own or buying your food, this is important. There are guides available if you are just starting out, but they usually need a lot of fine-tuning.
A cookbook written JUST for this purpose is vital. A Cabin Full of Food is full of time-tested “Grandma recipes”, the ones that were adaptable to what you had, easy to make, and inexpensive. This is one of those books that needs a spot in your homesteading resource shelf.
A Cabin Full of Food is packed with almost 1000 "Grandma recipes", the ones you thought were lost forever, and makes scratch cooking easy enough for even a beginner. Simple ingredients from garden or farm, simply prepared and preserved in your own home. Cook like Grandma, save like Grandma! Five star rating on Amazon - get your copy today in paperback or Kindle.More info →
Assess Your Budget
Take into account that you are buying a year’s worth of produce or more. How much would you spend in the grocery store to buy a year’s worth of carrots, for example, and how would that look in pounds of carrots?
Our family eats about a hundred pounds of carrots in a year. That would be at least $150 if I bought whole carrots weekly at the grocery store, and double that if I bought them canned. We also eat a lot of corn, averaging the equivalent of three large cans weekly, which would cost us at least $300 to buy in cans. (We don’t have a freezer, and corn is only available fresh for a short window in the early fall.)
For our family of six, if I spent $1000 on produce in the summer, that would be less than $20/week throughout the year. Put it in perspective!
In every city and town I know, there is a farmer’s market somewhere. And do you know what? Farmers are often really fabulous people who love to get to know their customers, are willing to make end-of-day deals and are, in my experience, pretty generous.
For years now, I have been telling my readers to get to know their local farmers. Find ones with whom you connect, and nurture those friendships. People who grow food for other people, and who are willing to sell directly, face-to-face, with their customers, are really worth knowing.
Trust me on this one.
The Farmer’s Market is your secret weapon when the garden fails because people who grow market gardens have their own secret weapons (like monster huge greenhouses and planting ten times what they expect to need) to make sure that they have food to sell.
Especially when you live in a place with an unpredictable, difficult growing environment, cherish those market growers!
Remember my $150 worth of grocery store carrots? They will cost me about $40 at the farmer’s market – and your food prices are likely much lower than ours. Ten bushels of corn (which should yield about 300 cups kernels) should cost me about $150.
The trick, of course, is knowing how much you will need, ordering (and paying for) it ahead of time, and taking a large amount at once. Just like in so many areas, buying in bulk will save you money.
And since I always stick around until the very end of market day, I can often take away the perishables (like kale or ripe tomatoes) for a very good price, with boxes of vegetable waste like carrot tops thrown in for free for my chickens. It’s less for them to cart home and toss in the compost.
Preserve More Than You Need
If you know you’ll need fifty pounds of carrots, try to preserve a hundred pounds, for example. Put up as much as you have room to store, time to preserve and money to buy.
A number of years ago, I was visiting the pantries of some of my Old Order Mennonite friends. One thing I noticed was that they put up far more applesauce and tomato sauce (two staples for them) than they would use in a year. When a late frost destroyed apple blossoms across the region, they put together a group order and shipped several massive crates of apples up from the United States. (Yes, even Mennonite crops fail!)
After all, next year could be another failed garden.