It has been a while since my last post; I have been finishing up my accounting degree and looking for an upgrade in my profession. But alas, with the economy in a depression (my theory is that it is recession if you have a job and a depression if you are looking for one) I have been unsuccessful thus far. If anyone out there is looking for an entry level accountant in northeastern Minnesota who also has a history degree and the ability to start fires with a bow drill, I am the man of your dreams.

The economy is tight right now. Hiring rates are low, wages are frozen, and yet costs keep rising – especially when it comes to food. Between shopping at the grocery store and watching all of the reports about the price of food, I have no doubt that this is new to anyone. You can blame ethanol subsidies, global warming, or whatever else you like, but the fact remains that costs keep rising (it almost makes you wish we were still on the gold standard – but that is a different topic). Most people seem content just to grumble about it, while shelling out ever more money. I say “no more!”

During WWII food was being shipped by the kiloton across the world to feed our soldiers, sailors, marines, and to shore up our hard pressed allies; the drain caused massive shortages at home. We have all heard about rationing (I actually have an old ration card from the War; it still has a few stamps on it I could try to redeem), but another solution was the victory garden. The government issued seed and instruction to our citizenry to encourage them to help the war effort by growing as much of their own produce as they could to reduce the strain on the food supply. America responded in force by planting victory gardens on every scrap of available land. Backyards, vacant lots, prison yards, even the strips between the sidewalk and street were tilled and sown by dedicated Americans who wanted to do their part to win the War. By the end of WWII, 40% of all domestically consumed produce was grown in a victory garden.

While we are not coping with massive food shortages anymore (thank goodness), the same mentality can help save you money on food. Growing your own produce; even just a few square feet of salad greens, can pay dividends.


This is my victory garden. It is officially my Garden MkII, and is an improvement over last year’s Garden MkI. Last year I tried to grow a “three sisters” garden – where corn, beans, and squash are grown together in a mutually beneficial relationship. It actually worked fairly well and I got about a gallon of dried corn (which I grind into flour with a hand mill), two cups of dried beans (which swell to four cups when soaked and cooked), and a half dozen medium sized squash out of my 12′ X 12′ plot. You can tell by those numbers that I wasn’t exactly going to feed myself on that. I was growing the corn and beans in 16 hills with six smaller squash hills in between. Squash is a warm weather crop and didn’t like last year’s cold early summer. The beans had poor germination and there were not enough viable plants to produce many beans. The corn did the best; I used a variety called painted mountain corn (the link will tell you a lot about it). It is a very hardy variety and did pretty well this far north with its quick growth cycle allowing the corn to grow and dry before the first frost. It was a good start into the world of gardening, but I wanted a more productive garden this year. Enter the Garden MkII…

Let’s start from the ground up. I double dug the garden to a depth of about a foot and fertilized it with a heavy dose of compost and some dehydrated poultry manure. On a garden this size, that one 40 pound bag of manure could hypothetically last me 20 years, so you do get your money’s worth. The only radical thing I did with the soil was to add 14 pounds of crushed charcoal (about one pound for every 10 square feet). What I am trying to do is to replicate the famous Amazonian terra preta do indio, Portuguese for “Indian black earth.” In Brazil these ancient man made soils allow, even today, intensive agriculture in what is otherwise a green desert of water leached, acidic soil. Scientists are still trying to unravel what makes these soils so productive, but the primary ingredient is charcoal. Charcoal (also known as biochar when used for agriculture), is like a sponge for chemicals, which is why activated charcoal is used as a treatment for poisoning as it can absorb the toxins before your body metabolizes them. In agriculture, biochar can help hold nutrients and moisture in the soil that would otherwise leach through the soil; this means, in theory at least, that you should have to add less water and nutrients to the soil to get a good crop. I am not sure if this is due to the porous nature of charcoal or chemical bonding (or both); I am not a chemist and have heard all sorts of theories as to why it works. People who have experimented with it have reported much higher yields than normal, especially in subsequent years of planting.

I was going to try and make my own biochar at first, but I found natural lump charcoal (the kind with no additives; not briquettes which are made of sawdust and flammable chemicals) on sale at Home Depot. I brought it home and crushed it myself, which was a really unpleasant process. It takes a lot of pounding to crush charcoal to a fine level, and it throws up a ton of choking black dust – I might have taken a few years off of my life in the process. I have since found a place to order preprocessed biochar online. It is not all that cheap with shipping, but per pound is about on par with the natural lump charcoal and I don’t mind paying a premium to not have to crush it again. I cannot speak to the effectiveness of charcoal yet, but it certainly is not hurting the plants at all.

You cannot really see the fence in the garden picture, but I am using a simple plastic 5/8″ mesh fence that is tucked under the weed cloth at the bottom which covers the outer walkway. I have been pleasantly surprised at it effectiveness –  I have had no problems with deer, rabbits, squirrels, or any other vertebrates (bugs can be pests, but I have enough spiders living  in the garden to keep them manageable). I have a group of rabbits that have made my yard home and figured that they might find their way in to the garden, but they have not been an issue. Really, there is no reason (local laws allowing) that you could not treat offending small game as a secondary crop. A wire snare or two could gain you some free protein and more than compensate for the calories lost from animals pilfering in the garden.

OwlI also have my guardian plastic owl to hopefully help deter invaders. On the one hand I have not seen any animals too close to the fence, but on the other hand there are bird droppings on its head, so they cannot be too intimidated.

This year I am growing sweet corn, cabbage, Swiss chard, midget cantaloupe, beans, and two kinds of potatoes.

Triple Play Sweet Corn – Although the painted mountain corn grew well last year, I wanted to try a sweet corn that could double as a flour corn. This type is also short seasoned and is said to produce two 6″ cobs. Unfortunately we have had lots of overcast skies and cooler temperatures (in the 60s through most of July) so I am not too optimistic about what the results will be, but there are still a couple of months before it starts frosting regularly and they might still yield a crop. The corn is at the back left of the garden picture.

Early Jersey Wakefield Cabbage – A compact cabbage with a quick growth cycle. I have just planted it recently for a fall harvest, and so it is the void in the lower left of the garden picture. I love sauerkraut from the can, so I figure the homemade stuff would be even better. If anyone has a good recipe for sauerkraut please feel free to post it in the comments. If you are wondering what the white things in the cabbage plot are, they are buried clay flowerpots with plastic lids that are filled with water. The unglazed clay will slowly seep water into the soil and act as subsurface irrigation. It is similar to what Native Americans in the southwest have done for centuries (if not millennium). It works, but is probably unnecessary in my fairly wet climate.

Swiss Chard – I love anything that has more than one use, and Swiss chard fits the bill. It is a good salad green, especially when young, and is great on sandwiches even as it gets big. The leaf itself can be cooked just like spinach, and the cooked stems make an good asparagus substitute. I find the leaf to have a mildly salty spinach flavor (which I like) and the stems taste like a cross between asparagus and a green bean (which I also like). It is the bushy row to the right of the cabbage. It grows like a weed (I only planted 8 seeds, but now have a virtual hedgerow of Swiss chard), will grow back over the season if you don’t over-harvest individual plants, and as the most expensive green in my supermarket, saves me money by growing it at home.

Minnesota Midget Melon – I have always wanted to grow cantaloupe, but it is difficult this far north to achieve the necessary heat and length of season to do so. I found this melon, which was developed back in 1948 (or something like that), that will produce a miniature cantaloupe in a much shorter season. They are planted below the trellis in the garden picture, but the cold and overcast of this summer is not doing them any favors. Hopefully August and September will be warm and sunny to aid their growth.

Paint Dry Bush Bean – Legumes are one of the greatest foods a person can eat and have the added bonus of adding nitrogen to the soil in which they grow. While green beans are the garden favorite, dry beans (while being edible in their green stage) are much easier to preserve without freezing or canning. They are perfect for baked beans, chili, or any other dish that you might otherwise use canned beans to make. Last year’s beans were a pole bean (Hidatsa shield figure beans), which produce more per plant than bush types, but require trellising. I planted these beans 4″ apart to see how well they perform in an intensive growing situation (that is 324 plants in a 6′ X 6′ area). They have been growing well in terms of foliage, but the acid test will be how many beans they produce. In hindsight I wish I had planted a couple of rows conventionally for comparison. They are starting to flower, so cross your fingers for me.

Potatoes, Kennebec and Peanut Fingerling – There is no other crop on earth that can provide so many people with so many nutrients from so little land. During the worst of English oppression against Irish Catholics in the two centuries after Oliver Cromwell ransacked the Emerald Isle, the Irish were able to survive quite well on potatoes, milk, and a little salt (which is actually a more balanced diet than the wheaten bread that the English gentry were feasting on). I am growing 32 plants (30 of which sprouted) on a 4′ by 8′ plot, which could yield anywhere between 15 and 45 pounds of tubers (according to what I have read; this is my first year growing them) Even at 15 pounds yield, that far exceeds on 32 square feet what I got from 144 last year. So far the Kennebecs (a full sized Maine potato) have been the most vigorous growing with the fastest leaf growth and fewest insect problems, but both seem to be loving the wet cool summer we are having up here. I am using the straw method where the seed tubers are only slightly buried in the soil, and then straw is heaped around the growing plants. This allows closer spacing and less work than the traditional hilling method. I also fabricated an irrigation system with PVC pipe put together to form four parallel rows with 1/16″ holes drilled through, top and bottom, every foot. At one end I have a bucket attached via a t-section of PVC from which I feed the system water. The small holes create enough surface tension that not much water leaks out until the whole system is full of water, and so each plant gets a pretty even watering. It is not really necessary on a plot this small, but it is a test for future, larger gardens.

When trying to provide a little homegrown food for yourself, don’t over look what nature provides as well. In the woods behind my garden there are plenty of good wild edibles. There is a massive thistle patch right behind the garden which once dethorned provides asparagus-like stalks in early summer, and edible roots in the fall (which I have not yet eaten, but I hear are sweet). I also have burdock (which has tasty if somewhat tough roots), dandelion (more vitamins per ounce that any other plant), broadleaf plantain (good potherb when young, and a good astringent if you are bleeding), and stinging nettle (the young leaves make either a tea if you add sugar, or a soup base if you add salt, and the stalks make a decent cord in a pinch – the Ojibwa often used it for fishing nets and animal snares). There are also plenty of raspberries (the ones in the store cannot compare to their wild cousins), thimbleberries (like huge raspberries with a more complex taste – they would go well with a good blue cheese, perhaps Stilton), and beaked hazelnuts (its a pain to remove their spiny husk and shell, but they are quite tasty and a great source of vegetable fats with an up to 60% fat content – be prepared to fight the squirrels for them). The tree right behind the garden is a pin cherry (or chokecherry, I get them confused, but both make good jam from what I hear), and there are apple trees in my side yard (not wild, but I didn’t plant them so they count). My yard is by no means unique, and you might have just as many great resources in your yard, if not more. Wild edibles can make a great addition to your diet, and they are free! Just make sure that you identify them properly or rising food costs will be the least of your problems.

Animal resources can be great as well. I already mentioned potentially trapping nuisance animals that want to raid your victory garden (with a proper license where required). I like to go fishing whenever I can and my freezer is currently stocked with four pounds of catfish fillets, four pounds of walleye, and half a dozen whole perch – all locally caught and from only two fishing outings. I fish with simple gear and the catfish were caught on chicken liver (cheap from the butcher) on a plain hook, and the rest were caught on crawlers with a simple harness (two harnesses actually, a northern took one). The math breaks it down to no more than $2.00 per pound (including my fishing license, but not counting the cost of beer) and they were fun to catch. You won’t find that at the store.

To sum up, the victory garden (and the wild resources surrounding it) can be fun, economical, give you a better respect for your food, and act as insurance against tough times. A couple of books to get some ideas would be Fresh Food from Small Spaces and the Vegetable Garden Bible; I think they are good anyway.

Okay, enough preaching from me. Get outside, crack a cold one, and make summer count.

Fresh Food from Small Spaces