When I was still living with my parents, we had no space at all to garden. We lived in the city. It was unthinkable then to tear up a front lawn and use it for a garden—something I wouldn’t hesitate to do today.
However, the next-door neighbor offered us the use of an empty yard between our houses. My mother, who grew up on a farm, sat up at night with me at the kitchen table, planning how to use that little space for gardening. Most of what I learned about what to plant (and not to plant) was the result of making mistakes.
I began by planting herbs, tomatoes and corn, all neatly arranged in north-south lines with some pathways in between. I knew nothing about fertilizer, mulch or pest control and just planted what I believed would make the best garden, and I watched the results.
Herbs—mints, fennel, oregano, lavender and rosemary, among others—took care of themselves. They tended to be drought-tolerant, insect repelling and required very little time and effort. (They are good choices just about everywhere, assuming they are herbs you would normally use.)
Tomatoes grew well, too, but I learned that they just grew and grew—longer and longer—and only began to produce lots of tomatoes when I pinched back the stems so the branches would not grow as long. And, of course, these plants got tomato worms, which I just picked off and tossed to the birds.
Corn was quite an education. It grew tall, and the ears formed. As they got bigger, they became infested with lots of ants, aphids and earwigs. In horror, I would take the hose and wash all the bugs off. This worked to some extent, because it was a small garden.
That first season’s corn was a disaster: The ears were bug-infested and half-developed. I experimented with some natural pest repellants and made my own insecticide from a mixture of garlic and hot peppers that I liquefied in the blender and sprayed on the plants. I even added a little Basic H to the mix. I had some results, but I was still trying to grow crops in poor soil.
In desperation, I studied all I could about natural pest control. I refused to use any of the various commercial liquid and spray insecticides (I still had fresh memories of an uncle who had to dress in what looked like a bee suit every time he went into his apple orchards so he would be protected from all the pesticides he sprayed on the apples. He eventually died of cancer). Shouldn’t farming and gardening be about life and not death, I wondered? Can’t nature take care of itself? Isn’t there a way to find a balance so that insects keep other insects in check?
I knew, instinctively, that even in my small garden, nature could find a balance and that through natural methods, I could grow food and encourage good insects to eat the bad ones. Little by little, I learned that this was, indeed, possible.
Build the soil
One of the principles of agricultural ecology is that nature can take care of itself more easily the larger the plot of land happens to be. It’s a bit harder to have all these natural systems operating if you’re only dealing with a plot of land that’s about 40 by 20 feet—the size of our little garden. This meant I had to give the little plot a lot more attention, at least in the beginning, until “balance” was found.
I learned that regardless of what I grew and where I lived, the health of the soil is the single most important factor in producing plants that are drought-tolerant, insect resistant and able to survive in the greatest range of temperatures.
My next experiment in that small yard was to go to the grocery store and get boxes of old produce. I dug holes here and there in the garden and buried the old vegetables so they’d decompose and enrich the soil.
Simultaneously, I went to the local cemetery and obtained bags of grass clippings. I began to layer the bare ground around the base of the plants with liberal amounts of the clippings. This was a thick layer, the top of which would dry out a bit. However, underneath, it stayed moist, softened the soil and provided an environment in which earthworms and lots of other insects thrived.
“I knew, instinctively, that even in my small garden, nature could find a balance and that through natural methods, I could grow food and encourage good insects to eat the bad ones.”
With the layered grass clippings on the ground, I noticed that the herbs and vegetables also thrived and grew well and that the insect infestation was at a minimum. In addition, I didn’t need to water as much.
I continued to get as many bags of grass clippings as possible and mulched the soil. And I continued to bury old vegetables in the garden. I produced onions, tomatoes, Swiss chard and zucchinis, along with lots of herbs. I decided to skip the corn because it still seemed to require more work than I was willing to do to keep it insect free.
I’m not sure everyone would want to get boxes of old produce and bury its contents in their garden space. That was part of my learning. Instead, I suggest you keep a compost bin in your yard and begin to make your own compost from kitchen scraps and yard trimmings. It’s not that hard, and you’d be surprised how well you can supplement your soil from what you ordinarily throw away.
Raise earthworms, which naturally enrich the soil. There are special bins you can buy to raise them, although I have always managed to do so in dedicated compost bins or piles. They cannot tolerate all the heat generated by adding a lot of kitchen or vegetable scraps at one time, so you need to raise earthworms separate from your main compost area. Gardeners generally use redworms for composting, because they reproduce rapidly and tolerate great temperature variations.
Some plants naturally grow in the dry deserts and are well adapted to surviving and thriving with little water. Do a little research to find out which plants are native to your area, and then determine if any of them can be used for food or medicine.
Here are just a few examples of plants that will grow in desert and drought areas. Remember that there are special varieties that do best in arid areas. Also, the techniques you use will aid significantly in the success of these plants. Contact local nurseries for native and drought-tolerant plants that will do well near you.
Fig, olive, carob, pomegranate, date palm, mesquite
Bushy plants / shrubs
Cactus, especially Opuntia spp., jojoba and toyon
New Zealand spinach, Lamb’s Quarter, certain wheat strains, certain corn varieties, gourds and squash as ground cover, beans
The hilltop garden
A few years later, I lived in a little hilltop house in a hilly part of Los Angeles. I had an enclosed yard and kept some ducks there. I grew many vegetables—corn included. I didn’t use grass clippings, but I did maintain a compost pit in which I produced my own fertilizer from kitchen and yard scraps.
I invited a tree pruner to dump his massive load of wood chips in my yard, which saved him the dumping fee at the local city dump. I used the wood chips to mulch every square inch of my garden. At night, I would put the hose in my corn patch and let it dribble out. My ducks would spend the evening there because they loved to eat all the earwigs and other insects the water brought out.
The corn grew tall and strong—this time, without all the insects I experienced in earlier corn patches. Perhaps the ducks served as my “insecticide.” Standing in my little duck-fertilized corn patch was like being in another world. It was like my own postage-stamp-sized field of dreams, my own “Walden Pond.”
“Most of what I learned about what to plant (and not to plant) was the result of making mistakes.”
My garden contained only non-hybrid varieties of vegetables whose seeds I could harvest and replant. These were also known as “heirloom” varieties. (At the time, I was not aware of how today’s farmers are captive to the corporations that produce the hybrid seeds—that widely touted miracle of “modern farming.” I was always disturbed about hybrids, whose seeds would not produce the same plant they came from.) I have always made an effort to use non-hybrid, or heirloom, seeds and will save some of the seeds for the next season, just as small farmers and families have done for centuries.
Part of my garden grew the famed “three sisters” of the Southwest: corn, squash and beans. This “three sisters” type of garden is a common theme in arid Southwestern gardens, and its plants are easy to grow.
I allowed the squash to sprawl on the ground as ground cover, keeping some moisture in the soil. I planted corn throughout the area. Once it grew to about a foot tall, I planted native beans nearby. (Bean roots “fix” nitrogen, meaning that the roots increase the nitrogen content for the corn.) The corn provided a trellis of sorts for the beans.
You can see that it’s not out of your reach to create and maintain your own thriving garden, even in a survival situation. You can actually be very successful without the chemicals, commercial seeds and other “enhancements” you won’t have access to if things get really bad.
With a little effort, experimentation and patience, you can confidently become a self-sufficient urban gardener.
What grows there now?
Before you start buying various fruit trees and vegetables from a nursery, take stock of what you already have.
What already grows in your yard with little care? Do those plants have uses? Investigate what is growing in your space, and you might find that some of the vegetation is useful and valuable.
Which plants are native to your area?
Find out what grows naturally in your area and talk to someone at a local native plant society to see what plants will grow “on their own.” As you look over a list of such plants, consider which ones would grow in your yard. Many local native plants can be used for food and medicine, and they are easy to care for.
What do you like to eat?
Make a list of what you already eat and what you’d like to eat. Some of the plants on that list will do well where you live, and some will not.
How can you determine the difference? Start by talking with folks at a local gardening club or neighbors who have successful gardens. You’d be surprised to find that there are gardening clubs in most cities.
When you start growing fruits and vegetables, observe which plants grow well and which don’t, as well as those that take a lot of work and attention. When you find plants that seem to love it in your yard and do well without much work on your part, grow those.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the February 2017 print issue of American Survival Guide.