A few years ago I wrote a series of posts for The Girls’ Guide to Surviving the Apocalypse called ‘Dig for when the Canned Goods Run Out‘. They were fun, and I’m still proud of them, but it’s long been my ambition to have another series, taking you in real-time through the work of starting, maintaining, and harvesting an Apocalypse Allotment. That journey starts today.
Whether the apocalypse has hit, or you’re just preparing for the inevitable, there’s no time like the present to find a patch of ground and start farming for the future.
In the UK, an allotment is a plot of land rented from the Council or an independent gardening association for the purpose of growing food (or flowers, or having a small wildflower meadow for bees – you can use them for things other than food, but growing food is their primary purpose). Other similar schemes exist around the world, but in Britain they came into existence as a way for the poor to have access to small plots of arable land, suitable for supporting a family. There’s a strong association with the Dig For Victory campaign in World War II, where people were encouraged to grow their own food to supplement rationing, but allotments or ‘inclosures’ have been in existence since the 1700s.
If you’re preparing for the apocalypse, getting an allotment is a great way to make sure you have something to harvest when the world ends so you’re not left fighting the local War Gang over the scraps in Sainsbury’s. A full allotment (intended to feed a family) is 300 square yards, but most allotments these days are half-allotments, which are easier to maintain for someone with a full-time job. With increased demand from people with busy schedules, some allotment associations also offer quarter allotments, which is what I have. Rent will be set by your local council, but I paid about £20 for my quarter allotment for the whole of this year.
If the apocalypse has already hit, all land is now free! But choosing your site is important. Working an established allotment has the advantage of rich, fertile ground that has been worked for years. It will be easier to weed and turn the earth than a random patch of ground, and the soil is likely to be suitable for growing food. On the other hand, the fact that food has been grown on the same ground for so long can mean a greater concentration of pests and disease, and you’ll likely be closer to what was previously a populous area – more likely to encounter marauding gangs and zombies, or the corpses of those who weren’t as lucky as you (depending on the cause of your apocalypse).
Preparing the Ground
This is the perfect time for an apocalypse to hit. Spring is just beginning to twitch into life and you can prepare your ground and begin planting things whilst you live off your stock of canned goods. Check out my first ‘Dig for When the Canned Goods Run Out‘ post for tips on what to loot in preparation for your new life as a subsistence farmer and zombie killer.
Even if you do choose an allotment, though, there is work to do before you can start planting to make the ground useable after winter. As you can see above, my little allotment has become quite overgrown. Even the beds I’ve been working for years are full of weeds.
One way to deal with weeds, if you’re not going to be working the entire space from the get-go, is to lay down weed-control fabric. If you’re looting* weed-control fabric, get the stuff pictured on the left. This is woven black plastic. It is thick and will block sunlight from reaching weeds so that they cannot photosynthesise, without preventing rain from getting through to the soil. You will also find cheaper weed-control fabrics that are thinner and actually made of a kind of fabric. Do not be tempted by these! Weeds will go through them and become embedded in them and as such they are of only limited use. And hey, if the apocalypse has already happened, you can loot the best!
To be really effective, your weed-control fabric needs to be down for at least six months, although any period without sunlight will still weaken the plants. I’ve had this down since last autumn, and this (right) is what it was like when I took the fabric off.
As you can see, it hasn’t totally killed the weeds. Those little green tufts are mostly dandelions, which are just starting to sprout from their thick tap roots. But in comparison to the surrounding grass, there’s a lot that’s dead or severely weakened. This will be a lot easier to weed than a completely overgrown bed or ground that has never been worked.
If you’re just starting out, I’d recommend covering part of your ground whilst you work on the rest. You are not going to be able to work over your whole plot in one session.
The best way to free your ground of weeds is to mark out your bed and work the soil with a fork. A fork is a gardener’s best friend. Whilst a sharpened spade may be better for killing zombies, your trusty fork is what you’ll be doing most of your ‘digging’ with. What you actually want to do is not so much move earth from one place to another as free the weeds from your soil and improve the soil structure by aerating it. Plus, a fork is still a pretty good weapon against any humans you might come across.
Start at one end of your future bed, stick the fork in, lean back on it, and wiggle. Move the fork a bit, and repeat. You’re doing this to loosen the soil. Do this down the whole course of your bed, then go back to the beginning. Stick the fork in, lift, and shake. If possible, shake until only weed roots are left on the fork. Don’t be discouraged if you find this too hard. Soil can be surprisingly heavy, and bouncing it up and down on a fork can tire you out pretty fast. This is the work that’s going to really hurt your muscles tomorrow morning.
Depending on the condition of the soil and how wet it is, it’s also likely that it won’t come off the weed roots that easily. I usually find I have to lift, shake, and then get down on my knees and sift through the disturbed soil for weed roots by hand. You’re going to feel absurd. You’re going to feel like this is a ridiculously labour intensive process. It is. Do it anyway.
Know Your Enemies
The main evils to watch out for are cooch grass and dandelions. (Beyond the zombies and War Gangs you posted a watch for – you have posted a watch for them, haven’t you? OK.) These are way harder to kill than a zombie. You cut their heads off and they don’t give a shit. If you leave even the tiniest bit of root left, the fucker isn’t dead. It will grow back. Leave several bits of root and you’ll have several new plants. The respawn rate of cooch grass is phenomenal.
If you’re lucky, you’ll only have ordinary grass, but lets face it: the world ended, your luck hasn’t been that great lately. The way to tell the difference between cooch grass and other kinds of grass is by their evil, evil roots.
Your ordinary grass has a fine mesh of roots immediately below the grass clump. Your cooch grass root has long, thick, white roots. These roots can grow to a meter or more in length, but break really easily. Even the tiniest bit can grow to a whole new plant. This is the reason you loosened the soil of the whole bed before you started trying to remove roots. You want to get as much of the root out as possible without it breaking. Which is hard, because they form thick mats throughout the top layer of soil (see above right).
Dandelions are a bastard in the other direction. They have long, thick, orange tap roots. To the left is one of the ones I dug up from under the weed-control fabric. The leaves are only an inch or two long, but the roots go on forever. This is how it was able to sprout again, having had no light for months and months. All the energy was stored in its roots. And those roots will sprout again if you leave anything behind.
These things are survivors, and they are competing with you for land and nutrients. You can’t bargain with them. You can’t join forces with them. You can only kill them. Show no mercy.
Once you’ve rid your ground of its creeping horrors, if possible, add some organic matter. Soil is great, but if it’s had plants growing in it, they’ve been sucking up nutrients. And if it hasn’t has anything growing in it, the nutrients will have been washed away by the rain – you can’t win!
It is for this reason that compost exists. You can loot this from any respectable gardening store, and then begin making your own as the season progresses. There are different kinds of compost. For the environmentally conscious pre-apocalypse allotment, buy peat free! Peat is great for your allotment, but it comes from vital peatland and you’re basically destroying a rare habitat and maybe don’t?
Some composts will say ‘with John Innes’ on them, which can be perplexing, as expressed in this song from Can You Dig It:
John Innes is actually a series of formulae developed by the John Innes Horticultural Institution that are good for compost in various ways (see the John Innes website for more info), but note that John Innes does contain peat 🙁
Spread your compost evenly on top of your freshly turned soil, then mix it in.
To make your own compost, take all those weeds you just uprooted and put them in a pile. If possible, put them in a pile with sides, also known as a compost bin. But don’t just put cooch grass and dandelion roots in. They will take forever to rot down (I mean years) and will not compost ‘hot’ enough. Compost literally gets warm if you’re doing it right. Add additional organic matter from your kitchen waste – including teabags and coffee grounds!
Otherwise, you end up with a compost pile like mine:
Do as I say, not as I do. Learn from my mistakes.
Now your ground is ready for whatever you want to plant! Tune in next time, or subscribe, to find out what I put in my freshly turned mud!
*Note: only loot if your apocalypse has already happened! I do not endorse robbery where humanity’s laws are still in effect!