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Banking on an Emergency Seed Bank?

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Banking on an Emergency Seed Bank?

First let me state that I'm a beginner at the art of gardening. It is from the perspective of what little I've learned thus far that I approach this subject.

I started thinking about all of this quite by accident. Initially I was searching for and reading about various ways of saving and storing seeds. However, most likely due to Google Adsense, I was getting returns for Emergency Seed Bank/Vault/Kit offers both in the paid advertiser listings and in advertising space on various pages that I visited.

Google is indeed watching...

Eventually curiosity got the better of me and I clicked a few links to read about some of these emergency seed kits. My mind then wandered into the territory of "What If".

What if this year, my first year attempting a garden, had been at a moment in time where the survival of my family depended on me making use of and successfully growing produce from an Emergency Seed Bank to fill holes or extend the length of time my storage food could last?

The quick answer to that is that an Emergency Seed Bank would probably have helped a little, but probably wouldn't have done much if my only tools were the seed bank, land and hope.

While I can see the usefulness of Emergency Seed Kits, banking on them to save your bacon in an emergency, especially if you've had little or no experience in gardening could result in disaster. And I certainly wouldn't rely on one as my only source of potential food in a crisis. It'll be obvious to most of the people that frequent this section that it's not just a matter of planting seeds and waiting for a harvest, but I thought I'd write down my thoughts anyway just in case someone wandered through who was contemplating a seed bank as their go to means of weathering a crisis. (I also didn't want my 5000th post to be something like "That looks great, dude!" and something that a few folks might find useful.)

Simply put, for the best chance at having a successful garden you need more than seeds and land.

First of all I considered the prep time that went into my gardens this year.

For a lot of us, we just don't have the time needed in a growing season to sew all of our seeds directly into the ground with hopes to get much before the first frost. So, we have to start a lot of our seeds indoors. That requires at least a few prepositioned supplies or the ability to scrounge something up that will work. A quick trip to the local garden center, nursery or big box store for seed starting cells, soil and other items might be a problem in an emergency.

I started some seeds indoors around mid February. After seeing some germination going on I was quite excited. At the end of that month my cat had discovered how to open the bifold doors to the sunroom. The result was a complete loss of everything I had planted. The cat and the dog got into the seedlings, knocked them over, dug around and used the mess as a litter box. This all happened in only a few hours. This disaster was all my fault. I hadn't even considered the possibility that my own pets would be the first pests that I encountered on my way. Still, it happened and had I been short on seeds it would have been a big problem. It was a lesson learned.

I started from scratch again within a few days, this time with a bungie cord tying the sunroom doors closed. Within a week or so, seedlings were starting to pop up again. I would say that I had a successful germination rate of approximately ± 90%. Even so, due to one factor or another several seeds of a few different varieties failed to germinate at all. I don't know if the conditions in the sunroom were unfavorable or that the seeds were old. They were sealed in the original packaging, but had no date on them. I had no real way of knowing if they ever would have worked. This makes me wonder about the seeds in a lot of emergency kits. It also makes me wonder about how long they can be stored and remain viable.

Everything seemed to be progressing until I noticed there was a problem. Within a month 100% of my tomato starts had died and my peppers were slightly yellowed and had stopped progressing. Other seedlings seemed to be doing fine. So I resigned myself to the idea of picking up starts from the local organic nursery. This year I had gone with organic starter cells that were capable of being planted directly into the ground and coconut coir as a starter medium. I never sufficiently diagnosed the problem, which means that next year I could witness similar problems if I take a similar tack. If I move to soil cubes next year to start my plants it will be like starting from scratch. If there had been an emergency where I couldn't drop in on the local nursery I wouldn't have been able to grow any tomatoes and few peppers.

Aside from that, I began laying out my garden beds in mid April thinking that I would have them done in a couple of weeks. Despite a lot of hard work, I didn't have them completed and ready for planting until the end of May. It took me more than a month to prepare 192 square feet of raised bed/hugelkultur garden space. Now if it had been an emergency, I would have gone straight to tilling and skipped all of the leveling, terracing, hugelkultur and bringing in compost, chicken manure and mulch. The problems with that approach however would have been many, at least in my imagination. The first problem is that my back yard is on the side of a small mountain. The slope goes from about 17º at the top of the hill to almost 30º near the house thus erosion could have been a major issue. The second problem is that I only have a few inches of topsoil followed by thick red clay. The land you have available to you may be problematic and you may never know until you start working it.

Many of the various seed banks that I looked at boasted that they contained more than an acre's worth of seeds. That's a lot of seeds and a decent amount of food if all goes well, but it's also a lot of land that you have to prepare ahead of planting. You have to put in some significant work in on the front end of a garden and from what I did this year for 192 square feet, I can't imagine preparing an acre to be planted especially with only a shovel, maddock and a rake. I'd at least want a rototiller for that first year and hope that I could maintain the gardening area with heavy mulching. I learned pretty quickly that equipment becomes an important part of gardening, and if you don't have the equipment to use as a force multiplier, it's going to take even more time and effort.

While on the topic of equipment, I can't imagine the amount of effort I'd have to put into maintaining the garden's health if I didn't have the use of good hose of the regular and soaker variety. For me at least, this brings in the public water works as a tool that would have to be covered if an emergency arose in which the taps weren't working. If you don't have access to some kind of water supply that you can move in large amounts on your own, you're probably going to have to figure out a way to keep a garden thriving when it's dry. I'm working on putting together a rain catchment system at the house, but that still would mean that I have to get the water to the garden, and for me that would mean a pump of some kind since my garden's elevation is higher than my home. I don't want to be in the position of having to carry water up to the garden in a bucket at around eight pounds per gallon. 

I'd also have to hope that the soil I had could be useful and heavily productive without a lot of amendments if I didn't have them on hand or the ability to go out and get them in an emergency. As mentioned previously, here at the house, there was only a few inches of good topsoil before I ran into a layer of red clay. I can imagine it would have been tough going. My neighbor, who lives upslope from me, has managed well with a bit of rototilling, but I have no idea if he used any soil amendments or not.

Let me get back to my garden and actual problems that I've run into thus far. My next problem was pests. Other than the rabbits that I know are living under the neighbor's shed and the opossum and raccoons that have been seen by others, I know that we have a significant deer population in the area. The rabbits, opossum and raccoon started taking a toll on my direct sewn seeds as soon as they broke soil. I lost 100% of my radishes, 90% of my sunflowers and about 25% of my beans. I ended up using wildlife netting to keep the furry pests at bay, but I had to go out and buy it. I'm also building some live traps to make use of in the future. I figure that I can use my garden as a lure to procure more food, but that's another topic entirely. What this means is that I would have had to have even more tools and supplies on hand if this had been an emergency.

Luckily I've not had too much damage from insects or disease this year, otherwise it would have meant that I would have needed more supplies on hand or some way to fight to keep my garden healthy in an emergency. I can imagine that I've only been lucky because the only thing I've done to keep bad insects out of my garden is to transplant some beneficial insects that I've found around the yard and house up to the garden. Regarding disease, I've been quick to get rid of any plants or parts that appeared to be suffering from one ailment or another, but that's about it. I'm sure that I'll run into more disease in the future and have just been lucky thus far.

With all of that in mind, there's a concept that practiced gardeners understand that I'd not even considered until I started my first garden. A garden has a timeline and just because you have seeds it doesn't mean that you plant them all at once. Aside from the idea of starting seeds indoors, a lot of plants simply have different growing seasons and depend on the temperature not getting too hot before they bolt or simply can't tolerate. I planted a few things out of season just to see what happened and the outcome made me giggle a little bit. At least I'd learned enough to know what the most likely outcome was.

Another potential problem I see with seed banks is that from what I've seen so far, they don't seem to be region specific. While I could potentially grow most of their contents where I live, I don't think this is the case with some of the other areas that I've read about gardening within.

I also wonder about basic information on how to garden. I've only seen a couple of kits that have any kind of included information on the subject. I can't count how many articles I've read, podcasts that I've listened to and friends I've called for information on the subject. If the internet hadn't been here for me to use, I didn't have the use of a phone and I didn't have any books on the subject I can't imagine how badly things would have gone for me so far.

If anyone has any additional thoughts on the subject, I'd really like to read about them. It might save someone from disaster in the future.

What an absolutely fantastic post - a real wake up call! Thanks!

Frugal Upstate:
I agree--fantastic post.  There is quite a steep learning curve with gardening, I'd hate to be trying to learn while in a true survival situation.

I find that I frequently go online to  look up gardening information -- as you point out that info might not always be available.  I need to start building up a resource library for gardening.  I also need to start keeping a better gardening notebook with specific notes about gardening in my particular location.

Nicodemus, if you can get public television, I would reconmend a show called "Volunteer Gardener".   Here is some information about seed storage:   
Some seed starting info:
There are several helpful publication you can pick up at your County Extension office or go to the home page of the links I gave you.   The yellowing could have been from not enough light or from low planting medium nutriments.   With your slope I would reconmend extensive terracing or containers.   
If possible, try to take a Master Gardener course or other courses provided by your Extension service.
In a TEOTWAKI case you will be saving seeds from what you grow and if you chose carefully you will keep seeds from what grows best at your location.

This is also my first year of seriously trying to learn how to garden.  I've tinkered with potted herbs and peppers before, but this is a whole different ball of wax.  I agree with every one of your points, and I wasted a fair amount of seeds and starts in the process.   I've had very similar results/experiences.

For anyone who has a plan to produce food in a prolonged emergency from a seed bank, you must practice some basic gardnening skills beforehand.  You don't need to do a 1/2 acre row garden, but you need to have some idea of what will and will not grow succesfully in your climate/soil...what kind of pests you have to contend with.  When to plant for your area...etc, etc... 

For anyone new to gardening, this is one of those things where you just have to get started and not sweat the details too much.  Don't worry if you haven't had time to gather materials or do intensive research...just get started.  Your own experience will be your best guide.   For a person with a prepper/planner mindset, this might seem counter-intuitive, but it's the fastest way forward.

Don't get hung up too much on "What's the best" or which advice and methods you should follow because it will just slow you down.  You will make mistakes.  There will be unforseen events.  You will learn from them, and the worst thing that happens is your plants become food for someone other than you, and you get to try again for the cost of a few seeds.  Better to learn some of those lessons now when the cost of failure insignificant.

When you do your basic research, consider reaching out to a local garden club for advice.  Getting advice germain to your locale, climate and soil is key.  There are a lot of great books out there, but much of the information can be somewhat generic and may not adress issues unique to your area.  I've tried a number of different gardening methods all at once, containers; bags, wicking beds, very easy way to start is sqare foot container gardening.  Not to plug just one guy's book, but anyone can purchase a raised bed kit for $50 or less if you shop the sales, (or make your own for less) and just follow some basic guidelines from Mel Bartholomew's book, "Square Foot Gardening".  It's dead simple, and all the supplies can be had with one trip to the home improvement garden center...even his own special blend of garden soil.

Also, YouTube is pretty good resource for learning the basic points of just about any new skill you could wish to acquire.


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