Let’s say that TEOTWAWKI comes, and you are ready! You have your sealed can full of heirloom seeds, and you’re going to start a garden right away. Well, if you haven’t been gardening and practicing the skills necessary and learning how to deal with your climate and soil, you may have difficulty producing the food your family needs. It is really imperative that you begin now to grow the things you’ll need in a crunch. You don’t have to grow as much as you would conceivably need when grocery stores are not an option, but the skills for each particular crop are definitely good to cultivate.
For one thing, if all you have is the commercially prepared vacuum-packed can of seeds, they may or may not be appropriate for your area. Here in the Deep South, certain varieties of vegetables can take the heat, etc., while other varieties just don’t do well. And some of those vegetables – well, my family is just not used to eating. I think that in a crunch, the familiar foods will be appreciated while those unfamiliar foods may or may not be eaten, thus wasting your time, effort, and garden space. So, I buy heirloom seeds for the varieties that grow well in my area and that my family will eat and vacuum seal them myself, then keep them in the freezer.
I began my gardening career by reading Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew. Then, as I began to try my hand at building raised beds and using his methods, I realized that although the basic ideas are helpful, his planting guides were not necessarily for my area. I found that the local county extension office has a planting guide for your area which includes when to plant and what varieties do best in your area. This knowledge is invaluable. I have also gained a lot of useful knowledge from older folks who’ve gardened in my region for a long time and enjoy passing on their knowledge to any willing listener.
I have arthritis, which makes it difficult to garden on my knees and has caused me to be a bit innovative. The raised beds made from railroad ties work fairly well, but I was searching for something a bit higher from the ground. I found the perfect solution, absolutely free! Old cast-aside refrigerators and freezers make perfect “raised beds”. I call the local “Maytag man” once a week, and he is delighted for me to take old refrigerators and freezers off his hands. After a recent hurricane in our area, there were scads of refrigerators and freezers out for the trash man to pick up. What a wonderful opportunity those folks missed to have great garden beds!
To make a raised bed from an old refrigerator, first remove the doors, drawers, and racks. I use old bricks or cinder blocks to raise the level of the refrigerator to the height I want it (about kitchen counter height) and set the refrigerator on its back on the blocks. Then, with a long drill bit, I drill holes through the back wall of the unit to create drainage for the garden. Next, I fill the bed about two-thirds of the way up with fill sand. Only the top foot to foot-and-a-half needs to be good soil, as that’s about how far down the roots on the vegetables could go. I use compost mixed with good dirt and have had excellent results. (A good guide to composting is “Let it Rot” by Stu Campbell.) I also mulch with chopped up leaves or left-over hay from the barn. There’s an obvious benefit here when your soil is poor or rocky – just use beds above it!
The height of the refrigerator beds is always at least the width of the refrigerator. This deters armadillos, wild hogs, rabbits, and (so far) deer among other varmints, but not my son’s hound dog. Nice soft dirt that has just been hand tilled and planted is so appealing to a dog! A piece of chicken wire unrolled to cover the freshly tilled bed discourages the dog and can be left in place until the plants get too tall. Then they can be uncovered and the dog will probably have lost interest.
The refrigerator garden beds have a psychological benefit for me. I go to weed the garden, and instead of being overwhelmed by the task, it is already sectioned off into “do-able” pieces. I may plant onions in the freezer compartment and spinach in the refrigerator space on this bed and something entirely different in the next one. But to till or weed is EASY to do entirely by hand. Even my small children enjoy working with me in these beds. And where watering would be a chore on an entire garden, it is simple with a watering can; that’s the best way with the mini fields I have planted. Of course, you can use a hose. I use the watering can because I like to use manure tea on my garden to give a boost to the plants. I’m playing with the idea of putting a rain catcher of some sort, like an old 6 gallon thermos jug with the lid off, at the end of each bed and attaching a length of soaker hose to it. Haven’t yet figured out how to valve it on and off, but it shouldn’t be difficult.
A benefit to gardening in refrigerator beds is that there is a good bit of insulation all around each of your gardens. This seems to make my crops last longer into cold weather and allows me to start things a bit earlier in the year, too, because my soil is workable. I also save two liter soda bottles, fill them with water and duct tape them together into a ring in which I plant my warm weather plants (tomatoes and peppers) early in the season. The water absorbs heat during the day and lets it off at night to be an insulating source for the plants.
Another plus to gardening in refrigerator beds is that plants which tend to sprawl, like strawberries, are contained and can only go as far as you want them to go. Imagine being able to pick strawberries without stooping. It’s wonderful! I contained a zucchini plant this past summer by planting it in an old microwave prepared in the same fashion.
Now, some may say, “But old refrigerators are so unsightly!” If it bothers you, you could spray paint them, I think. I just placed mine behind a shed where they aren’t noticed when you drive up to the house. Other options are a simple fence with trailing vines or a hedge planted to obscure the view of the garden from those it might offend.
Another thing to help with the garden bed set-up is carpet. Yes, used carpet! I let folks know that I would appreciate any old carpet when they re-carpet their homes, and I use it to set up walkways between my beds. First, I weed-eat all of the weeds down, then use a razor knife to cut the pieces to fit. Voila! Now I have no muddy shoes to worry about when I pick my veggies and bring them back to my kitchen.
For crops that need to climb, I have found that raising the beds to kitchen counter level is not practical. I can’t reach the produce to pick it! So for a few of my beds where I intend to plant beans, peas, cucumbers, etc., I put them only a few inches off of the ground. Even tomatoes can get really high, so keep this in mind as you are placing your beds. Once they are in place and full of dirt, they are extremely heavy to move.
Cattle panels and t-posts are all you need for creating wonderful trellises for your climbing plants. I cut the panel to fit my desired bed and just put either a piece of rebar or a t-post on each end (inside of the bed) to wire it to. If panels are out of your budget, any field fencing or even electric fencing wire strung at intervals would work. I prefer the panels simply because they are more durable and can be used again and again.
Caution: If you make refrigerator garden beds as I have described, you may find it difficult to convince yourself to go back in the house and get busy with necessary chores. It’s such fun to work in these beds!
**Due to my physical limitations, the “I” used throughout this article is a collective one, including my father and my sons, who have devoted a lot of time and energy to making my garden beds for me.
JWR Adds: If you acquire any "dead" refrigerators, be sure to remove their doors right away. If you don't, they would be considered an "attractive nuisance" in the eyes of the law. (The suffocation deaths of children "playing" with refrigerators left outdoors are uncommon, but tragic when they do happen.)