Perhaps your 401(k) cratered or you sold at the bottom and invested the remainder in a gold mine. Or perhaps you've been breathlessly — or anxiously — awaiting the end of Western civilization (three more years till the end of the Mayan calendar). In either case, while you're waiting for a stack of bullion or your own private Armageddon, you still have to eat. The solution: Plow up the back forty and grow your own grub.
Your grandparents, in their own version of the depression we're not having, had a leg up on you, such as more arable land to work with. If you're like most people in the East Bay, your farm falls into one of three categories: a postage-stamp patio, a postage-stamp lawn flanked by junipers so old they're moldy underneath, or a sea of foxtails and Himalayan blackberry holding up a sagging fence. No matter which you've got, you can grow all your salad greens, braising greens, and strawberries. If you think that won't dent your grocery bill, you either haven't been eating your spinach or haven't been doing the shopping.
First, a few don'ts. Do not rush to buy starts of hot-weather plants like squash, tomatoes, and corn. You will be poorer and hungrier. Because you're smart enough to live in a microclimate where it never gets too hot or too cold, your best way to grow tomatoes and sweet corn is to cultivate friends in Walnut Creek. You bring them lettuce, they bring you zucchini. In the winter, let them beg while you gloat, but don't make 'em too mad, or they won't give you enough tomatoes to can next fall.
Do not plant things you don't like to eat. If broccoli makes you cringe, why devote energy and space to growing it? Plenty of people have thought that because they love artichokes, they'd adore Jerusalem artichokes. Enough said.
Do not spend hundreds of dollars you don't have on raised beds and fancy this-and-thats. Instead, as you garden, pretend you're six. I need a trellis, so how 'bout that ladder over there, or hey, let's use those old windows for a cold frame. A cold frame is used to warm the soil so that you can start seeds in flats or harden-off those babies that have been living on your kitchen table. Lean the window frames against a back — a 2x8 on its side works nicely. Cover the open sides with a bit of clear plastic. Get creative, recycle, and save money.
For those with limited space: Think vertical. If you have a balcony, truck on over to the nursery and buy some grow bags. These are black plastic baggies that you fill with potting soil and seeds, and then water. Nearly instant salad. Roots Organics maker Aurora Innovations had the bright idea of putting the soil in the grow bag — a camo bag, to boot. The Roots bags (they come in 1.5 and 3 cubic feet) stand up, while others lie on their sides. Of course, you can turn any bag of soil into a makeshift grow bag, but you need to be more careful with mixes packaged in lighter plastic. Put a few drainage holes in what will become the bottom, cut out a rectangle at the top, and plant.
Ring the balcony with the bags, and plant snow and snap peas and beans near the railings, with lettuce, spinach, Chinese cabbage, and bok choy toward the middle. There are gorgeous lettuces — try Sunset and Oakland's own Kitazawa Seeds' Okayama Salad for beauty as well as exquisite taste. Check out Kitazawa's Asian greens and peas, too (KitazawaSeeds.com). Most of these are cut-and-come-again; they'll go for weeks as you trim, growing back to feed you more. (Emphasis on trim; you take a few leaves from this plant, a few from that.) Root out those that taste a little bitter or seem to be getting taller — they're going to seed, which means you need to plant more. Succession planting, where you start seeds every few weeks, is important, because it'll keep your bags full of good greens.
Go skyscraper with your strawberries; they like to grow in stacks. They will flourish in cinder blocks stacked one or two blocks high. Fill the holes with soil and plant your strawberries inside. You can even use the blocks as a short retaining wall for raised beds. Again, recycle — you're certain to have containers that can be repurposed for strawberries. Punch a few holes at the bottom for drainage — standing water will kill the plants. And be sure to get everbearing varietals, such as UC Davis introductions Seascape and Sequoia. They do better in our mild winters, and they fruit for months.
But wait, you're saying. Shouldn't I buy my lettuce in those little six-packs? You can if you insist, but since you can plant lettuce, braising greens, and spinach all year round, it pays to get seeds of these. A packet will feed you for months. And if you've torn your hair out in the past because slugs and snails ate your babies, surround your seedlings with Sluggo. It's non-toxic, harming no one but mollusks.
You've got more space than a balcony, but you're not convinced by drought and starvation that it's finally time to tear out the lawn. Stack the bags of dirt on top of the grass. Next year you'll be ripping out the lawn anyway, once you see how tasty and succulent your own veggies are, and at that point you can put in a few nice-looking beds. Still, you're concerned with looks this year. Remember your ABCs: amaranth, artichokes, asparagus, thornless blackberries, Bright Lights chard, and Chinese cabbage. Toss in a few espaliered fruit trees, and Better Homes and Gardens will be on the way to your place.
Wait a second, you say. I plan to go away this summer; how will my plants survive without water? You could leave in July, when it's freezing, or you could lay soaker hoses across your bags and around your yard. Get a timer (they cost less than $25) and attach it to the hose bib. Then screw the hose onto the bottom of the timer. If you need more than one soaker hose, put a two- or three-way diverter on the bottom of the timer, then attach the hoses. Set the timer for every other day, watering around 6 or 7 p.m. It's best to water in the early evening, when the plants have all night to quench their thirst. You can start with a half-hour at a time, but remember to increase as your plants grow; you may even go to once a day. You'll find the soaker hose regimen saves a lot of water.
Now you lucky people with the endless fields of weed-plugged grass: clear it out. Use that fertile soil for blocks of vegetables, plant berry bushes and table grapes on those falling-down fences, plant sunflowers in the sunniest corners and grow beans up the stalks, get your neighbors involved and knock down those fences and use the wood to build chicken coops.
And if you're all moody about tomatoes, get a few cherry tomato plants and put them in a container against a south-facing wall. Toss 'em in the salad along with your fresh-trimmed greens. Get into the spirit, folks. Offset the losses in your 401(k) with the best food you've ever eaten.