Written by: Philip Masterson
With the worsening economy, coupled with the changing climate, it is very difficult to keep a family alive. Also, the looming danger of terrorism and the collapse of government, will give anyone a nightmare. I, for one, will not be waiting for the disasters to approach before I prepare my family for the inevitable. With a wife and two kids, I have to plan carefully how the family can sustain itself with or without disaster. An underground garden or an indoor garden is one way to start living off the earth. It can also serve as a small private place if planted with various fast growing indoor trees, maybe Ruby Red Grapefruits? I started mine years ago and by reading gardening books and many trial and error, I found out the advantages and disadvantages of growing such gardens. However, the possibility of feeding my family from my own efforts, and saving a lot of money at the same time, is more than enough to persuade me that the garden is worth pursuing. Here are a few things I did for my garden.
We have a large basement that can hold a decent-sized indoor garden. However, I worried about the structure of the house and if it can take the regular flow of water on the soil. So, instead of using the basement, I decided to use the backyard as my location for the underground garden called walipini.
Developed 20 years ago in South America, a walipini is an affordable and effective alternative to glass greenhouse. It was developed so that growers can maintain a garden even through winter. The walipini takes advantage of the principles of passive solar heating with earth-sheltered building.
According to Tree Hugger, a walipini is, “a rectangular hole in the ground 6’ to 8’ deep, covered by plastic sheeting.”
To capture the heat coming from the sun, an angled, two-layer plastic roof must be built with a thick wall of rammed earth at the back of the building and a lower wall at the front. By building the greenhouse using the earth as walls, it taps into the thermal mass of the earth. It requires much less energy to heat the interior of walipini. The whole structure only costs around $300 and is functional the whole year.
Watering the Underground Garden
People think that underground gardens are difficult to irrigate. Most gardeners use hydroponics systems to save time in watering their plants. There are kits available online and I found detailed instructions in building hydroponics gardens.
However, there is a much simpler way to water plants without shunning off soil all together. Using PVC pipes and careful planning, I built an underground sprinkler system for my underground garden!
First, I dug trenches just a few inches deep through the garden. I also have plants on pots and large containers. I just drilled holes on their sides just enough to fit the pipes and hoses through them. The trenches are connected to a single trench that runs along on end of the garden.
I laid 3/4 inch PVC pipe on the trenches. For the plants on pots and containers, I inserted soaker hoses through the holes to provide a little bit of flexibility. I connected these with three-way pipe connectors, using rubber cement to glue the pipes to the connectors. For the soaker hoses, I used two-way hose splitters. I closed the holes on the posts with rubber cement to prevent leakage. Note that it is not recommended to connect more than 100 feet of hose or pipe together. Drip irrigation loses pressure when it is too long. End caps are then placed on the ends of the pipes and hoses.
I drilled 1/16 holes into the pipes and hoses to drip water. The spacing varies with each plant. But, groups of holes should be three to five feet apart to keep the integrity of the pipes and hoses. Of course, the sprinkler system should be automatic. I connected a backflow preventer to the faucet and placed a timer over it. I installed a pressure regulator on the timer and attached a garden hose to the pressure regulator. The garden hose then connects my faucet to the irrigation system. It’s just a matter of setting the timer to turn the sprinkler on and off.
Before building my underground garden, I already had plants and herbs in mind. The goal of my garden is to feed my family with organic produce so that was my priority. Tomatoes, eggplants and peppers are really easy to plant in lighted areas. I placed them in the sunny part of my garden. I typically use fluorescent bulbs during winter when the sunlight is not enough. I was careful about planting root crops as they root deep and they can ruin the walipini by softening the ground. However, radishes do not root very deeply and I was still able to plant some in boxes above the ground. I also planted potatoes in buckets. The key to planting root crops is to provide them with a steady supply of compost.
A friend also said mushrooms are great especially if the garden has dark and moist corners. Since mine is mostly lit throughout the year, I did not consider planting them. I added dwarf French beans early in the winter so they can soak in the sun during spring.
Of course, organic food need not be bland. Herbs are surprisingly easy to grow in underground or indoor gardens. During spring, I plant lots of basil as it likes the sun. I also add oregano if I have time. I’ve also planted parsley in the past springs. During summer, I have the most success with chervil. During winter, I was able to grow tarragon taken from my outdoor garden. Just recently, I planted bay as it grows easily regardless of the season.
Starting the underground garden was a challenge for me as I did everything on my own, with the occasional help from the family. As the garden grows, I slowly learned about the value of food and how easy it is to grow with enough effort. Prepper or not, I believe having a garden helps a lot, not only with food and preparedness, but also as a productive hobby. I gave my two kids their own little spots in the garden so they can plant whatever they want. My wife also helps a lot since she seems to have the green thumb. Gardening relaxes me a lot, especially after work. It sure beats sitting in front of the TV drinking beer!