Survival gardening is a complex set of skills that takes time to learn, and it has a different focus than ordinary vegetable gardening (when you have a supermarket to fall back on).
You will need to grow a different kind of food, focusing especially on producing calories, and crops with long-term storage ability.
Pay Special Attention To:
These all have to work together for success in survival gardening. I'll briefly cover each one, and point you to where you can find more information. Also see the Related Articles in the right column.
Figuring Out How Much Food You’ll Need to Grow
How much food will you need to grow? How many people will you need to feed?
When I first began vegetable gardening back in 1985, I started a spreadsheet to track what we ate. I put all the vegetables, dried legumes, and rice categories down the
left, and the dates of each time I went grocery shopping across the
I pored over the receipts when I came home from the store, and entered every amount in the correct box: 2.3 pounds of broccoli, 5 pounds of pinto beans, 5.8 pounds of onions, etc. We cooked everything from scratch.
I did this for a full year, for two people. When I added it all up I was amazed at how much we actually ate. We would have needed a lot more land if we were to grow it all ourselves.
We were vegetarians at the time. What I didn't take into account, out of ignorance, was our primary protein and fat sources: eggs and cheese.
Calories: What I Learned at Tracker School
Years later I studied for several weeks with survival skills expert Tom Brown, Jr., and learned that to survive in the wild, humans simply cannot survive on plants alone. There aren't enough calories available from native plants in the wild, no matter how many you eat.
This was a difficult realization for me and made me rethink how nature was set up. The point is, vegetarian or not, for survival you must focus on the calories you need to survive, and where they are going to come from.
You may want to add chickens, ducks or goats into your plan. If so, also plan out how you will care for them without buying feed. This article is on survival gardening, though, so I'm focusing only on plant calories here.
In a survival situation we are concerned with keeping weight on, not losing it. The best choices for calorie-dense crops that also store well (through the “hunger gap” that happens between harvest seasons) are:
Potatoes, believe it or not, are relatively high in protein (for a vegetable), and they store well if kept very cool and very dark, and away from apples or other storage fruit.
Winter squash is high in vitamins and starch calories. Some winter squashes store better and longer than others. “Sweet Meat-Oregon Homestead” is delicious, stores well, and can be cut into rounds and dried. If you pound up completely-dried squash and put it in airtight jars, where it will store indefinitely.
Corn varieties are a broad topic. Sweet corn is good for eating fresh, but not so good for storing. Dried flint and dent corns are not so good for eating, unless you grind them or pound them into grits or flour. Some corns make better baked things, and some make better boiled things.
So which type of corn you grow depends on how you plan to cook it, as well as where you live. Some varieties grow well in the north, others in the south.
There are too many variables to cover in detail here, but Carol Deppe covers the topic of corn beautifully in her excellent book, The Resilient Gardener.
Other than corn, small grains (rice, wheat, etc.) are too labor-intensive for the calories produced to be of practical value in a survival garden. Quinoa may be an exception. While not technically a grain, it requires no threshing and (for a plant) it is very high in protein.
Protein and Fats
These are an extremely important part of the human diet. Fats
have gotten a bad rap in our culture because of the way they are metabolized in the body in
the presence of large amounts of sugar and carbs, and because of the denatured
way we process fats that makes them toxic. (See The Perfect Health Diet by Jaminet and The Paleo Solution by Robb Wolf for more on this.)
But in a survival situation, both protein and fat are critical concentrated
energy sources, especially if you live where there are cold winters.
Beans are easy to store, but rather labor intensive to grow and shell in survival-level quantities. They are good protein sources, though not very high in fat.
Good bean varieties for drying and storing are “Jacob’s Cattle”, “Black Coco”and “Kentucky Wonder”.
Sunflower Seeds are your best bet for fat from a survival garden. They are easy to grow and also high in protein. Use large-headed oily varieties, and make sure to protect the flower heads from the birds as they start ripening.
Nuts are a great fat source if you happen to live where almonds, walnuts or (if you're really blessed) piñon pines grow. Obviously, these are long-term crops - not things you have time to grow from seed in a survival situation.
All the crops listed above will store well if harvested and cured properly, and given the right storage conditions.
Different crops need different storage conditions. Excellent resources for learning how to sustainably grow and store all these
calorie dense crops can be found in the following books:
Another related skill set to survival gardening is canning. My friend Sharon over at Simply Canning has all the information and resources you need to learn to safely can everything you grow or hunt. She's a canning master.
Other Crops That Will Help Get You Through the Winter
Here's a list of other vegetables that can last you at least partway through the winter. Some can be left in the ground underneath a thick mulch, some need to be harvested and stored under appropriate conditions:
All seeds used in survival gardening should be "open-pollinated" varieties, which means that each generation will come back true to the parents. "Heirloom seeds" are open-pollinated varieties that have been handed down for generations. It doesn't matter whether or not your seeds are heirlooms, only that they are open-pollinated, so that you can save your own seeds for the following year.
How Much Land Will You Need
If you’re serious about successful survival gardening, there
is no way around doing some calculations for your specific situation.
Multiply how many plants you're going to grow, by how much space each requires, for
every crop you plan to grow. This will give you a ballpark of the total square
footage (or acreage) you’re going to need. Don’t forget to include the paths between beds or the space between rows.
An excellent program that makes determining the land requirement much faster is available online at GrowVeg.com
Rows or Beds?
This brings up the question of gardening methods and
sustainability. Wood-framed raised beds may be beautiful and enjoyable, but unless
you already have a bazillion of them built, they are impractical and
unsustainable for survival gardening. They require heavy inputs of lumber
and potting mix up front. Even in ordinary supplemental gardening, they are completely unnecessary.
For survival gardening I recommend that you learn how to double-dig French intensive raised beds.
In a rapidly-unfolding survival situation, you probably won't be double-digging a half acre. But learning this method will serve you very well over time.
French intensive beds require no inputs other than sustainable, locally-generated compost and wastes. You don't need a rototiller (or gas), and French intensive gardening has been scientifically proven to be the most efficient and productive growing method there is. Period.
Even if you only single-dig and mulch heavily to enlist earthworm help, the method is both workable and sustainable indefinitely.
The other aspects of survival gardening listed above are covered in detail in the related articles over on the right.
"When I go into the garden with a spade, and dig a bed, I feel
such an exhilaration and health that I discover that I have been defrauding
myself all this time in letting others do for me what I should have done with
my own hands."
--- Ralph Waldo Emerson