Survival gardening is a term that’s thrown around quite a bit these days, both by preparedness gurus and even everyday gardeners. The theory is, with a shovel and the right backpack full of seeds, anyone can survive the next ‘zombie apocalypse.’
But it’s not that simple…
We grow a good bit of our own food on our remote solar-powered homestead here in Vermont, but there’s a big difference between providing your own fruit and produce and providing a year’s worth of calories.
Nonetheless, I have this dream sometime in the next decade we’ll devote ourselves to growing all our own food for one calendar year. It’s a full-time job to be sure, but everyone’s gotta have a dream. Odd as it may seem, this is mine.
In the meantime, a lot of our spare time over the past 5 years (and over the next decade to come) is devoted to reaching a point of food self-sufficiency.
Our permaculture orchard already produces year-round fruit, with honeyberries right after the first thaw, summer apples that ripen in July, mountains of berries, and storage apples that take us through the long Vermont winter.
Still, even with all this infrastructure, we’re still a long way from producing enough calories to survive without external inputs.
A while back a big survival news website asked me to write a comprehensive article on survival gardening, or more specifically, designing a survival gardening backpack. The idea was to design a backpack full of seeds and small hand tools that would allow someone to “go up into the mountains” and survive on the fruits of their garden indefinitely.
I laughed….Then I laughed some more….
Then I took a deep breath and tried to explain that it’s not nearly that simple.
Working virgin soil is incredibly hard work, and yields on unimproved woodland soil are depressingly low. Even with the best soil in the world, your first substantial harvest would be months away. Sure, radishes and salad greens could be harvested in about 4 weeks, but it’d be a hungry 4 weeks until you saw your first salad.
Even still, that salad won’t exactly fuel the hard labor required to bring in the rest of the harvest months later.
Nonetheless, it got me thinking.
If we had minimal time to clear virgin land in a desperate attempt to grow a substantial amount of calories, could it be done?
We’d already been planning on clearing a small patch of land near our pond for a new garden, so I decided to make a challenge of it.
Instead of slowly clearing the land, my husband and I both took the week off work and spent all day every day clearing land, hauling wood and turning soil. We’re not really into cruises you see, and anytime we take a vacation it’s always spent splitting wood or putting up fences anyway.
Everyone needs a hobby…
Survival Garden Yields
So after all that work, how much did our survival garden yield? Not much…
We planted 50 lbs of potatoes, but in unimproved woodland soil, the yields were exceptionally poor.
Generally, potatoes yield 10 to 25 pounds for every pound planted, depending on variety and growing conditions.
Ours yielded about 3 lbs per pound planted.
We joked that it almost made up for the calories we’d expended building the survival garden in the first place.
We grow potatoes in our garden, and our yields are always excellent. It’s not that we don’t know how to grow potatoes. The difference between improved garden soil and unimproved woodland soil is pretty stark.
Likewise, storage squash, melon and tomato yields were hardly worth mentioning. The corn failed to grow altogether.
It was an incredible learning experience, and now we’re much more prepared for the road ahead.
Now in spring 2020, we find ourselves in an uncertain world, where store shelves are stripped and predictions for the future are dire.
We’ll be planting more food than ever this year, and expanding past the traditional borders of our garden. I hope this year is another “practice” year, but time will tell.
Here’s what we’re doing differently.
Survival Garden (Version 2.0)
Clearly, soil improvement is a huge priority. There’s no point cultivating more land area if it’s just not going to yield meaningful calories.
This year, we’re going to focus on intensive cultivation in our traditional garden space. Building trellises for vertical gardening, minimizing aisle space and otherwise making the most of our established square feet.
We’re also going to make use of last years’ “survival garden” by spot improving soil with all our available compost.
The book Gardening When It Counts, which I highly recommend, suggests planting storage squash in improved hills. A single bucket of compost in hills spaced about 6 feet apart means you don’t have to improve all the soil, just enough plant in a hill.
As the plants grow out, keep cultivating circles around the plant week by week, staying just ahead of the expanding vines. They’ll put down further roots as they go, and this strategy allows you to slowly work to improve the soil over the season.
In particular, he gives instructions for turning a lawn into a squash patch with this method, including plans for supplementing fertility. We’ll be one step ahead since we’re not breaking sod.
We’re also really focusing on increasing our compost production. Our kitchen scraps and chicken coop bedding are nowhere near enough to supply our garden.
We already use wood chips to make mushroom compost with winecap mushroom spawn. (We also use inoculated wood chips as mulch for perennial crops, and have had particular success growing mushrooms with strawberries.)
In an effort to “close the loop” we’re going to add humanure to our garden fertility plan. If you’re curious about the details, The Humanure Handbook has detailed instructions on capturing our own wasted manure and composting it, which if done properly, allows humanure to safely be used on food crops.
(Please do your research and educate yourself ahead of time if you want to use humanure, as improper use can have pretty nasty consequences.)
We’ve been saving wood ash all winter to help improve fertility as well since it supplements nutrients like calcium generally lacking in northeast woodland soils.
Since I know from experience that gardening on unimproved virgin soil is tricky, I’m also focusing on container gardening. It almost seems silly to devote energy and attention to small space container garden techniques, but it’s actually working out really well.
Our last “spring” frost doesn’t happen until early June, but I’m already growing cold-tolerant crops in containers. Last year we bought a garden tower to maximize space in our attached greenhouse, and I’ve been exceptionally happy with it. It holds moisture well, and rotates so I can make sure that sunlight gets to all sides.
(They also have completely indoor setups with lights, if you don’t have a greenhouse).
I’m already growing greens, peas, herbs, and even carrots in containers. We’ll be harvesting long before the last frost, and then I’ll plant the containers again with heat-loving veggies.
Crops for a Survival Garden
As for crops, we’re focusing on a mix of storage crops like potatoes, squash, onions, cabbage, and root vegetables.
We grow microgreens indoors year-round, and that supplies our salad needs (out of the reach of deer and woodchucks).
Since we have two small children at home, fresh fruits are important for morale and keeping our tiny helpers engaged. Husk cherries are a particular favorite. They grow like weeds and yield big crops of fruit that tastes like a cross between strawberries and pineapple.
Regular old cherry tomatoes and cucumbers will get them to run out to the garden every morning too, as do the mammoth sunflowers we grow for seeds.
Beyond Survival Gardening
Though our goal is to grow as much food as possible, while keeping everyone happy and healthy, I know the garden alone won’t be enough.
We’ll be relying heavily on stored food and leftovers from last year’s canning. Last year I also wrote reviews of a bunch of different survival food companies, and I still have plenty of leftovers sealed up in the basement.
Our chickens are already laying heavily this spring, and I’m using every egg preservation trick in the book to ensure those calories don’t go to waste. They free range all summer, providing most of their own food, another thing to love about a hearty heritage breed.
Outside the garden, we’ll be foraging as much as possible, and last year’s project to identify and catalog more than 50 different edible fruits and berries will be handy for sure.
Whether you call it survival gardening or victory gardening, we’ll all be spending a lot of time on the homefront for the next year (or more). We might as well spend it producing food and bolstering our own self-reliance for the challenges that lay ahead.
We may all be isolated in our homes, but together we can do this!
More Ways to Harvest & Preserve Food at Home
Looking for more ways to put food on the table? Read on…
- Vegetables that Grow in Shade
- 100+ Canning Recipes to Preserve Everything
- 100+ Dehydrator Recipes
- Spring Foraging: 20+ Wild Edibles
- 70+ Venison Recipes
- 40+ Squirrel Recipes
- Eating Crow (Literally)
- Eating Acorns: 60+ Recipes from Around the World