How to Survive with a Garden
by Jason Ross
Survival Gardening. Goodness…
Like you, perhaps, I bought “survival seeds.” Somewhere in my storage closet is a bucket of “heirloom” seeds that I imagined I could use to get my family through a grid-down world.
I’m glad I didn’t have to bet my family on my understanding of survival gardening. It would’ve been a disaster. Here’s how it would’ve gone down.
- I would’ve chosen the wrong plants. I hadn’t thought through, at all, which garden veggies produce the most life-sustaining calories. Like every hobby gardener, I was ready to plant stuff that doesn’t fill the belly for a damn.
- I would’ve planted stuff that doesn’t work well in my garden. Depending on climate, soil and plant variety, my veggies either thrive or willow away. Only after years of gardening am I beginning to see which plants yield big in my area.
- I would’ve wasted a lot of space. I don’t have acres of flat ground and I don’t have the man-power to farm that much garden anyway. I need to make the most of my space and I need to put the plants where they’re easy to tend.
- I would’ve wasted a lot of water — water I wouldn’t of had in a survival situation. Watering requires more than just water. It requires water pressure. Successful gardening requires a water-efficient system to get water to the roots.
- I would’ve had my ass handed to me by pests, mold, over-sun, under-sun, mineral deficiencies and a hundred other “little” demands that come out of a garden.
Sorry. You will not be able to feed your family with a garden unless you’re already adept at feeding your family with a garden.
The good news is that you can start small, especially if you focus on high-yield plants.
It’s hard enough to get 1,500 calories per-day, per-person out-of-the-ground. (Frankly, it’s virtually impossible.) Don’t try to accomplish that with the wrong plants.
The Native Americans on the East Coast focused on the big three: beans, squash and corn. Depending on your area, all of these are big producers and the Indians often grew all three in the same rows. Beans produce a lot of calories and they’re very store-able. Summer squash are almost miraculous and then winter squash grow so far into the winter that they can easily make it all the way through spring if stored in a root cellar. Corn turns out big calories, is super tasty and can also be dried and stored.
Potatoes seem more popular on the West Coast, but they definitely deserve their own paragraph. One potato plant produces many hundreds of calories. The small potatoes can be replanted and you can even get multiple plantings in one season. Potatoes also do well in a root cellar and can still be providing serious calories all the way around to the next spring.
But even with the right plants, unless you live in a farming community, you don’t want to be protecting acres of land from men and wildlife. Rather, you want a compact, ultra-productive garden.
“Square Foot Gardening” rules if you’re a preparedness geek. This approach to high-density gardening makes the perfect “prepper garden.” It’s easy to fence and defend. It’s easy to work (especially if you use raised beds.) And, it’s easy to fit onto a suburban plot of land.
Basically, you look at your garden beds as squares, one foot by one foot. Buy a Square Foot Gardening guidebook and to tell you how much of each plant you can get into each square. I use my drip irrigation pipe, in one-foot squares, to designate spacing.
Every chance you get, grow your produce up a trellis. There are hundreds of cheap ways to build trellises, and you vastly multiply your growing area by running things up instead of out. Many plants will cooperate with this plan, such as winter squash, beans, tomatoes, watermelons, honeydew melons, cantaloupe and peas.
You’ve got to plan your square foot garden VERY WELL, since you have to live with your mistakes for an entire season. Many plants like full sun — but in some regions, “full sun” is too much sun. For example, my Black Prince tomatoes burn to a crisp in full sun in July, after they’ve thrived all June, even though they’re supposed to like full sun. Alternatively, my vining squash gets leaf mold if I put it under too much shade. (See what I mean about how hard it is to survival garden without years of experience? Every cotton-picking plant has issues like these.)
Planning solves most of these issues. Use your trellises, trees and shade flies to partially or fully shade plants that like some shade. Maybe in your region, some plants will thrive under a couple of hours of mid-day shade. Use trial and error to figure this out.
Also, try not to put the same plants in the same bed, year after year. You need to rotate plants, as best you can. But, if you can’t rotate because of shading restrictions, then renew and replace a lot of the bed soil with compost. It’s another advantage of square foot bed gardening. You can replace or amend soil with relative ease.
Corn is problematic because it generates so much shade and because corn grows best around other corn. Ever notice how corn on the ends of a field don’t grow as well? It’s a tough one for square-foot gardening and almost needs its own plot.
Beans, on the other hand, kill it in square foot because they so often grow well up a trellis. I use both climbing and “bush” green beans to fill my little kick-ass green bean bed.
Squash not only produce, they entertain the gardener. There are more than ten common squash varieties and they roughly divide into Summer Squash and Winter Squash. This is good news since you can amp your squash production by extending deep into fall. Plus, they look really cool.
I don’t believe that Summer Squash keep too well. Zucchini soften after a couple weeks. Crookneck and Straightneck do better, but plan on eating your Summer Squash during the season. Winter Squash, on the other hand, keep pretty well in a cool, dry place like a root cellar. Winter Squash include Butternut, Acorn, Spaghetti and Buttercup.
Potatoes can easily be grown in a trash can, which is pretty damn awesome because you don’t have to dig them up when they’re ready. Just dump the can, harvest, re-amend the soil and replant. We’re actually working on a system to use grow lights on a dropper line in a greenhouse to reap PV solar from panels and transfer it right into the trash can — growing potatoes all year round under LED grow lamps.
When you plant a trash can potato, only fill the trash can one-third with soil. Then, as the potato plant emerges and leafs (about 6 inches tall), bury it in another three inches of soil. Keep burying your potatoes under more and more soil, after until your trash can is full. Then, when the leaves and flowers turn brown, give it two more weeks and then dump your trash can — full of lovely calories.
Interesting note: potatoes are the only vegetable a person can survive on SOLELY. While the potato is mostly starch, it also has 11% protein.
For a survival nut, the potato is a must-have and with an army of trash cans, you can seriously augment your food storage.
If you’re not quite convinced that you have enough time to learn gardening — and that you’re almost willing to trust that (doofy) bucket of “survival seeds” for your family’s well being during the zombie apocalypse — allow me to suggest an alternative.
Garden small. Start just FOUR square feet of garden to get your feet wet.
- Grow a trash can full of potatoes. Master this one, little trick and you are well on your way to feeding your family some fresh produce.
- Grow Blue Lake Green Beans (climbing). Take one square foot, up against something the beans can climb, and get them in the ground.
- Grow one zucchini plant in the remaining TWO square feet. It’s going to spill over that container, but just let it.
Most places, this is a pretty easy and bomb-proof garden, though you’re bound to have some adventures with it.
And, if you’re ready to go balls-to-the-wall, build some planter beds this winter (line them with water barrier) and get going LEGIT next spring right before Mother’s Day.