Survival Gardening

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).

Growing all your own food requires planning and a lot of land (more than this!)This backyard garden in June is already supplying lettuce, chard, radishes, spinach and green onions, with tomatoes and peppers in the wings, waiting for the heat! But it is still a supplemental garden, not a survival garden...

In survival gardening, you will need to grow a different kind of food, focusing especially on producing calories, and crops with long-term storage capability.

There seem to be quite a few people buying those hermetically-sealed "seed vaults" to store in their basement with their disaster-preparation supplies, believing they'll be able to "grow all their own food" if disaster ever strikes. But it's important to realize a few things:

  1. Seeds are living things, and hermetically-sealed or not, germination rates go down over time. They need to be grown and have their seeds saved at least every couple of years to ensure a vibrant, vital supply of seeds.
  2. Growing from seed to harvest takes time and is weather and climate dependent. You don't just put seeds in the ground, turn around and reap enough food to eat when your cans are empty.
  3. Growing a grocery-supplement garden is a skill-set learned over time, through both study and experience. Growing a survival garden is a very high skill-set, also learned through study and experience. It also requires knowing how to properly save and store seeds, as well as preserve and/or store the harvest through the "hunger gap" between growing seasons.

Survival Gardening Includes Managing:

  • calories
  • protein
  • fats
  • winter storage crops
  • quantity of food for the number of people you want to feed
  • square footage or acreage required
  • sustainability
  • mineralization

These all have to work together for success in survival gardening. I'll briefly cover them and/or point you to where you can find more information.

First Step in Survival Gardening:
Figuring Out How Much Food You’ll Need to Grow

If you're actually going to have a successful survival garden, you need to figure out how much food will you need to grow. How many people will you need to feed, and how much space will that take? 

When I first began vegetable gardening back in 1985, I started a spreadsheet to track everything we ate. I put all the vegetables, dried legumes, and grain categories down the left, and the dates of each time I went grocery shopping across the top.

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 and never ate out.

I did this for a full year, for two people. When I added it all up I was astonished by how much we actually ate. We would have needed a lot more land if we intended to grow it all ourselves!

We were vegetarians at the time. What I didn't take into account, out of ignorance, was that our primary protein and fat sources at the time were eggs and cheese.

We didn't have much land, so we tabled our "grow all our own food" dreams for the time being, and focused instead on growing the "most-expensive-to-buy-from-the store" crops.

How Much Land Will You Need for Survival Gardening

If you’re successfully going to feed yourself and your family through survival gardening, there is no way around doing some calculations for your specific situation.

  1. Choose which crops you are going to grow
  2. Figure out how much of each crop you will need to grow to feed everyone you want to feed
  3. Look at the recommended plant spacings for your crops
  4. Multiply how many plants you'll need to grow, by how much space each requires.
  5. Do this for every crop you plan to grow and add them all together. 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 rows.

(Now start planning to move to a new place with a smaller house and a lot more land!)

Calories: What I Learned at Tracker School

After many years growing more and more of our own food, I decided to learn more about how indigenous people survived on the land, year-round, with no grocery stores.  

So off I went to spend several weeks studying with Tom Brown, Jr at his Survival Skills and Tracker School in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey.

I learned SO many things there! It was life-changing on many levels, but one disconcerting thing I learned was that to survive in the wild - at US latitudes anyway - human beings simply cannot survive on plants alone. No matter how many wild plants you eat, there just aren't enough calories available from native plants in the wild to survive, even in summer. I was forced to realize - after 25 years as a vegetarian - that we were just not naturally, biologically designed to be vegetarians.

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 will not be able to survive on tomatoes, carrots and lettuce. Your body requires protein and fat, and to some extent carbohydrates. (This is too big a topic to cover here, but it's not true that your brain only runs on glucose.)

Survival Gardening Is All About Calories, Protein and Fat

In survival situations we are concerned with keeping weight on, not losing it, which is a critical shift of perspective for many people.

Fat is a particularly concentrated energy source, which makes it especially valuable in survival situations. Protein is necessary for rebuilding or replacing worn-out cells in the body, and carbohydrate can be burned for fuel to run metabolic processes, provide energy and feed the microbiome in our guts.

The Skinny on 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. After extensive personal research on this topic, it seems that the medical paradigm is clinically about twenty years behind its own research, which is now showing that so-called "healthy" vegetable seed oils are actually highly inflammatory due to their unnatural origins, and that in the absence of high levels of blood glucose from a high-sugar diet, saturated fat is actually good for you. (See The Big Fat Surprise by Nina Teicholz and Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes for the research on this.) Note that olive and avocado oils are pressed from the flesh of the fruit (not chemically or high-heat/pressure extracted from the seed in an industrial factory), which means that they are safe and healthful to eat.

The best choices for calorie-dense crops that also store well through the “hunger gap” that happens between harvest seasons are:

  • potatoes
  • winter squash
  • corn
  • beans 
  • sunflower seeds

Potatoes, believe it or not, are quite 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, it will store indefinitely. (Winter squash is grown in summer, but is so-named because it stores over the winter.)

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 fresh, but you can 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 really too labor-intensive for the calories produced to be of practical value in home survival gardening. Quinoa may be an exception. While not technically a grain, its seeds require no threshing and (for a plant) it is quite high in protein.

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”. They are grown under the same directions as green beans.

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 and squirrels 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. 

To supply protein and fats you may want to consider adding chickens, ducks or goats into your plan. If so, you'll also need to think about 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. But you can check out my friend Cath Andrews' Raising Happy Chickens site for more on chicken-keeping for egg production.)

Winter Storage In Survival Gardening

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:

  • The Resilient Gardener by Carol Depp
  • The Complete Squash by Amy Goldman
  • Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth and Kent Whealy
  • Putting Food By by Janet Greene
  • Root Cellaring by Mike Bubel
  • Stocking Up by Carol Hupping
  • The Four Season Harvest by Eliot Coleman
  • Gardening When It Counts by Steve Solomon

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:

  • beets
  • carrots
  • cabbage (easy to store if kept cool, also as sauerkraut)
  • kale (freezes solid and gets sweeter, stays in the garden under the snow)
  • leeks
  • onions
  • rutabagas
  • turnips

All seeds used in survival gardening should be "open-pollinated" varieties, which means that each generation will come back true to the parents if protected from cross-pollination from other varieties. "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.

Are Rows or Beds Better for Survival Gardening?

One square equals one foot: the roots on this beet plant at 14 weeks of age go down ten feet.Beet Roots at 14 Weeks of Age Go Down Ten Feet

Ahh... 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.

Raised beds require heavy inputs of lumber and potting mix up front. Even in ordinary supplemental gardening, they are completely unnecessary. And plant roots in nature go much deeper than raised beds anyway. Unless you can't bend over, save yourself and the planet the expense of building raised beds out of a precious resource that will rot in contact with the ground anyway. (See Pros and Cons of Raised Bed Gardens).

For survival gardening I recommend that you learn how to grow food in the ground using the techniques of regenerative agriculture.

In a unfolding survival situation, you probably won't have access to artificial inputs (like giant plastic bags of potting mix, or tubs of blue-stuff fertilizer salts), but this is actually a good thing!

Learn how to grow things naturally now, using microbial brews, compost, ferments, and even Korean Natural Farming methods. Invest in high quality, durable gardening tools and natural mineral fertilizers now, not later. Like the Scout motto: Be Prepared.

And Remember:

Becoming a skilled gardener will change your life for the better, whether or not you ever have to fall back on your garden for survival.

Hone your skills now and harvest the rewards now: health, strength, steadiness, patience, humility, gratitude, greater self-sufficiency and attunement with nature.

Help share the skills and spread the joy
of organic, nutrient-dense vegetable gardening, and please...

~  Like us on Facebook  ~

Thank you...  and have fun in your garden!

Affiliate Disclaimer

This website contains affiliate links to a few quality products I can genuinely recommend. I am here to serve you, not to sell you, and I do not write reviews for income or recommend anything I would not use myself. If you make a purchase using an affiliate link here, I may earn a commission but this will not  affect your price. My participation in these programs allows me to earn money that helps support this site. If you have comments, questions or concerns about the affiliate or advertising programs, please Contact Me.Contact Us Page

You Are Here: Vegetable Gardening Home > Survival Gardening