Survival Gardening

Growing all your own food requires planning and a lot of land.

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:

  • calories
  • protein
  • fats
  • winter storage crops
  • quantity of food for the number of people you want to feed
  • square footage or acreage required
  • sustainability
  • composting 
  • seed saving (only open-pollinated or heirloom varieties)
  • appropriate varieties for climate, length of growing season, and storage ability
  • food preservation
  • quality tools
  • organic pest control measures 

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 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.

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
  • winter squash
  • corn
  • beans 
  • sunflower seeds

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. 

Survival Seed Vault
This little can contains seeds of 20 different heirloom vegetables, including black beans, butternut squash and sweet corn. Packaged to last 5-20 years depending on storage temperature. Grown & packed in USA. $37.95


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. 

Winter Storage

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:

  • How to Grow More Vegetables by John Jeavons
  • The Resilient Gardener by Carol Deppe
  • 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

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
  • 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. "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.

  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 

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

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.

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...

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

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