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