If you’ve never had a survival garden before, this year is the year to get one started. A garden is one of the cheapest, simplest, and most practical ways to have food available to feed you and your family if a disaster strikes. Even if all you have is a few open windowsills for a pot of veggies, growing some of your own food can only make you more prepared. However, for many gardening can seem intimidating, and so using my own experiences growing my first preparedness garden I’ve crafted this guide to getting you started.
What is a Survival Garden?
A survival garden serves to provide practical food for survival situations. It must supply essential vegetables, fruits and medical plants. Such a garden requires planning, a number of tools, as well as basic agricultural skills. It is useful to be aware of what locally grown species are, and the nutrition, fertilizing applied at the right time.
Many gardens look chaotic, with vegetables of various kind growing all over each other in one place and a bare spot of earth right next to them for no apparent reason. However, most experienced gardeners are combining their years of knowledge with some basic notes and drawings to make a good seasonal rotation for all of their various plants. For a new gardener like yourself, planning is even more important since you won’t have a lot of that “obvious” knowledge available for making snap decisions.
Planning doesn’t begin with the plants, fertilizers or tools however. The very first thing you need to decide is how large you want your garden to be and where you will locate it. If you have no soil and are using pots to grow the fruits of your labor that simplifies things, but if not you’ll have some decisions to make. Here are a few guidelines to help you out:
Start small. The awesome thing about gardens is that you can always expand later, and it won’t be a big deal. However you’re likely to discourage yourself if you start laying out 10 rows over 50 feet long. Until you have a practical idea of how much bending over and weeding, composting and fertilizing, and daily watering you’re willing to do keep your workload small.
Southern facing helps get you sun, but remember to check out shadows as the day goes by. Most garden plants will want at least partial sun, and it’s much easier to place up a little stand with a sheet on it for shade than it is to cut down that massive oak that casts afternoon shadows on the whole works.
Raised beds are great for poor-quality soils, or if you prefer the increased height.
If your soil is poorly suited for growing, plan out some raised beds instead. We’ve discussed raised beds in this post, and they can help add some good growing space even in a gravel lot. They are also helpful for people with back problems since you can raise the plants off of the ground a lot more, so take that into consideration as well.
Consider what is already growing nearby. I have attempted to cut through thick tree roots when digging holes for my plants before and it was immensely frustrating. You also don’t want to try competing with particularly invasive weeds. Many residents of the Southeast are well aware of the invasive power of the kudzu vines which are nearly impossible to eliminate even with herbicides, and there are other similar plants in many areas of the country that would easily shut out garden plants.
Once you’ve got your garden space all lined up, the next thing to consider is the plants you wish to grow there. Generally speaking any local store that provides seeds or plants should be suitable for your climate, but if you want to purchase heirloom seeds you may need a little more knowledge. Many seed sellers identify the climate zones that their plants are suited for and you can find your plant hardiness zone by using this map. Just select your state and it should give you all the info you’ll need.
Aside from suitability, there are a few other considerations to keep in mind:
If you will eat it, feel free to try growing it. Just make sure you actually will eat it….
Grow what you’ll eat. My first year I attempted to grow a wide variety of plants, and it so happened that my okra plants did extremely well owing to our historically high summer temperatures. They all ended up going into the compost heap uneaten, as it turns out I strongly dislike okra! Remember that part of the reason you prepare is so that you’ll have some comforts available in a disaster, and being able to eat appetizing food is definitely a plus.
Do some research and know when and where to plant certain seeds. Some plants actually prevent other seeds from sprouting, while others might provide helpful shade or drive away harmful pests. To use another personal example, I would have had many more radishes available had I made a point of planting a few seeds every couple of days or weeks rather than planting most of the packet in long rows all at once. Not only did they crowd each other out and damage many of the vegetables, but I had too many for practical use and many of them rotted away before I needed them.
Consider the nutrition needed and the kind of soil you have. Blueberries can be hard to grow in some areas of the country owing to their need for very acidic soil, and many root vegetables end up being stunted in thick clay soils. Many seed companies and even the packets usually list soil requirements.
Have fun with it! When you’re just getting started it can be nice to try something that would be interesting even if it’s not really practical. Grow some peas and let the vines grow over a tunnel trellis for a lovely spring tunnel full of flowers. Grow strawberries and enjoy the fresh taste of the few ripe ones you’ll get in the initial year of growth. Gardening requires dedication and a willingness to work even in adverse conditions, so get some enjoyment out of it!
Rambo Moe has written several excellent articles about creating needed compost, and you’ll want to check those out as part of your planning as well. Chemical fertilizers are an option particularly when you’re just starting out, but it is usually better to have a composting system in place so that you’re already setup for sustainable fertilizing in the event of a disaster.
Here are a few tools you may not have thought of:
- Thick gloves. Even if your garden plants don’t have thorns, rest assured many weeds do. I have had to pull weeds covered in the biggest, ugliest thorns that penetrated most of my cheap work gloves painfully easily. Save your hands and buy the proper gloves, you will never regret it.
- Scissors or shears. Some plants can have their fruit harvested by a simple tug or twist, but many will be damaged by such harsh treatment. Shears will get a lot of use in a garden both for killing weeds and pruning plants. Try to get a quality pair with a comfortable grip, since you may be using it for hours at a time come harvest.
- Buckets and baskets. For every hour with a shovel or a hoe I easily spent 3 filling buckets. You will fill buckets with compost for individual holes, you will fill buckets with weeds that get thrown in the compost heap, you will fill buckets will fruits and veggies during harvest…the list goes on and on. Plastic 5 gallon buckets were cheap and worked well for me, but if you prefer the look and feel of wooden baskets feel free to use those as well.
- A spraying wand or nozzle. These guys go on the ends of hoses, and they make it possible to water even delicate plants without drowning them in water. In most cases a light spray will be much more helpful to a plant than a powerful jet of water so buy a nozzle or spraying wand that offers several “softer” settings as well as jets and squirts.
- A rubber mallet. This may vary depending on your soil content, but whenever you’re driving in stakes for a trellis or some other supporting structure you will probably want a mallet on hand to sink it properly into the ground.
- A flamethrower. Sadly, not the same one that would have been used during WWII or Vietnam, but nevertheless it is a contraption that is used to put weeds to the torch. Although you must exercise extreme caution when using one owing to the risk of fire garden-variety flamethrowers are perfectly acceptable tools for eliminating particularly persistent weeds that pulling and hoeing just can’t kill. Just don’t go and light a bunch of dry brush on fire in the middle of summer, alright?
The next chapter will cover some initial steps for getting your garden ready, as well as some tips on initial plantings. Until then, happy gardening!
Getting the Garden Ready for Planting
We discussed getting your plan together before you started your first survival garden. Let’s take a take a look at the first steps to actually preparing your garden for use.
Before a Seed Touches The Soil: Making Everything Perfect for Growth
The time to add major soil amendments and build structures is ideally before there are plants growing all over the place. I would recommend waiting until soil conditions are right for your very first seeds (usually cool weather plants like snap peas, radishes, lettuce greens, carrots, beets etc.) which typically means that the threat of snow is minimal and the soil is no longer frozen solid. Then, mark out the beds with stakes and start digging up the soil. As recommended in part 1, a rototiller can make this process much easier for you, though I have also dug beds by hand with a shovel when necessary. Digging beds properly requires some extra work, but it is worth it to improve plant yields.
Digging Proper Beds
Double digging with a shovel and garden fork will greatly improve the nutritional content of your soil.
Either rototill or dig out your bed to a depth of 12 inches. Using a shovel, remove the soil and place it in a wheelbarrow.
Loosen the soil at the bottom of the bed again with a shovel or rototiller, but do not remove the soil this time.
If you have another bed of the same length, dig out the first 12 inches of the second bed and place the loose soil into the first bed. Otherwise just fill this bed in with the soil from the wheelbarrow.
Assuming you have multiple beds of near equal length, continue steps 1-3 until you come to the last bed, which should be filled in from the soil in the wheelbarrow.
This is called double-digging, and it brings up the vital minerals hidden deep within the soil as well as providing a deep and loose bed for plant roots to thrive in.
Adding Amendments to Improve the Soil
Amendments are basically any material added to improve the quality of the dirt your plants will be growing in. I can’t say specifically what your soil will need because that varies by region and what plants you wish to grow, but almost all beds will need some manner of amending to properly balance them out. Here’s a helpful list of common garden amendments as well as their purpose.
Wood ashes. Reduce acidity, break up heavy clay soils. Not to be placed near young or tender plants, since the lye in wood ashes could potentially kill them. For the same reason, wear gloves if spreading by hand and wash tools that come in contact with ashes. Can also be spread at the edges of beds away from young plants to repel various pests.
Pine needles. Traditionally used “raw” to increase acidity, but recent research suggests that only composted needles offer any real benefits to your garden. Works well to cover bare beds as a mulch until planting has begun.
“Biosolids” or sewage sludge. I strongly recommend against this, as there is a risk of heavy metal contamination or improper composting. Depending on your location your local government may push this hard on local gardeners and offer great prices on their waste, but I personally find the risk too great. If properly composted, used as a general nutrient supplement and for additional organic matter.
The True Black Gold: Some Lovely Composted Manure!
Manure. Depending on the source, this can be great stuff and is strongly recommended. Animal manure from cows is usually purchased pre-composted and is generally alright to use even in the holes where you will plant seeds. Chicken manure or horse manure from local farmers should be properly composted first, as they’re not as suitable for seeds and tender young shoots. All are used to improve nutrition of the soil (chicken manure in particular is prized for its added nitrogen content) and add a great deal of organic matter.
Leaf mold. Not very nutritious, but marvelous for improving soil water retention and provides a great habitat for earthworms and microorganisms.
Bone meal. Essentially ground up animal bones, it is a prized source of phosphorous in soils below a PH of 7.0.
Peat moss. Good for acid-loving plants, and works well for starting seeds when mixed with perilite or sand.
Compost. Solid nutritional content, great organic matter, and easily made from waste in your own garden. Always recommended, and should be part of any garden bed.
I’d recommend placing trellises and other supporting structures before you plant the seeds. If you have access to fallen limbs from trees you can nail them together to form supports and stakes, or if you want perfectly straight and durable materials I have found PVC pipe to be an excellent substitute. The key to building these is to take care that you don’t accidentally shade beds, either with the structure itself or by the greenery that will cover it once everything warms up. If you are really smart about your placement, you can even use trellises to block harsh winds by placing them like a shield around the outer beds.
In the final part, we’ll cover actual planting, as well as basic crop rotation strategies.
We’ve been discussing how to get your garden setup, from planning to preparing the soil. But now at long last we get to the point of actually using all of these plans and all of these preparations to grow some seeds and get some delicious fruits and veggies!
When to Plant, Determining Your Frost Date
It’s always a gamble when you begin that first planting, since a hard frost might kill your seeds and shoots before they ever get big enough to thrive. Thankfully, there are that show the last frost dates of spring, which are pretty good estimations of the safety zone for planting. Obviously you can get a frost after the final date, but it is much less likely if you follow the guidelines.
Planting Your First Seeds
This is it, the moment of truth…and it’s actually pretty simple. Each seed packet will have good instructions for soil depth and how far apart seedlings should be spread. Here are a few additional pointers to help you plant appropriately:
Overplant, but expect to thin the herd a bit. You can’t know which seeds will grow and which are already dead on arrival, so you should definitely plant a few more seeds than you think you will need to do the job. However, if every one of those overplanted seeds were allowed to grow to maturity they would choke each other out and your yields could be drastically reduced. You will need to come back and slowly trim back the number of shoots as they grow until you have a reasonable spacing between the plants you’re going to keep. I’ve heard that many people actually feel bad for their first few plantings when they have to kill otherwise healthy and functional plants, but it is needed for the greater good of the plants that will eventually come out on top.
Don’t fuss too much about having perfectly straight lines, particularly if there is wind. Plants will grow all over the place and no one is going to come by and give you points for having ruler-straight lines of plants in any case. You do want to keep things in their proper positions (you wouldn’t want big tall shadowy plants growing over smaller light lovers after all!) but a few sprouts growing on the edge of the bed won’t cause any harm.
Plant in such a way that they’ll be easy to manage once they’re grown. I once made the mistake of planting all my peas on the side of the trellis that faced away from me and was right next to a wall. For the rest of the season I had to keep stepping on the bed to get at my peas that were now growing the wrong way! Make sure you can comfortably reach in to prune, weed, and pick fruits without straining your arms or back with unneeded stretching.
Don’t plant all your seeds at once, just in case. You never know when that one last frost will kick in and wipe out half of your plants, so try to keep a few seeds back to fill in bare spots. This is doubly true of quick growers like radishes or lettuce which can benefit from multiple plantings over time anyway.
Don’t step on the beds! You want to keep that soil as loose and easy to grow in as possible, so keep your feet out of it unless you really must.
As They Grow
Your seedlings are most vulnerable when they’re still small and the icy breath of winter could still strike and wither them all. If you see that the weatherman forecasts particularly low temperatures (particularly frost advisories) I would recommend covering your seedlings with old sheets or even specialized gardening fabric in order to help them bear the worst of it and hopefully preserve your plants. Beyond that, be very careful about adding new fertilizers and particularly those that are high in nitrogen. Large amounts of nitrogen can “burn” plants, and seedlings and sprouts are particularly vulnerable to this.
One particular problem that I noticed when I was less experienced was a frequent issue with younger plants showing blue “veins” that resulted in either death of the plant or stunted growth. This is typically a symptom of phosphorus deficiency, but it’s not always caused by a lack of that vital element in the soil. As it turns out, cold weather that doesn’t outright kill a plant (usually shown by a black, shriveled appearance to the leaves and stem) can actually make it more difficult for phosphorus to travel and feed the plant even if the soil is phosphorus rich. Aside from growing in a heated environment or applying black gardening plastic to the surrounding soil, the only real preventative for this issue is to plant later in the season when it is warmer.
Fighting The Wind
This time of year usually results in pretty strong winds which can tear at tender plants and cause “wind burn” in plants of any age, resulting in a yellow, sickly look. Although strong, mature veggies can usually weather strong winds and survive, it is still better to protect plants when possible. The best way to fight wind burn is simply to block it, And for younger plants a milk carton or cardboard box buried a little into the soil can serve to protect from a day or two of wind storms. For constant winds you will need to look into a windbreak, though that is usually a much more extensive issue that I can’t really go into here. If you’re curious, this article from Mother Earth News does a decent job of explaining how to plant a natural windbreak.
Enjoying The First Fruits
Depending on what you planted, you might only have a few weeks to wait before the first radishes and lettuce leaves start maturing, ready for your kitchen table. Remember that many early-maturing cold weather plants don’t grow well once summer’s heat kicks in, so replant frequently and store some of these goodies in a root cellar to add to summer salads. Hopefully these early successes will encourage you to continue, and will begin a healthy and practical tradition of a yearly garden that will keep you fed even in the worst of times.