This story was originally featured on Outdoor Life.
It takes a lot more than a pack of seeds and a shovel to enhance your food security with a backyard survival garden. You need a solid, practical plan. Maybe you’ve never planted a single seed before, or maybe you’ve been working in the family garden since you were old enough to walk. Either way, there’s work you should be doing right now, even if the ground is frozen. You can start planning ahead.
Remember gardening history as you plan ahead
Many Americans planted “victory gardens” during World Wars I and II, with the goal of increasing the nation’s food supply. In 1943, for example, there were more than 20 million war gardens in the US. The need and interest were there, and the citizenry responded. This patriotic planting produced an estimated 8 million tons of food, which was nearly half of the food consumed that year in the nation.
Jumping forward to last year, Americans responded to a crisis once again by rolling up their sleeves and getting dirt under their fingernails. For those who were paying attention to the self-reliance boom that took place at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, you may have noticed that a lot of stores ran out of basic gardening supplies and seeds. This spring, supply chains are in much better shape than those at the end of winter and early spring of 2020, but it’s wise to remember those empty shelves. Buy the things you need when they are available. Late winter is a great time to buy seeds and garden supplies. You can get them before the spring rush hits and you’ll have the best selection. If you want to grow the ultimate garden this spring, you don’t want to wait until the resources are “picked over” in late spring.
Scout the best survival garden location
Abundant sunlight and good soil are two of the biggest factors in a successful garden, and these are features that you can begin scouting for even in the winter. If you can get a soil map of your area (these are usually available at your local agricultural extension office), you can get some great insight into the type of soil you already have. You can also get a soil test to determine your soil type and which nutrients are lacking. And even when the leaves are down from deciduous trees and the winter sun is lower in the sky, you can still get an idea about sunny locations. It’s a major rookie mistake to build your garden where a tree or some structure will cast a shadow across it. You’ll want at least 10 hours of uninterrupted sunlight shining down on your garden, though more daylight is better.
Talk to local gardeners
The older gardeners in your area have more than just leathery skin from all that sun exposure. They have wisdom and experience you can’t afford to ignore. Even folks who have been gardening for only a few years will likely have their favorite varieties of vegetables (ones that they have found to grow well in your area). They’ll also have plenty of experience fighting the local insect pests, critters, and plant ailments. These folks are true treasures, so find out which of your neighbors are garden growers and ask them as many questions as polite society allows. You may find out how to avoid a lot of trouble, and you may even meet a kindred spirit.
Plant your garden for calories
Vitamins and minerals are a very necessary part of our diet, in good situations and during hard times; but you can’t live on vitamins and minerals alone. You’ll need all three macronutrients (protein, fat, and carbs). You’ll also need enough calories to sustain you and enough volume to fill your belly. It may not always be possible to gain all these things from plant foods, but it’s always smart to start growing higher calorie crops as soon as it’s warm enough to plant them. Two of the highest calorie crops you can grow (in the right soil and weather) are peanuts and sunflower seeds. These both take about four months to grow to maturity. An 8-ounce cup of shelled sunflower seeds will provide roughly 800 calories and the peanuts will provide a whopping 1,200 calories per cup. Other calorie-dense crops include soybeans (775 calories per cup), chickpeas and beans (600 calories per cup), sweet potatoes (180 calories per cup) and white potatoes (140 calories per cup). As a final thought on calories, make sure you plant enough. Just a few of each plant won’t serve the needs of one person, let alone a group. You’ll need a lot, and probably more than you’d imagine (to make up for losses).
Prepare for trouble
There are so many things that can go wrong in the garden. Bugs can wipe out your crops, just when they are starting to become productive. This makes insect control a major necessity in gardening. You’ll also want to have a strategy for watering the vegetables in the event of drought. You will also need to be familiar with the local animals that will eat the food before you get a chance to consume it. Your first growing season in a place will teach you a lot, but you don’t always have to learn things the hard way. In addition to talking with local experienced gardeners, you can also check with your local Master Gardeners club. Also hit up your county agricultural extension office. There’s a lot to learn in the garden, but it’s always best to minimize your losses.
Draw up your survival garden layout
When you’ve selected your site and the plants you want to grow, it’s time to add details to your plan (namely, where each plant will go). Grab a piece of paper and a pencil (with a good eraser). Start sketching your map by considering the four directions. In the Northern Hemisphere, the sun will be southerly in the summer. This means that your tallest items should be in the north end of the garden, so they won’t cast shade on shorter plants. Your rows or beds can run east-west or north-south, it’s up to you. Just avoid cramming too many plants into the space available. Each vegetable plant should have enough room to reach its potential. Without ample room, the plant will compete with its neighbors for the necessary moisture, light, and nutrients. I’m a big fan of Mel Bartholomew’s book, Square Foot Gardening. This guidebook will deliver solid results come harvest season.
Manage your expectations
It’s important to manage expectations about survival gardening. You can’t just toss some seeds around at your bug-out location and expect beautiful crops to be ready at the exact time you need them. You need to be prepared for failure. Some of your seeds won’t germinate. Some of your seedlings won’t survive transplant. Some of your rows of vegetables will be devoured by bugs and deer. Don’t expect every seed and plant to make it to harvest time. Some of the best advice I’ve ever heard from the “old timers” is to plant three of something if you want one. That’s one plant for the bugs, groundhogs and deer to destroy, even though I’m trying hard to control them. The trinity number gives me another one to be lost to plant diseases and other mishaps (like the hail storms and wind damage). The third plant, with any luck, will produce for the dinner table.
Pick the right plants for the season
So many of our favorite vegetables come from warm climates and tropical origins. Most garden centers do account for the local growing zone and last frost dates, but they don’t always limit their sale of cold-sensitive plants. Do your homework and determine the date of “last frost” for your area (and maybe pad it out by a week or two). Both your latitude and elevation will influence frosts and freezes. Focus on cold-tolerant plants until you’re past the last frost. Just to be clear—unless you’re living in Florida, you should resist the urge to buy tomato plants in early March. Instead, you can sow seeds for many root crops, greens, and even a few legumes in early spring. Plant seeds or seedlings of cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, lettuce, spinach, chard, and arugula. You can also sow seeds for root crops like radishes, carrots, and turnips. Even early peas and snow peas can go into the garden in early spring. Add some flavor in your survival garden by planting early spring onion sets and hardy herbs (such as rosemary and thyme). These can all tolerate hard frosts and light freezes.
It’s been said that patience is a virtue. This is true, but I’d even go one step further when it comes to growing food. I’d say patience is a necessity. In our instant-gratification society, we want fast results. But gardening didn’t start in a fast-paced world. It began in ancient times and growing food has always happened at a slow pace. You’ll need to be patient and manage your expectations. No one can plant seeds today and harvest crops tomorrow. At best, the seeds we plant will feed us in a month or two (though more commonly, they feed us next season). This survival garden hack is a rare exception to the rule.
Learn about wild, edible weeds
The idiom “waste not, want not” is easily applied to gardening and forging. This proverb first appears in writing in 1772, but the concept is timeless. By taking advantage of any wild edible plants that we find growing in our survival gardens, we avoid waste and add to our gain. It should go without saying that just because a weed appears in a vegetable garden, it doesn’t mean that the weed is food. Plenty of toxic and even deadly plants can grow as weeds in rich, prepared dirt. But there are also many beneficial plants that volunteer on their own. Get a good field guide and make a positive identification of these plants. Then collect all the dandelion, chickweed, lamb’s quarters, and amaranth that your garden provides. Peterson’s Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants is my top recommendation for gardeners who want to become foragers.