An important aspect of becoming self-reliant is to grow at least some of your own food. Today, you can choose to grow your own or pick it up at the market. Tomorrow you may have to depend on what you can produce in your own backyard to feed your family.
Why should every prepper grow a survival garden? Food is absolutely essential to life. Preppers have basic food stores in their homes to provide for their families in times of need. Every prepper should grow a garden because:
- Garden fresh produce provides necessary nutrients that stored foods are missing.
- Fresh fruits, vegetables, and herbs add variety and make stored foods taste better.
- Growing produce will supplement and stretch your stored food supply.
- Gardening provides exercise, sunshine, and can reduce stress.
For this post, we assume that you will be able to stay in your home, and want or need to provide significant quantities of food for yourself and family. Most of the time, this will be the case. It may be that you are unable to financially afford to purchase supplies, or they simply may be unavailable.
Possible scenarios that make a survival garden critical may include;
- Unemployment (loss of job, underemployment)
- Hyperinflation (cost of goods skyrocket out of control)
- Economic Downturn (collapse, recession, depression)
- Crop Failure (flooding, drought, frost, pests)
- Transportation Crisis (trucker strike, fuel costs, regulation)
- Long Term Grid Down (electromagnetic pulse, solar flare, cyber attack)
- Supply Shortage (war, increased demand, embargo)
Let’s talk about the best strategies for growing a reliable survival garden that will make sure that your family gets fed when times are tough.
Challenges to Consider When Growing a Survival Garden
A survival garden is different than a hobby garden. It is not about growing your favorite vegetables for fun. It is about producing everything that you need to keep your family healthy and well-fed in a time of scarcity.
A survival garden is deadly serious business that involves challenges and obstacles that must be addressed.
- Failure is not an option. When your survival depends on your success in the garden, you can’t risk it on untried theories or inexperience.
- Limited Time – Just because life is collapsing around you doesn’t mean that you will suddenly have all of the time that you need to spend babysitting your plants. You need a method that provides the maximum return with the least amount of input.
- Limited Water – It is possible that you may not have irrigation or city water to keep your plants hydrated. Plan low water growing methods.
- Limited Resources – There may not be gasoline available to power a rototiller or you may not have fertilizers or pesticides. You may not be able to purchase valuable tools. Plan in advance to have what you need or develop techniques to produce food naturally.
- Growing Season – You need to eat every day of the year, yet depending where you live, you may only be able to realistically produce a crop for a few months. You will need to learn how to extend the growing season and preserve the harvest.
- Protection – Your garden bounty may be at risk from others who are also having difficulties or critters who want to devour your work. Be prepared to share, but also be prepared to protect or disguise your goods.
Let’s talk about each of these challenges and what you can do to ensure that these issues do not keep you from producing an abundance of produce to feed your family and share with others.
Failure Is Not an Option
Any experienced gardener will tell you stories about crop failures and what they learned. You cannot afford to fail. This is not the time to learn or to pull out those gardening books and “give it a go”. You need to have built up your soil, given fruit trees and bushes time to mature and have perfected your gardening and food production skills.
Plant only the crops that have been proven to grow well in your yard. Now is not the time to experiment. Stick with tried-and-true vegetables.
Growing food is only the first half of the challenge. When do you pick it? What can you do with it? How do you cook it? How do you preserve it to feed you through the winter months? We wrote a fun post on creative ideas for inexpensive a root cellars that may be helpful to you.
A survival garden needs to provide the maximum output for the least amount of input. When life gets tough it usually translates into having less discretionary time. Good design will help your food system produce well with minimal human input.
We have written a fascinating post on how we raise our chickens in a food forest which provides us with an abundance of eggs and a low-maintenance orchard. It is all about the design. Check out How to Create a Survival Food Forest in Your Backyard.
It is possible that you may not have running water for your survival garden. Carefully plan to raise your crops with a limited water supply. Investigate possible options such as; clay ollas (Growoya Vessels), terracotta plant watering stakes, self-watering raised beds, or reusing household gray water.
Capture rainwater in barrels to water your tender plants, or better yet, create a series of swales that will water your trees, bushes and perhaps your garden beds with runoff and keep the precious water on your property.
Build the soil around fruit trees and bushes by deep mulching. Add a new layer of wood chips every year or two. The organic matter will help to regulate moisture and will significantly reduce the amount of water that you need to keep your plants happy.
Our large production garden is where we grow larger quantities of produce such as corn, winter squash, melons, beets, carrots, canning tomatoes, and chicken fodder. A few years ago we converted to a no-till method which is fantastic. The deep mulch pathway swales significantly reduce the amount of water the garden needs.
Establish your survival garden and the infrastructure now while you have the resources to do so. My “kitchen garden” is a series of raised beds that I do not have to till and that are designed to take advantage of verticle space to significantly increase production. Each fall, I add a fresh layer of compost. The soil gets better and better every year.
These raised beds produce a huge amount of food in a small amount of space and are perfect for a survival garden. I also have a traditional garden where I raise large crops like canning tomatoes, corn, winter squash, potatoes and other produce that takes up a lot of room. Any vegetables or herbs that I routinely use for dinner are in my “kitchen garden” that is right out my back door.
The eating season lasts all year long, unfortunately, the growing season most often does not. How can you produce food to harvest throughout the growing season and beyond?
I plant crops intentionally with the goal of being able to harvest throughout the entire growing season. For instance; asparagus, parsley, and last fall’s kale, spinach, and Swiss chard are ready to eat within a few weeks of the snow melting.
Honeyberries ripen in the late spring just before the strawberries begin to produce, then the black raspberries are ready to pick. We have planted varieties of fruit trees that will produce throughout the growing season so we have fresh produce every day.
I needed a windbreak and privacy hedge on the edge of our property. I decided to plant 10 semi-dwarf apple trees close together to create a beautiful edible hedge that serves the purpose quite nicely. The first apple ripens in early August and they ripen consecutively throughout the growing season with the last tree ripening in November after snow falls. It is a Black Arkansas and is a great storage apple. We have delicious, fresh apples throughout much of our growing season, and beyond.
How can you be creative and extend your growing season using a greenhouse, high or low row tunnels, or cold frames? I start my seedlings early by using a technique called winter sown. Learn more about winter sowing at our post, Winter Sowing Experiment.
This year I experimented with starting our tomatoes by seed and covering them with 5-gallon water- cooler bottles with the bottoms cut out. It was a great experiment. The peppers did not germinate (still investigating why), but the tomatoes did fairly well. It was a great way to add several weeks to our growing season.
A survival garden is an asset of great value. Plan ahead to protect it.
Protection from Trespassers
When you create a backyard food forest it comes with a natural form of protection. The fruits, nuts, and vegetables ripen at different times. If someone comes into my yard today, they will only be attracted to what is ripe and ready to eat. Next week I will have new produce to harvest.
We have fenced our property and have strategically planted thorny bushes on the perimeter to deter trespassers. I recognize that this is not at all foolproof, but it clearly signals they are not welcome.
We always produce more food than we can eat. Part of our plan includes sharing with those in need. Jon is generous, but also believes that people should work for what they get, whenever possible. He will loan them a pair of gloves and let them work to earn their food. I am more apt to just invite them to join us for dinner.
Protection from Critters
A skunk is a dangerous critter to have around chickens. Squirrels, gophers, and moles are not only a nuisance but can destroy crops and plants. Plan for ways to control the population and rid them from your property.
Protection from Insects
We discovered how dangerous insects can be when our garden was destroyed by a crazy invasion of grasshoppers. No one in our little town could successfully grow a garden that year.
Plan to control insects with whatever methods you are comfortable. I chose an organic approach because it is sustainable. I plant flowers and herbs that attract predatory insects. We have had guinea hens that do a great job of controlling the insects. However, guineas are noisy and not neighbor friendly.
Companion gardening is a great way to protect your plants from destructive insects as well as to improve the yield. I like this post on companion planting from The Green Thumb Gardener.
Chickens do a fantastic job of controlling insects in our fenced orchard. They are highly destructive in a garden. We also planted a variety of perennial insectary plants such as catmint, mint, and yarrow to control aphids, and use garlic around the base of our peach trees to deter peach bores.
Companion planting can definitely benefit a survival garden. Learn more about which plants help each other out and design your garden with that in mind.
Protection from Elements (Sun, Wind, Rain, Frost)
Mother Nature can destroy a garden within minutes. Pay close attention to the threats that the elements pose to your garden.
Sun Protection – Gardens in the Phoenix area can quickly wither under the intense summer sun and unrelenting heat. You may need to purchase shade covers to protect the plants or design your garden to take advantage of trees or a naturally shady area of the yard.
Wind Breaks – Strategically design windbreaks to protect your garden from strong winds. My raised bed garden is on the south side of our home. I planted a hedge of gogi berries on the south side to protect it from the wind. The hedge only grows 6 or 7 feet tall so it does not shade the garden.
Water Management – Flooding can be devastating to a growing garden. Carefully plan for adequate drainage to protect the garden. Designing swales to channel and hold excess water is a brilliant strategy.
Frost Protection – In our area, the big threat is early or late frosts which can result in the loss of tender plants or kill developing fruit. I prepare for this challenge by purchasing fruit trees that bloom a little later in the spring. I use frost covers to protect my vegetables from late spring or early fall frosts.
Benefits of Foundational Perennial Plants
The foundation of a reliable survival garden is perennial plants. Perennials are plants that grow back every year and do not need to be replanted. They just emerge every spring full of life and ready to produce food without any input from you.
Perennials, especially trees and shrubs, have extensive root systems that enable them to be more drought tolerant and can produce fruit even under harsh conditions once they are established. Trees take advantage of vertical space and can produce large amounts of fruit with a smaller footprint than a traditional vegetable garden.
Ideal perennial plants to include in your survival garden;
Nut trees tend to take up more space and may need to double as a shade tree in your landscape. A single mature nut tree can provide an entire family with a good amount of protein and fat in a form that is easy to store. You may want to consider planting a walnut, almond, pecan, hazelnut or a chestnut tree today. Nut trees take many years to establish.
Fruit trees are a great option because they produce a significant amount of produce in a small space. Select specific varieties that are proven to grow well in your area. Apple, pear, plum, apricot, peach, cherry, and fig may be good options to consider. These fruits can easily be dried to preserve the fruit. If you can only choose one, plant an apple tree. Apples are versatile, highly nutritious, and produce dependable crops.
Berry bushes and vines can be strategically landscaped into your yard. They are uniquely beautiful. Consider training grapes or hardy kiwi over an arbor with clematis for a spectacular display of edible fruit. Elderberries, honey berries, jostaberries, cranberries, currants, gooseberries, blueberries, bush cherries, and goji berries make beautiful shrubs. Blackberries and raspberries create nice borders along fences. Strawberries make a lovely edible groundcover.
Perennial vegetables can be grown as specimen plants. Jerusalem artichokes are a beautiful tall plant that is covered with bright yellow sunflowers. Also known as sun chokes, they produce a large amount of edible tubers in a small space. Rhubarb, Egyptian walking onions, and asparagus are incredibly easy to grow.
Perennial herbs are a great way to bring flavor and nutrients to basic food storage. They also have medicinal value. Chives, sage, thyme, mint, catnip, oregano, lemon balm, French sorrel, fennel, tarragon, rosemary, and horseradish are examples of perennial herbs.
Vegetables and herbs that readily reseed such as; spinach, lettuce, borage, cilantro, mustard greens, radishes, collards, corn salad, onions, and dill are the next best thing to perennials. If you let any of these plants go to seed they will self-sow and you will have a perpetual bed that pops up in the early spring and again in the fall. Spinach is a nutritional powerhouse that can be a great asset to a survival garden.
My friend, The Green Thumb Gardener, wrote a fantastic post on everything you need to know about growing spinach including ideas to use it.
Kale, spinach, and Swiss chard that is planted in the fall can be left in the ground and will come back to life in the early spring. It will produce quickly due to the established root system. The one negative aspect to this is that they will go to seed by early summer. However, by then you should be ready to harvest your spring planting. These are great cut-and-come-again plants that will produce an abundance of good produce.
These photos are from early spring in our garden. It is amazing all of the bounty that is available even between random snow storms.
What Type of Survival Garden Do You Need to Grow?
The perfect survival garden is one that is tailored to meet the needs of your family. What you choose to grow may be different than your neighbor depending on your individual needs and preferences. If no one likes Swiss chard, don’t grow it. Grow the foods that your family will eat and enjoy. Berries are always a hit with everyone at our home.
Design your garden to meet your unique needs, and to supplement the foods that you have stored. The garden that you plant should take into account your family food stores. Do you have a large stash of calorie dense staples such as wheat, rice, beans and oats that you are just supplementing? Or is your survival garden your only food source?
Calorie Intensive Garden
A calorie intensive garden is specifically designed to be rich in calorie dense vegetables. Calories are critical for energy and bodily functions. This garden is designed meet basic nutritional requirements including protein, fat, vitamins, minerals, and calories with little or no supplementation.
Choose Crops Wisely
Best picks for a calorie dense garden include: potatoes, avocadoes (if the climate is right), nuts, dried beans, green beans, sweet potatoes, sunflower seeds, peas, corn, carrots, and beets. Grow as many other fruits and vegetables as possible but make sure that you grow a significant amount of high calorie produce. A garden bed of lettuce will not provide anywhere near the calories that a bed of potatoes will.
Winter Storage – Food Preservation
It is also important to grow crops that will store well through the winter. Winter squash, beets, turnips, carrots, onions, parsnips, sweet potatoes, peanuts, potatoes, and apples are good example of crops that will store fresh for months. Include grain crops that can be dried and stored such as corn, peas, amaranth, and dry beans. Most vegetables can be dehydrated and stored.
It would be a good idea to continue growing cold hardy crops throughout the winter months in low tunnels. These tunnels cover the crops and protect them from the extreme winter temperatures. Crops that will grow well in low tunnels include; beets, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, lettuce, kale, kohlrabi, onions, peas, Swiss chard, scallions, and spinach.
Fresh eggs provide calories, protein, and fats that can make a huge difference when you are living solely off of what you can produce on your own land. Chickens are great foragers but can be highly destructive to a garden. They will gladly consume any garden waste, but I grow some food specifically for our chickens. Swiss chard, kale, fodder beets, and beet greens are great options for chicken fodder.
Learn more about raising chickens in a survival food forest visit this post.
Supplemental Nutrient Garden
This garden is designed to supplement long term food storage (wheat, rice, beans, oats, pasta, potato flakes, etc.) with fresh ingredients that will provide missing vitamins such as Vitamin A and Vitamin C. The stored staples provide the majority of the required calories. This garden is designed to add flavor, nutrition, and variety to a basic diet.
This is the survival garden that we grow. My survival garden always includes cherry tomatoes because they ripen sooner than regular tomatoes. They are fantastic for munching on in the garden, produce abundantly, and are a great source of Vitamin C.
I am a fan of the wonderful variety of berries we have in our yard along with the delicious fruits that grow on our trees throughout the growing season. Nothing makes a boring bowl of oatmeal come alive like some fresh peaches or berries. Fresh garlic, onions, and peppers transform dry beans into an incredible meal.
Jon’s favorite is Swiss chard because it is a great cut-and-come-again green that produces more than our family can ever eat in a small 4-foot by 4-foot raised bed. Carrots and beets are critically important in our plan. We store them in mulched garden rows underground and eat them throughout the winter.
The more quality food that you can produce, the less dependent you will be on your stored staples and the longer they will last. To learn what you should store in your long-term food storage, visit our post, Long-Term Food Storage: Creative Solutions to Build a Critical Asset
Best annual crops to supplement nutrition missing in basic staples include crops that are high in Vitamin C and Vitamin A. Leafy greens, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, onions, squash, root crops (carrots, beets, turnips, parsnips) and herbs to spice up the basics.
Emotional Boost Garden
This garden is for the prepper that has a year supply of everyday food storage, along with an extensive supply of long term basic staples and freeze-dried meals. The produce grown in this garden is to provide fresh produce to increase nutrition and provide emotional satisfaction.
Best picks for this garden are leafy greens, herbs, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, onions, berries, fruits and family favorites.
Clod Hopper’s Survival Garden
Our friend Clod designed his survival garden around vegetables that are easy to grow and that store well. Candidates for his garden had to provide the most calories and nutrition for the least amount of effort. They must be easy to save seeds from and require minimal water. The final requirements are that they should be disease and pest free without chemicals.
Clod’s final list of vegetables for his survival garden include:
- Butternut Squash
- Golden Yukon Potatoes
- Orange Carrots
- Tomatoes – Sweet 100 and Sun Sugar cherry tomatoes for eating as well as canning tomatoes
- Detroit Red Beets
- Swiss Chard
- Kale – Blue Curled and Red Winter
- Bush Beans
- Sugar Snap Peas
- Yellow Crook Neck and Zucchini squash
In addition to these annual vegetables, Clod has fruit trees, berries, grapes, and perennial herbs interspersed in their landscape. Learn more about Clod’s survival garden choices in this post.
Kenneth’s Survival Garden Recommendations
Our friend Kenneth is a master gardener and specializes in survival-type gardening. These are his personal recommendations for a survival garden.
Survival Garden With Little or No Storage Supplementation
- Green beans – vitamins and bulk
- Dry beans – protein and bulk (like black or pinto beans)
- Squash or zucchini – vitamins and bulk
- Tomatoes – vitamins and flavor (although they are golf ball size I recommend Stupice tomatoes because the fruit almost a month faster than any other tomato)
- Peppers – vitamins and flavor
- Potatoes – starch and bulk
- Swiss chard – vitamins, as long as this is cut right it will thrive for years
- Leaf lettuce like Romaine – vitamins and in its season it can be cut multiple times
- Radishes – vitamins and this is a fast germinator, good for getting vitamins in a hurry
- Carrots – vitamins and flavor
- Kale – highest amount of vitamins & nutrients, grows for years under right conditions
- Berries – flavor
- Garlic – flavor, vitamins, and medicinal
- Onions – flavor and vitamins
Kenneth does not recommend growing these in a survival garden:
- Corn – too little return for the real estate it takes up
- Grains like wheat, rice, barley, oats, etc. – too little return for the real estate it takes up
If a family has calorie dense food storage staples and is planting the survival garden for supplementation, he adds these items to the above list.
- Fruits trees
- Broccoli & cauliflower
- Additional berries
Design Your Survival Garden Today
As you can see, there is not a consensus when it comes to survival garden crop choices. It is as individual as the family who is growing it.
We have given you some good ideas and opinions of some experienced garden preppers. Now it is your turn to design the perfect survival garden. Every prepper needs to grow a garden.
Consider your unique circumstances including space, time and resources and come up with a realistic plan to turn your backyard and perhaps your front yard into a beautiful survival food forest.
Be creative and make good use of edges. Line your fence line with appropriately sized fruit and/or nut trees and berry bushes. Plant a nut tree for shade. Build a few grow boxes and faithfully grow something in them each year to build the soil, and your skill level. Learn how to use your garden bounty.
If you can only grow a tomato plant in a pot on your porch, do it! Grow some herbs in your kitchen window. Focus on the possibilities and overcome obstacles. You can do this!
Thanks for being part of the solution!Jonathan and Kylene Jones