What happens when our food preparations run out? This question has kept me awake more nights than I care to remember. Whatever your scenario– economic collapse, electromagnetic pulse (EMP), pandemic, a nuclear attack, or another devastating TEOTWAWKI situation– there will be a point when food becomes scarce. Learning to grow and preserve our own food will become necessary at some point, and the time to learn these essential skills is now.
I literally “woke up” one day, after months of digging deeper into the alternative media in an attempt to explain why I had this feeling that something was incredibly wrong. I became convinced that we are long past due for an economic collapse that will far surpass what occurred during the Great Depression. We were living in Hawaii at this time, and I knew that any disruption to shipping services would result in massive food shortages (and chaos) in a very short amount of time. I knew it was time to relocate.
I dragged my family to American Redoubt just under four years ago. The spring we arrived in our new home in Idaho I immediately began to teach myself everything possible about growing food in our new environment. To say there was a learning curve is an understatement. Like most Americans, I had never grown any of my own food. As I look back, I realize just how vulnerable my family and I were, being completely dependent upon a rapidly disintegrating system.
The biggest challenge to growing in this region, just like many other northern locations, is the short growing season. My current location is a located in a USDA hardiness zone 6b. Hardiness Zones in the majority of the American Redoubt range from around Zone 7a (the warmest, longest growing season) to 3a (the coldest, shortest growing season).
Season-extending solutions, like raised beds, plastic-covered grow tunnels, and materials (black plastic tarps and clear greenhouse plastic) placed directly on the soil to warm it sooner, can be used to lengthen the amount of time you can grow during relatively cold seasons. There are also seeds, many of which originated in Russia, Canada, Alaska, or other extreme northern climates, that are specifically bred for short growing seasons. I always look for these varieties, because I figure if they will grow in the aforementioned harsh climates then they should thrive in my climate.
One of the most important things about growing food in a short-season environment is food preservation. This will be absolutely necessary for food independence in a long-term survival scenario. I am currently using a homemade solar food dehydrator with Mylar bags and oxygen absorbers to preserve our excess produce. Of course, old-fashioned canning techniques are also a great way to preserve enough food for the region’s long, cold winters.
Where to Begin
Organic and heirloom varieties will produce seeds that you can preserve for future crops, unlike some of the bio-engineered hybrids. Also, the crops I have chosen can be grown and harvested in an off-grid situation. Although I would love to grow fields of wheat, I assume that we will not have access to a tractor in any number of scenarios.
I love potatoes. They grow like weeds with very little maintenance. I have had the most success with Russet, although Yukon Gold and the red Sangria have also done well. Of course, storage of this great food source is key, but if saved properly you will have well-acclimated seed potato for the following season’s crop. I also know I can grow potatoes during all seasons except the winter. This is an essential food source in a TEOTWAWKI situation that will store well and provide much-needed calories.
In many parts of the American Redoubt, if you start them early enough in the spring, you should be able to grow two crops of potatoes by the time the ground freezes in late fall. You will know when you can start the first crop by using a soil thermometer. The soil temperature should be no less than 50 degrees F. You can pick smaller potatoes throughout the season by feeling under the plant. You will know the plant is mature once it starts to brown and die off. Leave the potatoes for a few weeks after the plants die off to get the skins thicker for storage in a root cellar or basement.
Yes, it is possible. Growing sweet potatoes in a plant hardiness zone 5 or 6 is not easy, but this nutrient-dense food source is worth the hassle. The key to success is warm soil and protecting them from frost. I have grown them in black collapsible grow buckets in an unheated greenhouse in the summer, as well as unheated plastic-covered tunnels placed over raised beds. They are very cold sensitive, so I tend to plant them the first week of June. They love compost, so pile it on. I have had success with shorter-season varieties, like Beauregard and Georgia Jet.
More Zucchini and Squash, Please
It must be something in the soil, but the zucchini and squash grow faster here than any other vegetable. They also mature very early in the season. We pick many pounds of zucchini and yellow squash each week from just three plants. Acorn and Butternut squash also grow well here, although these plants tend to take longer to mature. The zucchini and yellow squash dehydrate very easily, even in my homemade solar dehydrator. Butternut squash, if properly cured, will last months in a root cellar or basement.
Tomatoes and Cucumbers
I have tried over twenty varieties of tomatoes in order to discover the best cold-tolerant varieties for my growing region. I have had great luck with the Black Prince, a cold-weather Russian variety. I like Glacier, also a smallish variety that can be started very early in the season. For the bigger tomatoes, I like the Oregon Spring and Manitoba, for their short-season growing and dependability. I also intertwine cucumbers with my tomatoes, because they also thrive when growing up a simple A-frame trellis.
This year I have also added tomatoes that dehydrate well. These include Mountain Magic and the Matthew Tomato varieties. Tomatoes will grow here from late spring (unprotected) until early fall, so there is quite a long period of time that tomatoes can be grown without a well-heated (and energy-sucking) greenhouse.
Watermelons and Cantaloupe
These are not usually high on the survivor crop list, but if you have the space to grow watermelons and cantaloupe they might be an unusual barter item or a great way for your family to fight food fatigue. The Blacktail Mountain Watermelon was developed in this region and thrives even in our colder night temperatures. The smaller Sugar Baby Watermelon matures in 80 days, so they are not too much of a problem, if you start the plants in spring and transplant them in the early summer. The Minnesota Midget Melon is a cantaloupe that matures very quickly, but once again this melon will do better if you start it in a heated greenhouse mid-spring and then transplant in early summer.
This year we are also growing amaranth and quinoa, to see how they perform as grains in our climate. Quinoa can be cooked or ground into flour, so it has big implications for food independence. The catch is that this crop can take up to 120 days to mature, but since it can be planted when the soil reaches 50 degrees Fahrenheit, this can be grown throughout a large portion of the American Redoubt. Amaranth is a brightly colored plant that produces seeds that are high in protein and nutrients that can be cooked like rice or popped like popcorn. This plant shouldn’t be planted until the soil temperature is at least 65 degrees, most likely late spring. Don’t expect these plants to be ready to harvest until fall, since they take at least 100 days to mature.
I have had mixed success growing corn in this region, especially sweet corn. The catch with corn is that each plant only provides a very limited amount of food. Depending on how much area you have to grow, you might not find corn to be worth the space it will need to provide high enough yields. I have had more challenges with diseases and pests in corn than any of the other crops I mention. That said, this can be an important source of food in a SHTF scenario, so working out the bugs (literally) now will help in your efforts toward long-term food preparedness.
How prepared could we be without the “B” for beans? My experiments with black, pinto, red kidney, and garbanzo beans have all met with relative success. The black and pinto beans are by far the most productive in my climate and soil conditions. These plants grow quickly and produce surprisingly high yields. The red kidney beans produce but not in the volume of the black and pinto beans. The garbanzo only produce minimally and are probably not worth the effort when you can get far more beans from the other varieties.
These beans preserve for about a year in a jar with a tight lid, if they are kept out of the light.
Strawberries grow very well in our plant hardiness zone. For a continuous supply, we have everbearing varieties, which produce an early season and late season crop, and a mid-season variety. Blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries are very productive in our area and are perfect preservation food when made into jam.
Apples, Peaches, and Pears
What long-term survival plan would be complete without some fruit trees? The variety of tree will be very dependent on your climate zone, so it is best to seek out a reputable nursery in your area. We have chosen dwarf varieties, because they provide fruit sooner and are smaller and thus easier to harvest. If you do decide to plant trees, it is best to do so immediately, given that these trees take years to produce fruit. (Our dwarf McIntosh apple tree we planted three years ago is just now producing apples.)
Cold-weather vegetables are perhaps the easiest to grow throughout much of the American Redoubt. You should be able to grow many varieties of these crops throughout a large part of the year, especially if you employ season-extending techniques when it gets colder. These vegetables benefit tremendously with the raised boxes, row covers over the actual crops, and hoops attached to the boxes covered by thick (6 mil) greenhouse plastic film. This should keep the soil temperature raised much higher than outside the tunnel, prevent the soil from freezing, and protect from frost damage for a large part of the fall and some of the winter.
Since most people in the American Redoubt can easily grow cold-weather crops, many varieties of these plants should prove successful. I have tried many types of swiss chard, spinach, lettuce, kale, beets, sugar snap peas, and carrots and have not noticed a significant difference as to their growth patterns given that they thrive in cooler weather. The only exception I will mention is the Vitamin-C and extremely cold-tolerant Miner’s Lettuce. This strange-looking, but fast-growing plant will help prevent scurvy at a time when good nutrition may be hard to attain.
The following are what I call my survivalist-specific plants. These plants, if you can keep them alive in a SHTF scenario, can give you an advantage over others.
There is a specific type of sunflower that when pressed (with our manual press, just in case we are off grid) produces sunflower oil for cooking and barter. The Oilseed Sunflower can be planted after your last frost date, which in our area is late spring. These plants grow well and require almost no attention except for proper weed control and some sort of support when the plant heads get too big. When mature, collect the seeds, dry, and then process them through an oil extractor. Cooking oil is a high-demand item in places that are experiencing shortages from deteriorating economic conditions, like Venezuela and Argentina.
The Moringa tree will not survive the winters in most of the American Redoubt. That is why I have my plants in pots that I place outside in the late summer/spring and move inside in the fall. This is one of those plants that you have to really want, because it does require some attention. Why do I keep these high-maintenance trees? Moringa trees offer some great advantages. The seeds of the tree can be used as part of your off-grid water filtration process. The leaves can be eaten and have extremely high levels of protein, vitamins A and C, potassium, and calcium. The pods can be cooked as well.
The Trinidad Scorpion pepper is one of the hottest in the world. Why would we need this in a SHTF scenario? I am growing it now as a deterrent to combat my garden’s unrelenting pests. Growing without pesticides does mean using nature to battle nature. I have a problem with pocket gophers and moles, and I have found a mix of dish soap and powdered cayenne pepper sprayed around their holes to be an effective way to control these greedy little guys. Unfortunately, I don’t think cayenne pepper is strong enough, so I am experimenting with the Trinidad pepper as a much more powerful deterrent against both the smaller and larger (deer) pests.
In a truly long-term survival scenario, it is highly unlikely that we will have access to quality medical care. While it may be possible to forage for medicinal plants, why not grow them? After extensive research on medicinal plants in my area, I was somewhat surprised once I realized that I could grow many of the natural medicine we would need.
Many of these plants are native, or can adapted to many of the plant hardiness zones throughout the Redoubt. Of course you will have to learn how to make the teas, poultices, compresses, tinctures, salves, et cetera, but there are many excellent books that can provide the basics one would need. Some of the more common plants that have medicinal properties are garlic, dandelion, lavender, and chamomile.
The climate in many parts of the American Redoubt can also support the growth of other medicinal plants including comfrey, mullein, nettle, plantain, valerian, peppermint, chickweed, yarrow, and elderberry.
When There Are No Fertilizers Or Pesticides
There is a good chance, in a SHTF scenario, that fertilizers and pesticides will be unavailable. That means we will be growing our food au naturel. This is why adopting natural and organic farming practices is essential.
I learned early in my mini-farming experience why the key tenant of organic agriculture is maintaining the health of the soil. I like to think of the soil as one huge energy outlet. The plants plug their roots into the soil and suck out the nutrients to produce crops. But in order to keep getting healthy, highly productive food, the soil needs to be replenished. Otherwise, each year your plants will be less and less productive.
Crop rotation is simply rotating crops to different areas in your garden or farm. This is done for many reasons, but it primarily helps dissuade plant diseases and pests from growing accustomed to one area.
You can help to get all of those healthy nutrients back into the soil by planting cover crops. These specific crops are planted after you remove your plants from the garden at the end of the season. Cover crops replace those nutrients back into the soil while also helping to prevent the erosion that would occur when your fields would otherwise remain empty over the winter. In most parts of the American Redoubt, these crops will die off in the winter, leaving you with a lush layer of dead plant matter in the spring.
Importance of Compost
Compost is another important element required to maintain soil health. This decomposed matter boosts the nutrients and beneficial microbes in your soil, even further enhancing your output.
Putting It All Together
There is no better time to learn how to grow at least some food. If you plan on growing your own food in a SHTF scenario, please get enough non-hybrid, non-GMO seeds now. There is a very good chance that they will be unavailable in a crisis. Pay attention to the expiration dates on the packets, but realize that if stored in a cool, dry location those seeds will last much longer than their expiration suggests. Just remember that the longer from expiration date, the less seeds will germinate, so you will need more seeds to grow fewer plants.
You may want to start slowly, because taking on too much too soon can quickly become overwhelming. The feeling of making an entire meal from your own garden is both empowering and humbling, knowing that we are all capable but few choose to grow their own food. As a survivalist, you will sleep better knowing that you have this essential skill that could save your family in times of future turmoil.