Survival Gardening: A Cautionary Tale, by Cindy M.

I am writing this to encourage you to do with gardening and food preparation what we are encouraged to do with all of our prepping, practice, practice practice, your life depends on knowing that your plan will work!  I don’t know if this will even qualify as a survival article but if nothing else maybe it will help some, like me, who need that little kick in the pants to start practicing our survival plans.  Maybe some of our mistakes, outlined in this article, will help you avoid them and experience a more successful first year of gardening than we experienced. 

My husband and I have spent the past three years researching information on seeds and gardening and we agreed that this would be my area to plan and oversee with his help.  We understood that our choice of seeds and the success of our gardening could mean the difference between surviving or not.  We chose heirloom seeds so we could save seeds for future gardens.   We considered our options for placement, we have a very big challenge, we have limited space for a garden due to our location.  We opted for raised beds, this is to help maximize space and yield. 

Last year we purchased our seeds as part of our Christmas, which was centered on preparation and survival equipment.  In February, I began my first year of survival gardening.  I had planned what to plant and knew what needed to be started indoors before spring.  I put the grow lights in the basement fixtures where we were setting up our little green house and meticulously spent a day planting my seeds with a lot of optimism and prayer.  It was very exciting to see the little seedlings start to grow and gave me a real sense of accomplishment.  In the spring I moved them up to our sun porch, to start hardening them off.  We got our raised beds built.  We then prepped the ground we were placing them on, tilling and removing grass etc.  We then filled our raised beds and I made my map of where everything was to be planted based on my assessment of the sun, the space and trying companion planting to help control pests.  The raised beds were also awesome for controlling weeds, grass etc and helped with watering and prevented wasting water.  We used lumber from pallets that we were able to get for free.  The down side is that they will have to be replaced, something we are working on with a more permanent solution,  it is that or stock up on pallets for replacement down the road.

As the days warmed we began planting and moving our plants outdoors.  We also chose to utilize Square Foot gardening in our beds, to maximize space.  We used string to mark off the beds in square foot planting grids.  This worked well for us and we will continue to use this method.  I knew early on that my tomato’s were not doing as well as I hoped.  I gave it several weeks and decided to replace them, so I went to a local nursery and bought replacement non hybrid variety’s and replanted.  Not an option TEOTWAWKI.  We also had several other failures from our attempt to start our seedlings indoors.  In fact almost everything we started inside failed and had to be replaced or we simply did not grow this year.  I know what some of my mistakes were and will try again this year making adjustments.  The size and type of containers as well as waiting to long to move them up to the sun porch was part of the problem as well as the soil mixture we chose.  So this year I will practice once again and hope that I have learned enough on this front to be on the road to  success. 

We had mixed results with the seeds planted directly into the soil, our beans, squash, peas and cucumber did well but were planted too late.  Our yield was very low.  I also lost my squash’s and cucumbers to a pest that rotted the main stem.  We tried using diatomaceous earth for pest control with limited success, you have to reapply every time it rains and it can also kill the critters you want in you garden.  Next lesson learned, Sevin Dust  is going into our survival supplies, at least until I master organic gardening.  A little Seven on the garden is more desirable than a loss of life sustaining food.  The next problem I encountered was my layout failed.  I planted in such a way that my tomato’s overshadowed my peppers and we did not get enough sun and they grew like vines and never yielded anything.  They could not get enough sun.  I learned this year what parts of my garden layout worked to best utilize the sun exposure and where it failed.  I also did not allow enough room and need to plant more beans.  The weather was also a challenge, we live in the Midwest and our summers can be very dry and hot.  Our tomato’s grew and grew but were not setting fruit or did not ripen until the weather moderated closer to fall.  Earlier planting would have yielded us an early crop to enhance the later crop close to fall, having to replant cost us valuable time in the early season.  We had some great salads using our large variety of lettuces and I learned how to pick the lettuce and a variety of greens to keep them producing.   I was able to can about 19 pints of tomatoes, 9 pints of pickles from the cucumbers before the pests got them and 16 pints of green tomato salsa.  I also gathered a pint of mixed dried beans, navy, kidney, wrens egg and black eyed peas, I will also use some of these for replanting along with seeds left over to see if gathering these worked and if they will propagate, the rest will go into a pot of bean soup this winter.  It was rewarding to put up what little we got out of our garden and deepened my determination to do better next year. 

I learned what I need to plant more of and less of.  For example, I would rather have beans on the shelf than to try and creatively use more radishes than we could eat.  Some of the foods we grow can be canned, frozen, dried or stored in a root cellar but some need to be used fresh from the garden.  I also need to work on spacing my plantings over weeks to extend the yield as well as planting fall crops to extend the the growing season. 

Overall our first attempt at survival gardening was a huge failure, I am so thankful that we were not depending on it this year in a survival situation.  I am also thankful that I dug in and applied my plan and put in the work to learn these lessons and hope that this next year will yield success built on those lessons.  I have learned that the life sustaining skill of gardening needs to be practiced and  lessons learned while we can still feed our families without depending on the food we can grow. I planned very carefully and believed I had it all worked out,  I am so glad I had the opportunity to put my plan into practice before it becomes critical to my families survival and to learn that, I had a lot to learn. 

There were also many things we were prompted to think about and to work out in advance.  We will be working on how to best turn our little sun porch into a green house so that we do not have to rely on grow lights.  Grow lights are a  fine alternative now but may not be feasible TEOTWAWKI.  We are also going to build some cold frames to cover our new seedlings and to give us an opportunity to plant earlier.  These will provide some protection from the chilly spring nights and help hold in the warmth from the day as well as protection from insects until the plants are stronger.  This was something else we learned that we really needed, to help prolong our growing season and give our seedlings a better start.  In working the garden this year we were also motivated to think about water when TEOTWAWKI  hits.   So, we worked out a way that we can have water on hand near our garden during the times we need to water.  We  bought large food grade barrels to place under the down spouts on our garage to collect rainwater with a spigot attached near the bottom.   This enables us to attach a hose so we can water when we need to supplement mother nature.  Our garage is detached from our home and the garden is right next to it, so this works out well.  This won’t help during a prolonged drought but most of the time, in our area,  it will provide a really good supplement to mother nature under normal weather patterns.  So much of what we are doing, such as gardening, in prep for whatever may come, is not rocket science but there can be many details that need our attention, before our lives depend on it, things we won’t think of until we are using our preparations.  Practicing helps us to find what we have missed.  In some cases we will be able to adjust as we go but things like watering a garden could be the difference between security and success and a devastating failure. 

I don’t want to discourage anyone by sharing this.  In spite of my failures, I felt empowered by my effort and the knowledge that I am building and learning skills that could make a difference when faced with TEOTWAWKI.  I learned the importance of not only practicing my gardening but also the need to practice with many other aspects of our survival plan and preparations.   I urge everyone who has not practiced their gardening to start next spring and not wait until your family is dependent on that part of your preparedness plan.  By drawing out and putting my garden plan to paper I have also made it easier to evaluate and rework my plan, now that I put it to practice and learned what worked and what did not.  I hope you have a better outcome with your first efforts.  The important thing is to begin the effort now, before your life depends on it! All the plans, preparation and supplies in the world will not help us if we do not learn to use them, learn what works and learn what does not work.  The bottom, bottom line is that I am thankful for the opportunity to practice my garden at a time that the hungry eyes of my kids and grand kids were not looking at me for success.  Hopefully when that time comes I will have learned all my lessons and will have a very successful survival garden.  In the meantime, we need to practice as though our lives depend on it.