Guest Article: The Real Dirt About Gardening For Survival, by Melisa Mink

I know the “survival” mindset is very popular right now. There’s always a new threat of earthquakes, pandemic, flooding, wild fires, and so on. So, I would like to take a minute to pass on some truthful knowledge to the folks who are not avid gardeners but may find themselves in a disaster or other scenario where it could be a needed skill to survive. You need to be doing it now, to know how to do it later! Should a disaster, such as an earthquake or other event ever occur, your mind, body, and resources will be pushed yet limited to what they are accustomed to dealing with normally. If you do not normally make yourself garden, weed, problem solve for bugs, understand soil needs, et cetera, you will be even less able to cope in a “survival” type situation because of stress and scarce resources. In short, practice makes perfect. You need to practice these skills now, before you regret it.

Let me share with you the attitude of the proud– those who will starve in a survival situation. A few years ago, I attended church with a pretty wealthy family whose kids really liked my garden and decided to put their own together the following year. The parents, being accustomed to having everything they ever needed at the drop of a hat, wouldn’t even help the kids except to till the ground. I asked the Dad what he would do, not having any skills in that area, if a crisis or survival situation actually called for him to provide for his family with his own two hands. To my surprise, he says to me, “How hard can it be to throw some seeds out there?” Well, my first thought (after choking on his prideful attitude) was obviously, “You wouldn’t know.” My vocal answer to him was this, “If you think you can sit on some stock of seeds and just get out there when you’re hungry and think you’re going to have the know-how to deal with issues or overcome the learning curve required to get food on the table, you’re going to go hungry.” It takes years of practice to learn to do anything well, no matter your career, interest, hobby, or sport. Even seasoned farmers and gardeners will tell you it’s a game every year. The skills needed to know how to react and knowing what to do for certain things, like diseases or bugs, need to be gained years before you actually have to do it for provision. Read the book before you take the test. Don’t think seeds will just grow themselves. That is the gardener’s job. As God said, “He put man in the garden to tend and keep it”. And believe me it takes a lot of tending and keeping, even for a small garden. We fill up the kid’s wagon to haul to the garden. It takes a few trips on the day we plant tomatoes. We grow some in every color. This makes it super fun for teaching the kids about an agrarian lifestyle and how important these skills are. They will always remember purple and orange tomatoes. 🙂 ?

The next topic I want to share is size or the amount of land required to produce the proper amount of food needed. You cannot grow two tons of food on a 0.25 acre lot. I’m sorry to bust your bubble; it ain’t going to happen. I’ve tried and tried. To my disappointment, it’s a joke. Make sure that you can grow things on a large enough scale to actually feed your family. Most big producers will not fit into a raised bed. Reserve the beds for small fruits, like strawberries, lettuce, spinach, squash, and some bushy plants, if needing to save space. In a real survival situation, you will need room to grow hearty things like corn, potatoes, beans, peas, and such. Listen to people who have lived through a war or famine. It’s all those type crops that got them through. A few raised beds will not keep you fed, unless you are very diligent about succession planting, have a green house for winter, and can eat greens everyday. There are ways to do it smaller with a green house, but that is going to require a lot of work and energy. So get busy figuring it out now. You cannot do the big producers and hearty things successfully in raised beds and get very much food. ?

You can do some of these things in a large green house in winter. I know an Amish man that rotates his poultry and early spring growing in a huge green house, and that works. However, farming is his full time job. Maybe you should consider getting one if your budget will allow. To feed a family of even just four, most of the year, you are going to need at least 1/3 to 1/2 an acre garden. And you’ll still need to succession plant. Keeping up with a garden is a rewarding way to live, but like the Amish friend told my husband once, “There’s only so much time in a day.” Decide to get proactive now rather than later. The people who can pull a rabbit out of the hat, garden for 50 all year on .25 an acre or less, are full-time gardeners with nothing else going on, with paid help, and that is their full-time job. For most people it isn’t realistic. If doing fruit trees or fruit, you’ll need more space or try edible landscaping. They do not go into that figure of 1/2 acre for a family of four. They are extra and need their own space. I know how frustrating it can be to spend so much time trying to get enough food to make it worth my time, only to end up with a few cobs of corn, a few melons, a few tomatoes, and a few peppers at the end. That was when I did it on .25 acre lot. Now, I don’t even play. My kids and I grow a full acre garden of veggies with no problem every year. I learned to throw out the books, roll up my sleeves, and figure it out myself. Some books are helpful, like seed saving books, but sometimes sweat gives you better results. For more production, try the oldies but goodies; the big producers are those row crops mentioned below. Look at these crops for the most bang for your time and money. *We must have caught someone’s eye, because the helicopters searching for weed, fly over us often. I guess one lady and a bunch a kids growing an acre garden is really something suspicious. Lol…I’ve learned to just ignore it. The kids think it’s cool. 🙁 ?

?We plant around 200-300 tomatoes each year. Everyone joins in, and we haul them and plant them together. I thank God for these times with the children. ? We haul in some of the strangest things. We grow fancy melons, cucumbers, and things that produce well. If it can’t hang with our heat, it’s gone. It must be a good producer, or it’s not worth our time. ?I haul some of the strangest things out of the garden as well! They just grab on, and who can resist a piggy back ride? Go for row crops. Quit wasting your time with things that don’t produce as much. To try it out, till up the whole yard if needed. I did when we lived in the suburbs. Our entire back yard had to be sodded when we moved. It was the only way I could get what I wanted out of the garden, and I still needed more space. Maybe you could invest in a piece of land or rent a place where you can grow row crops that will yield more than what you could ever eat. Beans, peas, melons, and squash/zuccinini, corn, okra, potatoes, sweet potaoes and all the things old timers grew are the best producers. They were doing it well before all these new fangled ways became popular, and they were getting enough food to eat. In other words, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Row crops are your staples and usually your items that give you more nutrients as well. But you must get varieties that are good for your climate and soil. Your local co-op and other farmers around you will be one of the best places to look for those items that will be of real use. What do the locals consistently grow with success? Around here it’s G-90 corn or Silver Queen sweet corn. I tried for years, wasting much time and money on other “better” varieties. Heirloom corn cannot keep up here, and it’s a total waste of our time and money, just to be let down. Finally I gave in and now grow either one of those two, and I have an abundance each year. What a waste to spend your time and money on something unproductive when all you need to do is ask around and give it a try. ? We grow an heirloom variety of purple okra that is found at the local farm supply for a very cheap price. The co-op seeds are also tons cheaper than these fancy seed catalogs. I do grow the fancy stuff. We have a tomato in every color of the rainbow. We have orange water melons and even a white cucumber. It took years of trying to see what would and would not work well in our soil, climate, and garden. The local co-op seeds are usually native to the area and do better than seeds from other places. We also know how to bring in the bacon, by sticking to some row crop staples that don’t go out of style, like purple hull peas and green beans. By growing these in large quantities we feel our time is worth the effort. If you’ve spent lots of money on a heirloom seeds that will not survive your climate or produce little to nothing, you will starve. If it comes from similar climates in another country, it might work as well. One of the best buys I ever made was on winter squash seeds from a Guatemalan Blue Squash. It is the only winter squash that can take our heat and humidity in Mississippi and still be very productive. Even though all the seed catalogs have Watham Butternut as a favorite, ours always bombed. There was nothing but a couple of raggedy little squash for all my time and work. It’s better suited for the north and cannot hang with the southern heat. The squash from Guatemala, however, is an awesome producer here. I am always shocked at how much we get off of one 30ft trellis. Below is a medium-sized one. They get huge and put out loads of squash. It’s worth my time to get that food. I wouldn’t know this if I had not been actively trying to figure out these things before it could be a needed skill. And though I hope the grocery store is always an option, if anything happens we can do it. ? ?

You need to make sure you have enough seeds to do the job. Buying from the co-op makes this affordable. Buying from an expensive seed supplier does not cut it if you need seeds by the pound. is a good one for online bulk purchases of seeds. I always plant more than what I need, and end up glad I did. I garden with kids and critters with two and four legs around me all day. There is no planning for some of the unreal things that happen around here. So whether it is a natural disaster, like a storm or the dogs chasing a rabbit through my beans, I plan for that by planting twice as much as I wanted to get, so I at least get what I needed to get in the first place. In raised beds, row crops, or in seed starting, this has saved our food every year in some way. Also go into it easy and if the soil has never been worked, don’t be ashamed of using a chemical fertilizer just to get started. We did. Then we have weaned ourselves into an organic approach on most things by using our animals’ manure and other composted material. Lime for the soil is all natural and most soils need to be tested to see if you need it. ?Dogs are a great investment. Not only do they keep away would-be thieves, they also keep away varmints that will kill a good crop. Rabbits, coon, deer, or you name it, our dogs are our first line of defense in protecting our food supply. Last but not least, humble yourself before it’s too late. Make friends with the older folks around you, and there is a free flowing well of knowledge right at your finger tips. If you are not actively gardening, take a class or get with someone who is to get you started now! You will need these people as a life line of support as well as learning from them or to trade with in a disaster situation. In bad times, if you are a stranger, they will have nothing to do with you, because you will be a threat to them and their food supply. A friend/pastor to third world countries once told me, morals go out the door when you’re hungry. People who are normally upright and kind will be killing for food. Those who have it will also be doing the same to protect it. Do not think these folks, who bust their butts and sweat for a living, will befriend you then. Try to form relationships with those in your neighborhood or area of survival now. People who do not know you will laugh at you or “worse” in a crisis situation. They have their own families and lives to watch out for. You are a stranger, and if you intend to make it through you should have been doing what they were doing years ago. Community needs to be formed way ahead of a crisis. Building trust is as important as building a storm shelter. Your work ethic and skills should speak for you. Hard working folks will only look at deeds not words. “New comers are not to be trusted”, is an unwritten rule in the country. Most of the time it’s true. We live in a small community off of the interstate, and new comers are usually trafficking drugs up to other states. Everyone keeps a close eye on newcomers here, because they often mean trouble for small towns or very rural areas. In a crisis, you don’t need others being leery of you, when everyone is high strung and motives will be questioned. You probably will also need to depend on animals at some point, and starting now will give you an understanding of there needs such as food, shelter, pests and diseases. So start evaluating what you can do now rather than later for this learning to begin. We began our homesteading in the suburbs 12 years ago. We had chickens and bunnies. Do whatever you can, where you are now. ? Seriously, I make it a point to befriend old folks. Especially old timers that know how to farm, garden, bee keep and just survive. It’s always a treat to have one old timer or another stop by to check in on me and my family and offer garden tips. We chew the fat and carry on about farm stuff and local gossip. My bee man is near ninety years old (he won’t tell me for sure), and he still brings me goodies and offers tips that help me in some way every time he comes by. Thank God my husband isn’t the jealous type, because I’ve got a lot of old timers for miles to help me when I need it. They know I want to learn, and they love that a younger person has time for them and wants their knowledge. There’s a different older man almost daily coming by to check in on my projects and offer wisdom. They love sharing wisdom and our family is loving the learning we get to do and friendships we have made. One near and dear to us passed away a year ago, but right up to his death he taught me things. This man was near ninety as well and went out and wild harvested some Sassafras root for me, so I could have Sassafras tea like he had growing up. I already knew what it was, but I thanked him and came home to make my tea, because he cared enough to take the time to dig it for me. Sassafras was the original base for root beer. It’s slightly spicy and good served warm with honey. It was a major staple crop for colonial Americans to sell to England. ?

The lesson was to be sure to invest your time learning now, because when you need it you’ll have the proper skills. If it’s ever a game changer and you have to do it for survival, you cannot afford to be unskilled, unlearned, and out of shape. I hope you found this helpful. Now, I’m going to pick my okra and sweat for a while. 🙂 *I’ll be teaching a class on Basic Soap Making With or Without Electricity at the National Preppers & Suvivalists Expo in Baton Rouge, March 4-5th 2017! Check it out at Make plans now to attend! This article originally appeared in