Gardening When It Counts – Part 1, by A.K.

Many of us have had a garden at one time or another given the space to grow one. We’ve had good gardening years with seemingly endless buckets of tomatoes filling all of the kitchen counter- top space not to mention the dilemma of what to do with all of those zucchini! Then there’s been the years when other things took priority. Maybe we didn’t get the soil prepared in time and finally got around to planting whatever seedlings we could find at the garden center in mid-summer. Perhaps we went away on a summer vacation and returned to find the garden engulfed by weeds. And then there’s the question of just why we planted “vegetable X”; it seemed like a good idea at the time and the picture on the seed package was so pretty but it turns out no one in the family actually likes radishes, or bok choi. And what on earth do we do with kohlrabi anyway?

While this sort of situation isn’t a big deal in normal times, in an emergency situation where our survival depends on what we’re able to grow, hunt or forage in addition to whatever food storage we have, our gardens can make the difference between life and death. At the very least having a well-performing garden that produces food that our family will eat and thrive on means that we make it through tough times with adequate calories and nutrients not to mention tasty meals!

As a market grower for 17 years (fruit and vegetables) I think I have a good grasp of which annual vegetables are solid performers, produce well, provide a high level of nutrients and are worthy of the space, time and effort needed to grow them when it really counts. When the lives of our families are dependent on our ability to grow solid producers, this isn’t the time to grow finicky crops, gourmet baby vegetables, esoteric veggies your family has never eaten etc. You get the picture. When your garden production is critical you want to grow food that will feed your family both during the growing season and through proper storage and preservation, year-round.

Short Growing Season

My farm was located on a mountain in Central Vermont so everything I’ll tell you is based on the ability to grow in even a very short growing season. You will need to adapt this to your area if you live in a hot/dry climate but even there most of these crops will grow for you at one time of year or another given adequate irrigation. For the most part I won’t name specific varieties as what grows well is specific to the region you will be growing in. If you’re buying seeds you’ll want to make sure that they will easily produce a crop in your growing season; check the dates til harvest carefully.

Disease resistance is also critical. Find out what diseases are commonly found in your locale. Is late blight is a problem in tomatoes or potatoes in your area? If possible look for varieties that have some level of resistance. Losing the crop to disease when you’re counting on it to feed your family is something you want to avoid, if at all possible. I suggest buying from seed catalogs that are regionally oriented, whenever possible. If you are able to purchase seedlings, local growers are often the best source of ones suited for your area as they are selling seedlings of the same varieties they depend on to grow crops. Big box stores and garden centers which are national don’t always sell varieties best adapted to your locale.

So let’s get started. What crops should you grow when you need to maximize your garden space and efforts to produce the most nutritious food? I’m not going to dwell on all of the “how-to’s” of growing each crop; I’ll assume you can access that information elsewhere. As well, it’s critical to store your harvest properly. Here I want to emphasize the vegetables I think are most worth growing when it really counts.

Start With Potatoes

If you’re going to grow anything at all, start with potatoes. Nutrient and calorie dense, potatoes deserve a prime space in your garden. Be sure to hill them adequately so that greening (which is toxic) doesn’t occur. While you can harvest some thin skinned “new” potatoes, be sure to leave the lion’s share to harvest when the skins are tough and the potatoes have reached full-size. Be careful when harvesting not to pierce them with the digging fork. Separate out any that were damaged during harvesting so that you can use them up promptly before they spoil. Store them carefully in the dark; I use 5 gallon buckets with lids with great success. I’d also suggest that you earmark a portion of the potatoes for planting the following year. Pick nice-looking ones to plant; not the small stunted tubers. Put these in a separate container marked “seed potatoes” so that you don’t inadvertently eat them all up!

If you live in a region where sweet potatoes will easily grow I highly recommend these as well due to their nutritional quality, flavor and storage ability. My caveat is to only grow these if you are solidly located in a region in which they will grow successfully. Having to spend an inordinate amount of time to coddle them and maybe/maybe not successfully harvest a crop isn’t workable for a survival garden. They don’t grow for me in Vermont and won’t do well in similar climates.

Although not commonly grown by home gardeners, dried beans are another nutritious and calorie dense vegetable you can easily grow. You’ve probably got a stash of dried beans but this will allow you to grow some you don’t already have a large quantity of plus replenish your supply. Even in the far north I was able to grow varieties such as black turtle, cannellini and others. You can purchase seeds for them through seed catalogs or just buy the desired varieties at a food coop which offers bulk bins of beans. Be sure to purchase whole beans that look plump and glossy and aren’t split or damaged. Again, check the frost-free dates required to produce a crop. They are quite easy to grow, similar to growing bush green or yellow beans. The difficult part is the processing. When they are quite dry and you’ve harvested them, you’ll need to separate out the beans from the dried pods. Spreading them on a clean tarp and beating them with a kid’s plastic baseball bat works. If you’ve got electricity, using an electric fan to blow away the dried chaff is one way to clean them. If not, wait for a windy day! Storing them fully dry is critical. These do take up a fair amount of space though so if space is tight I wouldn’t advise growing dried beans.


I can’t imagine a garden without tomatoes. Both highly useful fresh during the growing season as well as dried or canned to utilize during the rest of the year, tomatoes will add significant nutrients as well as flavor to your cooking. Concentrate on growing the most productive varieties. Heirlooms have a place but often aren’t as productive and have disease susceptibility issues. Grow full size, plum and cherry/grape tomatoes. Whenever possible choose varieties that display disease resistance.

Hybrids have a role to play here. Open pollinated varieties will allow you to save seed for the next year. You can save the seed of hybrids if that’s the situation you find yourself in; the plants they produce will still be tomatoes but will be different from the named variety you planted. Be careful to pick varieties that will produce in your growing season. Often the large beefsteak varieties are not geared towards northern climates. Much better to have a large crop of smaller tomatoes than few or no larger ones. Harvest green tomatoes prior to your first frost. They can be successfully ripened indoors when stored properly giving you fresh tomatoes for several months after frost.

Winter squash is a very valuable crop and deserves a major space in the garden. It’s critical here that you grow varieties that will fully ripen during your growing season. Unless you have a very large family, I’d avoid the large Hubbard varieties. Butternut, Acorn and Delicata squash varieties are generally easy to grow, store well, are tasty and nutritious. Be sure to carefully clean the skins after harvest. Some utilize a bleach and water solution to clean the skins to reduce rotting. When harvesting be sure to harvest with 2-3 inches of stem still attached to the fruit. Use any that have their stems broken off first as they will not store as long. Follow instructions on how to store them to maximize storage time.

Pumpkins are also an excellent crop to grow. By this I mean the smaller sugar/pie pumpkins and not the large watery Halloween style. They can be baked in a pie, pureed for pumpkin soup, used in a roasted vegetable melange, etc. Pumpkins are really just another variety of winter squash but many people think of them separately.

(To be concluded tomorrow, in Part 2.)


  1. I only grow what I can eat on my very carb restricted diet. I have a small greenhouse for growing crops in the winter, and raised beds for summer veg. I incorporate some edibles into my landscape and I have enough room to triple the size of my garden if necessary. In an emergency it probably would be. In an emergency I could easily add the more common items like potatoes, corn, squash, and tomatoes to use as barter, or just to share with neighbors. I would most definitely have to put a lot more work into it than I do now. For someone who isn’t diabetic your list of crops is excellent.

    1. This is exactly the situation I am in as well. While the article’s information is very good…being diabetic, I can’t eat most of it and stick to diabetic friendly plants.

  2. grow traditional “peasant” food; potatoes, turnips, parsnips, carrots, cabbage. onions, beans, some corn and hull-less oats, squashes, beets, tomatoes, peas. My ancestors had to survive 6 months of winter on wild game, root vegetables, and whatever dried fruits they could store. Forget having any dairy products or eggs.

    1. I love to read these comments about our ancestors. What a tough and determined people they were. I think most in our modern society have never experienced a garden, never mind hunting wild game, and would be dead within three weeks after the grocery stores shut down. Those with the knowledge and stamina to grow “peasant food” will survive.

    1. I have heard of the three sisters. Corn, squash and beans all together.

      I have never heard of tomato/carrot combination. Please elaborate. Do you plant them right on top of or next to each other or…?

      1. You can plant them either way. I don’t like to plant carrots too close to tomatoes. I don’t want to damage the roots of the tomatoes when I pull the carrots. A patch of carrots between tomato plants works well. If I remember the smell of the carrot leaves deters the tomato horn worm from finding your tomato plant.

  3. Interesting title for this article, since it points to a gardening book written with the same title by Steve Solomon. His book is a great one to have in your library, and one of the best written for subsistence gardening. One great resource in the book is his formula for a complete organic fertilizer (COF).

    1. Yes, this is indeed the same title as that book, which I only realized after I had submitted this article! I was looking through my library’s list of kindle e-books the other day and discovered Steve Solomon’s book. I read some of it on my kindle and thought it was so good I had to own a paper copy of it and ordered it. I look forward to reading the whole book. I think it’s well worth owning.

  4. Great information. This is my first year growing potatoes. Thank you for the well needed advice regarding harvesting and storing. With the great information you’ve shared, I think my garden will be bigger next year!

  5. And don’t forget the greens. Critical vitamin source, easy to grow. Kale is edible!!! I use vinagrette on mine.

    Orach and arugula both produced well in the Redoubt for us.

    We are learning the Heirloom cautionary tale: or favorite Deer Tongue lettuce from Baker Creek was a total failure, with absolutely no germination from three separate plantings. Plant at least 2 different varieties of each crop you want.

    We always prefer to plant heirlooms and save a little of the seed, but we don’t ignore a few carefully chosen hybrids either. One favorite long ago was Bush Spirit hybrid pumpkins….from Guerneys. They grew in small spaces, being a bush not a vine, were a good size for family use, lasted long in storage, and tasted great.

    1. I’ve had great success with red amaranth for ‘greens’ this year (not for grain). They’re 2 feet tall now, and have only just begun showing some flowers. They are regularly mistaken for coleus, are so pretty, and prolific, and heat tolerant. The leaves are deep red with green edges, about 4 inches long and 3 inches wide. Washed or not, they will last in the refrigerator for at least a week, not spoiling nor going limp. I chop and freeze them, and later quickly cook them with a little seasoning, then put an egg on top and cover for a few minutes. Great breakfast! The red coloring will transfer to anything you cook it with, and like spinach, volume reduces to nearly nothing (not a strong structure, like kale). The flavor is similar to spinach or chard. I wouldn’t can it, but I am happy to have found it.

  6. This year reminded me of Montana in the 1970’s. I expect a very cold and early winter, not unlike the 1970’s. NW Montana is usually warmer, but I would not be surprised to see -40F this year. I need more wood. I believe that is possible we are going into what NASA characterizes as a Dalton Solar Minimum. My cold weather plants are still thriving, but will need help as it may get colder in coming years. Anything one can do to maintain yields will be helpful. Either plant more for a short season, or grow longer using various means. Here is one example to extend the season:

    Underground green house heated by large tubes buried 8 feet under to capture thermal heat and transfer it to a green house.

    Fans require about 1000 watts, or 8 amps at 120vac. Off grid, it would be easier during the winter to use my wood stove with a water jacket to heat and store water. Solar could be used in the summer.

    1. I heard just a few days ago that the Farmer’s Almanac is predicting cold and wet for the PNW region this winter.

      I tend to agree with you on the Solar Minimum effects. Time will tell.

    2. The Dalton minimum was from 1790 to 1830. The Maunder minimum was from 1645 to 1715. This one doesn’t have a name yet, but yes, we are already in one. is a good place to learn about solar cycles and the impacts of cooler temperatures.

      1. RE: Solar Cycles:

        Yes, this one does not have a name yet, and there is speculation only. If next summer is a repeat, then there is some confirmation. One source reports NASA anticipates this one will be similar to the Dalton Minimum, yet others who are well studied, believe it could be akin to the Maunder Minimum. I believe it is best to prepare for either.

  7. From (limited ) experience, I would agree with Mel Tappan’s statement that you need at least a year’s experience trying to grow food.

    I tried the Three Sisters and went out one morning to find my squash looked as if it had been nuked by a white bio-warfare weapon. Turns out the variety I chose for its long shelf life (Waltham butternut) is very vulnerable to a fungus carried by beans. The Indians used a different variety but I didn’t get that memo.

    Also, my Tuscarora White heirloom corn had weak stalks that were pulled over/wrestled to the ground by the Kentucky pole beans.

    Things that are comical when the supermarkets are open would be less funny in a true survival condition.

    Also, finding adequate fertilizer and dealing with insects/ animal raiders would be a LOT harder if Home Depot was closed.

    Also, it seems to me that the East Coast would be screwed in TEOTWAWKI since we have very few horses — and using a mattock to cultivate seems like a quick route to starvation since you would probably burn up more calories than what you can gain from the harvest. See Donner Party.

  8. I would note that herding domesticated animals (goats, cattle, sheep,etc) might save that backbreaking soil cultivation –although it seems viable only in sparsely populated areas. Lazy Rancher vs Exhausted Hungry Farmer feud goes back to Abel vs Cain.

    I suspect the Indians got more food from herds of deer attracted to weedy, worn out fields cleared by slash and burn than they got from the 3 sisters farming.

    1. There is a book called Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden. I don’t remember the author, but he spent a lot of time with this woman and she taught him how she farmed and stored food when she was younger. It’s a valuable resource for survival gardening.

    1. My parents stored root food in our basement. My dad brought in 6-8 wheelbarrows full of our sandy subsoil and placed it on the concrete floor of the basement in an out of the way corner. It was about 4′ x 10′. We grew some food but that was mostly canned. He would store potatoes in the large burlap sacks we bought them in. A couple hundred pounds of #1 Maine potatoes laying on the sandy soil in a burlap sack. He would store apples in the old fashioned wood slated bushel buckets again just sitting on the dirt. The Carrots were purchased with the tops on them and just laid in rows on the dirt, same with rutabagas and beets. Squashes on newspaper on top of the dirt. It was my job to go get vegetables for meals and to go through them all once a week to pull out those not looking too good. The potatoes lasted until late spring, carrots about as long, Rutabagas and beets until early spring sometimes longer, squash until late spring, Apples until about March or so. They would still be good after that for cooking but too wrinkled, shrunk and hard’ish for eating raw. IMHO burlap sacks are excellent for storing root crops. Those old style (not plastic) were great for fruits and above ground veggies. News paper too just to keep them clean and dry. Not everything wants to be dry but by the same token nothing wants to be ‘wet’ either. I only remember lack of moisture being a problem one time and my dad gently wet the sandy soil not the vegetables and put the vegetables back after one day of allowing the moisture to move away from the surface. One other point; our basement was cold. Winter and summer it was cold 55 degrees maybe and never got warm.

      1. Thanks to you both for your thorough comments. We have the space underneath our front porch as a “root cellar”. 9″ poured concrete walls and insulated with a insulated door. It stays around 52-55 year round.

  9. It’s absolutely necessary to try things out now when not playing for keeps. I’ve gardened for decades and have only recently begun to try the 3 sisters; I’ve learned some not to do the last two years.

  10. Pioneers didn’t have corn for the first few years to feed their livestock. They fed them root crops. It’s something to consider if in a long term, grid down, scenario if a person wants to keep his/her animals fed. There won’t be any running down to the feed store to buy bags of grain.

  11. Dear A.K. – thanks for the encouraging tone as well as the words of wisdom. Really appreciate the context/logic of why you recommended each item; look forward to the next chapter.

  12. Yep, I keep telling my friends that we are in the rehearsal time. No telling when the curtain will go up. Reread the script and practice well for the real thing.

    Carry on

  13. This year was an experimental year. Tried a “Keyhole” garden with 30 different herbs, vegetables and flowers. Planned the layout using companion planting information, used heirloom and organic seeds for everything except the marigolds that were included as a way to discourage bugs. And things looked good for the first few weeks. Then… the grasshoppers arrived and ate everything! Even the tops of the garlic! The only things left are two pea plants that are all of 8” tall, and I planted a few more cabbage seeds a week ago, hoping that maybe they will at least sprout since they are supposed to be a late season crop. Of course, our temperatures are still in the 90’s and 100’s.
    Be careful of what friendly advice you try – somebody said vinegar would keep the grasshoppers away. No… but it killed what few plants were left. I had already tried Diatomaceous Earth sprinkled all over the plants and soil. It didn’t hurt the plants but the grasshoppers didn’t seem to notice it. I was trying to keep the garden organic so did not try any poisons. But the local nursery suggested a bug killer called Cyonara that we sprayed on the lawn all around the garden. That didn’t seem to affect them, either. We are in the Texas Panhandle and, like they say… everything’s bigger in Texas. That seems to be especially true of the insects and arachnids. I even covered the entire garden with insect screen. That helped but was too little, too late, I think.
    I have old hay spread out on a surface garden area and will try the “Ruth Stout No Work Method” for next year. Hopefully, the winter will be severe enough to kill off the grasshoppers or they will move farther East for next year. If that fails, the next step will be a greenhouse on the roof…or hydroponics in the basement.

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