Survival Gardening: The Most Vital Prep – Part 1, by T.J. Dixon

Many of us would regard someone with one year of freeze-dried food as a good example of someone who is prepared. They are ready to ride out the storm when a major Without Rule of Law (WROL) scenario comes along. The issue then becomes, what happens after that first year? Even if they escape mob violence because they have effective self-defense supplies and have trained both at the gun club and in tactical scenarios, they will be out of food in one short year. While they have may all the medical supplies to handle small and large emergencies throughout that year, they will still be hungry. Once the local area is hunted out, there is only one possible solution – grow your own. Without the ability to produce all the food your family or team needs, you are only delaying the inevitable – a slow starvation. You will spend the year eating all your preps knowing that there is nothing else coming after that. For that reason, gardening – Survival Gardening to be specific – is be your most vital prep; it’s not as flashy as great tactical gear or buckets full of food, but it has the wonderful property of being sustainable unlike anything you have to buy in the store.

This article is aimed at the non-gardener, or previously failed gardener, who may have never successfully planted a single seed. I am going to outline a getting started guide, not a comprehensive list of everything you can do, but the essentials to get started without much time or money invested. It is designed to take you from zero gardening experience to sustainable Survival Gardener in easy, small steps. You do not need anything besides a shovel and some seeds, although better equipment will make the job faster and easier.

Many people have purchased “Survival Seeds” and stored that small can away in a cool dark place. Once WROL hits, they imagine taking them out, putting them in the ground and watching the magic of nature as it blooms into a garden of abundance and they are able to sustain themselves. As a master gardener and someone who has gardened seriously for decades, I can assure you that the above scenario is a likely as a novice gun owner taking out their unused AR-15 and successfully winning a battle against a squad of Navy SEALs. It will absolutely not happen. What will happen is a series of mistakes, natural predators, disease and failure after failure as hope slowly dies out.

If you have never gardened, you will not be successful. There is no possible way you can understand when to plant, what to do to amend the soil or even what that means; You will not know how to space and fertilize, when to harvest and how to deal with all the hundreds of problems that arise in even a small garden; things such as disease, blight, drought, critters and other unexpected situations will spell disaster for your family and team. Survival Gardening is not a skill you can pick up when you have one shot to get it right. You have the luxury of time right now, so use that while you can.

If you intend to survive for a long time in WROL, then you need to start gardening now. Not a simple patch with a few tomato plants and some green beans, but a scaled-down version of a Survival Garden. It is as important as going to the range and stockpiling food and clean water. It is a skill that is as hard as any other in life and can only be learned through the experience of failure and the lessons it provides. Survival Gardening is not a hobby or something for relaxation – it is literally honing a vital skill and expanding your preps.

Know Your Zone

The first thing to learn is your zone. The United States Department of Agriculture has broken the country down into what they call Hardiness Zones. These are calculated by understanding the differences in seasons in places like Texas, versus those in Montana. Each zone has a schedule of when to plant to best ensure successful harvests. If you know your zone, you can begin to plan backward from that date when it is generally safe to plant outdoors, and know when to start seeds indoors. It will help you get a jump on the seasons. Knowing your zone is the key to planning and all the information is free on the USDA website. If you plant a crop that loves hot weather in the early spring or late fall, it will die. If you plant a crop that does best in cool temperatures in the middle of summer, it will grow, but not produce crops. It will simply be too hot for the plant to set fruit. Lettuce will bolt, peas will refuse to flower. You cannot work in opposition to Mother Nature, only in harmony.

Space and Compost

The second thing is to understand what you have available for growing space. Look for places when you will get 8 hours or more of direct sunlight. Mark out an area and put up fencing to help deter deer, raccoons, bunnies, and all the other critters who think you are planting for their benefit. It won’t keep them out completely, but it will cut down on your losses. Then, amend your soil; that is a fancy word for improving it with organic materials. The number one thing you need is healthy bioactive soil. That takes organic material. This can be well-composted manure, or compost that you can make on your own land.

Almost all soil that is currently covered in grass and nothing more than a lawn will need some amending to turn it into highly productive soil. Growing grass year after year depletes certain nutrients and doesn’t really add anything back into the soil. One simple test is called the “worm count”; dig two or three shovel of soil and look carefully for worms. If you see several, you have a good live biosoil. If you’re like most people, however, you’ll struggle to see even one. That doesn’t mean your soil is dead, but it has mostly been farmed of organic material by worms and small bugs and they have moved on to more fruitful places. You need to recharge that soil and bring them back.

Basic composting is easy, simply combine green things (leaves, grass, weeds, etc) with brown things (paper, leaves, newspaper, sawdust) and let it turn into compost over a few months. The more organic material you supply, the better it will be for your crops. Organic material also holds moisture much longer than other elements of your soil, so it can help in periods of low moisture. A motto for gardening – Feed the soil, feed the plant. Don’t worry about granular fertilizer if you’ve got plenty of organic material. There is nothing you can do to help improve your chances of success more than amending your soil.

You must learn to scale your composting to the size of your Survival Garden. Looks for sources of material throughout the year. You can collect lawn clippings in the growing season, pull weeds, add shredded paper and cardboard, then collect all the leaves in the fall. If you put your piles close to the growing space, you can add old plant remnants easily, and have quick access to the finished compost when planting.

What Veggies To Grow

Once you know when to plant and have a place to grow them, you can turn to the key elements of survival: what to grow that will take the least amount of space and produce the most calories and nutrients. I’m going to give you two lists, one is for spring and fall, and the other is for summer. Remember, you are building a scale model of a Survival Garden, so we’re tossing out the low producers and working on calories and a balance of protein and carbohydrates.

Spring and Fall:
1) Beets – an amazingly fast growing crop full of nutrients You can even leave them in the ground over the winter to harvest as you need them.
2) Peas – a fantastic source of protein, plus they put nitrogen back into the soil which helps your other crops.
3) Kale – a Super Food that will grow in as little as 30 days and while low in calories, is rich in nutrients and will supplement your diet well.
4) Potatoes – the classic food grown for calories and storage. Full of protein and carbohydrates and it will store for months and perhaps up to a year.
1) Corn – not sweet corn, but rather corn that you can dry and turn into corn meal. It will store all year long if dried properly and is calorie dense and filling. I recommend Painted Mountain (look it up). It produces in Zone 5 (Western PA) two crops a year. Once starting in April and the other at the end of July. It will fully mature and dry after only 75 days and is cold tolerant, drought resistant and pretty disease prone. This should be a staple.
2) Beans – not the traditional green beans you might imagine, but shell beans that will store all winter long. Full of protein and fiber. Beans are a good companion with corn, since they also put nitrogen back into the soil and corn craves nitrogen. If you plant pole beans, you can put them right next to the corn and allow the stalks to serve as the poles for the beans.
3) Zucchini – fast growing and prolific. You can eat it as a vegetable and even make it into a bread.
4) Green Beans – there is a place for these in your survival garden, they are very prolific, and you can pick the beans and the plant will keep producing all summer long.

That is it– if you grow those 8 crops, you can begin to understand what a survival garden will look like. Many of these crops also has the added value of producing seeds in the same year as you plant. In Survival Gardening, you will harvest seeds and only use those for the next year’s crops. There will be no box stores in WROL world. You have only what you have on hand and are able replace when it’s used.

Survival Gardening relies on a technique that will triple your available land at no cost. Many people put in a summer garden and by fall have lost interest or most things have stopped growing. They’ve gotten their tomatoes, peppers, beans and other common summer crops and move on. In your Survival Garden, there will be a nine month usage. That can be a bit shortened in extreme northern climates, but using common and cheap materials you can extend the seasons. I plan three separate gardens in the same place: my early spring, my summer and my fall. By knowing what to plan, and how to stagger the three, I can get a triple output out of the same space my neighbor gets one. In a real survival situation, this is critical. It is also nothing you can do for the first time and hope to be even moderately successful. It will require multiple years of experience and honing to really understand your seasons and weather and what works for you.

People in the south have shorter springs and falls and longer summers, but the intense heat can make growing slow. People in the north have longer springs and falls and shorter summers, but the threat of early and late frosts makes planting three cycles hard. You must learn you cycles. It can only be done by doing it in your garden. Again, this is a skill. You can research and watch videos but in the end “hands in the dirt” is the only way to get the knowledge and skills you need for your situation.

This does not have to be hard. Start with a 10’x10′ area and remove any sod or weeds. Make four rows and plant one type of crop in each row. Pick the crops based on if you are in spring, summer or fall. At first, you will be surprised how long everything takes. Gardening is all about patience; staring at the seed trays will not make things sprout faster. You will also notice that not every seed sprouts; not every transplant lives and thrives; not every plant produces a significant harvest. Those that do make it all the way through, however, will bring an amazing sense of satisfaction. Take careful notes – this will allow you to learn from your failures. Your Survival Garden notebook will be invaluable if the Internet disappears.

(To be continued tomorrow, in Part 2.)