In Part 1 of this series, I discussed the preparation of a survival garden where grass used to be, amending the existing soil with compost, and the creation of rows or raised beds. In Part 2, I discussed the construction of an eight foot tall fence and gate with the intent of keeping out varmints. Specifically, and perhaps strangely to some readers, no mention has been made yet as to WHAT should be planted in the garden or how much and why. This is because many who are not familiar with subsistence gardening may be surprised at the true facts of growing adequate calories for consumption.
Most typical vegetable gardeners, or those families that benefit from the labors of a vegetable gardener, immediately think of salads– nice, fresh lettuce in various flavors and textures; ripe, juicy tomatoes; crisp cucumbers; celery; and some may also think of fresh peas and green beans, too. It all sounds wonderful. In fact, nobody appreciates a nice fresh salad with all the trimmings fresh from my garden more than me. The main course frequently is an afterthought for me, but there is an unfortunate and unpleasant fact that must be addressed if ALL there is to eat is salad vegetables– YOU WILL EVENTUALLY STARVE. It is simply not possible to consistently get enough calories from salads alone.
Most experts agree that an average person needs at least 2,000 calories per day. This may not be optimal, and if you are doing heavy labor, this would certainly be much less than optimal. Let’s assume it is a starting point. So in order to ingest that many calories, you need calorie-dense foods. If there are no animal meats or fats, this leaves only a few vegetable groups that qualify. Such higher calorie choices should be high-yielding, relatively nutritious, able to be stored for the future, and self-propagating with seeds or other reliable methods of starting anew. In my opinion this leaves the following staples: dried beans, grains or corn, potatoes, and hard squashes. Those familiar with the prepper/survival mindset will immediately recognize the “three sisters” of the Native American lore– corn, beans, and squash. Potatoes are added since they are also high calorie starches that are relatively easy to plant and store well.
Now of course, no one would recommend that ONLY these vegetables be grown. All other vegetables should also be grown, in as many varieties as you can find space for, with proper planning to can and preserve as much as possible, but again, for survival purposes, you should grow these four to get enough calories in your system.
If you assume the following facts:
- One pound of beans = ~2000 calories, one 50 foot row produces 5 pounds of dried beans.
- One pound of corn = ~ 1800 calories, one 50 foot row produces 10 pounds of dried corn.
- One pound of hard squash = ~ 250 calories, one 50 foot row of produces 175 pounds of squash
- One Pound of potatoes = ~450 calories, one 50 foot row produces 75 pounds of potatoes
Divided out equally as your only diet, for an entire year, you would need the following for one person:
- Beans – 5 fifty foot rows
- Corn – 3 fifty foot rows
- Squash – 8 fifty foot rows
- Potatoes – 3 fifty foot rows
Assuming one fifty foot row is 3 feet wide with a 2 foot aisle, that comes to in total in excess of 4,000 square feet of garden (that’s a 63’ by 63’ plot) needed for growing the caloric needs of just ONE person. Start multiplying accordingly by the number of members in your family or group and you start to see the magnitude of what is needed for a true survival-type garden. It is quite possible that you may need one-half to two-thirds of an ACRE to feed yourselves. Also, to reiterate, this is based on providing a minimal diet of 2,000 calories per day, which is not a whole lot of reserve for exertion or stress, and this estimate does not allow at all for crop failure or rotation needs, so you really should plan for a larger garden.
While it may seem overwhelming, believe it or not, all of this was just to help point out your true gardening needs. If you plan to rely on a garden for sustenance, because many may not see the need of a large garden due to the erroneous notion of “It’s only the four of us”. Also, yes, we all have dealt with the overeager gardener who planted too many broccoli (or squash) plants, and then annoyed everyone by trying to give the excess away, but YOU will be planting vegetables that are able to be stored for the winter months, so there are no worries about annoying anybody with your “excess.” Once you are aware of what you need, NOW you can start planning correctly and getting it done. Believe it or not, the difference between constructing a small garden right vs. a larger one is only a matter of scale. You will need the same equipment, just run them a little longer. You will get the same seeds, just plant a few more. You will build the same type of fence, just a little larger. You will still need to water and weed, just a little longer. You may still be able to do it alone, or you can get everyone to pitch in and help. As the Nike ad goes: Just Do It.
Here are some specifics about the staples:
Corn is easily grown in most areas of the country. While everyone starts salivating at the thought of nice, fresh, sweet corn on the cob dripping in butter (and feel free to grow some of this sweet corn as well), the corn from the above example is called field, dent or flint corn. It is intended to be dried on the stalk and then harvested as dry kernels to be made into meal or flour. Get open-pollinated (OP) varieties, listed as heirloom or OP in the catalogs. As corn is pollinated by the wind through the corn silks, corn needs to be tightly spaced in the same area (i.e. no leaving empty or differently planted rows between your corn rows.) The whole kernel of field corn can be stored dry, unrefrigerated, in buckets, if you prefer, with oxygen absorbers, et cetera. It should be ground fresh as needed for flours and corn meal, as it will quickly spoil once ground.
You are not limited to corn as your only grain. If you want to try your hand at growing wheat, buckwheat, quinoa, amaranth, `or oats as replacement or additional grains, go for it. I have not tried these personally, but I have read several accounts, even on SurvivalBlog, on how best to do it. Many say they just use an available field without cultivation, but I’ve never seen it done.
Potatoes are rather easy to grow. You need to start with seed potatoes, which are normal potatoes that have grown “eyes” and have been cut into small pieces with at least one eye (two is better) in each piece. Let the cut pieces dry for a day or two, and then put them all in a trench in your garden row about 12 inches apart for each piece. Cover with dirt or compost and wait for the leaves to appear. Once the plant seems to be growing well above ground, you need to “hill” the potatoes vines by pushing dirt on top of the plant until only the top leaves are exposed. Keep doing this every few weeks until the vines start to die. Then dig up the potatoes! Store in a cool place, and they will keep for months. Five pounds of seed potatoes can plant one 50 foot row, which produces up to 75 pounds of potatoes.
Beans are ridiculously easy to grow. Just plant a dry bean one inch deep, water it, and wait for the plant to grow. There are many, many types of beans. Some are intended to be eaten green only, while others are to only be eaten dry and still others can be eaten both ways. There are beans that grow on bushes (hence their reference as bush beans) and vining beans that will climb poles (hence the name “pole beans”). I prefer the bush beans because there is less maintenance. For green beans, pick them when they are ripe and plump, then cook and eat them and can or freeze the extra. For dry beans, wait for the beans to dry in the pod on the plant. The pod will be crispy dry, and the beans may rattle. I pull up the whole bush, put it in a bag, and then beat and smash the bag until all the beans are separated from the pods. I then shake the contents of the whole bag slowly in front of a box fan with a large pan on the ground. The beans drop whole into the pan, while the chaff and sticks blow away into the yard. Beans may be stored dry in a bag or bucket. I usually freeze each batch for two days to kill any possible bugs that might be hiding inside before sealing in a bucket with oxygen absorbers.
Squash is another easy “set it and forget it” plant. Good types that I like are Waltham Butternut, Acorn squash, and Patty Pan squash. You want winter squash, not summer squash, like crookneck yellow squash and zucchini. You don’t plant winter squash in the winter; you harvest it when it’s ripe and then STORE them in the winter, as they grow very hard shells. They are very easy to bake in an oven, or you can peel off the rind and boil the flesh. Just plant the seeds in a hill, thin out to the best two or three plants and then wait for the squash to start growing. You can accelerate production by artificially pollinating the flowers with a small paintbrush or tooth brush for larger yields. They tend to spread out so if space is at a premium consider training them up trellises to save on ground space. Once ripe, harvest, and store carefully in a cool place.
I hope I have helped some people dispel some notions of just waiting for the balloon to go up before they start preparing for growing their own food. Also, I hope a it has become quite clear that a little postage stamp yard is not going to cut it. You will need some serious real estate to grow enough food for your family, and you should consider the higher calorie foods, like corn, beans, squash, and potatoes. While this post may make growing the staples sound easy, gardening is a skill like any other that takes practice and repetition. You must allow for the mistakes that will happen so they don’t occur when you can’t afford them. Start your garden NOW, while there is still time to get the needed materials, practice the skills, and make mistakes, and you may accidentally find yourself enjoying a fulfilling activity that is healthy and practical, and find your blood pressure and weight dropping. Also, you get to eat the best, healthiest, pesticide-free, GMO-free, tastiest vegetables and fruits you ever tasted, while food availability gets more and more precarious by the day.