There has been a lot of talk at one time or another about using gardening as part of a long-term survival strategy. I’ve even talked about it a bit myself. But I have to say, I think a lot of that talk is a bit unrealistic. When people talk about a four foot square garden providing all their nutritional needs, I start getting skeptical.
I have a garden; it’s 15 by 30 feet and contains four large raised beds, totaling over 200 square feet. That’s 14 times larger than a garden that’s a four foot square. Yet even with all that, I’m not able to produce enough food to feed even one member of my family, let alone provide for all our needs.
Granted, I’m not the world’s greatest gardener and I’m living in a part of the country where gardening is difficult. So my garden might not be fully representative of what one can get from a survival garden. Nevertheless, I think it’s somewhat indicative, simply because most of us aren’t expert gardeners and don’t have an ideal climate for growing food.
The other thing that makes me skeptical of those who claim that their mini-garden will feed them is the real-life stories of people who do feed themselves from a backyard garden. I’m sure you’ve seen some of those; people who cram as many planning beds as they can into their backyard and harvest hundreds of pounds of produce a year. Those people have what I would call a real survival garden; one that’s big enough to provide their needs.
So, where’s the disconnect between these real-life stories and the claims that people make about their survival gardens? I honestly don’t know. What I do know is that it exists; both from my personal experience and from what I see in the lives of others who are living off their gardens.
From everything I can see, it’s going to take a massive garden to produce enough for any of us to live off of when the brown stuff hits the rotary air movement device. So if all we’re preparing for is a four foot square garden, we’re setting ourselves up to starve to death. Personally, I don’t see that as a good option. I’m not a prepper so that I can starve, but so that I can avoid starving.
How Much Food do You Need?
To start with, we’ve got to look at how much food we need, in order to live off of it. I’m not sure where I heard it, but the figure I heard was that the average adult eats about a ton of food a year. Whether or not that’s true, let’s go ahead and use it as a starting point.
So the question is, how much food is a ton of food? Let’s narrow that down a bit more; how much produce do you need to grow, to produce a ton of food?
- About 6 or 7 carrots equals a pound
- Three medium sized russet potatoes or eight to 10 new white potatoes equals one pound
- About 3 bell peppers equals a pound
- You only get two cucumbers in a pound
- Three cups of green beans equals a pound, that’s about 35 to 40 green beans
- There are three to four medium tomatoes in a pound
- You can get four to five onions in a pound
- But the good news is that squashes tend to weigh on the high side, with some weighing as much as five pounds
- Cantaloupe weigh an average of three pounds
- Watermelons are the clear winner, with an average weight of 20 pounds, yielding about 14 pounds of fruit
Looking at that, we could say that a ton of produce would be the equivalent of 650 carrots, 300 medium sized potatoes, 300 bell peppers, 2 cucumbers, 3700 green beans, 350 tomatoes, 450 onions, 50 assorted squashes, 33 cantaloupe and 7 watermelons.
There’s only one problem with that; there aren’t enough calories in all that produce to give you the energy that you need to survive. Other than root vegetables (potatoes, carrots, etc.) most vegetables are known for being low calorie. That’s why people on a diet eat a lot of salads. Even an average potato only has about 160 calories. So, while that ton of food might seem like a lot, it’s really not enough, especially when you consider the huge amount of energy that’s going to be expended in growing all that food.
The highest calorie foods are sugars and starches. In our normal diets, a lot of our starches come from grains, either in breads and pastries, pasta, or rice. Yet growing grains is beyond the realm of most home gardens, so we’re going to have to count on potatoes and other root vegetables for starch and fruits for sugar.
How Big a Garden Will You Need?
Now that we’ve established that you’re going to need to grow a lot of produce in order to feed yourself, we come to the next question, how big should your garden be?
That, of course, will depend a lot on the size of your family, the space you have available, how good a gardener you are, and what other sources of food you will have available to you. But for the sake of argument, let’s say that you will need to turn your entire backyard into a garden, in order to have enough food to feed your family. If you are going to raise any animals for food, such as chickens or rabbits, you’ll need feed for them as well.
I am basing the idea that you’ll need to convert your entire backyard into a garden on what others have done, specifically those people I just mentioned, who feed themselves from their own garden. In every one of those cases that I’ve read about, they had a 1/4 or 1/5 acre suburban lot that they turned into a homestead.
Some other reports I’ve seen show that you need 2 acres to do a proper homestead and raise all your own food. But those include land for raising grains, which takes up a lot of land. I am purposely leaving grains out of this article, simply because most of us don’t have a lot that large
A 1/4 acre suburban lot gives you 10,890 square feet, assuming the lot is a full 1/4 acre. Many 1/4 acre lots are actually smaller than this, as developers tend to measure from the middle of the street and other easements as part of your property, even though you don’t have exclusive use of it. Of that, only about half, or a little less, will be the backyard, your farm. Of course, where you live and how old the house is will have a major impact on the lot size as well.
Of course, you’re going to have to work with what you have, unless you decide to move. So, I’d recommend measuring the size of your backyard, less areas taken up by outbuildings, patios, decks and other immovable structures. That will give you a starting place for figuring out your survival garden.
Stockpile the Right Supplies
With your soil in good shape, you’ve solved your biggest gardening problem. Now, when it’s time to plant, you can count on a good harvest from your first year’s planting, rather than losing most of that crop and having to wait until the second year to have a good harvest. But you’re going to need the right equipment and supplies for making your garden grow.
What sorts of things are you going to need?
- Seeds – If you are going to turn your whole backyard into a garden, you’re going to need a lot of seeds; not just a few packs. To give you an idea, I spent $150 on seeds, buying them from one of the mail-order houses. All of them are heirloom seeds, which is important, as that will ensure that I can harvest seeds from the plants I grow, making my garden sustainable.
- Fertilizers – Vegetable gardening takes a lot more out of your soil than grass does. So you’ll need to replenish the soil on a regular basis. This means having the right nutrients to put back into the soil. One of the best fertilizers you can buy is fish emulsion, which also has the advantage of being highly concentrated, so you won’t have a problem storing it.
- Lime – For raising the soil pH, reducing acidity.
- Sulfur – For lowering soil pH, increasing acidity.
- Pest control chemicals – For the obvious reason.
- A rototiller – If you don’t already have a rototiller, I’d recommend buying one. Spading up your entire backyard to turn it into a garden will be a huge job. While it will still be a big job with a rototiller, it will at least be manageable.
- Gasoline – For the rototiller and your lawn mower. You’ll need to rotate your gas stock, so that you always have fresh gas. Just dump it into your car’s gas tank and refill the gas cans every few months.
- Tools - If you don’t have good gardening tool, now is the time to buy them. You might also want to buy some spares.
- Raised bed siding – Planting in raised beds is much more efficient than an open garden. If you can, build yourself a stock of stones, cinder blocks or pressure-treated wood to use in making raised beds.
- Canning supplies – If you’re going to put all this effort into growing your own food, you’d better be ready to preserve it as well. The last thing you want is to have your harvest go bad, before you can use it.
- Parts for Drip Irrigation – I’ll talk more about this in a moment, but drip irrigation is the most efficient means of watering a garden, with the least amount of wasted water. Be sure to include a pump as well, as you won’t have water pressure from the city to drive the system.
In addition to these supplies, you should start composting. A good composting bin or pile will provide you with a great source of fertilizer to top your gardens with every fall. This returns nutrients back into the soil, reducing the amount of fertilizer you will need.
If you are raising any sort of animals, you want to add their manure to your compost. Manure is a major source of nutrients for plants, attested to by the fact that farmers use manure to fertilize. Composted manure is better to use, as the manure will be more completely broken down, making the nutrients more readily available to your plants.
Preparing the Most Important Part
You probably don’t want to convert your entire backyard into a vegetable garden right now. If not, I don’t blame you. I don’t want to either. But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do some basic preparations, so that it can be converted to a vegetable garden if you need to. Proper preparation now will save you a year or more then, simply by making sure that you are ready to grow a good crop in your backyard.
Let me ask you a question; how good is the soil where you live? I’d daresay that for most of us, it’s not really all that good. They don’t generally turn prime farmland into housing tracts; and even if they do, the soil is probably already depleted from years of over-farming the land.
Yet any experienced gardener will tell you that the most important part of any garden is the soil. Good soil equals good harvests, while poor soil results in poor harvests. If you are depending on your garden for survival, you need a good harvest. That means having good soil.
So start now, preparing the soil of your backyard. Map out the yard and determine where your planting beds are going to be (most of the space) and what space you can’t grow in, due to needing the space for other things. Then start working on the soil for the part that you’re going to expand your garden into. Do the beds and the pathways both, as you will need plenty of good soil.
What do I mean by preparing the soil? Mostly I mean increasing the nutrients in the soil, but there are other important things to do as well:
- Add fertilizers to increase the nutrients. Compost and composted animal manure are the best fertilizers to use. Only use chemical fertilizers in addition to these or if you can’t use these materials
- Add peat moss, perlite, gypsum or vermiculite to increase the aeration of your soil
- Break up the ground, if it is hard, so that roots can grow easily through it. If you can, rototill the entire area, breaking up the hard soil and mixing the fertilizer and aerators into the soil.
- If you don’t already have a healthy worm population, add earthworms to your yard. They are the main workers in composting and aerating your soil.
- Add mycorrhizal fungi to your yard. This amazing fungi attaches itself to plant roots, forming a symbiotic relationship with it. While it feeds off the plants, it also extends the roots of the plants, bringing nutrients and water to them.
In my personal experience mycorrhizal fungi is a miracle worker. I live in an area where it is very hard to grow much of anything due to the heat and lack of water. Even so, adding mycrorrhizal fungi to the soil has made it possible to bring dead patches of grass back to life, to the point where you can’t even tell that there was a problem. It has also helped in my vegetable garden, increasing the size of my harvest.
The final thing you need to do is deal with any subterranean pests that you have. I have had a problem with a number of different plant killers, especially cutworms and grub worms, both of which are killers. The grub worms have even killed trees in my yard.
Once you do all that, you’re probably going to have to reseed the grass in your yard. However, my personal experience is that grass is amazingly resilient and will probably come back all on its own, pushing up through the soil to assert its dominion over your yard once again.
All of this is going to give you a better lawn, which means that you are going to have to mow it more often. Yes, I realize that I’m making more work for you and I hate mowing as much as anyone. But the important thing to remember here, is that soil which grows grass well will also grow other plants well. So how well your grass grows is an indication of how ready your soil is for gardening.
Keep in mind that the work you are doing is only going to last so long. You’ll need to continue adding nutrients to your soil, every year. One good way to do this is to top your lawn with compost in the fall, just before the first snow is likely to fall. That way, it has all winter to break down.
And the Second Most Important Part
The second most important thing you’ll need for your garden is water. Gardening requires a lot of water, although there are methods which allow you to make very good use of your water and avoid wasting it. Most specifically, using drippers to water your garden, a method developed in Israel, where they don’t have a lot of water, is the most efficient way of watering any garden.
Although installing drippers is a lot of work, the drippers put water just where it is needed, right at each plant. So there is no wasted water soaking into your pathways or areas that are not cultivated. During a time when water may be scarce, they are well worth the effort.
If you don’t have a well, you might want to consider drilling one. If that’s a little too rich for your blood (having a well drilled is expensive), put in a cistern and start using rainwater capture. My favorite form of cistern, which fits in ideally with OPSEC, is an above-ground swimming pool. A 15 foot diameter pool holds 5,287 gallons of water, and you can replenish it with the water falling on your roof.
Keep in mind that some state do not allow rainwater capture. If your state does not, then you can still get everything ready for it, without hooking it up. Then, if a disaster strikes, all you have to do is to divert the water from your home’s downspouts to your cistern (swimming pool), instead of allowing it to spill out on the ground.
One important point about water conservation and watering is the time you water. Most people water when it is most convenient for them, generally when they get home from their work day. But that isn’t the best time of day for the plants. It’s still hot then and at least some of the water is going to evaporate before it can soak into the ground. You’re better off watering at night, so that the water can soak in and the plants can absorb it before the heat of the sun steals the water from them.
Additional Things to Prepare
While soil and water are your major needs, there are a few other things you should consider doing, so that you are ready to expand your garden, when the time comes. The first of these is the compost bin or heap that I already mentioned. Gardening, without composting, is a waste of nutrients; something you can’t afford. You want to get the most out of your available resources.
You may want to include fruit trees as part of your gardening efforts. If so, you won’t want to wait until a disaster strikes to plant them. Do so now, so that the trees have a chance to grow. Just be sure to pick trees that will grow well in the climate where you live. Citrus needs hot weather; stone fruits need a lot of cold weather.
It would also be a good idea to dig a root cellar, so that you have cool storage for the produce you are going to grow. Root crops (potatoes, carrots, etc.) can be stored in a root cellar, rather than having to can them. While canned produce will keep longer than produce in a root cellar, chances are that you won’t have a large enough stock of canning jars to can all that you harvest. Besides, it will take a long time to can that much produce and keeping it in the root cellar until you have time to can it all will keep it fresher.
When the Time Comes
Okay, so everything we’ve talked about, up to this point, is all preparatory to being able to turn your backyard into a huge vegetable garden, when the time comes. But so far, you haven’t turned it into one.
A lot of what you’re going to do, when the brown stuff hits the rotary air movement device, will depend on the time of year. If the disaster happens in the fall or winter, you won’t be able to start planting right away. But you’ll probably have enough food in your stockpile to keep you going for a while, so you’ll be able to time your planting for the maximum gain.
To convert your yard into a garden, the first thing you have to do is get rid of the grass and convert the lawn into planting beds. This means first cutting the grass as short as you can and carting the clippings off to your compost heap. You will then need to break up the ground, mostly to break up the roots from the grass. Large clumps of roots should be removed, but small clumps can be left in place to decompose.
This is a good time to add fertilizer or compost to your soil, if you haven’t done so recently. You’re going to be mixing the soil anyway, as part of establishing your plant beds. So, this fertilizer will go down into the soil, rather than just being on top.
If you have stockpiled materials to make raised beds, you can assemble your raised beds at this point. Then shovel the dirt from the paths between the beds, into the beds themselves, making the paths lower than the beds. If you don’t have those materials on hand, you can still make raised beds, by digging up the paths and piling that dirt up in what will become your beds. They will just be borderless beds.
With that done, you’re ready for planting. Take time to plant each seed individually, rather than just sprinkling the seeds. Remember, you aren’t going to be able to run down to the corner and buy more seeds. What you have and what you harvest from the plants you grow, is all that you’re going to get.
When I say to plant each seed individually, do so in accordance with the guidelines for that type of seed, especially the distance you are supposed to space the seeds apart. This is important, so that you get the most out of your garden. If the instructions say to plant them six inches apart, then they should be six inches apart in both direction. In other words, the individual seeds should be six inches apart in their rows and the rows should be six inches apart from each other.
This is one of the big advantages of planting in raised beds, rather than planting in normal beds. Most people plant in rows in normal beds, but leave those rows far enough apart to walk between them and cultivate the plants. That wastes a lot of room. When planting in raised beds, you don’t need to leave room to walk between the rows, because you already have pathways you can use.The other thing I said was to plant each seed individually, rather than sprinkling the seeds in rows. Sprinkling wastes a lot of seeds, because it is done with the idea that you will pull up the smaller plants, thinning them out as they grow. But that means that most of your seeds don’t give you any harvest. It’s better to plant them individually, and get something out of every seed.