In a growing trend of self-reliance, the survival garden is making a comeback.
The last half decade has seen a massive resurgence in people’s ownership of their food. Whether you’re talking about locavores, urban gardeners, hunting for your food, or simply more involvement in the food process, droves of people are seeking to become more connected to the food they eat. One niche of the food movement is the survival garden crowd.
Nailing down the exact definition of a survival garden is a game of semantics. For the purposes in this article we’ll define it as sustainable self-reliant agriculture in a long-term situation removed from modern technology. In more simple terms, gardening where a person has total control over their food supply and could live in isolation.
A survival garden goes beyond preppers, and the basic concept can apply to others, such as myself, who want to be more self-reliant with their food. If you are interested in becoming more food self-reliant, or growing a survival garden, here are some things to consider.
History should probably be the biggest driver in the composition of your survival garden. We don’t get to choose what crops do well in the region we live. In our modern world, with the use of technology, we see a variety of crops growing in conditions they wouldn’t normally grow in. For example, I live in the Great Plains. This area has recently become one of the top corn producing regions in America. Historically though, corn has not been a crop that has done well in this region. Due to low levels of moisture, high winds, and severe weather in general, it was not a successful crop in history. Wheat has been a much more historically proven crop in my area.
One exception to this example were the scattered corn growing Native societies of the Plains. Several tribes cultivated corn from the sub-irrigated river bottoms throughout the plains. The river bottoms not only provided moisture, but over time the river valleys developed rich soil. If a person on the plains was looking to start a survival garden, they would do best to understand their situation and look to history for guidance.
If you are interested in growing a survival garden, you’ll need to figure out what crops people grew 100 years ago in your area. This will be a good starting point for selecting appropriate crops. It might also indicate how well you can expect your garden to do. If you’re considering crops that are more recent immigrants from other parts of the world, you’ll have to consider if the native environment of the crop is similar to your growing conditions.
Crops should also be chosen for their ability to reproduce. If you are interested in saving seeds, a must for a survival garden, you’ll have to start off with heirloom crops. These are traditional crops whose seeds, if saved, can reproduce year after year.
Once you’ve figured out what you can hope to grow, you’ll need to figure out foods that offer the most bang for their buck. If I’ve learned one thing about making your own food, it is that it takes time and energy. There is no sense is spending the time planting, cultivating, harvesting, and preserving food if it doesn’t offer a whole lot in return. One crop that has proven superior in this aspect is the lowly potato.
Potatoes are the Superman of garden products. To the untrained eye, they are the mild mannered Clark Kent, but in a time of need they transform into a crop with almost super powers. There have been cases in the past where individuals have subsisted solely on potatoes for six months with no adverse effects. Not only were the individuals healthy, they exhibited no desire to switch their diet. These crops offer so many other advantages it is hard to overstate their importance in a survival garden.
Another crop that deserves mention in a discussion about useful crops is corn. Corn was the was the crop the Aztec Empire and many other thriving Native American civilizations depended on. Corn is not only nutritious, but it is easy to store, another major concern for the survival gardener. While corn might not offer the all around benefits of potatoes it is a solid crop as well if you receive enough rainfall.
3. Soil Condition
Another major concern for long-term self-reliant gardeners is the condition of their soil. As is well known by most gardeners, certain crops draw more nutrients from the soil while others add nutrients back in. The famous example of a symbiotic growing strategy is the three sisters approach to agriculture utilized by Native American people of the eastern woodlands.
For those unfamiliar with the three sisters agricultural approach it is an ingenious concept designed by people whose survival garden was just “the garden.” In this approach you grow three complimentary crops, corn, beans, and squash, in unison to achieve all-around incredible results. The basic idea is to plant your corn and beans near each other. This works as a twofold positive. One, as the corn grows it provides the bean a scaffolding to grow up which is important. Secondly, corn is a nitrogen hungry crop and beans are a nitrogen-adding crop. The beans essentially resupply the nitrogen used by the corn. Squash acts as a weed suppressor and helps retain moisture. When you combine those benefits with the fact these three crops are nutritionally balanced, you get a fantastic system for a survival garden.
Another facet of soil condition that should be addressed by a survival garden is rest. Again, using history as our guide, we can see that people used to routinely abandon fields for periods of time to allow the soil the opportunity to recuperate from extensive use. Not only would this fallow period allow the soil to regenerate vital nutrients, but it would break a possible pest or disease problem before it became a famine inducing breakdown.
Comfrey is a plant worth discussing when addressing the topic of soil condition. Comfrey is a flowering plant that grows well in most environments and has been used for medicinal purposes for centuries. Its greatest benefit for a survival garden is the role it can play in your soil. Comfrey provides what gardeners call green manure. The leaves of the comfrey plants are great at adding organic material back into the soil, which in return increases yields and the bounty of the harvest. Simply grow your comfrey and in the fall strip the plant of its leaves and lay them on your garden. It should be included as part of a garden meant to sustain people for extended periods of time with little inputs.
When it comes to growing a survival garden, there are many other questions that need addressed as well. Irrigation, food storage, pest and disease control, as well as the storage of seeds from one generation to the next. Rediscovering all of the food growing tips from the past takes time. If you have limited gardening experience, you’d be best to ease in and learn a little bit from year to year as you go. Over time you’ll eventually possess a body of knowledge and experience to help you become a successful survival gardener.