The Ultimate Guide to Survival Gardening & Growing Your On Food
A ton of thought and 20+ years of gardening experience have gone into this survival gardening post. It will give you a solid foundation for growing a more resilient garden and significantly improving your self-reliance and food security.
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The global pandemic of 2020 has fueled a resurgence of people looking up, "What is a victory garden?" and considering the concepts of "survival gardening", "local food systems" and "resilience." People around the world witnessed how quickly shelves can go bare and prices can rise. You could call it a bit of a wake-up call around food security. The pressure is on.
Or more accurately, the pressure was always on - but now you can feel it.
Without buying tons of land (which is a huge financial barrier for many folks) and becoming a farmer, there are still some key things you can do to significantly increase your personal food security. This post will help whether you live in an urban lot, apartment building, or on acreage out in the countryside.
Below we lay out 6 of the most important concepts, some helpful resources, and garden plant recommendations to consider in survival gardening and increasing your personal/family's food security and self-reliance.
What is "Survival Gardening" and is it relevant to you and your family?
Survival Gardening is not about the end of the world and growing your food in the Zombie Apocalypse (although I guess it could be if that's your thing...).
To me, Survival Gardening is about designing your home garden to realistically and efficiently produce a significant amount of food. And, designing it in a way that the garden and crops are resilient to the unexpected. This is important for one simple reason: the unexpected will happen.
The unexpected could include:
- a family member experiences a health crisis that leaves you less time to tend your garden,
- a major drought, flood, wind storm, etc.
- some sort of flaw in the food supply chain, making healthy food more expensive or rare
You have the ability to design your garden and food systems to be hardier and more resilient to these types of events that appear to be occurring more frequently. And this becomes an important factor in the success of your local food system as well, because you are now an active and contributing part of it.
My "Credentials" in Survival Gardening
Since my late teens, I have dreamed about self-sufficient homesteading, survival gardening, and truly living off the land.
I started my first garden at the age of 19 in my parent's backyard. From there I toured North America working on different types of organic farms.
I learned about many different agricultural systems and techniques, how to harvest wild foods from the forest, grow mushrooms, practice permaculture and forest gardening. I've also studied wilderness survival, emergency response and disaster planning, which not only create hard skills but an essential mindset.
Twenty plus years later, my wife and I are now 10-years into our permaculture inspired homestead and have a wild culinary and education business, Wild Muskoka. I also consult with farms and education centres in developing emergency preparedness systems in our changing climate and teach survival skills through my other business, Changing World.
That dream of self-sufficiency from a couple decades ago has turned into a ton of experience and knowledge, not to mention new questions to answer and skills to learn. Its ever-evolving adventure, and the dream is getting closer to reality.
But... It does not have to take you 20-years to learn to grow a significant amount of food in an efficient and resilient way. You can do it this year.
6 Essential Concepts for Achieving Food Security, Self-Reliance, & Growing a Survival Garden.
1. Low Maintenance & Perennial Foods Leverage your time effectively
Gardening is enjoyable and a healthy act... most of the time.
Until life gets too busy or an unexpected crisis comes up such as an injury, sickness, natural disaster, etc. Then the garden can suddenly feel like a lot of work with no time to go to it adding to the stress instead of helping reduce it.
In one of my favourite gardening books, "The Resilient Gardner", author Carol Deppe talks a lot about how people tend to design their gardens for the good times. The times when we have a bit of space in our lives to tend and enjoy them. But it is in the hard times that we may need the gardens yield and food the most.
This is why it is nice to have several reliable perennial crops. Crops that come back year after year on their own, and even if you are unable to tend the crop for a year or two, it still produces a plethora of food.
On our homestead, we can eat shiitake mushrooms and asparagus every meal for two weeks straight each spring with almost no work outside of harvesting and cooking. This is such a joy.
Shortly after, we can start picking rhubarb, sunchokes, and foraging all kinds of wild foods from our forest garden such as fiddleheads and wild leeks. Once established, they all grow on their own with minimal tending and upkeep.
This is a real gift and has been so helpful in the years where we have had less time for the garden due to other obligations.
An example of this would be planting low maintenance perennial crops. We planted twenty-five asparagus plants when we first bought our homestead and twenty-five more a few years later.
Two Great Resources for Next Steps:
2. Grow High Yielding Crops
To Achieve True Food Security
Whether you are growing on a balcony in the city, or a hundred-acre farm, the more you leverage physical space, the more food you have to eat and preserve.
Some plants create high yields of food and take up minimal space. Other plants have very large food prints and may only produce one or two meals. These plants may be fun treats and enjoyable to grow, but if you are thinking in terms of survival gardening and true self-reliance, you may wish to question if that is the best use of space.
For example, in our growing environment (zone 4), eggplants grow very large and take up a lot of space. But they often only produce one or two small fruits per plant. Thus we use a lot of space for one meal in the fall.
By comparison, if we planted a Zucchini in that same space, it would grow to about the same size and produce a dozen or more Zuccini's over two months feeding us over and over again. This is very important to consider in survival gardening and trying to achieve any level of food security, especially if space is limited.
Another great example is the bush beans. These relatively small plants produce a ton of food in a small space. They are nutrient-rich, can be preserved as Lacto-ferments, and they help improve soil quality through nitrogen-fixing, reducing the amount of work you need to put into soil building. Climbing beans and peas are similar.
Kale & Broccoli are two of my other favourites for high yields in small spaces. We let our broccoli produce a full headfirst, usually by late July. It continues to provide smaller edible shoots that are very tasty and nutrient-dense right up until October. It keeps on giving!
Six to eight kale plants will also produce a lot of food as they are very fast-growing and can be harvested over and over again. We also let some of our go-to seed right in the garden bed and allow the "volunteers" to pop up next year. Then we transplant them where we want them. Now there is one last plant we need to start under lights or buy starts for and our efficiency of time increases even more!
Keep in mind that brassicas are pretty susceptible to specific pests like cabbage moths. You will have to see if they do well in your area. You could ask other local gardeners before planting them and see if they have any tricks to ward of pests.
And last, don't forget about utilizing vertical space! We grow snow peas, climbing beans, cucumbers, and more on a trellis on the north side of many of our garden beds and thus are still able to plant full crops of other plants in the rest of that same garden bed. This helps us to maximize space and obtain as much yield as possible from smaller spaces.
3. Plan for Extreme Weather & Other Emergencies
How might Climate Change impact your garden and Food Security?
In our region, South Central Ontario, the short-term predictions for climate change are already revealing themselves.
We are seeing lots of unseasonable weather, more periods of intense rain and wind, floods, more hail, mixed with periods of drought. Spring may come earlier some years, but then we get a frost way past the usual last frost date. Historically, all these events happen from time to time, but with our current rate of climate change, they are occurring more frequently (almost annually).
How do the predictions and effects of climate change influence the way you garden and grow food in the future?
This is a tricky one and there are a lot of ways to approach it. As a starting point we suggest considering these three areas:
- 1) Plants a diversity of crops with different growing requirements
- 2) Utilize "micro-climates" to protect your crops
- 3) Consider emergency preparedness measures for you garden systems
Let's take a look at a few key points under each of those areas to help improve your garden's resilience to climate change and extreme weather events.
1) Plant a Diversity of Crops with Different Growing Requirements:
The reality is we do not know what will happen tomorrow or next month. It is inevitable in gardening that a certain percentage of your crops will fail each season. Sometimes you can not prevent this, but you can plan for it. By planting a diversity of crops that can tolerate a diversity of weather and climatic conditions, you increase the odds that some of your gardens will still produce a yield under adverse conditions.
2) Utilize "Micro-climates" to Protect Your Crops.
We could write an entire article (or three) on this topic. The basic idea is considering how challenging weather may impact different parts of your property and considering this when you design your gardens.
When we purchased our homestead in 2010, my wife and I considered extreme weather and wildfires in selecting our land. Our homestead is in a natural "bowl" with large hills on the east, north and west sides of the property and great sun exposure to the south. This protects us from damaging winds from three directions.
The hills, as well as the arrangement of the main road, creek and pond, also create natural fire breaks that could protect our property from a wildfire depending on the scale and winds at the time.
Do you consider natural hazards and extreme weather when you look at the design of your property and life?
Here are a few questions you could start with:
- If you had a record-breaking rainstorm, where would the water flow and pool on your property? Consider planting crops such as mint, watercress, elderberries, ostrich fern, etc, in these areas.
- Can you sculpt your properties landscape in any way that would allow some areas to stay drier during extreme rains? You may want to research the concept of using "swales" for this.
- What area is likely to be the driest on your property during extreme rains? You could create raised garden beds here and direct the flow of water across your property away from these areas.
- Where on your property has the best protection from the prevailing winds?
- Is there a "micro-climate" with good south exposure and protection from the North, East and West winds? This area may be a touch warmer than the rest of the property and protect fruit tree flowers from a late frost or strong winds.
3) Consider Emergency Preparedness Measures for Your Garden.
Again, we could write an entire post (or book) on this topic. Here are a few of the most essential things to consider:
- If the power went out for several days (or weeks), how would this impact your garden? Would you be able to water still? How do you preserve most of your garden yield? If you put everything in the freezer, do you have a generator and enough fuel to save all your hard work?
- If you are on a well and drought occurred, would you have enough water to both drink and water your garden? What is your plan B?
One solution to both of these potential issues is to build yourself a rainwater catchment system to collect and store as much water as possible during the wet times.
Emergency & Disaster Preparedness is our specialty and focus here at Changing World.
Resources & Next Steps in Disaster Preparedness
1)Our flagship training and eCourse,
This course is designed to help you build confidence and peace of mind and help better prepare your family for emergencies, disasters, and our quickly changing world and climate.
We will walk you through step-by-step to:
- Make sure you are not missing any essential gear and have an ideal emergency kit if you have to leave home quickly or hunker down for weeks.
- Create a plan for if you are separated from your family during a disaster and the phones and the internet are not up.
- Learn to better prepare your home (and garden) and learn essential knowledge to help you survive an extreme weather event or other crisis.
2) If you are part of a commercial farm, education centre, or business that would like support in improving your organization's disaster preparedness and response, view our consulting services here.
4. Grow Crops That Preserve & Store Well
And learn how to do it!
Fresh food out of the garden is hard to beat, but many climates do not allow for year-round growing. Equally important to know how to grow food, is how to preserve food in a way where you also preserve the nutrient value of the food.
Four popular ways of preserving your food include canning, freezing, fermenting, and dry storing. However, there is a whole world of traditional preservation methods including salting, drying, oiling, burying, pickling, wrapping... etc.
To be resilient in your food storage systems it valuable to be proficient in at least two or more different methods. For example, freezing is often the least labour intensive method, But what happens if there is a major power outage that lasts for weeks? Suddenly your entire harvest is ruined.
It is also important to consider what resources and storage options you have in your home.
- Do you have a large enough space out of direct light to store bushels of potatoes, squash and onions?
- Do you have enough room in the fridge or cellar for beets, carrots and turnips?
- Can you make room to shelve canned tomatoes and peaches?
- Is your freezer big enough to hold blanched greens, mushrooms, zucchini and other plants that spoil?
- Do you have enough jars and salt on hand to ferment cabbage and garlic?
Pick foods that store well and preservation techniques that work within your given situation. Also, be realistic with your available time commitment, some food preservation methods take a lot of work and tending while others are quite quick and simple.
You must learn about how these preservation methods affect the nutrition of your vegetables and any related health risks. You don't want this food security advantage turning into a liability.
Food preservation is an interesting crossroads between multiple self-reliance and homesteading skills. Once you know how to do it, you can buy healthy/cheap/local fruits and vegetables when they come in season and preserve them as if they were your crops. It also leads to lots of kitchen skills like making jams or yogurt, and weekly meal-preparation with your family.
There is a lot to learn in the realms of food preservation but it is also very enjoyable, rewarding, and significantly ads to your self-reliance and survival gardening capability.
If you are looking to grow your knowledge and tool kit in this area, check the "Gardening & Sustainability Bundle" that includes the following resources and MUCH MORE for a fantastic low price.
Here are some great resources in the bundle (click images to see what else is included):
5. Grow Some of Your Food Indoors
Year-round nutrition and disaster contingency.
There are lots of options for growing indoors. From advanced hydroponic operations supported by aquaculture (growing fish), to very simple micro-green and sprouting kitchen-setups or indoor edible mushroom growing.
The beauty of this is you can grow year-round and even in an urban landscape or apartment. Some techniques can even be done when the power is down.
A lot of research has come out in recent years around how nutrient-dense sprouts and micro-greens are. They also grow quickly and you can store an abundance of seeds in a small space.
Sprouts and micro-greens are the sprouted seeds of plants such as kale, broccoli, radish, mustard, peas and many other plants. You can grow these indoors by a window or under lights and produce high-quality food in all seasons.
Some things to consider for indoor growing:
- Order yourself a big bag of bulk seeds to sprout now or put in your home disaster supply kit is a major investment in your health should grocery supply chains be limited.
- A quick "home hydroponics" search on Youtube will not disappoint.
- Many species of mushrooms can also be grown indoors such as Oyster or Shiitake. Mushrooms are very nutrient-dense, have protein in them and can be a great supplement to your diet. There are more materials involved and a little more work than growing sprouts, but it can be a pretty fun experience as well.
6. Study Permaculture,
Forest gardens, and ecology, oh my!
If you are serious about being self-sufficient, food security and want to be as efficient as possible with your time and resources, then permaculture & agroecology should be on your list of things to learn about.
Too vast a topic to dive into in this post, but permaculture's essence is setting up self-sustaining closed-loop systems for producing food and energy. From increasing yields in small spaces to building soil to making the waste of one product the fuel of another, to reducing the amount you need to water crops and thus helping you prepared for droughts.
Below is an example of a simple closed-loop system, where plants like comfrey and clover feed rabbits and are made into compost tea, then the rabbit manure and tea is spread on vegetables, which in turn give more scraps for the rabbits and compost tea.
Permaculture and climate change adaption should go hand in hand.
Forest Gardening is about working with nature in the original garden of life. It is about tending and harvesting food from the wilds while leaving ecosystems intact to fulfill the many other essential functions they fill in the world.
Forest gardening can include things such as foraging for wild foods and medicines, pruning native trees & shrubs to get better yields, planting and propagating seeds and plants in the forest and growing mushroom logs or collecting maple syrup.
Three great resources to learn more about permaculture include:
1) The Book "Gaia's Garden" by Toby Hemenway
2) The eBook "The Permaculture Inspired Edible Landscape" by Amy Stross and included as one of many amazing garden resources in the "Gardening & Homesteading Ultimate Bundle"
3) Our eCourse "Grow Your Own Edible Mushrooms", also included in the "Gardening & Homesteading Ultimate Bundle"
As we said, there is a lot to take here, and many threads to follow into other skills and bases of knowledge. If you are just getting started, remember that research and experimentation are the first steps. You will be better off for even trying.
To set some manageable goals, check out our Intro to Survival Gardening Checklist: