The Survival Garden: Gardeners in a dangerous time

Black Turtle Beans seedlings
Dried beans are an excellent survival food, and are easy to grow and store.

I had the most wonderful dream the other night. I dreamt I had a beautiful piece of property, and was busy working in my gardens. I had a grape arbor, and one of those arched trellises for growing squash on.

Someone had given me eight chickens, and they followed me around like puppies. And I believe there was an actual puppy in there somewhere too. Rich had a wonderful natural swimming pool dug, and I was transplanting corn plants.

It was idyllic; and I was crazy happy. First dream I’ve remembered so vividly in a long time.

Then I woke up.

Self-isolation, social distancing, and pandemic rushed back into my head like a tsunami, replacing my dream with a bit of a nightmare.

But I’m not going to talk about that in this post. I’m here to share ideas about how to get through this difficult time in a positive way, and be more resilient in the future.

I did go through about a week of semi-panic. But I have put things into perspective, and found a balance that is working for me. We are social distancing. We’re staying home, and only going out for necessities. Luckily we don’t have many needs. We have food, we have fuel, and we have fire wood, and that’s all we need.

Spring is here, and our garden will be getting a lot of attention this year, as we are thinking more and more about taking care of as much of our food needs as possible.

There is a movement happening that is aimed at encouraging and helping people who are new to gardening get started. You can check it out here. And I have posted to my local community’s Facebook page, offering my knowledge to anyone who wants to start gardening.

Without meaning to sound alarmist, I just think that it is more important than ever, for your own survival, to learn to grow your own food, and give yourself the gift of truly organic, fresh, healthy vegetables.

And that’s what this article is all about – the Survival Garden, and why now is the best time to start it.

Getting started

I wrote a couple of posts about starting a garden, no matter how much room you might have. You can check them out here and here.

This post is very much about encouraging you to start that garden NOW. Nothing fancy, no big investments needed to build wooden beds or plow up the soil – just a quick and easy way to get growing now.

Believe it or not, you can start a garden just about anywhere, with a minimum of work or soil disturbance, and have seeds in the ground within the week! (Unless you live up north, then you’ll have to wait a bit. Sorry.)

So, let’s say you have a relatively flat, open spot in your yard, that gets a decent amount of sun, and isn’t shaded by large cedar trees (hey, I live in the Pacific Northwest – everything is shaded by cedar trees). If you’re thinking about trying your hand at growing some vegetables, that sounds like an excellent place to start your garden.

If there are grass, weeds, turf, whatever, growing there, just take a shovel, dig it up and turn it over. No need to use a rototiller or call in a guy with a tractor. Just flip that turf over.

At this point you can do one of two things:

  • Cover the area with wet cardboard or a few layers of wet newspaper to keep any weeds from coming through, and then top with soil and/or compost and start planting.
  • Just cover the ground with soil and/or compost and start planting.

If you have any really tenacious weeds in your yard, such as creeping buttercup or bindweed, then I suggest putting down the cardboard or newspaper. It will save you a lot of weeding work later.

You can also build a container garden using any plant pots, buckets, bathtubs, or boxes you have hanging around. Anything that will hold soil, and provide drainage, can be repurposed as a food growing container.

Once you have your soil and/or compost spread out – or put into your containers – you now officially have a garden. Cool, right? Now let’s get planting!

What to grow in your survival garden

What you grow in a survival garden – as with so many things garden related – depends. It depends on where you are gardening, what your climate is like, what your soil is like, and what you like, etc.

But generally, what you want to have in a survival garden is a variety of foods that will give you the nutrients you need. A nice mix of veggies could include:

  • tomatoes
  • peas and/or beans – fresh and dried
  • brassicas, such as kale, broccoli, cabbage, or kohlrabi
  • lots of greens – mustard greens, beet tops, chard, lettuce mix, arugula, parsley, etc.
  • root crops – carrots, turnips, rutabagas, beets; potatoes if you have room
  • herbs – both culinary and medicinal

You don’t want to be growing anything that is too delicate, belongs in a warmer climate, or is sensitive to weather fluctuations. You’re looking for tough vegetables here; things that will produce something, no matter what.

If you’re looking to start supplementing your diet with homegrown food quickly, plant things that will start giving you harvests as soon as possible. Mustard greens, kale, spinach, lettuce, beet tops – all of these start producing leaves pretty quickly, and are all super healthy for ya.

When choosing your seeds, take a look at the Days to Maturity or Days to Harvest number. Planting seeds with a short Days to Maturity will ensure that you get a quicker harvest.

And you don’t have to wait until the plant is fully grown – you can start harvesting a few leaves here and there in a few short weeks. Most greens can take small harvests quite soon, and will continue to produce over a long period.

Learn to preserve and store vegetables

Learning to preserve your harvest is a very important skill to learn. Having a bumper crop means nothing if you have no place to store it, or don’t know the right way to preserve it to keep the nutrients and flavor intact.

There are many vegetables that you can store in a cold room or root cellar. This is the simplest way to preserve your garden harvest. But you can also can, dry or ferment veggies; and these are all very learnable skills.

Potatoes are an excellent storage crop. You have to have quite a bit of space to produce a substantial amount, but even a small garden can produce enough for a few meals of tasty fresh potatoes.

Homegrown potatoes have excellent nutrition – and are crazy delicious – and are nothing to turn your nose up at. Read Carol Deppe’s book, The Resilient Gardener, to learn about the great benefits of the humble potato. As a matter of fact, that book will teach you all about what else is good to grow in a resilient, survival garden: dried beans, dried corn, and winter squash.

And there are other storable veggies you can grow: rutabagas, beets, turnips, cabbages, and carrots all store well if you grow the right varieties.

And then, to supplement your storable vegetables, you can grow things you’re able to can, dry, or are otherwise easily preserved.

Tomatoes can be dried, frozen, or canned, and provide excellent nutrition. You can cut them up and freeze them, chop them up, or sauce them, and then can them, or make your very own sun-dried tomatoes. Yum.

And of course there is my favorite way to preserve veggies: fermenting! – possibly the easiest and most nutrient-wise way to preserve your vegetable harvest. Okay, maybe I’m a teensy bit biased – I LOVE fermented veggies – but it really is a fabulous way to save those fresh veggies long into the winter months. And fermenting not only preserves the nutrients, it enhances them!

But canning, freezing or drying are all worthwhile skills to learn to preserve your harvest.

Onions, sweet and hot peppers, garlic, and herbs are all easily dried and stored.
Even zucchini can be dried, then reconstituted and used in winter stews. And I’ve dried kale, broken it into small bits, and used this in stews as well. It stores forever. Approximately.

So you see, there are lots of ways to preserve your harvest. So, what are you going to plant in your garden?

Things to consider

How much growing space do you have?

How much cold storage space do you have?

How much freezer space do you have?

How many people are you feeding?

What will everyone honestly eat?

How to find more growing space

  • Utilize containers of all shapes and sizes – bathtubs, buckets, boxes, and…hmmmm, can’t think of another ‘b’ word, but you get the idea.
  • Rooftops – we built a long planter along the lower edge of the shop’s south-facing roof. We built it from logs and leftover scraps of metal roofing, and it will be home to our tomatoes and peppers this year. We also put a bathtub up on the flat part of the house’s roof.
  • Along fences – boxes on top rails; climbers utilizing the vertical space.
  • You can plant vegetables in borders amongst your flowers.
  • Ask neighbors if they would let you build a garden in their yard, for a share of the harvest.
  • Organize a group in your area, and try to get permission to create community gardens in empty lots, forest gardens in public areas, whatever you can do. See if you can get city officials to agree on growing edibles in planters instead of just ornamentals. The more areas we can get things like this happening, the easier it will be for others to follow in our wake.
  • Join a Corona Victory Garden group like this one.

People with small gardens should concentrate on growing beans and peas for protein, quick growing greens for multiple harvests, and small root crops such as carrots, beets and turnips. You can also grow vining squash and pickling cucumbers vertically using a strong trellis or fence.

If you have more space, you can add in the things that need more room, such as corn and potatoes. You might even be able to grow things such as quinoa, which is an excellent survival food.

Storing your bounty

How much cold storage do you have, and is it set up properly? This is something you need to sort out before harvest time. It won’t do you any good if you grow a great crop, only to lose it to poor storage.

Here is a chart that lets you know the temperature and humidity that is best for each vegetable – scroll down the page to see the chart.

If you do an online search for How to build a root cellar, you will find many different designs, from building a cold room in your basement, to a fully underground root cellar. Take a look through them until you find one that will suit your circumstances. I still dream of an underground root cellar with a hobbit door. Someday…

We are lucky here, as the house was built on a very large rock, and the crawl space/basement is a wonderful cool space for storage. And a nice place to escape to in the heat of summer!

Even if you just get an extra fridge or two for your harvests and fermented veggies, that will get you by until you can set up a proper cold room that doesn’t require electricity.

Now is the time to start getting your cold storage in order. Whether it is in the garage, the basement, or a stand-alone root cellar, get the temperature and humidity right, and your vegetables, and many fruits, will last a good long time.

The best time to start a garden is now

Getting a garden growing doesn’t have to be difficult or expensive. Often a load of compost and some packets of seeds are all you need. Of course, there are times when the situation is a little more difficult, but there is always a way. If you have a difficult growing situation, just start by using containers. You’ll be surprised by how much you can grow.

Survival doesn’t have to mean ‘barely getting by’. Surviving can be thriving, if you have a good plan, and you execute that plan well. And I think any good survival plan needs to start with growing your own food.

If trouble is brewing in the world, but you already have a garden, and know how and when and how much to plant, and have learned the skills to preserve your harvest, then you are already sittin’ pretty.

If you do not have a garden, or the skills to preserve your harvest, then the best time to learn is right now.

If you wait until the last minute…well, you know how that generally turns out.


If you have ANY questions AT ALL, please do not hesitate to ask. I am dedicated to helping to get people gardening, and to learning what a fantastic, rewarding, and necessary skill it is. So please don’t be shy.

Health, Hope & Happiness


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5 Replies to “The Survival Garden: Gardeners in a dangerous time”

    1. Very inspiring! I have been putting off getting started on my Grow Tower because I have not had the energy to finish anything I start. You have inspired me! We need the fresh greens and there is no time like right now to get started

  1. Hello, I enjoyed reading your post. I’m the same way, love to garden. Last year I started to compost put in all of my vegtable matter in a large concrete potting container. I will be using it this year when I begin to garden.
    You are encouraging me to plant. I wiil plant corn this weekend. And the ideas that you have are good ones, planting on the end of the fence and to use buckets that’s great. This is very useful information and this is going to encourage lots of people who love to garden and get their hands dirty.
    Your doing an excellent job! Keep up the good work.

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