I participate in a local community gardening program. For a modest fee, I rent some gardening space at a local farm. It’s fertile soil, and they till the garden bed for you. They also provide a water source for watering your garden. Lots of other persons also rent a garden plot there. And I see the mistakes that they make (as well as my own errors). If you are just gardening out of interest, as a leisure activity, it doesn’t matter too much. But if you are ever in a survival gardening situation, mistakes could be costly.
1. Soil preparation
You can’t just plant some seeds or seedlings in the ground and expect an ample harvest. Without proper preparation of the soil, some plants will not reach maturity and therefore not produce any food and other plants will produce only low yields. This is the number one mistake of new gardeners.
Soil preparation techniques vary. You might want to double-dig your garden, and amend the soil heavily with compost. Double digging is a lot of work, but it only needs to be done once. Choose one section of your garden to double dig every crop season.
Another approach is to loosen the soil down about 10 to 12 inches, and then hoe soil from the surrounding area until you have a ridge about 8 to 12 inches high. The soil in the ridge is loose, and will easily be penetrated by plant roots. Be sure to add compost both when loosening the soil and when making the ridge.
2. Crop spacing
Sowing seed too close together or too far apart will decrease the per acre (or per square foot) yield of your garden. If you have limited space, and you need the food for survival, you’ll want to maximize the yield per unit area of land.
The best spacing for each type of crop varies. There are usually multiple sources online with information on how crop spacing affects yields. It’s best to look up the optimum spacing, and then also experiment with your own garden, to see what works best.
No one likes to weed their garden. It’s the least favorite task. I see that the vast majority of my fellow gardeners at the local community garden don’t weed at all. But when weeds get out of control, yields are lower. A well weeded garden produces more food.
One of the best weeding techniques is to use a hoe or a “cultivator” (a long handled tool with 3 angled prongs) to break up the soil and tear up the roots of the weeds. You can let some weeds grow if they are small or close to the plants. Small weeds cover the soil, reducing evaporation, and they add organic material to the soil when they die. This approach to weeding gives the greatest effect with the least effort.
Don’t pull up weeds by hand individually. It’s too much work. And the small weeds can be left alone. So you might weed only a couple times a month. Wait till the weeds have grown a little, then loosen the soil under them, and let them become part of the soil as they decay.
Sure, you can overwater your garden, reducing yields. But the most common error is too little water. For the most part, more water results in a higher yield. A good rule of thumb is about 1/4 inch of water per day. You don’t have to water every day; that is an average. You can use daily drip irrigation (which is a little pricey). Or you can water by hand at least three good soakings per week.
A good artificial fertilizer can double the yield of your garden. So can proper watering. With fertilizer and irrigation, a garden can produce four times the yield of a rainfed unfertilized garden.
Usually, fertilizer is added twice: once before the crop is planted, and again as a “top dressing” while the crop is growing. Research online the best type and amount of fertilizer for each crop.
6. Pest Control
Every garden has some pests: insects, plant diseases, slugs or snails, rodents, etc. The key is to stay on top of the problem. Intervene promptly, so that you don’t lose a substantial amount of the crop to pests or plant diseases.
If you prefer an organic garden, there are organic methods for dealing with any pest. I will chose the organic method first, and if it fails, I’ll resort to a conventional product. Organic growing is preferable, but for survival gardening, you do what you have to do to obtain a successful crop.
7. Prompt Harvesting
This might seem like a no-brainer, but I see unharvested food going to waste in the community garden. Prompt harvesting of tomatoes, beans, peas, and other foods encourages the plant to produce more flowers and more food. You can obtain a continuous harvest if you pick the ripe fruits and seeds as they mature.
For grain crops, like amaranth, quinoa and a few others, the plants will drop their grains if the crop is not harvested promptly. Yields fall due to this loss of grain, which is called “shattering”. Some varieties are more resistant to shattering than others, but it’s always a good idea to harvest grains promptly.
For root and leaf crops, you will get a larger harvest, the longer you wait — up to a point. Root crops can become tough if left in the ground too long, and leaf crops can become tough or wilted. Timing is everything when harvesting food crops.
8. Over-estimating Yields
So you sit down with some books or websites, and you calculate how much food you can get from your garden. Unless those figures are based on the actual yield from your own garden last season, it is likely an overestimate. Especially with a new garden, yields can be quite low. You need to find the best crops for your soil and climate. And then you need to find the most effective ways to grow those crops. That takes time, and some trial and error.
And that is why it is important to start your survival garden ASAP, so that you work out all the kinks before it is actually used for survival.