Whether you are new to gardening or not, the use of a large backyard garden to produce food for survival is significantly different from recreational gardening. There are serious problems to be overcome, challenges to be faced, and failure means hunger. Here is my take on the top 5 challenges of survival gardening.
1. Soil Preparation
The main goal of survival gardening is to produce a substantial amount of food. So in one sense, getting a high yield from each crop is your overriding concern. But the first and perhaps most important factor in yields is soil preparation. The soil must be loose, so that roots can easily extend deep into the ground. The soil should hold water well, so that lack of moisture is never the limiting factor of growth. And the soil must be fertile, containing plenty of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and trace elements (sulfur, calcium, etc.).
Double-digging is unmatched in its ability to loosen the soil deeply. Here’s a quick tutorial on double-digging. It is labor intensive, but only needs to be done once. Be sure to amend the soil with compost when double-digging, so that the loosened soil does not become compact again. Organic matter worked into the soil keeps it loose.
Organic matter in the soil is also what holds moisture. There is no substitute for this component of fertile soil. Aside from adding compost when double-digging, you can add organic matter in other ways. Grow a cover crop and till it into the soil. Add compost to the surface and till it into the soil, between each crop. Or choose a crop with a deep taproot, such as daikon. Grow it in the fall, then let the winter kill the crop. The roots decay, adding organic matter and helping to break-up the soil.
Organic growers swear that their soil is just as fertile and productive as on a conventional farm using artificial fertilizer. That may be true — if you are skilled and have enough time to improve the soil. But for high yields will less time and skill, you can’t beat a good commercial inorganic fertilizer: N-P-K with sulfur and some trace elements is ideal. Look up the best fertilizer schedule for whichever crop you are growing, and you should do well.
2. Crop Choices
The typical backyard recreational garden grows lots of tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, cucumber, lettuce — all foods that do not provide much in the way of protein, fat, or carbohydrates. You can’t survive on salad ingredients. Your crop choices should be geared toward the three macronutrients. And that means you should have at least a few crops that are high in protein, a few high in fat, and a few high in carbs.
Protein crops: soybeans, peas, various beans, chickpeas, peanuts, sunflower seeds.
Fat crops: soybeans, peanuts, sunflower seeds, tigernut.
Carb crops: amaranth, quinoa, buckwheat, potato, sweet potato.
Another issue with crop choices is to find the crops that will thrive in your particular climate and soil. This involves some reading online and in books, as well as a good deal of trial and error. The ideal survival crop is the one that thrives in your garden.
3. Pest Control
From insects to rodents to birds, lots of different critters would love to feast on your garden. Some crop loss to pests is unavoidable. But to keep your overall yields high in a survival garden, you have to stay on top of pest control.
The number one defense against insect pests is a healthy plant. Fertilizer, water, and good soil go a long way to strengthening your plants to fend off insects mostly on their own. When that is not enough, it is better to intervene earlier, rather than later, with a pest control measure. Sprays are available at any garden shop and some hardware stores. I prefer sprays that are natural, and tend to avoid anything with toxic chemicals.
Another approach to pest control is to use good bugs to prey on the bad bugs. Natural Insect Control has a number of different good bugs for just that purpose. You can also encourage good bugs in your garden by planting flowers around the border of the garden, and by intercropping — so that each bed had more than one type of plant.
Slugs and snails can be dealt with by means of a type of bait containing iron phosphate (a natural component of soil). Interestingly, a home-made slug repellant can be made from caffeinated coffee. The caffeine repels the slugs in low concentrations and kills them in higher concentrations.
For problems with larger critters, a sturdy fence around the property is useful (but not fool-proof). But rabbits and others wildlife generally don’t wreak as much havoc with a crop as insects can. Birds, however, are another story. They can consume most of a crop of sunflower seeds and can substantially lower yields of amaranth or quinoa. Netting over the crop and a prompt harvest as soon as it matures are probably the most practical options.
4. Thieves and Robbers
The other type of critter that might steal some of your garden’s food is deer of the two-legged variety. This might seem like a non-issue — and it probably is at the present time. But when the SHTF, and some people are desperate for food, a large survival garden will be an attractive target. Crop thieves don’t just take a modest amount of food, for their own survival. They can end up destroying a crop before it matures, because they are looking for edible food where there is none. They might tear up plants, looking for root crops; trample seedlings, destroying the crop in its early stages; or harvest produce that is immature. The result can be an amount of damage that greatly exceeds the amount of food that they end up taking.
See my previous post: Protect Your Garden From Theft for more on this topic.
5. Post-harvest Problems
The crop issue that is perhaps most often overlooked is what happens to the food post-harvest. If you are growing grain, for example, you have to process that crop. Wheat and rice need to be hulled, then dried, and properly stored. For a small garden, you eat the food fairly soon after harvest. But for a large garden, you need a way to store the produce, perhaps to last until the next harvest a year later. Drying, canning, and freezing are all good methods of food preservation. You may need to recruit family members or friends to help process the crop.
I recommend amaranth, quinoa, and buckwheat as grain crops. They do not need hulling, which reduces the amount of work you need to do after harvest. Just thresh and dry.
Sunflower seeds are a great source of protein and fat. But the seeds have hulls. I suppose you can dry and store them with the hulls on, and remove them latter. But if the harvest is large enough, you might consider buying a small hulling machine; it can be adjusted to remove the hulls of a range of different crops. However, it’s an added expense and more labor.
Once the crop is processed, post-harvest, it will need to be stored. Basements tend to be damp, so storage there must be air-tight and perhaps include salt in the container with the food, to absorb moisture. Temperature control is also important. The cooler, the better. So a shed or garage or attic would be too hot in the summer. It would be a shame if you lost a large portion of a crop after a great deal of time and effort, due to improper storage.
I think the first concern for survival gardeners is crop yield. The above five topics all affect the amount of food that you can obtain and use from a survival garden. There are other issues, but I think those 5 are most important.