So you want to grow a “survival garden”

For at least a decade, there has been an increase in people who have decided to move out of the cities, get themselves an acreage, and live as self-sufficiently as possible.

Which is basically, how I grew up.

Things have really changed, though, and modern homesteaders have a lot more resources, options and choices than was available when I was a kid, 50 years ago, never mind what our pioneers had. I found this very encouraging to see.

Photo by Greta Hoffman on

A couple of decades ago, while part of an online homeschooling support group – pre-social media, when everything was by email (and dinosaurs roamed the earth) – I often saw people waxing poetic about how we all need to go “back to the land”, and live these organic, subsistence lives, and all our food would be free and we would barter for everything else, and so on. It had a lot more to do with ideology than anything else. Going back to the farm was a dream of mine since I moved away in my late teens, so I could appreciate many of the sentiments they expressed. Unfortunately, this romanticized view was wildly unrealistic, and I found myself trying to remind people that there are reasons people, including farmers, moved away from that life.

Most of them didn’t get it.

Once we moved to the farm, 4 years ago, in a caretaker role, how things were done when I was a kid just wasn’t an option, and I’m quite okay with that. Most of the land is rented out, so we just have our corner to work on. My mother had a massive garden that had been slowly neglected for many years, as my parents retired from farming and age reduced their mobility, no matter how much my siblings tried to help. We can finally work on our dream to be as self-sufficient as possible, but we have to do a lot of things differently than how we did it when I was a kid.

It was in researching this that I found this dynamic and growing homesteading community. These were people who may have gone in starry eyed, but were also realistic and determined, and they were making it work. The aging hippies I couldn’t get through to all those years ago, with their ideological blinders, could never have done what these awesome people were doing. It was very exciting!

Then, the last couple of years happened.

As people saw their jobs disappearing, their livelihoods destroyed, prices skyrocketing, and government restrictions stifling people’s ability to do some of the most basic things, a lot of people are suddenly having real concerns about being able to feed themselves and their families.

During WWII, governments actively encouraged families to grow Victory Gardens, and even gave out information and resources to help people do it. That sort of thing isn’t happening now. Instead, we are having to rely on each other to figure out how to grow what, for too many people, are literally survival gardens.

Whatever your reasons for wanting to start growing as much food for yourself as you can, I heartily encourage you! You won’t get any sermons or lectures from me. I do hope that I can, at the very least, provide some information and inspiration.

Start where you’re at

Your circumstances are going to be unique to you. If you’re already on an acreage, great. If all you’ve got to work with is a hall closet and some makeshift grow lights, great. You can start where you’re at, even if it’s just poking some holes in a bag of potting soil to grow some greens in a sunny window. Little by little, it’ll get done!

What I will be sharing here is going to be geared mostly to people living in colder climates – and by that, I meant Zone 2 or 3 (depending on what Canadian zone maps are being used, we live in either 3a or 2b).

I will add one thing I’ve heard quite a number of very experienced, prolific gardeners say. If they had to depend on their gardens for survival, they’d starve! It takes a lot to grow enough food to actually provide enough for even one person to last from preservation to the next year’s harvest, and it will still need to be supplemented with other things. I’m still somewhat amused and perplexed by my mother trying to lure us out here by saying we could grow a garden and not have to buy groceries anymore. Even as big as her garden was, plus having chickens and cows, sometimes pigs, turkeys and geese, a root cellar and lots of canning and freezing, we still had to buy groceries.

So you’re still going to need to buy stuff. Hopefully, just a lot less!

With that in mind, as you plan what to grow in your own personal survival garden, here are some things to consider when making decisions.

Grow what you will eat.

I’ve looked at so many lists out there, for things like what to grow to feed a family for a year, or what to grow in your climate, and so on, and frankly, a lot of stuff on those lists are foods I just don’t like. Others, I can’t eat. There are four of us in our household, and we have very different tastes. Which means that our focus will be more on growing things all of us enjoy eating, then including smaller amounts of things only one or two of us like to eat. As wonderful and appetizing as I find tomatoes and bell peppers, they both make gag, but two people in our household enjoy eating them, and all of us can eat processed tomatoes. Now, those two people REALLY like their tomatoes, so growing more of those than peppers for fresh eating makes sense, as well as growing a lot of tomatoes that are good for making tomato paste to last us for months. It’s a sort of juggling game.

Try new things

What we find in the grocery stores is there because those varieties can handle large scale growing and transportation. When you’re growing your own, you can have a lot more choices. This is a time to grow new varieties of things you know you like, and if you have the space and resources for it, grow something you’ve always wanted to try, but couldn’t for one reason or another. Which kinda ties in with my next point to consider.

Grow at least one thing for fun

Yes, growing food to ensure your family has something to eat when times are tough is serious business. The whole point of the list I’ll be presenting to you is to be able to get as much bang for your buck as you can. At the same time, growing something just for fun is a great morale booster. As you go through what various seed companies and nurseries have to offer, you’re bound to find something that just puts a smile on your face. If you have the space and resources for it, go for it!

Keep in mind your region, climate and particular circumstances.

While the zone maps are very handy, that doesn’t mean there aren’t exceptions. There are things my mother successfully grew in our Zone 3 that were rated at Zone 5. She didn’t even doing anything different for them, either! This is a good time to find and get involved with a community of people in your region and zone, online or off, to learn from. If you are growing outdoors, look at what is rated for your zone, but also consider whether you can create microclimates. If you have only a balcony or patio, there are lots of places where you can learn about container gardening or vertical gardening. If you are growing indoors, there are resources geared specifically for that.

Storage and preservation

If you’re growing food to feed your family, and trying to grow as much as possible in your space, it’s not going to be much good if you grow more than you can eat, but can’t preserve it! There are many options available; freezing, dehydrating, water bath canning, pressure canning and even freeze drying, if you can afford the machine! You might even be able to create a root cellar in some corner of your home. Refrigerator pickling and fermenting are options, if you don’t have canning equipment.

If you’re going to store and preserve food, you’ll need somewhere to put it. What methods you have available to save your food will help you decide what makes the most sense for you to grow.

Things will go wrong. Do it anyway

One thing that is going to happen is, there will be failures at some point. It’s inevitable. Sometimes, you’ll make a mistake. Sometimes, there will be circumstances completely out of your control. It happens. The beauty is, you can still fail “up”. Honestly, you’ll probably learn more from the failures than the successes! Of course, it’s always a good idea to learn from others as much as you can to avoid failures, but it’s still going to happen. Since being here at the farm for 4 years, and only gardening for 2, we knew we were trying to grow in far from ideal conditions, and had some setbacks, yet we still managed to have food from our own garden that we could enjoy.

When it came to making a list of things that might work well in a survival garden, I looked for things that could be grown in colder climates, had high yields, and could be stored or preserved, while also keeping time in mind. So let’s start with the fastest growing things, first!

Super-short term

Photo by Zdenek Rosenthaler on

There are quite a few things that can go from seed to plate in less than a month. Some in less than 10 days! Micro-greens and sprouts can be grown very quickly, can be grown indoors in trays or jars, continually throughout the year. Many seed companies now has sections for sprouts, and quite a variety of things can be grown for their sprouts. Many sprouts can be grown in jars – alfalfa, mung beans, lentils, radishes, and more. Gelatinous seeds, such as flax, chia, cress, arugula and psyllium, can be sprouted in trays. For microgreens, you can try beets, swiss chard, broccoli, cress, peas, radishes and sunflowers.

If you want to give things a bit more time, leafy greens such as pretty much any type of leaf lettuce, spinach, chard, kale, bok choi and radishes can be grown and harvested very quickly. Many of these don’t like heat much, so they can be planted outdoors early in the spring and sowed successively until the heat of summer, then sowed again for a fall crop.

These quick growing plants are nutritional power houses, but they don’t have a lot of calories. They’re not going to keep anyone going for long, so it’s good to think of these as a supplement, and something that can provide nutrition until other foods can be harvested.

Short term

By “short term”, I am talking about the things we typically think of in our annual vegetable gardens. These are things that can take a few months before you can start harvesting anything, and can potentially keep feeding you and your family throughout the winter, with proper storage and preservation.

Root vegetables: carrots, parsnips, beets, radish bulbs, turnips, rutabagas… there are many to choose from, and many varieties of each! Stored properly, they can last for months on their own, but they can also be pickled, pressure canned, frozen, and dehydrated. With these, they are one seed, one plant (except beets; their seeds are actually clusters of seeds), but they produce so many seeds, most packets will provide more than needed for a typical household.

Bulbs and tubers: potatoes, sunchokes/Jerusalem artichokes, sweet potatoes – yes, there is a cold hardy variety of sweet potatoes out there! – bulb fennel, celeriac and more.

There are many varieties of potatoes, some more prolific than others, and some better for storage than others. A good source of seed potatoes will give that information. Potatoes also come in determinate and indeterminate varieties. Indeterminates are good for potato bags and towers, while determinate are good for hilling or Ruth Stout growing methods. Sunchokes will grow in just about any type of soil, and can be so prolific, they are sometimes considered invasive.

Special mention: the alliums are excellent bulbs to grow, but tend to require a lot more time, unless you are starting onions and shallots from sets, or spring garlic. Hard neck garlic needs to be planted in the fall, while onions and shallots from seed – which gives a lot more choice in varieties – need to be started indoors very early. In my garden groups, I’ve found Zone 3 gardeners that start their onions from seed as early as January! Onions also come in long day and short day varieties. If you are in a northern Zone, look for long day varieties. Of course, some varieties store longer than others but, properly cured and stored, they can last a very long time! Onion greens can be eaten as the bulbs mature, and hard neck garlic produces scapes that need to be removed to produce bigger bulbs, and they are delicious, making them dual crops to grow.

Summer squash and zucchini: There are many varieties of summer squash, and they all tend to be quite prolific. Just a couple of plants can provide plenty of baby squash that mature fairly quickly, and if they are left to grow larger, some varieties can be stuffed and baked. Most summer squash start to get tough as they get larger, and are not a storage vegetable, but they can be pickled, canned, frozen and dehydrated. Zucchini is a bit of an exception, in that it can be used as both a summer squash while small, or a winter squash if allowed to grow to full size.

Winter squash and pumpkins: These are squash that can grow to sometimes colossal sizes, but there are also varieties that are small, fast maturing and very prolific. Once they reach maturity, the fruits are cured and can be stored for the winter months. Some varieties reach their best flavour after weeks or months in storage. They can also be frozen, canned, shredded and dehydrated.

Legumes: there are few vegetables out there that provide more bang for your buck than legumes! Especially beans. Bush beans can be grown for their pods, and when they’re done producing is about when pole beans are ready for harvesting, and of course there are shelling beans, which are grown for their fully mature and dry seeds. Peas, chick peas and lentils can also provide a lot of food from just a few plants. Dried legumes, stored properly, can last for years, making them one of the most efficient foods to grow.

We could fit about a hundred of these tiny Spoon tomatoes into a single Red Solo cup.

Tomatoes: tomatoes are a fruit that deserve their own category. The varieties available is staggering! However, if you are looking to get the most pounds per plant, look at growing a mid sized variety. Aside from fresh eating, they can be frozen, canned or dehydrated on their own, or be used as an ingredient for sauces and salsas, and so much more.

Cucumbers: As with tomatoes, there are a really amazing number of cucumber varieties available, but most fall into one of two categories; slicers, for fresh eating, and picklers, for preserving. They all tend to be fast growing and very prolific, too.

Peppers: I wasn’t sure about including peppers on this list. They are excellent producers, but growing them in our colder climate seems to be touch and go. I’ve heard from people who have had great success with them, while others have tried for many years, but have never had a harvest. Peppers can be canned, preserved in oil, frozen, dehydrated, pickled and made into relishes.

Photo by PhotoMIX Company on

Mid term

While being able to grow food quickly is important, it is also useful to consider the long haul. If you have the space for it, there are things that may take several years before they begin producing, but once they do, the harvests will be bounteous!

Asparagus: asparagus can be grown from seed or you can buy crowns to transplant into trenches. It can take three years before they can be harvested, and even then, for the first year or two, harvests should be minimal. Once they are established, however, asparagus will keep producing for up to 20 years!

Raspberries, currants, gooseberries and haskaps: Haskaps are the new berries on the block, and are exceptionally cold hardy. They require male and female plants to produce, and can potentially begin producing berries in their first year. Raspberries are available as regular cane (new canes produce berries in their second year, then die back) or primal cane (new canes produce berries in their first year). Choosing varieties that mature at different times can give you fresh berries for months. Currants and gooseberries, once established, can produce fruit for many years. Berry bushes can provide a great deal of fruit per plant. Along with being used fresh, frozen or dehydrated, as well as made into jams and jellies, they can be used to make vinegars, syrups and wines.

Grapes: yes, there are Zone 3 grape varieties. I’ve even seen a Zone 2 variety. Grape vines are very long lived, and have the potential to provide fresh and frozen fruit, jelly, and wines for many years.

Hedge bushes and trees: There are a number of larger berry bushes that can double as shelter belts and natural boarders. Some, like sea buckthorn and bison berry, do well in poor soils, and while they may be considered invasive in warmer climates, they tend not to be, in our Zone 3. The Rugosa rose produces large edible hips, and their flower petals are edible, too. Saskatoons are a more of a tree than a bush, and absolutely delicious. Chokecherries produce many berries, but are better used in syrups, vinegars, etc. than eaten fresh. Many of these will provide enough berries not only for your own use, but for birds as well!

Photo by PhotoMIX Company on

Long Term

Now we’re really going for the long haul! Here, we are looking at things that can take five or ten years before they start producing food – but once they do, they will continue for decades to come.

Fruit trees: there are a remarkable number of fruit trees that can grow in colder zones. Apples, pears, apricots, cherries and plums can all be grown here. While a single mature tree can provide enough fruit for the entire family, many need to be planted with a pollinator, which can be a different variety.

Nut trees: there are not a lot of nut trees that can grow in Zone 3, but some, like the Korean Pine, are hardy to Zone 2! Hazelberts and beaked hazelnuts are also very hardy. Others, such as the black walnut, can grow in Zone 3, but the nuts may not have enough for a growing season to fully mature.

Okay, so all this is a lot more than just a “survival” garden, but we all start somewhere, right? ๐Ÿ™‚ Little by little, it’ll get done!

I hope you find these useful in working out what are the best things for you to start growing in your own particular situation.

For those who have already been doing this for a while, please feel free to leave a comment, sharing your own experiences. What worked best for you? What didn’t work? Is there anything you would tell someone who is just starting out now? Let us know!

The Re-Farmer

7 thoughts on “So you want to grow a “survival garden”

  1. Pingback: So you want to grow a โ€œsurvival gardenโ€ – Rosalina Health

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