A survival garden isn’t a doom’s day garden. It’s a garden built around a mix of permanent agriculture, or permaculture, and annual vegetable and fruit plants. It’s designed to help you avoid supply chain issues, and provide nutritious food for yourself, and your family. It is a garden of abundance.
There are many concerns about supply chain issues, especially after the floods, disasters, and challenges of the past few years. A survival garden is a garden designed to be low maintenance, and high yield. It is a garden built on sustainable principles, with a healthy mix of annual plants and perennial plants. While many survivalist gardeners focus on calories and food yield, calorie dense food can be bland without the addition of herbs for flavor and vegetables for variety and nutrition. Victory gardens are a type of survival garden, with an emphasis on vegetables, but not necessarily calories. (You can read more about victory gardens here). Calories offer energy that is necessary in a survival situation.
Your survival garden should focus on the plants and fruits you enjoy. Maybe the ones that are expensive to procure where you are. Maybe you want to focus on the “dirty dozen” to have the cleanest strawberries, carrots, onions, and garlic possible. This garden can be a vegetable garden, or it can be a permaculture garden, or it can have hybrid elements of both. You may want to add in small animals as part of your garden plan, like rabbits, quail, or chickens.
I started my garden as an annual vegetable garden with perennial fruit along with culinary and medicinal herbs, but I am slowly adding more and more perennials: Perennial vegetables, fruit trees, nuts, and berries. Every year I add a few more perennial fruit and nuts.
If you have an existing garden, you can simply add additional perennial plants, like herbs and berries to your existing layout. If you’re new to gardening, you may want to look into garden design to help you get the most out of your plot of ground. There are a few steps you can take to preserve your resources, adding rain barrels where possible, taking advantage of water runoff areas to lead water to the garden, and taking advantage of solar sinks and southern exposure walls and nooks to create microclimates that can extend your season and your growing zone.
If you live in an apartment, you can still have a small survival garden on your balcony, or patio, in containers. Container gardening is actually a very valuable way to grow some of your own food, from lettuce to potatoes, and give you a more food security even in the city.
You can also grow some fruits on a balcony, or southern exposure patio. Hardy figs for example, or hardy kiwis are two unique options for balcony growing of fruit trees. They are very showy and unique in their foliage, and are easy to protect from the elements if they’re in containers. Other fruit options for balconies include strawberries, and plants like tomatoes.
Even if you have zero outdoor space, there are tomatoes, herbs, greens, and more that you can grow on window ledges. Look at re-growing plants from food scraps for more window-ledge grown food ideas.
Survival Garden Herbs:
Herbs are one of the most important aspects of a garden. They provide flavor, herbal medicines, and are useful companion plants to help keep other plants happy and healthy in your garden. Many herbs also take up little space, a few square inches, or can be grown in pots on a window-ledge or balcony if you have limited space.
Calendula, also known as pot marigold, is a personal favorite. It’s useful as a skin-care herb, with some of the same garden benefits as regular marigolds. It also provides a splash of color, and can be grown even in gardens and situations where edible plants are not necessarily permitted. It’s a very useful multi-purpose plant for this reason.
Culinary herbs like basil are also super useful in the survival garden. There are several decorative basil varieties, like Cardinal Basil that has purple flower like tops, which still have awesome flavor and all the basil herbal benefits. There are even micro ball basils, in green and purple, that are perfect for containers.
Cilantro, dill, fennel, thyme, oregano, parsley, sage, rosemary and other herbs add essential flavor and antioxidants to cooking and keep our food from being boring or unappetizing. All herbs can be dried for long term preservation. Use the lowest setting on your dehydrator to preserve the volatile oils and flavor in culinary herbs. If you live in a drier climate, herbs can be bundled and air dried, without heat.
The allium family is another highly versatile and useful herbal family. Alliums like onions classify as root vegetables, while garlic classifies closer to an herb. Both are very useful in the survival garden. They add tons of flavor to cooking, and garlic often is repellent to deer and rabbits due to it’s strong scent. You can plant onions or garlic around the outer edges of the garden to help protect your other garden plants from four legged nibblers. Learn more about growing garlic here. If you have fruit trees use garlic and perennial onions around the trunk of the trees. The strong smell of alliums protect the trees from rodents that like to girdle their trunks, ruining your investment. (I love to use the prolific bulbs of Egyptian onions or walking onions for this.
Growing for Winter Storage:
Year round calories are an important consideration for your survival garden. Winter storage vegetables that can maintain their freshness in cold storage or a root cellar are the best vegetables to grow. They don’t require canning or electricity for safe and effective storage. Root vegetables and winter squash do well in cold storage and provide reliable calories.
Vegetables and fruits that are easy to store, without a lot of intervention in the preservation process, is necessary. Plants like cabbage store very easily in a cold storage room, or a root cellar like situation, without the need for excessive refrigeration, dehydrating, or canning.
Root vegetables like carrots are useful for winter storage. If you’re in the deep south they may even be a fall or winter crop instead of a summer crop for you. Winter radish are another useful storage option, with a relatively mild flavor once roasted. Turnips, parsnips, and rutabagas are also traditional winter storage root vegetables. However, I’d only grow the root vegetables that you know you’ll eat. If you won’t touch beets with a ten foot poll, don’t try to grow them for winter, grow carrots or a veggie that you’ll enjoy instead. Root vegetables like carrots may work best in a square foot gardening layout, especially if you’re short on space.
Winter Squash and Pumpkins
Winter squash are another very useful long term winter storage crop. I’ve had squash survive in cool storage from harvest till March, sometimes as late as July. They are high in nutrients, especially flavonoids, and are very versatile for soups, baked as a veggie, and just to enjoy. The seeds of all squashes can be used as food, though the larger pumpkin seeds are most often eaten. They can also be pressed for oil, if you have an oil press, like this one.
Depending on your climate, some winter squash will thrive better than others. Candy roaster is a great southern squash, while in my Zone three climate I grow a shorter season heirloom pumpkins, acorn squash and delicata squash, and lots of summer squash like zucchini. I can store zucchini till December if I let them grow to baseball bat size, so they harden their skin.
Potatoes and Sweet Potatoes
Potatoes are another great survival crop. Easy to grow, they contain all the nutrients you need to survive except for calcium. If you don’t have a lot of space, they can be grown in containers. The same goes for sweet potatoes if you’re in a southern growing climate. Both of these root vegetables are dense with nutrients, calories, and store well with minimal preserving. Sweet potatoes can also be very decorative plants, especially if you live where they can flower during the growing season. Thankfully, while part of the morning glory family, they aren’t invasive and are frost sensitive so you don’t have to worry about them spreading. A greenhouse may help you grow sweet potatoes, especially if you’re in a cooler climate and prefer them to regular northern potatoes.
If you’re growing cabbage for storage, you may be tempted to also grow broccoli, cauliflower, or kale for winter storage as well. While these are versatile veggies, they don’t store as well as cabbage. If you’re focus is winter preservation, you’ll want more heads of cabbage than heads of broccoli or cauliflower. Kale is a good option for letting it sit in the garden overwinter, you can mulch it in well with straw, and can harvest fresh kale greens right up until the plants are covered in snow. Kale flowers in it’s second year, so the early spring kale can also be harvested like broccoli, before pulling the plants (if you don’t want seed).
Nuts provide oil, protein, and carbohydrates and are important survival foods. Nut trees begin bearing in 3 to 5 years after planting. Hazelnuts, chestnuts, butternuts, heartnuts, bartnuts, can be grown in zone 4 or higher. Both chestnuts and hazelnuts have suffered blight that has wiped out commercial plantings. Much work has been done to find blight free cultivars. Look for local trees that are blight free and gather the nuts in fall, to plant in your own garden, or order bare rooted seedling trees in the spring. While a 2 – 3 year old nut tree can cost hundreds of dollars from a nursery, bare rooted seedling trees can be found for a few dollars, but must be planted while they are dormant.
If you have space, add a few nut bushes or trees to your garden or plant them in the hedge rows near your home. Filberts, or hazelnuts, are a fast growing shrubs that produces a decent quantity of tasty hazelnuts in just 3 years after planting. They also produce wood that’s good for fencing, stakes, and chopping up for mulch and are a good coppicing tree.
Chestnuts are making a comeback and provide a nut that can be substituted for flour. Called “The Bread Tree”, chestnuts are high in carbohydrates and lower in fat than other nuts, they are a useful survival staple. Chestnuts may bear in three years but most trees will start to bear 5 to 7 years after planting from seed.
Unless you have a ton of space, I’d avoid butternut and walnut trees since they can negatively impact some plants that grow close to them, including trees. If you have lots of space, however, a few walnut trees can be a very good garden investment. They will bear their first nuts in 8 to 10 years after planting from seed.
High Nutrient Plants that Need Preserving:
Many other survival crops need preserving to bridge the hungry gap — the period between the last harvest and the first harvest after winter. Preserving skills like dehydrating, water bath canning, pressure canning, or freeze drying can allow you to keep your harvest without refrigeration because once the food is preserved, its stable at room temperature.
Sweet corn is often pressure canned, dehydrated, or even freeze dried. But don’t overlook the value of dried corn like flour corn, flint corn, or even popcorn for survival crops. However, if you enjoy fresh corn more than cornbread, a sweet corn may be more beneficial for you to grow. Flour corn and popcorn can be preserved by simply letting the cobs mostly dry on the plant, then husking and hanging the cobs to finish drying. Then the dry corn can be used either as popcorn, or processed into corn flour, as needed. If you are planting both sweet corn and a dry corn, separate them by 250 feet so that they don’t cross pollinate, and change the texture and flavor of the sweet corn.
Peas and Beans
Peas have high protein, and are a good spring and fall crop in most zones. In my zone, they are a spring and into summer crop. For a survival garden, field peas that are purposed to use as a dry pea are the better idea for winter storage. Fresh eating peas should also be included in your garden rotation, since the tender growing tips can be used as a salad green, while waiting for the fresh peas to be ready to harvest. You can also use your own pea seeds, from home grown yellow peas or similar, for microgreens for winter eating.
Beans are another good survival crop, though they take up a lot of space. Bush beans are good for green beans and will provide a harvest in just 55 days from planting, while pole beans or runner beans provide a larger harvest for the space.
French beans or green beans provide nutritious vegetables, but the real stars of the show are the dried beans like black turtle beans, kidney beans, black-eyed peas, lentils, chick peas, and more. These beans can be stored for years once they are dried. They can be replanted, if you have room, and they are high in protein. Plant 50 plants per person to provide enough dried beans for winter soups, chilis, and stews. The seeds of all beans can be grown for dried beans.
In warmer climates, peanuts are a legume that is a must in your survival garden. They not only fix nitrogen in the soil, they also can be used for peanut butter, oil, and dried nuts providing additional vegetarian protein. To harvest the oil you’ll need an oil press, like this one.
Tomatoes and Peppers
Peppers and tomatoes are a staple in many gardens. In colder areas these plants must be planted indoors, and planted out in the garden or in a greenhouse or row tunnel once all frost danger is passed. The crop will come in during the growing season instead of ripening all at once.
These need dehydration or canning for non-electric preservation. Of course, you can freeze tomato sauce or salsa just as easily as canning it, or dehydrating tomatoes and peppers. I like combining multiple preservation methods, so dehydrating some tomatoes and peppers for a tomato sauce powder that just needs water to prepare. Canning some prepared sauces for quick meals. And, of course, freezing some sliced peppers and sliced or whole tomatoes for fajitas or other, similar, foods. Using at least three different preservation methods helps you have shelf-stable ready to go food from your garden, even if you lose a freezer, or have mice get into your dry goods.
Sunflowers can also be a good addition to the survival garden. The sunflower seeds are high in oils, and beneficial fats, and are easy to grow. You can also grow sunchokes, that have edible tubers, are perennial, and have a texture similar to potato. Sunflowers, especially if you get a variety with pollen, are also very good for encouraging your local pollinators, bumblebees, and mason bees, to thrive. Simply grow your sunflowers over the summer, and when the seeds appear mature harvest the heads and let them dry in a protected space. Once fully dry, you can flake out the seeds and store them in glass jars or other insect and rodent proof containers. However, if you let the seeds dry on the plants, you may end up with both lots of self-seeded sunflowers, and very fat and happy squirrels or jays.
Greens like spinach can also be a very good part of your survival garden. These greens are rich in nutrients and minerals that your body needs. I dehydrate excess lettuce, chard, spinach, kale, stinging nettle, raspberry leaves, and more to make nutrient powder. Like this green powder here. I add it to soups, stews, and baked goods throughout the winter as a thickener and to add essential vitamins in a less easy to detect way. I also do a stew thickener with dehydrated mushrooms, tomatoes, zucchini, carrots, sweet potato and whatever other veggies I have on hand.
Dehydrating greens makes them take up a lot less space than if they were frozen, and gives them an extended shelf life of up to 5 years. So this is another reason I enjoy using dehydrating to preserve my garden’s harvest. Even if you’re not growing a survival garden, preserving your hard work is still a good plan.
Save your own seed
If you’re growing plants from heirloom seeds, remember that you can save your own seeds for next year’s garden. Many plants are self-pollinating, or don’t cross pollinate easily, like tomatoes and peppers, lettuce, beans, and peas. Saving your own seeds, even if it’s just of a winter squash variety, can be a good way to help plants acclimate and thrive in your zone and your garden, too. Some people say you can’t save seeds from hybrids as they won’t grow true. While that’s true, if all you have is hybrid seed, do save your own seed — what you grow from it will still be a vegetable. After that first year of seed saving, you can improve it over time, by selecting each year for the plants with the most favorable traits in your climate.
Perennial Berry Bushes:
I keep raspberries, strawberries, and blueberries growing around the edges of my garden for one simple reason. Berries are tasty, nutrient dense, and expensive. If you want to add berries to your survival garden, I’d go for the ones you enjoy eating the most. I like raspberries because the leaves are used in herbal medicine as a nutritive, giving two harvests from the same plant and space.
Strawberries are awesome, because I grow them with my perennial asparagus plants, so again, I get two harvests from the same space. I like doubling or tripling up my space use, even if it does require a bit more compost and mulch to keep all the plants happy and producing.
Berry plants like black currant or red currant are both tasty and medicinal. I like drying many of my berries for teas and for use in nutritive infusions. They add some sweetness to compensate for the green taste of raspberry leaf and nettle leaf, while adding in nutrition of their own to the tea or infusion.
Berry plants, and other fruit bearing plants, should be planted in direct sunlight, at least in the north. If you’re in Texas or somewhere desert-like and hot, then afternoon shade for many garden plants is a must. Or, a shade cloth covering for mid-summer.
Extending the Season:
Depending on your growing season, you may want to either plant earlier in the spring, or harvest later in the fall. Now, there’s a few techniques that work well for extending your growing season. Tender seedlings can be protected with cloches or row covers in the early spring to keep off those last few degrees of near-frost. Covering newly planted, but non-germinated seeds with mini greenhouses can also improve and speed up germination of semi-hardy plants, and any tender plant that requires direct sowing.
In zone three to six, you can extend the fall season with cold frames by planting new seeds in cold frames in August and September. Frost hardy plants like kale, spinach, lettuce, chard, and other greens are great candidates for winter harvest. Smaller root veggies, like the small fingerling carrots, radishes, and beets can also be good candidates. The plants do grow slower in fall, due to lower light, but by planting in August/September, you can give the plants a light boost while young, and the chill/frost will hit quickly enough that lettuce won’t bolt.
A thick covering of mulch in the cold frame can help protect roots from frost, and the addition of a row cover or another frost protective layer within the cold frame can also help extend the season by several more weeks. Many cole and brassica plants will get a fresh sweetness to them if they encounter a few degrees of frost, so these plants are good candidates for the cold frame too.
Extending Soil Fertility:
If you’re growing a survival garden, one of your focuses may be to improve yields and soil fertility without the use of chemical fertilizers, commercial fertilizers, or bringing fertilizer and mulch onto your property. The Back to Eden method recommends using a thick layer of fresh woodchips for mulch. Using woodchips made from the green and leafy parts of bushes and trees helps avoid binding the nitrogen in your soil, compared to using dry woodchips from dead-wood.
You can use grass clippings that are generated on your property, or hay or straw mulch that is guaranteed herbicide and pesticide free. (I’ve heard of several gardeners with plant failures due to herbicide use on hay and straw that affects their gardens, since the herbicide remains potent even in manure if the animal consumed hay with the herbicide on it.)
Composting, especially your own garden wastes, is a good idea to improve soil fertility. I also use food safe cardboard, like apple boxes, for mulch on paths, and around some trees and shrubs. I like pairing cardboard mulch with straw or wood chip mulch, as it keeps weeds down better and breaks down slower.
Lastly, I like gardening with mushrooms to improve soil fertility. Making a wood chip bed with a good layer of cardboard, wine cap mushroom spawn, and lots of woodchips and clean straw can give you a good layer of natural hummus within a few years. It also gives you a good harvest of nutrient and protein rich mushrooms. You can even perpetuate the mushroom bed by adding additional new wood chips and straw each year. So you can harvest fresh mushrooms, tomatoes, greens, and more in one trip to the garden! Oh, and winecap mushrooms also help remove and prevent harmful soil nematodes from attacking plant roots, and can clean up jugalone if your garden area is affected by walnut trees, or walnut family trees.
Cover crops like comfrey, cala lilies, willow, thornless honey locust and other perennials provide fodder for compost and mulch. Plants like comfrey and cala lilies can be chopped and dropped several times during the growing season. While trees and shrubs like willow and honey locust can be coppiced and the branches chopped up for ramial chipped wood, to provide mulch and carbon to build soil and inhibit weeds. Worms will thrive in areas where the soil is kept covered in mulch, building long term fertility.
When considering what you need to plant for a survival garden, do consider calories, and staples that can be kept without refrigeration. Potatoes, sweet potatoes, dried corn, dried beans, winter squash are great to consider. If you are mostly growing your favorite veg, and haven’t grown these calorie dense plants in a while, consider adding them now, or planning them into next year’s garden plans. And while you’re looking at annuals, consider spaces in your own garden or in the neighborhood where a few nut trees or fruit trees might be planted.