Planning A Survival Garden

Planning a Survival Garden is part of a series of articles about how to deal with coming 'tough times', from the perspective of (what should be) our top priority - ensuring we have enough food.

Every activity of any consequence needs to start with planning; the first step in planning is setting the objective. In planning a survival garden the objective is to provide enough food for subsistence eating, on an on-going basis.

Yes, I'm aware that you can supplement this with stored goods or by hunting or fishing (you can bet I'll try to knock down a deer or two every fall) but eventually your stores will run out, and areas can be hunted-out, especially if every man-jack and his sister is out there in camo when the food runs short.

So let's plan on your garden being the key to long-term survival.

What I want to do in this article is provide a reality check for you when planning a survival garden. It's hard to fully test your preparations before the crisis actually hits, but you can do a little analysis to see you are really as prepared as you think you are.

First, lets identify our assumptions. In other words, which particular set of circumstances are we planning a survival garden for? And, what is the time scale we're working with?

I can't describe my vision of the near-future any better than John Michael Greer in The Archdruid Report:

"Get past the fantasies of sudden collapse on the one hand, and the fantasies of limitless progress on the other, and what you get is what we’re getting—a long ragged slope of rising energy prices, economic contraction, and political failure, punctuated with a crisis here, a local or regional catastrophe there, a war somewhere else—all against a backdrop of disintegrating infrastructure, declining living standards, decreasing access to health care and similar services, and the like, which of course has been happening here in the United States for some years already”.

In other words, more of what we're experiencing right now, on an increasingly-downward slope. Barring a currently-unforeseen major catastrophe, I think we will sputter along without current systems becoming completely unreliable for a while yet; maybe 5 years, certainly not more than 10. But it will become increasingly hard to find basic resources, and they may become much more expensive.

And one of my visitors last week made this point very well (thanks, Liz):

“Once the "bottom falls out", many will try to begin growing gardens. That will probably put a strain on the suppliers of seeds and plants. With the increase in demand, the prices will skyrocket! We'll no longer be able to afford to grow out own food from store-bought seeds and plants. Right now, many of us are dependent upon our local co-ops to start our gardens”.

So you see how these assumption shape our planning. Using the above scenario, I going to assume we not only need to provide the major part of our food supply from our garden, we also need to assure a way to re-plant that doesn't depend on traditional commercial seed suppliers or nurseries.

And, since in most places the 'eating season' is longer than the 'growing season', we also need to find a way to stretch our food supply to provide 12 months of food a year.

The above assumptions make crop choice critical to planning a survival garden. The factors I consider when planning my market garden are not too different from the survival garden. When making crop choices I consider:

  • yield,

  • nutrition, and

  • store-ability

To that I would add repeatability i.e. the ability to replant from our own stores.

This gives us the parameters for planning a survival garden. What might that garden look like?

The Prototype Survival Garden

A 'prototype' is a model intended to display the characteristics of the final product to allow testing. I'm going to use the prototype survival garden I describe here to test the feasibility of growing a 12-month food supply and being able to repeat that indefinitely. In other words, that reality check.

Given all the above, the traditional 'three sisters' – corn, beans, and squash - are not a bad place to start planning a survival garden. They meet all the criteria above, and can be grown in most places.

To that I would add potatoes as another crop that can be grown almost anywhere, stores well, can be replanted from your own stock, and that yields a lot of food.

Remember I'm not suggesting this would be all you might grow, but it gives us a starting place for planning and our reality check.

Here's my other planning conditions:

  • We need to provide 2000 calories per day per person.

  • We get 25% of our calories from each of the four crops listed

  • My prototype garden is laid out in 50-foot by 5-foot beds (3ft of growing area and 2-ft paths between)

  • We can achieve and maintain average yields comparable to those shown below, which are taken from my own records and a couple good reference books.

I'm a spreadsheet kind of guy, so here's how this works out when I plugged in the numbers:

2000 cals per day 25% equals lbs/day lbs/year feet row/year
Dried beans yield 10lb per 100ft of row @ 2000 cals/lb 500 0.25 91 913
Dried corn yields 20lb per 100ft of row @ 1800 cals/lb 500 0.28 101 507
Potatoes yield 150lb 100ft of row @ 450 cals/lb 500 1.11 406 270
Winter squash yields 350lb 100ft of row @ 250 cals/lb 500 2.00 730 209

assume 5-foot beds (3 foot growing area with 2-foot paths)

ft of bed needed # 50-ft beds sq ft needed
Beans @ 4 rows/bed 228.1 4.6 1141
Corn @ 4 rows/bed 126.7 2.5 634
Potatoes @ 2 rows/bed 135.2 2.7 676
Squash @ 0.5 rows/bed 417.1 8.3 2086


You could make substitutions e.g. sweet potato for the squash (more vitamin C and A, more calcium) but this wouldn't affect the calculation much (more calories per pound but fewer pounds yield).

So what lessons can we learn from this? First, note that this prototype garden requires more than 4,000 square feet per person to provide a minimal diet. And this is not taking into account the need to maintain soil fertility by growing cover crops or allowing the soil to rest for (minimum) 1 year out of three.

Second, there is no 'spare capacity' here; 2000 calories a day is not a lot, especially if you are maintaining a large garden using mainly hand tools. There is no extra for trade, and you are one crop failure away from slow starvation.

I think that, realistically, a family of four would need no less than 3/4 of an acre or 30,000 square feet to grow all they need. Personally, I'm planning on a full acre to feed Suzie and I, our two (grown-up) kids and their 'significant others'- i.e. 6 people. I have other land I can use for my goats, chickens, ducks and pigs (more about that in coming articles) but that's my garden plan.

I know people have grown amazing amounts of food on less land than that e.g. the Urban Homestead but I don't know of any that are growing all their own food, and permaculture designs such as this take years if not decades to establish. In other words, if you haven't started yet, you can't get there in time to save you.

So what do you do if you have less land than this e.g. you are in an urban area? A postage-stamp size back yard is NOT going to feed you. I would suggest the minimum size plot to be worth your time and effort is about 1,000 square feet.

According to Dmitry Orlov in 'Reinventing Collapse' many Russian families managed to survive the collapse of the Soviet Union the help of a standard garden plot of one sotka which is 100 square meters, or 1076 square feet. A plot this size this would certainly let you supplement your diet, and could be the difference between 'making it' and not.

If you don't own that much land, find access to it. Work with your neighbours and do a land survey to find land that can be used to grow food crops.

And if you can't be a grower, support one. Form relationships with local growers at farmer's markets or through a CSA. Start now, because it will only get harder.

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