One thing all preppers seem to do is stock up on food for an emergency or long term disaster scenario. Some even stock up on seeds so that they can grow their own food once their emergency supplies run out. But surprisingly few preppers have ever actually tried to grow vegetables nor have they done the prep work, purchased the tools or have a real grasp on how difficult it can actually be to grow enough food even in normal conditions to survive year round. Preppers should realize it is very important to start growing their own food right now.
This is not because there is an imminent disaster right around the corner, it’s just that like everything else in life, problems tend to pop up when you least expect it so it’s good to know in advance what issues you may face when trying to grow your own food and how much you would actually be able to grow if needed. The purpose of this article is to give gardening novices a broad overview of the concepts they need to know and prepare for in order to grow their own food. If you read this guide, do some additional research and start growing a few vegetable plants, it won’t take too long to become an expert at growing your own survival garden.
CHOOSING A LOCATION
Before you can even start growing any food, you need to choose a location on your property to grow it. You should pick a spot that has full sunlight most of the day and you should also be able to easily observe the area from the windows of your house (this latter part is for security reasons – in a long term disaster scenario people will be desperate and they will try to steal your food for themselves if they know it’s there). Once you have chosen a location, you need to prep it for growing your garden. Traditionally you would plow the area that you want to use. But this requires that you also plow after each harvest and we are going to assume that in a long term disaster scenario, you aren’t gonna have the fuel for a mechanical plow nor any mules or oxen hangin out in your back yard to hook an old wooden plow to. Besides that, growing food directly in the ground results in the constant struggle of pulling weeds and grass out of the garden not to mention how difficult it will be to control pests. So we are going to avoid the whole plowing thing all together and build planter boxes.
There are HUGE advantages to planter boxes which are also referred to as “raised beds”: Your plants are up off the ground so it’s easier to kneel down and tend to them. Grass and weeds have a much harder time finding their way up into the planter box than they do into a plowed garden. You also have much greater control over the quality of the soil because you aren’t actually using the soil from your yard. Planter boxes also assist in the control of both animal and insect pests. Finally, once you harvest your vegies, it is much easier to pull up the old plants and get your soil ready for the next planting.
BUILDING YOUR PLANTER BOXES
Planter boxes can be built in one of two ways and can be built with any number of materials. Some people build small planter boxes on legs so that they are sitting completely off the ground about waist high. However we will be building long, narrow planter boxes that will be placed directly on the ground. As far as the materials they are made of, you can us concrete, bricks, stone or build them out of wood. We will discuss building our boxes out of wood. Wooden planter boxes are cheap, fast and easy to construct. If the wood starts to rot or fall apart (after several years of use), you can easily just replace one of the sides with a new piece of wood. Of course you need to make sure that you don’t have an area infested with termites otherwise you might want to use one of the other materials mentioned. If you use wood, you need to choose UNTREATED wood because treatments can leach into your soil and you don’t want those chemicals winding up in your vegies. When using lumber, you should choose 2×10 or 2×12 boards which will be nailed together to form a rectangular shape approximately three feet wide and from eight to sixteen feet long. You only need to build the four sides of the boxes as the top and bottom will be open. Once built you will need to place them on the ground where you want them to go (just an FYI – you won’t be able to move these once they are filled with soil so make sure you place them where you want them). Finally, before moving onto the next step you will need to purchase some weed block landscaping fabric to line the bottom of your planter boxes. This will prevent grass and weeds from growing up from the ground, through your soil and mixing with your vegetable plants. It also allows water to drain through the planter boxes into the ground and assists with keeping ground based pests from coming up into your boxes.
CHOOSING A SOIL
Once you have built and placed your planter boxes in the spot you have chosen, you will need to purchase soil to fill the boxes. NEVER use “potting plant mix” with the little Styrofoam balls in them. You need real soil that has been pre-mixed with manure or compost. If all you have are a couple small planter boxes, you can buy this soil in bags at your local Lowes or Home Depot. But for planter boxes over 8 feet or having multiple boxes takes a lot of soil to fill so it is better to call a local landscape supply company and purchase a truck load. Just give them the length, width and height of your planter box(s) and they will be able to calculate how much you need. You will want to fill the planter boxes to about an inch below the top edge of the boards and leave the soil loose – don’t hard pack it down. Over time the soil will settle and start to compact down on its own, shrinking further below the edge of the boxes. This is just fine because you will occasionally be adding other material and hand tilling it into the soil so you don’t want to initially overfill the boxes.
CHOOSING THE RIGHT KIND OF SEEDS
Now that you have your planter boxes in place and filled with soil, it is time to decide what to plant in them. This is where things start to get a little complicated as there are several things you need to know and you will also need to do some research on your own to find out exactly what you will want to be growing but I’ll try touch on the basics to help get you started in the right direction.
First it starts with the seed. Each type of vegetable has different subspecies and on top of that there are different kinds of seeds. The seeds you go buy at the dollar store, home depot or Walmart are likely going to be hybrid or genetically modified seeds. Hybrid and genetically modified seeds have been specifically designed for certain purposes such as resisting frost or drought, being able to handle mechanical harvesting better or something like that. However with all their good traits they all have one MAJOR disadvantage and that is they are usually sterile. What I mean is that after you grow and harvest your vegetables, these variants do not produce seeds capable of growing new plants. This is an EXTREME disadvantage in a long term disaster scenario because you will eventually run out of seeds and there won’t likely be stores around to go buy more. So what you will want to do is purchase HEIRLOOM seeds. These are purebred, unmodified seeds of a particular subspecies that are able to reproduce naturally. So you will basically harvest all your food purposed vegetables when they are ripe but leave a few on the vines to keep growing and producing more seeds inside them. Then just before you are ready to plant your next vegetable crop, harvest these and let them dry out so that you can harvest the seeds from inside them.
CROP ROTATION AND PLANTING SCHEDULES
Once you have purchased the proper seeds, the second thing to know is that in order to maximize the amount of food you can harvest each year, as soon as you harvest your vegies, you need to immediately plant something else. But you can’t just keep planting the same thing. All vegetable plants have a certain time of year that you have to plant them. Miss the window and they may produce little or no vegetables. Also the time of year to plant a certain crop may be January in Texas but March in Minnesota. It all depends on the climate in your region. So you will need to do a google search to find out the growing schedule for your state. Just go to www.google.com and type: Garden Planting Schedule (your state). The top couple results should give you a month by month list or chart of what to plant and when to plant it.
MAXIMIZING YOUR HARVEST RESULTS
Aside from the planting schedule, you should do some research to find out what plants produce the most vegetables in the shortest amounts of time and/or thrive in the climate of your region. As an example, by planting various things I discovered that Okra plants produce an enormous amount of product and the actual Okra vegetables grow extremely fast. You can pick tons of okra off the plants every 2 or 3 days for about two months. Okra plants are also drought resistant and they love high heat – perfect for where I live in Texas. Squash and cucumber plants also produce a lot in a short amount of time. Corn on the other hand is a horrible crop for a survival garden. It takes about 4-5 months to grow from seed to harvest, each plant is huge/takes up a lot of space, it consumes an enormous amount of nutrients and water and you only end up with about 2 to 4 cobs for each plant! That is a HORRIBLE return on the time and space investment of your garden. You will want to research and experiment NOW while things are good so that you don’t make mistakes like this in a real long term disaster situation.
In order for your plants to produce any vegetables at all, they have to be pollinated. As the plant grows they develop pollen producing flowers and also seed pods that will turn into vegetables. In order for the pods to turn into vegetables, the pollen has to be moved from the flower to the seed pod. In nature, flying insects like bees usually do this for you. However if you have your plants all screened off (explained later under the pest control section) this may be an issue. In that case, you can just manually pollinate your plants by hand using q-tips. In general, you would just get a generous amount of pollen from the flower onto the q-tip and wipe it on appropriate part of the seed pods. All plants are physically different on how they pollinate so you will need to do a google search and study the characteristics of the plants you end up growing so you know everything about them in this regard.
REPLENISHING THE SOIL / FERTILIZING
Eventually, your plants are going to consume all the nutrients out of the soil and then they will begin produce less and less vegetables. So you need to learn how to replenish the soil nutrients or in other words you need to learn how to fertilize the soil naturally. The two methods to organic fertilization of your soil are to use either compost or manure. Compost is simply decaying plant matter. As the plant matter decays it crumbles apart releasing the elements and nutrients they absorbed as they grew. You can then spread this out over your planter box soil and then hand till (mix) it in before you grow your next crop. I’ll explain in a separate article how to create compost in more detail.
The second method to fertilizing your garden is more potent and that is to use animal droppings. Commercial producers of gardening soil usually use cow manure to mix with the dirt. However you don’t need cows if you are growing a small survival garden just for your family. I would have to say that the best all-around animals to raise for this purpose in an urban environment are rabbits. Rabbits can eat the leftovers from your garden that you won’t eat so you don’t have to buy any kind of special feed for them. They are small and don’t make any noise so your neighbors won’t even know you have them. Rabbits also reproduce rapidly and are a great source of meat when there isn’t anything else to fill that role. But in regards to your garden, rabbit droppings are extremely potent when used as fertilizer. When you mix rabbit droppings into your garden soil it performs at almost the same level as Miracle Grow. Just remember, whatever kind of animal droppings you use it is best to use manure from animals that eat a plant based diet (these animals are kind of a natural composting machine). You don’t want to be using carnivorous animal droppings (like dog crap) in your garden if you can help it though if there was nothing else and the only soil available contained absolutely no nutrients whatsoever, you could use it.
CONTROLLING INSECT AND ANIMAL PESTS
Probably the biggest problem you are going to face when growing a vegetable garden is insect and animal pests. Every region and even every neighborhood in the country is slightly different and has insect and animal pests that you may have never even noticed were there.
For instance when I grew my first garden, I tried to grow some cucumbers and squash because those vegetables grow fast and large. As soon as the plants began to flower, I started noticing hundreds of “cucumber beetles” all over them. These look like little yellow lady bugs with black spots on their backs. These pests eat the leaves off of your plants and they reproduce quickly resulting in ruined plants that produce little or no harvest. The thing is, I had NEVER seen these bugs in my neighborhood before I started growing these particular plants and I had lived at that house for 20 years. Yet these little bugs just appeared seemingly out of nowhere and vanished just as quickly once the season was over. So without test growing different plants in advance of a real survival situation, you won’t know what pests you need to prepare to deal with and that could cause a major issue if you were trying to ride out a long term disaster where you and your family were relying on the food you grow for their survival.
Birds are probably the worst animal pests most people have to deal with. The thing is they like to come in and eat the bugs that are on your vegies. This is a good thing except when they go in for the kill, they peck the crap out of your vegetables as they grab the bugs. This produces holes allowing other insects the ability to go inside the vegetable and either eat them or lay eggs inside – not very appetizing is it? Some people may have to deal with gophers, rabbits or squirrels depending on where they live and what they are growing.
Fortunately there is a fairly simple solution to all of the pest issues and that is getting what is essentially “screen” – like is on a screen door – and installing it around your planter boxes on all sides including the roof. This will keep birds and most all other pests out of your plants. When you build your planter boxes you just add more framing in the corners and vertically about every 4 feet along the sides, then also put a band of 2x4s around the top edge. This gives you a framework to mount removable screen frames to.
As a last resort, if you have insect issues even with using screen, you may want to research natural methods of dealing with it. What I mean is find other insects that eat your pest insects. Praying mantis is a great example. These things look pretty scary but they are harmless to humans. However they love to eat other bugs and will leave your vegetables alone.
Hopefully this info has given you a solid foundation on which to start building and growing your own survival garden. You may want to experiment with different plants, different construction techniques of your planter boxes and with different kinds of natural fertilizers. If you have never done anything like this before, the key is to start small and learn what you can as soon as possible because you never know when this knowledge may keep you alive in a long term disaster scenario.