How to Grow a Survival Garden (and What to Do if it Dies)

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by Daisy Luther

I love growing my own vegetables. I spend many fulfilling hours outside every summer, tending to my plants, nurturing my soil, and babying things along, with the birds for music and a basket full of delicious organic food to show for it each day.

Except this year. This year, my garden is a flop.

Eaten by deer, killed by the heat

It’s pretty embarrassing to admit on my own website that my garden is not doing diddly squat this year. I am normally pretty good at growing food (or just extraordinarily lucky) but this year, circumstances beyond my control have thrown up one challenge after another. First of all, we moved July 1. I started my garden in containers, earlier in the summer, and then transplanted them into my lovely new fenced garden full of raised beds.

Only, the fences weren’t high enough, and unbeknownst to me, I had set up a deer buffet with a low hurdle. Garden #1, GONE. Decimated. Wiped out. And I didn’t even get venison in retribution.

So, I went and got some new plants and put them in. Better late than never. I deer-proofed and nurtured my soil and paid top dollar for plants that were a bit more advanced, since by now it was the first week of July.

And then a heatwave hit the day after I transplanted them. 107 degrees. Most of the plants withered immediately and no amount of TLC would bring them back.

I was determined that I would have at least SOME vegetables and bought even more plants. I added some shadecloth to protect them from the sun. I fed them some white sugar to help them recover from the transplant shock. They’re growing but not providing me with a whole lot of produce, for numerous reasons, including heat, a late timeline, and slightly low phosphorus in my soil.

Aggravating. I’m a wannabe farmer shopping at the farmer’s market to get my summer veggies. Not cool.

But, like everything in life, there’s a lesson here. It got me thinking about all of the folks whose master plan for survival is a big stockpile of seeds. While this is a very important part of a long-term self-reliance plan, there are some years, no matter how many silver bells and cockleshells you put out, your contrary garden just won’t grow.

It’s going to happen. One year, your gardening season is not going to live up to your expectations. Have you thought about what you’ll eat when your garden flops?

Troubleshooting a garden that is dying

I’ve written a lot about adaptability as a survival mechanism and this holds true with your vegetable garden as well. When a major part of your survival plan is growing your own food, being able to identify and overcome issues with your plan is vital.

Experience. The number one key to troubleshooting your iffy garden is experience. Many people make a survival plan without any practical skills to back it up. Have you gardened before? Have you gardened in the area in which you intend to survive? If you haven’t, you aren’t going to be able to predict the pitfalls, like deer fencing that isn’t high enough, too much direct afternoon sun, not enough direct afternoon sun, etc.  This is the major reason for my gardening failure this year. All of this stuff is learned by (often painful) experience. Keep a gardening journal to help avoid repeating those mistakes and to keep track of trends, like late frosts, etc. So get out there and get dirty. No excuses. If you don’t do it now, you can’t expect to survive doing it.

Soil testing.  A huge part of successful gardening happens before you ever plant a seed. You need to know all about your soil so that you can amend it and provide the right foundation for growing. It’s best if you amend before planting but you can still have some success after the fact.  Every bit as important as your seeds is a soil-testing kit. Get a kit that tests for soil pH, nitrogen, phosphorus and potash content.  I like this kit because it has 10 tests for each substance. The price is very reasonable (it’s geared towards classroom instruction) so get a few for your stockpile. This way, if the S hits the F, you can still have access to the science that you need to troubleshoot  successfully.

Soil Amendments. Once you’ve done your testing, you will need the supplies to amend your soil to optimum nutrient levels.  Find some books on DIY soil amendments and stock up on supplies that you might need to adjust where your oil is lacking. If your goal is gardening for survival, it’s very important to learn to amend your soil without a trip to the garden store. For example, blossom end rot is caused by a lack of calcium in the soil. This can be improved by adding milk to the roots of your plants, then deeply watering them, or making a tea from crushed eggshells. Learn about the safe management of manure, composting, and the use of cover crops.

Access to Information. Right now, we have the luxury of the internet. With the help of Google and YouTube, we can find the answers to nearly any gardening question we might have. But in a long-term survival situation, it won’t be that easy. It’s almost a guarantee that if you are in a scenario during which your vegetable garden is all that stands between you and malnutrition, you aren’t going to have access to the internet.

My bookcase is loaded with reference books on topics like gardening, herbalism, and other old-fashioned skills. Join me by going old school. Get yourself some well-reviewed gardening books. These are some of my very favorites:

 

Also, check out the highlighted links in the soil amendment section above for more excellent books. (Some of them are available for free on Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited program, but I strongly recommend hard copies of books that you find useful.)

And be ready for worst case scenarios. In a perfect world, everything would be organic and wholesome. But in an imperfect world, when your garden is the difference between life and death, it’s possible you might occasionally have to use methods that you wouldn’t normally use. I’m talking, of course, about chemical methods: fertilizer, herbicide, and pesticide. It isn’t ideal, but when you absolutely must have a successful season, you should have a few things like this put aside for worst case scenarios.

What to do when you can’t grow your own food

While my plan is to eventually be able to grow much of what we need for survival, I’m also prepared for a bad year. While the items above will help you through many gardening issues, there are some things that are completely beyond human control. Things like:

  • Bad weather, either too hot, too cold, too rainy, or too dry
  • Pests – who remembers that book in the Little House series where Pa’s fields were descended upon by a horde of hungry locusts?
  • Natural disasters – wildfires, terrible storms, tornadoes – all of those can wipe out a garden

There’s absolutely nothing you can do about certain events. And that’s why you must have a Plan B. A stockpile of long-term food is essential for surviving when the deck is stacked against you.

There are numerous different ways to go about building your food supply (which I go over in my book, The Pantry Primer), but the basics are:

For more information, check out this article: 12 Strategies for Creating the Perfect Pantry.

Have you ever had a bad garden season?

This year, I’m very thankful that I have lots of homesteader friends and an excellent farmer’s market, as I navigate my new gardening environment. (You can find a local farmer’s market HERE.) I still have some stuff left over from last year’s harvest, and of course, my stockpile, but this year’s harvest is looking like it’s going to be disappointing.

As with any preparedness scenario, thinking through it ahead of time can help us maneuver through the situation more easily if it happens in the midst of a crisis. Have you ever had a similar bad gardening year? What are some of the causes I may not have covered? Pests? Weather? An act of nature? Were you able to overcome it, and if so, how did you do it?

Please share your answers in the comments below. You just might be resolving someone else’s garden issues!

How to Grow a Survival Garden (and What to Do if it Dies)
Daisy Luther

Daisy Luther

Daisy Luther is a coffee-swigging, globe-trotting blogger. She is the founder and publisher of three websites.  1) The Organic Prepper, which is about current events, preparedness, self-reliance, and the pursuit of liberty on her website, 2)  The Frugalite, a website with thrifty tips and solutions to help people get a handle on their personal finances without feeling deprived, and 3) PreppersDailyNews.com, an aggregate site where you can find links to all the most important news for those who wish to be prepared. She is widely republished across alternative media and  Daisy is the best-selling author of 5 traditionally published books and runs a small digital publishing company with PDF guides, printables, and courses. You can find her on FacebookPinterest, Gab, MeWe, Parler, Instagram, and Twitter.

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  • Most of our gardening years are bad years. Not enough time to plant due to one mini crisis after another, Not enough money, Too much rain, too little rain, vermin: ground hogs and deer, but also squirrel. I happen to live within driving distance of vegetable farms and put up food from them as well as grocery stores. Yup. grocery stores. I soak what I can in vinegar water.

    We decided to plant easy hardy plants. First we started with butternut squash. They last most, but not all, of the winter, for man and beast(s). This year we added sweet potatoes. The vines are supposed to be edible. They are doing okay, but due to mini crisis (see above) they got planted late. We are trying potatoes in black construction bags (for hubby) and pole beans as the rabbits can eat the vine and we can the beans. Also sunflowers (whole) for rabbits. Part of the garden is fallow this year–nothing goes as planned. I can tomato sauce, freeze eggplant (bake, scrape and freeze), and dehydrate fruit that is reasonably priced. We put up other food as well.

    I would encourage butternut squash as we just spread out the plastic. I would also encourage you to research Amaranth. For full disclosure I have never eaten it before. The red leaves can be eaten like spinach. They also self seed, and the seeds can be eaten like rice. We are giving it a try this year, for us and the chickens.

    We had to reduce our feed bill, and while it may not work exactly as planned during the winter months, we can reduce costs during the summer. Don’t forget plantain and dandelion for the animals. We also buy an extra gallon of milk a week for the chickens…sort of. If we only go through 1.5 gallons, or it sours quicker than we drink the remaining amount, it goes to the chickens. No waste.

    Check out Ollas to “water” the garden. plastic bottles or other things could be used as well.

    Good Luck!

  • I know how setbacks occur. This year my early greens in the hoop house were just up when the voles ate it all so we didn’t have early greens. One year a moose steped over my 4ft fence and ate a hundred cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower in one night. I try and put up more than enough when crops are good and rotate stocks. We still had frozen greens and if necessary there are lambs quarter fire weed and chick weed.
    Even if conditions are optimal there is a learning curve to growing a garden in a new place. Keep your base preps up and put up as much as you can when it is available. Talk to the old timers. Cooperative Extension might be able to put you in touch with a local master gardener. Choose varities which are adapted to local conditions. As you say “keep a journal”. If times get really bad don’t give up. You will not be the first person or groop that faces famine so you will have to go to your references and maybe the old timers and do what you have to to survive until a new crop.
    I think that in survival situations mental attitude is often the difference between life and death. Keep an optimistic can do attitude.

  • I have a greenhouse. Not very big, but it does produce quite a bit.

    Blossom Rot: Get some gypsum. I get mine at a garden store. Never heard of the milk and/or egg shell tea, but thanks for the advice.

    Bug Control: Plant some marigolds. I put mine in left over garden store pots so I can place them where they need to be. My late mother-in-law always planted a complete border of marigolds around her garden.

    Deer: Deer don’t like garlic. Plant some garlic around. Also, try making a fence solid instead of see-through. Deer don’t like to jump over something when they can’t see what’s on the other side. If you have a wire fence, you can cut saplings and/or branches and then wire them to the fence to create a barrier. Of course, in my opinion nothing except an 8-10 foot fence is completely deer proof.

    The Heat: I have a small industrial fan mounted to the ceiling beam in my greenhouse. And during the day,the door stays open. It helps, although at mid-day I do see some wilting. The electric cost is very low compared to the help it gives my plants. Not sure if fans would help outside, but it might be worth a try. I also used shade cloth for young plants at the start of summer.

  • This year is the failure year , an hail storm took out the entire garden from potatoes to peaches all lost ,coming when it did there was no hope of replanting cool weather crops …. so the entire garden is down to southern peas of various sorts (I am in texas by the way )I sowed every seed I have they stand the heat better than I do so I will get a bulk crop/ belly filler for winter ( it will be beans with everything lol)and hopefully a fall crop of greens/ cabbage and carrots will replenish the larder , I will have to buy new seed potatoes and stock up on seed , I use the local farm supply company for seed they only stock what will grow here unlike the big box stores with their one size fits all .

  • Where I live, gardening is an art form rather than a science. We can get snow any month of the year, followed a week later by warm weather. I grow short season veggies, tomatoes are grown with wishes and prayers, and I have regretfully given up on the idea of growing melons, sweet potatoes,etc.
    I can and dry whatever I can get my hands on, including lots of foraged foods. In the event of a total failure of my garden, I have extra seeds specifically for sprouting and eating.

  • I know not everyone has the option, but I have both a garden and a greenhouse. I find that every year one does better than the other, but it’s hard to predict which way it will go, so I duplicate the crops. I have found that beer in small cat food cans work great for slugs and sow bugs. They have even attracted and killed grasshoppers.

    I keep my greenhouse going all year round, but have found that I must have my winter crops in and well established before the weather turns bad. Too early and nothing germinates and too late and nothing germinates. That is where the journal really helps your memory of past success and failure.

    Gardening is always a challenge. Last year the raccoons kept beating us to our corn, forcing me to harvest what we had all at once and freeze it. This year we harvested most of what was on one of our plum trees (thankfully) and the next day something had done off with all that were left! Not a trace of a single plum. I’m canning plum sauce with my bounty.

    The suggestion of contacting your local cooperative extension (if you have one) is a good one. They have much collective knowledge and can really help you in all aspects of gardening. I am blessed with knowing many as friends and acquaintances as I am a Master Food Preserver and I learn something every time I am around them. The programs they offer are well worth the time and money (which is usually minimal).

    Wishing all you gardeners out there a productive summer. I think we are all going to really need it!

  • imo it will be much more difficult for most people to grow their own vegetables than to raise their own chickens, goats and/or pigs for survival….less work, less risk, more nutrition……

    • Bert I wish someone would have convinced me of that 40 years ago. My focus is now on livestock. Fishing is more productive than gardening.

  • Its been a high low garden year for us this season. I have 85 heirloom tomato plants in, all started with saved seed. They have been struggling the last month with what seems like a blight. Constantly pulling off dead brittle leaves below, some have fruited, some still blossoming. Luckily for me, we have Amish not too far away. I hope to find some who will sell some of their bumper crops. I am somewhat of a seed saver. I grow 15 varieties of heirloom. Some do better then others.

    For the first time, the beans are bushing out well and growing crazy, but are not setting on blossoms.

    I have carrots, garlic, onions, 2 kinds of kale, swiss chard, brussels sprouts, beets, summer squash, moon n stars watermelon, sweet and hot variety of peppers, eggplant. Pickling cucumbers and winter squash grow on verticles (Boston Marrow and Cushaw).

    We have had an extremely “wet” summer. I believe that is my culprit for the tomatoes doing so poorly this year, we have not ample hot sunny days.

    We do have some pick your own places not too far, so those are options when we cant grow our own… our grocer sells mostly local, so that is an option as well to stock up for the winter. 🙂

  • Aquaponics in a hoop house,few pests,no soil issues,no weeds,stand up height gardening.Just need to pump the water and feed fish,maybe some seaweed extract and maybe some iron? Takes a lot of risk out of the equation,but I dont think it alone will feed you without doing it on a big scale.But it is an option.

  • This was a timely post for me. I have never had such a hard season. Pest after pest after pest (one of them my own dog) and then this heatwave. Luckily I planted light this year anyway because of my work load so I haven’t lost as much as I could have.

    I have been feeling very defeated but am trying to view it as a lesson. What if this became the new normal? How would I change the way I grow, save water, add shade, time crop rotation etc. I would like a greenhouse and to add a hoop house over half my garden. I’ve been wanting to install a cistern and the sooner the better. I may use more galvanized planters because of my mole/vole/critter infestation. I may have to look into drought resistant crops.

    But luckily these aren’t hard times. I have access to other fresh foods ( I manage a farmers market). I have friends who have grown excess and have shared. I have plenty of food put up from my canning frenzy last year. This has been a good lesson. I can’t say I’ve liked it but it has been educational!

  • I am a beginning gardener. This year I am focusing on container gardening (berries) which so far is working out well because I am able to better control variables. My Mom has fruit trees in the ground. One fig tree has fruit rotting on the tree. All the fruit trees in the area have been less than juicy due to the drought. Peaches are decent. Apricots were lost to the birds. I’ll be investing in netting. A grasshopper or similar bug got one pomegranate early this year and two or three last year on a new tree. More netting.

    Thanks for the tips above. Soon I’ll be making friends with the local Master Gardeners. 🙂

  • I forgot to mention that it’s one thing to read books and be prepared and it’s another to actually plant and go through all the stages to harvest. There is much learning in the latter, as I am learning. I’m adjusting my supplies and techniques as I go along.

  • Gardening is one of my passion, that’s why I really admire this page of yours . This is really a big help for those who are beginners and are out of space/lot for gardening/farming. This is great . Had so much learnings .

  • I keep a three to five year supply of heirloom, garden-grown seeds, even of plants I don’t use normally. I just plant them every few years to replenish the seed stocks. I kept running out of seeds because of the learning curve, so maybe I go overboard. But it’s saved me (or rather my garden) a number of times.

    This year’s takeaways:

    Squash doesn’t like too much water–you need a strong root system, and that’s better served if the roots have to reach for the water.

    Catch the squash bugs early. Once you can see the bugs on the plant your plant is lost. Take the eggs off and spray the whole plant (as well as any live bugs) with vinegar water (10/1 water to vinegar)

    Use crushed eggshells around plants that are usually attacked by snails and slugs. They won’t go over it, but keep in mind that birds will go after the eggshells for the extra calcium.

    Plant extras and keep them inside so if something wipes out the first batch you have something to fall back on. You can always give away the extras.

    Heat will make female squash blossoms fall off the plant.

    Onions are contrary. Starve them, they thrive. Coddle them, they die

  • Excellent post. We planted our first garden tnis spring in New England after moving into an old farmhouse last November.
    Many challenges just getting ground prepared and soil amendments are an ongoing project. We had the coldest february and record setting snowfall which meant a late start to the growing seasin, then the hottest May on record. Every pest in the book, insects, deer, turkey, raccoon, fungal diseases, blight…
    I think the one thing I did this year that saved some crops at least is to plant some of the more important ones in a couple different locations. I have three areas of winter squash for example. Two were devastated by vine borers. The third so far has been spared. And i plant carrots everywhere there is a spot all summer long so at least some should do well.

    By the way, milk and baking soda sprayed on leaves helps greatly with powdery mildew on curcurbits. Soapy water spray kills squash bug larvae -yay!, as well as Mexican Bean Beetle larvae (curse them and all their ancestors) and there is nothing like enjoying your morning coffee while squishing potato bugs.

    And here is a neat trick I just learned. You can harvest more than once from a cabbage plant. Cut the stem just above the loose leaves around the head, and 4-5 new baby cabbages will grow in a week or two. They wont get big, but are tender and tasty-sort of like brussel sprouts for the lazy gardener.

    • This comment is LOADED with great information I didn’t know – love this about the cabbages, especially!

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