Creating a More Self-Sufficient Garden for the Long-Term

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I love gardening. It’s fun, it’s rewarding, and it saves money. However, it’s only useful for prepping purposes in the long term if you focus primarily on a self-sufficient garden. If you rely on bags of fertilizer, soil, and seeds every year, grid interruptions and supply chain issues can put a stop to your fun hobby.

We saw the beginnings of this last year with seed shortages. In my area, seed supplies have been better than last year. But I am still always looking for ways to make my property more of a closed-loop. Between using perennial plants, seed saving, and on-site fertilizer production, I have made a lot of progress.

Perennials are long-term investments for a self-sufficient garden.

Rhubarb has been growing for about a month now. My first asparagus spears are just beginning to emerge. I planted one rhubarb crown and maybe seven asparagus crowns in 2014. You can’t harvest rhubarb the first year. And asparagus needs to wait for three years before harvesting. But if you have a place in which you plan to hunker down, they’re well worth it.  

Since 2017, I have been getting several servings of asparagus a week for about two months a year. Other than the occasional weeding and watering, I’ve had no work or effort other than initially buying and planting the crowns.

This past winter, I dug up my rhubarb root and split it into pieces, hoping the “crown division” process was as easy as all the gardening books assured me. It was. My one original rhubarb plant has now turned into seven rhubarb plants. I won’t harvest any this year, but next year, I should be drowning in it, which is fine with my kids and me because we love rhubarb. And, like the asparagus, it has just become part of the landscape.  

Are things like asparagus, rhubarb, mint, chives, and horseradish staples? Of course not. I have bags of dried beans, meat in the freezer and on the hoof, just like many of the people reading this site. But my garden plants can make the dried beans a lot more enjoyable.  And they’ll come back every year whether I put a lot of work into them or not, which is certainly in line with the goal of a self-sufficient garden. 

I planted chives last year, and the horseradish roots I put in over the winter have just started to come up. We’ll see how these do in the long run. Mint is everywhere. I planted it in 2015, and it would take over if I didn’t pull out big chunks every year. 

Many of the things we enjoy eating every year are annuals

For annuals, you can save seed. Suzanne Ashworth’s book Seed to Seed is a great guide to get started saving seed. I regularly save tomato, pumpkin, and carrot seed. Seeds are not super expensive. I buy seeds every year because it’s fun to experiment and try new things. (The Organic Prepper recommends Seeds for Generations for your heirloom seeds – they are a small family business in Virginia). But saving some seeds can be a lifesaver. For example, a few years ago, some disease wiped out half my tomato plants. 

I saved seeds from the ones that survived and have never had that disease since. Every garden has its little quirks, and over time, saving seeds from your healthiest plants can produce individuals exceptionally well suited to your garden.

Depending on your climate, you may be able to let some annuals go to seed. I only do this with herbs. With vegetables, growing them in the same place every year will usually lead to disease in the long term. Of course, you could let them sprout and then pick them up and move them when they’re small. But my growing season is too short for tomatoes to fruit unless I start them inside, which is the only vegetable I’ve had that will volunteer outdoors here in Colorado.

Japanese planting rings

When I lived in Texas, I had a Japanese planting ring. By the time we moved, I didn’t even bother planting in it. So many seeds would sprout out of it that it was a simple matter of pulling out the ones I didn’t want.

Japanese planting rings are great for people living in the suburbs. Howard Garrett talks about them in his book Texas Gardening the Natural Way

You start by making two concentric circles. The outer wall can be retaining wall bricks, and the inner one is chicken wire a few feet high. Toss your compost into the chicken wire and then plant outside of the chicken wire. When you water the compost, it drains down and waters the plants you’ve put in just outside it.

Not only is it an attractive way to compost, but it also gives your plants an extra nutrient boost every time you water. And we eventually got volunteers from our compost. One of the guajillo chiles we’d gotten at Food Town sprouted and turned into a five-foot-tall beast. It was excellent, and it came from our food waste!

We also had tomatoes and squash grow on their own. We would let some basil go to seed, as well, and that would regrow every year in Texas.

No-till can work for you

I don’t get veggies in Colorado, but parsley, dill, and cilantro will reseed themselves. I don’t deep till most years. I generate enough compost on-site with my animals that I simply layer it over.  The Organic No-Till Garden Revolution by Andrew Mefferd goes into great detail about this.

No-till won’t work for everyone, but I have had good results. I live in a semi-arid region, which means I can suppress weeds simply by not watering. No-till is definitely worth researching.

The biggest complaint about no-till is usually the amount of compost required to make it work. Since I have livestock, I produce a lot of compost on-site simply by piling soiled bedding, watering, and turning it occasionally. However, if you do not have livestock, don’t despair. You still have options.  

A shocking amount of yard waste winds up in landfills

When I lived in a suburban neighborhood in Texas, my neighbors would put all kinds of things out on the curb. It was pretty typical, if you needed furniture, to simply drive around the night before trash day and see what other people were throwing out. That’s how I got my media armoire, as well as a lovely china cabinet. They even match.

But if you wanted to build your own soil, you could just as easily grab bags of yard waste, assuming there are no laws against that kind of thing. I know in Texas, it was a non-issue.

If you don’t consider garbage-snatching an option, you could simply ask friends and neighbors for their yard waste. Pay attention to food waste. Most people throw away more than they realize. Mixed with lawn waste, it can produce good compost.

Or you could volunteer at a park

Depending on where you live, this can pay off in a variety of ways.

I’ve brought back downed leaves and Christmas trees for my goats from the park where my children and I volunteer. My park also has wild plum trees growing; we received permission from the ranger to harvest as many as we wanted. It’s been a good relationship for both of us.

Building healthy soil is the key to successful gardening. Healthy soil with plenty of organic matter will prevent all kinds of other problems. We talk a lot about becoming resilient ourselves; it applies to the natural world as well. Soil with plenty of organic material will foster healthy plants and good insects that can help defend against harmful insects. You won’t need to spend nearly as much money on fertilizers and pesticides and this in turn will create a more self-sufficient garden.

Does this mean your garden will be perfect?

Of course not. Just like proper diet and exercise do not guarantee good health throughout your lifetime, neither does proper soil maintenance guarantee a trouble-free garden. 

I have plants fail every single year. 

But it helps overall, especially in the long term. We should always be moving toward resilience and self-sufficiency for those of us who consider food-producing part of our preppertoire. It is never too soon to research and prepare.

How are you creating a more self-sufficient garden?

Are you working on making a more self-sufficient garden or homestead? What are your plans to garden for the long term? Let’s talk about it in the comments.

About Joanna Miller

Joanna has been homeschooling three children since 2012. In 2014, she moved to the High Plains of Colorado. She and her children began a little homestead, gardening and raising chickens for eggs and meat. One animal led to another, and these days they have livestock guardian dogs, chickens, geese, ducks, alpacas, goats, pigs, and one very spoiled cat.

Picture of Joanna Miller

Joanna Miller

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  • We use aged compost from the barn and waste hay to retain moisture.
    Compost “tea” every two weeks seems to help too.

  • “you could just as easily grab bags of yard waste”

    well you don’t know what kind of herbicides they’ve been using.

    • Thanks for catching that – I had a little glitch last night and thought I’d retyped it but maybe I forgot to save. It’s fixed now.

      • Hey Daisy, tomorrow is Cinco de Mayo, if you are still in Mexico have an extra beer and tamale for us!

        • I sure will! The funny thing is, nobody here does anything for Cinco de Mayo except the restaurants that cater to ex-pats! I was blown away when I was all excited about being here for Cinco de Mayo and my Mexican friends didn’t understand my enthusiasm.

          • That is because Cinco de Mayo is a hyped holiday, pushed by American Alcohol producers.
            Cinco de Mayo has its roots in the Second French intervention in Mexico
            The Mexican victory that day, was short-lived. A year later, with 30,000 troops, the French were able to defeat the Mexican army, capture Mexico City, and install Emperor Maximilian I as ruler of Mexico.
            So it really not such a notable thing to celebrate, as it accomplished very little in the long run, Just another battle.
            Many Americans falsely assume Cinco de Mayo is Mexico’s Independence Day.
            Independence Day in Mexico (Día de la Independencia) is commemorated on September 16.

            • Yes! I was here for Dia de la Independencia and it was really something else! Fireworks and loud music all night. It was a lot of fun.

  • We compost most all of our yard waste, sure do wish Rhubarb grew here in North Central Florida, however I believe that it needs a hard Winter season, which do not have here.

    As usual this site has excellent info.

  • “self-sufficient garden”

    grid up, coffee grounds are a great source of nitrogen. grid down, urine is even better. only needs a bit, too much will burn the roots.

  • Look into Bokashi. I put all my kitchen waste into a 5 gallon bucket. Anything organic can go in, paper napkins, bones. It’s a pretty quick fermenting process. No real smell – smells a bit like pickles. No turning, its anaerobic. When time is up just dig it into the soil where it finishes decomposing (very quick process) and it draws in earthworms. I bought the starter flakes on Amazon but you can make your own.

  • My husband and I are attempting to “simplify” our gardening experience as well. We are committed to organic methods. My husband brings home bags of leaves from the facility where he works for mulch. I have one concern about accepting yard waste from others. If they are using toxic chemicals in their yards you run the risk of contaminating your garden. Best not to assume it’s safe. I wish everyone well on their gardening journey!

  • Plant a few fruit trees berry bushes like black berries wild strawberries potatoes tomatoes field salad tomatoes asparagus silver beet spinach mint chives rosemary all these come back every year very little maintenance I started just before covid struck and have pretty much lived off my garden for last few years

  • I’ve found that heat strips and UV lights for early starts work, tin foil strips help deter the birds, and T-Rex rat traps rock. I use Neem oil and insecticidal soap routinely. Diatomaceous earth liberally sprinkled around the stem on the ground of curcurbits works against beetles, and sawdust when you’re poor. Remay paper row covers and paper covers on ripening tomatoes prevent flying pests well.

  • I live in Alabama and I have tried straw bale gardening, raised bed, square foot, lasagna, Hugelkultur. I have even gardened in reusable Walmart bags(which was quite successful). I am sticking with Hugelkultur in a contained bed. I have had some that were not contained, but I wanted something more permanent. My bed is 3 ft. high made with cinder blocks. I am 68 years old and don’t bend as well as I used to. I would think this form of gardening would work well in Colorado with the abundant wood available there.

  • I would recommend female asparagus plants (usually less expensive to buy). Of course you might have to battle the birds for the seeds but I find there is usually enough to share.
    Strawberries are also a good perennial – IMHO June bearing provides a better berry but someone-who-shall-not-be-named tends to NOT read all the markers in a flat. I’ll see how the few Everbearing work out (I know where I planted them). Supposedly bears in June and again in late summer – at this point I am skeptical. Usually have plenty of daughter plants so those I’ll move if necessary.
    I’d also recommend foraging if in certain areas. After removing invasive plants, my ramps have been spreading quite nicely. Not a good choice for long term preservation (you can make a pesto out of the leaves) but a nice addition when it is in season. Just be cognizant that it has been over harvested (not as bad as ginseng but not far behind). Do your research and harvest accordingly. I’ll dig a plant if it is growing in an area that is “high traffic” otherwise leaves only.

  • So many thoughts! One of the farms profiled in the No Till book belongs to friends of mine. They didn’t start out no till but have, over time, produced rich soil through very innovative techniques–that they gladly share with anyone who asks. Where we are you have to break up the soil a bit (I use a broadfork) and take out rocks…..many, many rocks! But the soil itself is a glorious healthy ag soil. Adding organic matter can be challenging and expensive so we grow some plants in abundance specifically for additional organic matter to compost–lots and lots of comfrey for example. (It is an unbelievably important plant for any gardener or herbalist. Just try to grow Bocking 14/Russian so it doesn’t take over if you don’t want to tend it!)
    Someone already mentioned pee–but they said to only use a little. Well, yeah if you put it on the plants directly BUT if you use it on your compost pile it will really help to get it going. Use it on leaves to break them down faster.
    Also–everyone is right to be wary of other people’s grass cuttings but you are pretty darn safe with the fall leaves from the neighbors/town/county. In fact, that is what our nearest local Organic Compost company uses to make the bulk of the compost.
    No matter what, and others will tell you differently–it will be an investment of both time and money if you want to grow enough to make a difference in your food sourcing. And there will be lots and lots of failures but the successes will outweigh them and feel so damn good.

  • Great article, Joanna.
    I would like more people in Venezuela would have the mind setup you exhibit. I´ve seen people with huge backyards and not even a papaya tree, nor tomatoes or anything.

  • Sunchokes /Jerusalem Artichokes are a good perennial addition that provides abundance. Some may be sensitive to the Inulin in the tuber. Also ideal to plant in a contained area as it’s a spreader!

  • To me, a self-sufficient garden means that, if SHTF, I will not starve with what I can grow now. Will I like it? Will there be tons of variety? Unlikely; however, I may be able to barter with what I grow extra of. With this in mind, I focus on vegetables and fruits that I can seeds save for and that have the potential to store well through our Canadian winter. I also exclusively use old farm methods of preservation that do not require any electricity. I am still eating my last Waltham butternut squash from last fall’s harvest – kept these in my cold room. I still have a row of carrots and parsnips in my garden waiting to be harvested – trenched under screen, inches of straw and two inches of board insulation on top.

    This year, I am growing more protein: pinto beans and kidney beans. I am starting with some grain – corn to dry and grind into grits and flour. As well, I will be trialling old farm methods of “crocking” vegetables using salt. I already can take fresh cabbage, onion and bell peppers and pickle it in a crock – this never goes bad…EVER! It is a great complement to any meal. I plan to make a huge crock of it as my cabbage is harvested and eat it over the winter.

    I do save seeds, but am learning there are many factors to consider. Because I grow both sugar pumpkins and squash, the seeds of these will be hybridized and what grows from these potential hybrids should not be eaten. Wondering if I should go to Waltham butternut squash only this year to prevent this. I have seed saved from my own carrots, kale, brussel sprouts, beets. However, in most cases, these vegetables are biennial and only seed in the second year after they have “vernalized” and been properly stored/maintained through a winter. I have used many methods to vernalize these vegetables, including the old farm method of storing over winter in damp sawdust in a cold room, and have had some dumb luck trenching plants outdoors.

    I hope to have more perennials like the author, eventually, but have been so busy building my cabin. Now that it is done, I can look around at where my rhubarb might go. At least I can still go steal some rhubarb from the family homestead until mine is established…yum yum!

  • If people live in Virginia and need wood for hugelkultur, or whatever, they can check with the national parks about taking away dead wood. This helps both the parks and the public needing wood. A win-win!

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