Man in Overalls - Survival Gardening

I want you to grow your groceries.

Could you grow enough food to feed your family if you needed? Could we, as communities, sustain ourselves - even temporarily - if there was some major disruption like a cyber attack, supply chain failure, hyper inflation, economic fall-out, or - God forbid - war? Though I'm a fan of salads & tasty treats like sugar snaps, if you're hungry, those just won't cut it. It comes down to calories and protein. If you were gardening to keep your family alive, what would you grow? 

This isn't about fear-mongering; it's about preparedness & keeping enough life-skills passing around in our networks so that, "if & when" we need them, those skills can be cultivated & shared. Even within a generally stable society, there are "minor" crises at the level of region, city, neighborhood, & family all the time that don't feel all that minor to the folks involved.  If you had to, could you grow enough energy-dense crops to keep yourselves alive?

I was raised on stories of how my family made it through the Great Depression. Namely, my grandmother would often say, "We made it through 'Hoover's Time' because we had a garden, because we had a cow and our chickens." When I launched Overalls amidst the 2008 Great Recession, such stories were front & center in my mind. A driving motivation was encouraging & propagating the knowledge & capacity of growing our groceries across the Deep South. As the economy largely "returned to normal" our team's efforts & the gardeners we supported leaned into "nutrition gardening," which is distinct from "survival gardening." The former is about health and nutrient density. The latter is about calories and energy-density. 

So let's get to it: how does one cultivate calories?

Your lowest hanging fruit is a rotation of root crops. Here in the Deep South, in January/ February, you should plant red or white potatoes. Come late May/ early June when you dig those up, you'll replace them with sweet potatoes. Come fall, say, Sep/Oct, you'll dig those and then reseed with a medley of fall storage roots: turnips, rutabagas, carrots, and/or beets. Turnips are the easiest & fastest. Rutabagas may well be the most energy-dense & best long-term storage option.  Speaking of which, all of these root crops can be stored for months in a cool, dry, dark spot like a paper bag in the garage. No promises that they'll be nice & crispy months later, but they'll fill you up.

Another tried-and-true source of shelf-stable calories are "winter" squash, so called not because they grow in the winter (they don't) but because they store over winter. Think butternut, acorn, pumpkin, seminole, and blue Hubbard. There's a reason American Indian peoples relied on squash as a mainstay of the three sisters, and it wasn't because of that yellow vegetable we call summer squash that rots - even in the fridge- after a short week or two and has little more calories than a head of lettuce.

Next up, you'll want some protein. (For context: calories keep you alive; proteins help the body grow/rebuild/repair.) In the warmer months, protein mostly means legumes: beans & peas. The quickest turn-around are "fresh peas" and soft beans like zippers creams, purple hulls, and limas. "Green" beans left to grow "too long" so their seeds start to swell, harden, and fill with protein also fall in this category. Longer term, if you can await a full crop cycle of 3-4 months, you'll be planting things like black-eyed peas, cow peas, and other dry beans: black, brown, or speckled. Besides higher protein content, dry beans have the added benefit of storing well for years - decades even.

But, the problem with all the beans is that - by and large- their growing season is confined to the warm months. How have Southerners survived the winter months when they didn't have enough beans "put up" and didn't - like my family back in the day - have yard hens and a milk cow? It's surprising, but collard greens are actually a decent protein source with 3g per serving, and they thrive in the Deep South's winters. Fill up half your plate with a "mess of greens" and your body will thank you for the fill.

Last on the list of energy crops are grains. They take up the most space, are easiest to grow at scale and because of commodity pricing & easy transport, if you've got any cash, it's usually most economical all-around to buy your corn meal, flour, oats, etc in bulk. But, if you're determined or desperate, here's what I would grow: oats planted in the early fall (Sep); harvest in the spring. Grain corn or popcorn in mid spring; harvest in summer; just be sure to dry it out under a roof - out of the rain - before storing. Notice I I did not mention growing wheat. By-and-large, it doesn't thrive in the South. There's a reason my family, rooted in N Florida, cooked plenty of cornbread but didn't know the first thing about kneading & leaving dough to rise. (Side note: leftover grain crop debris is a great input for making your own compost, which is among the best ways to grow your soil, another survival gardening skill in its own right).


Anyway... let's hope society stays generally stable, so we won't have to lean into these survival gardening skills. But, just in case, if you feel a tremor in the foundations of "life as normal," know that our foremothers and forefathers have - for millennia- grown the foods that kept our families fed. If need be, we can feed our communities as well.

In the meantime, if you'd like support growing your groceries, greening up those thumbs, we're here to help. Growing for nutrition and flavor while things are relatively "normal" is a great way to cultivate your skills lest you should ever need to lean into survival gardening.

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If you're ready to grow your groceries...
Please, click here to see our services & book a consultation, so I can assess your site; we'll discuss design, answer your questions, talk #s, and get your project lined up. We offer turn-key raised bed food garden support services. Or, if you've already got a garden, but need a little seasonal support, click here.

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