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Will a Survival Garden Slowly Starve You to Death?

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After being in the survival and prepping niche for more than 12 years, I’ve heard just about every survival strategy and tactic there is.

One of the most popular is this, “Learn how to grow your own food.”

And more recently, “Better get a garden started right now!”

That isn’t a bad idea, but for the vast majority of people — like 75% or more –, it’s not only unrealistic but foolish to think you can grow enough food in a garden to sustain life.

For most of us, relying on a garden for survival will be a bad bet. In this article, I’ll explain why.

image: woman harvesting lettuce and green onions from her backyard survival garden

What is a survival garden?

A survival garden is just that—a garden upon which your family’s survival solely depends. No supplementing from a grocery store.

It must provide both the necessary calories and nutrients. And it must do so for the long term–year after year–which means you also probably practice saving seeds to ensure you can plant a crop the following year.

Now you can begin to see why this type of garden is problematic. Let’s take a closer look, though.

“How much did you say I have to grow???”

To maintain average health, the typical adult needs anywhere from 1600 calories to 2000 or more per day. The most popular and easiest to grow vegetables, like tomatoes, zucchini, and cabbage, have around 20 calories per serving. Clearly, the typical vegetable garden will not save anyone’s life.

Let’s take a look at potatoes.

They’re a lot higher in calories (160 for a medium potato), very versatile, and can store for long periods of time. To live on nothing but potatoes, you would need to grow around 6000 potatoes per person in a year.

This can be done, but you’ll need at least an acre of land, growing nothing but potatoes, not to mention optimal growing conditions, farming equipment, fairly high-level skills, and knowledge.

Have you ever tried to farm even just one acre? I never have, but I imagine it takes more effort than a few Square Foot Gardening boxes!

Growing one or two other high-calorie crops will provide more variety, but you’ll also need more land. Of course, no one really wants to survive on just potatoes and maybe some corn or beans, so raising chickens, some rabbits, and perhaps a few goats seems like the way to go — but have you ever done that before? And maintained a couple of acres of crops at the same time?

And how will you preserve all the food you grow and maintain healthy soil, so it keeps producing?

On top of all that, the depletion of nutrients from soil is a significant issue. To keep your multi-acre survival garden producing enough food to prevent starving, you’ll need to factor in the right types and amounts of fertilizer.

There are hidden expenses in all these endeavors that you usually won’t learn about until they suddenly become urgent!

What a garden is good for

Depending on a garden for survival is unrealistic for nearly everyone.

An old farmer once told me, “It takes about ten years to get to know your land,” and even if all you’ve ever done is some container gardening, you probably agree!

A more realistic plan for integrating a garden with your prepping plans might include:

  • Use it primarily to grow herbs and seasonings. These can easily be dehydrated and would be one less thing to purchase and stock.
  • Use it to grow seasonal vegetables and extend your growing season with a greenhouse, cold frames, and/or indoor garden with grow lights. Do what you can and enjoy the process.
  • Focus on the easiest and fastest-growing vegetables for your zone, grow as much as possible, and then preserve them with canning, pickling, and/or dehydrating. These will add fiber and nutrients to your other stored food.
  • Learn how to grow anything with the highest calories, and experiment with different crops until you find the one that best fits your growing zone, the amount of land you have, and your specific growing conditions. This vegetable garden size calculator lets you select both the number of people in your family and the type of food you want to grow.
  • If you live in an area prone to drought, take this into consideration! Some food crops require less water and smart techniques for using the water you have.
  • Use it to teach your kids and grandkids gardening and the love of nature.

Personally, I use my garden as an excuse to get outside and into nature every single day. For me, that’s reason enough always to have some type of garden. I just don’t have any expectations that it will someday save my life with its bounty, or lack of, depending on the year!

I’m not trying to discourage you or mock your survival plans.

The plans we make ahead of difficult times and worst-case scenarios need to be made with the least amount of emotion and the clearest view of reality.

I cannot stress that enough.

Gardening can be incredibly expensive. In a time of inflation and unpredictable product shortages, this isn’t the time to pour money into something you hope will be life-sustaining, only to discover how impractical and difficult it really is.

We’ve all heard stories about the $45 tomato. Maybe you’ve grown one of those yourself!

Calories count.

Nutrients and micronutrients are vital, but if there’s anything susceptible to the whims of Mother Nature, it’s growing food.

Your time and resources are better spent on aspects of prepping other than gardening for survival.

Will a survival garden keep you alive or slowly starve you to death? Click To Tweet

So what is Plan B?

Keep working on your garden and improve your skills and knowledge each season and with each seed planted — if you’re enjoying the process and have the time, money, energy, and manpower to continue. Expand your garden. Try new crops, but also integrate some of these into your plans and routines:

  • Learn to forage in your area.
  • Continue building your food storage, “stack it high and deep.” The plain truth is that ten cans of pinto beans will always be cheaper for the average person than trying to grow your own and a heck of a lot easier and faster.
  • Work towards a well-balanced food storage pantry. Minimum goal: 90 days worth of food.
  • Learn gardening skills through your county’s Master Gardener program. If your county doesn’t have one, find a county in a similar climate and growing zone, and see if you can take their course. Many courses are now online. Search for your county’s name + Master Gardener.
  • Investigate your area for a community garden where you can rent a small piece of land to grow more food or volunteer in exchange for a share of the harvest.
  • Look at this list of places to find free or nearly free food. Then, focus on what you can later preserve by canning, pickling, or dehydrating.
  • Visit a farmer’s market and see what crops and varieties they’re selling for ideas about what grows best in your area.
  • Get family and close friends involved. The more you all learn and cooperate together, the better the chances are that you can grow much, much larger amounts of food.

Survival is more than just “get a garden started”

Now you better understand the downfalls of relying solely on a garden to survive. I really do wish it were that easy!

However, you’ve probably learned by now that “survival” is never one-size-fits-all, and there are always multiple layers for your plans and preps to be effective.

What are your thoughts on the concept of a survival garden?

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I’m the original Survival Mom and for more than 11 years, I’ve been helping moms worry less and enjoy their homes and families more with my commonsense prepping advice.

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