Survival Gardening

One of many survival garden pitches.

Listen to AM radio for more than a few minutes and you’re bound to hear an ad touting seeds and “one acre survival gardens.” The implication is that hordes of foreclosed zombies will soon empty the shelves of the local Walmart and leave us all bartering for gas with our carefully stored heirloom pole bean seeds.

But it does raise the question of how much space you need to grow all your own food. It’s been on my mind since attending John Jeavons’ three day Grow Biointensive workshop where we spent a fair amount of time, calculator in hand, figuring out how many calories you can squeeze from small spaces.

What gets left out in the “survival garden” sales pitches is that, if you want real self-sufficiency, you’ve also got to maintain the soil fertility that you deplete by harvesting. To do that you need to grow all your own compost. For this, Jeavons suggests what he calls “carbon and calorie crops” things like corn and wheat where you get both something edible and a lot of biomass for your compost pile. In Jeavons’ 4,000 square foot “sustainable one person mini-farm” scheme, 60% of your growing area is devoted to these compost and calorie crops. The remainder is planted in 30% high calorie root crops, such as potatoes, with just 10% of the garden devoted to the usual tomatoes and greens.

The residents of Biosphere 2, using Jeavons’ techniques claimed that enough food could be grown for one person on as little as 3,403 square feet. Jeavons has shown that you could use less space, but you better like eating a lot of potatoes.

In reality, there’s probably too many variables, such as climate, to get an exact figure on how much space you need to grow enough food for one person. And let us not forget the novice survival gardener’s experience (I’m amused at the thought of those one acre survival gardeners busting open that paint can full of seeds for the first time having never gardened before). And if you want livestock, the acreage requirements jump considerably.

But considering that it takes, according to Jeavons, between 15,000 and 30,000 square feet for commercial agriculture to provide the same calories as Jeavons’ 4,000 square foot mini-farm, we’d do well to pull out those calculators on occasion. With just 176 square feet of vegetable beds at the Root Simple compound, our goal is self-reliance, not self-sufficiency. Do you think our post-apocalyptic overlords will feed us in exchange for blogging for them?

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  1. Man, I love eating a lot of potatoes! But I never bother with growing my own. I always grow other crops that have a higher cash savings value to them. Anywho, the garden is getting expanded out to 174 sq.ft this year so I might be mixing things up a bit more.

    Also, based on personal experience post-apocalyptic overlords you feed them so they can blog for you.

  2. I figure that, here in Los Angeles, even if I had the space and wherewithal to attempt a survival garden, I would never have enough water. I’m good with my teensy 200sqft garden space.

  3. The Biosphere 2 project was canceled because the participants were short on calories, however.

    Unfortunately I don’t, and I assume most gardeners who live in cities don’t, have even a scant 4,000 sq ft to work with. I wish I did. If the apocalypse comes I assume my chard and tomatoes would just get trampled by zombies, anyway.

  4. I’ve been struggling with the minimum and I’m still working on figuring things out. I also still have lots of wasted spaced in the yard, but I figure I can’t get it all into production the same year. This year I want to add chickens; eventually, I want to be able to grow their feed, or at least most of it. In a conversation just yesterday, my mother told me that she couldn’t remember the Depression, because my grandfather had inherited a lot of money, and still had a job, so she was pretty insulated from it, but that she did remember WWII, because even if you had money, you couldn’t get anything- it just wasn’t available, which is what I imagine the future is going to be like.

    I don’t think that anyone in an urban or suburban place is set up to be self-sufficient because our lives require too many outside inputs. But I do think folks should be striving for as much self-reliance as they possibly can. My goal right now is to learn how to feed us, and that includes knowing what to plant, when to plant it and harvest it, and how to keep it with as little energy use as possible. Potatoes are the best source of the greatest amount of calories per acre, but you know what? They don’t grow year ’round. Learning how to feed yourself is turning out to be a lot of hard work. I have quite a new respect for real farmers.

  5. With the biointensive method by Jeavons it is sort of assumed you are vegetarian. If you keep rabbits or chickens, and use their manure, you can grow less compost beds. Chicken eggs would also help with your calories and thereby reduce your needed bed space 🙂


  6. hmmmm – a fine line between self-reliance and self-sufficiency. Here, the more I can provide for us, the better. and it is definately limited, but increasing all the time. Good luck with that grape! My miniature nectarines are in full flower! Looks to be a good year, as long as they don’t freeze.

  7. I have read many bloggers who think they are feeding themselves because they don’t buy vegetables for a few months so I’m glad to see you addressing the issue of producing sufficient calories (and maintaining soil fertility). I also wonder if those pails of seeds are open pollinated! If not, they won’t do much for long term survival since the seeds of hybrids usually produce inferior plants in the next generation.

  8. Funny thing is that the sellers of these seeds tout them as open pollinated. I suppose it’s an example of an issue both the left and right can agree on.

  9. I’m curious how your Jeavons-style garden comes along. I just got his book and used his soil prep techniques on my 60 sq ft veggie plot.

  10. I’ve been using his techniques for two years now and I’m pleased with the results. The one bed I maintained differently this winter looked like crap. There’s more than one way to garden, to be sure, but Jeavons’ techniques work for my personality.

  11. I don’t know how many times I have heard people say, “We’ve got the garden and now we have a few chickens. We’d be alright if anything happened.”
    HA HA HA!
    That garden better be big and those chickens better be those that go broody and hatch their own.
    And yes, you better have a good compost pile going. Even then,(because I know from experience) your compost probably isn’t nearly as good as cow manure.
    Even with all I know and all I have, if “something” happened (that didn’t take the house, of course) we would be struggling because I still make that trip to the store every week. I am not nearly self sufficient enough yet.

  12. Hate to say it, but Jeavons(and myself) are two of the few people I’ve heard ask the question: “What happens when we are the ones with the food?”. We live in a well armed and often violent country, so it seems you better be very isolated, or armed yourself if you are truly wanting to survive when the *bleep* hits the fan.Still not sure how I feel about this, as I’d rather not be armed 🙁

  13. @Treeswing: I think the opposite of guns is community. Bonds with neighbors, shared resources, like a commons or public food shed, a history of shared projects, like street calming or tree planting–things like that go a long way toward counteracting zombie hordes. The trick is we have to start early, because those relationships are not formed overnight. Every neighborhood should be a village.

    • That is really a nice concept, but I don’t see it as rational. How does tree planting as a neihborhood stop an armed attack? An armed community that banded together for some type of post apocalyptic nieghborhood watch on steroids with shotguns would probably work, however. In a destabalized society people with food and no means of defending themselves will be easy prey. Even now it is only a well armed law enforcement that maintains order in our society. Guns in and of themselves are not evil. They can bring peace if they are only ever used as a last resort to keep the peace.

  14. In the old days in england it was reckoned that an allotment was enough room to feed a family of four for 9 months of the year. This area is much less than an acre. I guess it depends how luxurious you want to make the diet;)

  15. I’m a fan of Mel Bartholomew’s square foot gardening. It’s a great way to grow a lot in small spaces, such as for those living in town. As much as I believe in survival gardening, it’s going to be a weak link for many. The asumption behind most survival seed packages is that you’ll grow them and save seeds for the next year. That takes a certain amount of skill. Better learn about seed saving.
    Grow all you can and put up all you can, but you may want to have some grain like wheat set aside, as well as some prepackaged long term storage food.

  16. @Hardy – those small allotments only worked when supplemented from some common source – either hunting/fishing, common grazing ground, or from share of food earned from helping harvest other’s crops.

  17. @ Mrs. Homegrown,
    I think that even a strong community can be overrun by armed outsiders. One clear example to me is the plight of the Native Americans in North and South America. Also the plight of indigenous people all over the world, speaks to the ability of armed outsiders to overthrow a peaceful community.

    I share your reservation about being armed myself, however I also share your concerns when the bleep hits the fan. It is an unfortunate world that makes choices such as these necessary. I hope we can find a peaceful way to avoid apocalyptic outcomes through the building of a world community focused on sustainability in all aspects of life.

  18. ..we plan to add meat to our veggie stew… living in the NW we have pretty decent access to a fair number of critters that love to raid our garden so should the time ever come when we need it, I will have no qualms in adding some venison to my soup. =)

    • Germs certainly played a huge role but I think the firearms were pivotal as well. Think about it, if the natives had been better armed, they could have simply expelled the whites before there was a widespread exposure to the germs right?

    • Actually it was the germs. Disease carried from the islands to the mainland via natives, so that by the time the Europeans arrived on the mainland they encountered a local population already in chaos from disease. At that point it was quite easy to take over. Had the natives not been decimated and in political turmoil, it was possible that they could have turned back the invaders even though they didn’t have guns, because they had the numbers and powerful technologies of their own.

      Read the book called 1491. It’s amazing!

  19. What in the world makes you think the native Americans were peaceful? Man has always fought amongst themselves.

  20. Actually, it was a combination of things that did each of several native American tribes in, some actually cruelty on the part of those “invading hordes” of white men, he’ll bent on taking over “free land” under the guise of “manifest destiny.”. A few instances follow (1) the delberate spread of disease – where infected blankets were distributed. (2) the deliberate killing off of the buffalo along with the regular market and rail road hunters. (3) the starvation of those relocated to early reservations, where promised food stuff was never delivered (4) Outright massacre (5). “Relocation” (think trail of tears) (6) War, thereby being driven to the brink of extinction by US troops (7) Capitulation, incarceration without rehabilitation and degradation through alcohol and later drugs (8). Being driven from native lands critical to the particular dietary habits of a tribe.

    (Not all Indians shared the same environment or things in the food chain … A South Western Apache simply did not thrive out of that environment and fought viciously to keep land that a North Western tribe, lead by Chief Joseph would have turned its nose up at.)

    and last of all, (9) forced assimilation into the word of the white man by well meaning missionaries and so called Indian schools … though this “worked” in terms of the children learning a new language and culture, the irony is that the “final product” was never accepted by the white culture of that time, or for many years to come (think Jim Thorpe) … Well into the 20th century, no (think Ira Hayes) matter what their personal contributions to this nation.

    On at least two occasions (1) discovery of gold in Georgia (Jackson administration) and the Black Hills, treaties were simply changed or ignored to remove Indians from their lands and deposit them where ever it was convenient …

    I’d like to add that in the case of the Cherokee, they were fully civilized at the time of their removal to Oklahoma … They wore white man’s clothing, went to colleges, we’re educated and had representatives in congress, lived in homes similar to any white man, raised crops, had their own news paper, etc. many had fought for the US along side Jackson, but he personally turned a deaf ear to their president.

  21. I have 200 sq. ft. of raised beds and have been using Jeavons method for many years. I also follow Eliot Coleman’s methods in his book Four Season Harvest. I grow ALL the vegetables and berries that we eat year round for both myself and my husband. Even in Washington state you can harvest root crops, many leafy greens, and several fresh herbs year round.

    • I’ve heard a lot of good things about Eliot Coleman’s methods (though in Los Angeles we don’t need to use them so I can’t speak from experience). Do you grow your own compost too?

  22. if you want to know what will happen when it all goes to hell watch the movie Harrison’s flowers it is about a reporter it went to Chechnya to report the war then look up on the web what happened to the people that live there it will scare you so badly all your prep may be in vain but I will still try to be prepared.

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