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The Survival Garden: Plan Ahead

As a homesteader, you probably have a goal of growing most of your own food. However, the road to self-sufficiency doesn’t appear overnight. Perhaps you started with a small garden with a few tomato plants and a box of lettuce. Later, you expanded your garden to a plot large enough to grow enough food for your summer produce needs.

To be truly self-sufficient, though, requires a more intensive approach. Several years ago, my husband was unemployed for an extended period. During this time, we relied mostly on our food storage to feed our family. From this experience, we learned two things: we needed to store at least three times the amount of food we thought we would need; and we needed to store a wide variety of foods to fend off boredom and nutritional deficiencies.

As it turns out, a large kitchen garden isn’t nearly enough to feed a family. To become truly self-sufficient, you’ll need at least an acre of intensely cultivated crops. This endeavor takes some careful planning. How do you determine exactly how much you’ll need? Write down a typical monthly menu for your family. Multiply the ingredients in the menu by nine to twelve months and you’ll have a basic idea of what you need to store. Pull out your favorite canning book or visit the USDA’s site to determine how many pounds of produce you need to can your favorite staples. Finally, a gardening site can offer insight into the potential yields of various crops. This might seem like a lot of work, but if you do it right the first time and take good notes, you won’t need to do it again. With trial and error, you’ll soon have an instinctive feel for how much food you need.

Grains And Legumes

The first crops you’ll want to incorporate are grains and hard corn for making flours and feeding livestock. Unless you have a lot of animals, you won’t need a large patch. Plant some barley and rye for variety and don’t forget oats. Traditional oats are very difficult to hull, so look for “naked-seed” ones with softer hulls.

Save room for several rows of legumes. In the grocery store, your choices are usually limited to four or five types—black, kidney, pinto, or navy beans. Check any good seed catalog, though, and you’ll find hundreds of interesting beans.

If you have a lot of animals, you’ll need at least an acre for growing grain for feed. This might seem like a big step, but it’s actually fairly simple. For a small farm operation, you won’t even need a tractor. Instead, buy a pair of moderately sized workhorses and a plow. Horses don’t require a lot of care or maintenance, and their manure fertilizes the field. Additionally, your kids will love them! As far as equipment goes, check farm sales for old plows and tillers. Amish country is probably the best place to go for finding horse-drawn equipment.

Perennial Vegetables

Next on the list are perennial vegetables. These crops don’t take up a lot of room, and they come back year after year with almost no help from you. Asparagus takes two to three years to start producing a good crop. Plan on a row at least twenty feet long, or more if you really love asparagus. Rhubarb grows quickly and tolerates a bit of shade. Two or three plants is more than enough for most families.

Onions And Root Vegetables

People tend to forget about these humble vegetables, but they’re essential in the homesteader’s garden. Dry onions and garlic flavor winter dishes and can be stored for months. Root vegetables, including carrots, turnips, beets, parsnips, and potatoes, are simple to grow and keep for up to six months in cold storage. In mild climates, leave root vegetables in the ground and cover them with straw.

Tender Annual Vegetables

Tender annual vegetables, such as tomatoes, green beans, peppers, and sweet corn, take up the most space in your garden. They also require the most care. Most families need between ten and twenty tomato plants to provide enough tomatoes for sauces, salsas, and soups. You’ll also want several rows of sweet corn and green beans. Grow a few chili plants for adding flavor to meals. Don’t forget cucumbers, zucchini, pumpkins, and winter squash.

Greens

Greens are a valuable source of nutrition, and they grow very quickly in limited space. You can even grow many greens indoors under grow lights during the winter. Think kale, collards, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, lettuce, kohlrabi, and lettuce.

Small Fruit

No homestead garden is complete without a few small fruit plants. Small fruit add sweetness and variety to the homestead diet and they are remarkable versatile. Freeze them, dry them, can them or make them into jams and syrups.

Most small fruit crops are perennial and require little care. Raspberries, for example, live thirty years or more and require little more than annual pruning and regular watering. Some make fine landscaping shrubs, providing shade and shelter for wildlife. Depending on your climate, try grapes, gooseberries, currants, elderberries, raspberries, blackberries, or strawberries.

Orchard Fruit

Orchard fruits have a reputation for being difficult to grow, and certainly, commercially grown fruits are heavily treated with pesticides and chemicals. In the homesteader’s orchard, though, your goal is not cosmetically perfect fruit. A few worm holes or blemishes are no cause for concern. With such a reasonable approach, you’ll find growing orchard fruits to be a simple, rewarding project. In general, most fruit trees need only minimal pruning in late winter and an application of manure. Semi-dwarf and dwarf trees produce fruit earlier and are simpler to maintain than standard varieties, but they may not fare as well in bitterly cold winters. It’s also important to choose orchard fruit varieties suited to your climate. In my Colorado orchard, late May frosts are not uncommon, so growing early-blooming fruit such as peaches and apricots is almost impossible. Hardy apple varieties and sour cherries are a better choice.

Tips For Success

People often think they need acres and acres to grow enough food for their family, but this simply isn’t so. One secret to using space efficiently is to replace ornamental plants in your landscape with edible ones. Apple trees make fine landscaping trees. Replace large shade trees with pecans or English walnuts. Plant shrubs that produce edible berries, such as elderberry, serviceberry, or even chokecherry.

Try succession planting, which is the technique of growing multiple crops on the same land. In early spring, grow peas, radishes and lettuce. Use the same area to grow tender annual vegetables during the summer. In late summer, plant broccoli, lettuce, and kale.

Plan for success. Some plants naturally grow better in your particular climate than others. Grow these plants in large quantities in your garden. You can still grow more challenging plants, but they’ll need more maintenance and attention. Grow them in smaller quantities to reduce your risk and the amount of time you must spend in the garden.

Plant open-pollinated varieties, rather than hybrids. These plants are naturally hearty and often taste better than hybrids. Most importantly, you can save the seeds of open-pollinated plants, which is usually not an option with hybrids.

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