Will a Survival Garden Keep You Alive or 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.

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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.

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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?

10 thoughts on “Will a Survival Garden Keep You Alive or Slowly Starve You to Death?”

  1. We’ve been gardening for decades and I would never want to depend solely on what comes from it. Most years it supplies fresh produce – that sometimes can last into/through winter with proper storage. Some years it is pitiful. Our fruit trees are producing a skimpy amount this year, but fortunately we have fruit from prior years put away. And although the long cold spell this spring cut the fruit production, the extra rain created a massive amount of weeds that my husband is still fighting.

    A garden will help stretch food supplies but I think we would get really hungry if that’s all we had. And we have a BIG GARDEN – almost an acre. And most of the fruit trees are outside the garden so it’s mainly devoted to veggies and some berries.

    When we moved from Texas this time of year our tomatoes had already died from the heat. We were almost in shock when the neighbors told us they were just beginning to get their first tomatoes – from the greenhouse!

    Geography is everything. And even in this county there are so many micro-climates. We moved off the mountain from that first place to a much nicer gardening area. A few more neighbors but much nicer climate and not really very far from the first place. Yet even a mile from us the growing season is shorter than ours (they are also downhill, but in a frost pocket). You need to know your land and weather patterns if you really want to do well.

    I think everyone should have a garden. But anyone who thinks a can of survival seeds will save them needs to get a strong dose of reality. If you don’t garden now it’s not going to be a simple thing when life is a disaster.

  2. I’ve never heard anyone say that a survival garden is intended to be the sole means of food (nutrients and calories), with no supplement from the grocery store or from bartering with neighbors, etc. That’s definitely ludicrous. But it’s also a straw man argument that literally no one who gardens makes.

    That said, vegetable and herb gardening is time-consuming and has a huge learning curve, plus knowledge of soil components, sun and water requirements for every plant, pest and critter control, and etc. It’s not something you can do when it’s already too late, that’s why people who have the room and inclination should start now.

    When you get bumper crops of tomatoes (or whatever), it’s important to know how to preserve these items by making jams, jellies, sauces, or drying (garlic, etc.) or by keeping them cool and in the dark. It’s also good to share your wealth with like-minded neighbors, so if someone has chickens or rabbits, you can trade your “extra” crop for eggs or meat. A friend of mine makes her own laundry detergent, and it works great for pennies, trading for a gallon of that (which is then mixed with water, so it’s a LOT), just makes good sense.

    There’s some great stuff in this article, but it’s important to know that no one, literally no one, thinks they can survive on only a garden. Having you say that detracts from this piece greatly.

    1. The Survival Mom

      Many people in the survival and prepper world actually do talk about growing all your own produce, so no, it’s not a strawman. We’re pointing out the dangers of relying on that after being told by experts that it can be done. “Survival gardening” is a thing. Here, we teach a balanced approach and view of not only gardening but self-defense, food storage, etc.

  3. any garden is better than no garden, just as any food storage is better than none.
    you mentioned that buying beans would always be cheaper than growing. i don’t see that. we rotate our garden beds so as to not deplete one nutrient by growing the same thing over and over. it also fools the bugs that build up in a bed that gets the same thing planted repeatedly. in that rotation is a season of building the quality of the soil by planting beans. at seasons end, we snip the plants at ground level, leaving the roots with their nitrogen nodules under ground to rot, leaving fiber/humus and tiny tunnels directing water down as well. the bean pods are removed and the plants chopped and dropped in place. mulch for winter, braking the force of winter rains and avoiding compaction of the soil. the bean pods are bagged and placed on a table where they are rolled with a rolling pin. picking out the beans is an evening chore done while watching tv or reading. in an eighty square foot bed we got 4 pounds of excellent pinto beans that we think of as free. 4 pounds is not a lot, but it is a worthwhile amount. if you try that, be sure to put the shelled beans in the freezer for a while to kill any bugs hidding in them. for the same reasons we are experimenting with growing in fallowed beds a purple hull-less barley. fiber in soil, mulch on top. also a bit of food for the chickens and perhaps some for us. 🙂

  4. I like to think of the garden as a supplement to food storage and weekly grocery purchases. I’m sure we couldn’t survive if we had to grow everything!

    1. Years ago I spent some time with an elderly man, over 90 years old as I recall, and he told me about growing up on a farm that was nearly 100% self-sustained. The only thing they ever needed to buy was cinnamon! Achieving that level of self-reliance is incredibly difficult, though. Back then, it was a way of life for many.

      1. S-Mom, I’m going to start growing cinnamon from now on, and barter it with everyone else to provide me with fruits and veggies! 🙂
        Sorry, I like to sneak in a little humor now and again.
        I really appreciate you doing all you do, I have been reading your stuff for a while now, and really enjoy learning from it as well as the many comments, thank you.

  5. Canned goods go bad really easily, why not dried beans, they last longer. Assuming you have access to groceries is not a survivalist thing to me. If a slovic country were to use propelled items to hit things in the USA and I lived in Virginia or Alabama, I would fill my attic with quinoa, black beans, basmati rice, red lentils, and dry goods, buy seeds that could grow corn that works for dried grits (to cook as grits over the fire for longer term), chickens for eggs & protein, sunflower seeds for sunflowers that produce seeds, blackberry bushes, and maybe some olive trees and tools to make DIY olive oil and make sure I have a outdoor campfire tools. I also would ration the grains. If you are near a lake you could fish with a net and cook the fish right away on the campfire (since you might not have electricity from the dangerous power plant – hint). That might last you until civilization got back in order.

    1. They do not go bad really easily. Quite the opposite, in fact. Decades-old canned foods have been opened and tested for safety, and they were found perfectly fine to eat. Dried beans are good for storage but in an emergency, they require a lot of cooking time, water, and fuel/electricity.

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