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Survival Gardening

Most people in modern industrial society get their food mainly from supermarkets. As a result of declining hydrocarbon resources, such food will not always be available. Partly as a further consequence of declining hydrocarbons, electricity and metals will also be in short supply. The present world population is enormous, but food supplies per capita have been shrinking for years. In terms of daily life, the most important effect of oil depletion will be that shortage of food. Agriculture will have to become more localized, and it will be necessary to reconsider less-advanced forms of technology that might be called “survival gardening.” The following notes are based on a North American perspective, in particular my own experience in gardening, but they can be applied more generally to conditions in other parts of the world.

Survival gardening might be defined as having three characteristics. In the first place, as much as possible it involves less-advanced technology; reliance on machinery and chemicals will not be possible without a global economic network to support them, whereas a shovel, a hoe, and a wheelbarrow (with a non-pneumatic tire!) are probably a once-only purchase – and the day will come when even some of these things will not be available. – Eventually horses and other draft animals will be a common sight, although it will take a good many years to breed and train sufficient numbers.

Secondly, survival gardening needs to be water-efficient. Without a municipal water supply or a motorized pump, water for agriculture will no longer be abundant.

Thirdly, survival gardening entails a largely vegetarian way of life. The growing of crops takes less land than raising animals. The production of vegetables is also less complicated than animal husbandry. With a largely vegetarian diet, of course, there can be a danger of deficiencies in vitamins A and B12, iron, calcium, and fat, all of which can be found in animal food.

It is true, however, that some animals can make good use of less-fertile land, and animal manure can be used to supply humus and to recycle whatever essential elements (N, P, K, etc.) are in the soil. Anyone serious about keeping animals for meat may find that chickens are the simplest to deal with. There are also sources of meat other than domesticated animals: fishing, trapping, and hunting would be useful skills.

Besides grains and fruits, the most useful food plants in temperate climates belong to about nine families, including the Amaryllidaceae (garlic, leeks, onions), Chenopodiaceae (beets, chard), Brassicaceae (broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, collards, kale, kohlrabi, rutabagas, turnips), Leguminosae (beans, peanuts, peas), Umbelliferae (carrots, parsnips), Convolvulaceae (sweet potatoes), Solanaceae (peppers, potatoes, tomatoes), and Cucurbitaceae (squash).

A good general rule is to choose old-fashioned (including heirloom or heritage) varieties rather than modern, big plants rather than small (but small fruit rather than big), pole or vine rather than bush. Popular varieties over the last several decades, unfortunately, have been heading in the opposite direction: commercial growers want faster varieties, urban gardeners want small ones.

Choosing varieties that are hardy and drought-resistant means going in the opposite direction. The rule does not always work – bush beans are not necessarily worse than pole beans, for example – but it serves as a guide. A somewhat similar guide is to look for something that closely resembles a wild plant, or is roughly the same thing as a wild plant – dandelions, mustard, or purslane, for example.

Modern-day city-dwellers who live sedentary lives tend to focus on low-calorie food. Those concerned about survival gardening will want to do the opposite; country living requires substantial meals. Survival gardening means the production of a large number of kilocalories (“calories”) with a small amount of labour and a small amount of risk, and perhaps with not a great deal of land. With these factors in mind, one could say that there are not so many crops worthy of attention. There is no such thing as a perfect type of food to grow, because there are advantages and disadvantages to every type. Reliance on a single crop would be dangerous, and variety is essential. We never know exactly what will happen, and no rules are absolute.

Many of what might seem obvious choices may be questionable. Potatoes are nice, but they are highly susceptible to Colorado potato beetles, blight, and several other pests and diseases. The brassicas are excellent for vitamins and minerals, but some of them are bothered by pests and diseases; curly kale is perhaps the least trouble-prone. A good starting point would be to focus on corn (maize), beans, and squash, the main crops grown by the native peoples of North America. These three crops are easy to grow, and they require little or no watering if the plants are well spaced. Corn and beans, eaten together, provide excellent protein. Corn here means non-hybrid field corn (basically, what is known as “Indian corn”), not sweet corn. Beans largely means crops grown for dry beans, not green beans. Squash means winter squash (hard squash, such as butternut and acorn), not summer squash, which provides fewer calories.

Most of the world’s land is not suitable for agriculture. Either the soil is not fertile or the climate is too severe. Anyone intending to buy a piece of land should take a sample of the soil and have it tested by a government-approved laboratory, while services of that kind are still available. If the soil is really poor to begin with, and especially if it is very low in potassium or phosphorus, there is not a great deal that can be done about it, at least with the resources available in a survival situation. Soil used for the growing of crops must have adequate amounts of organic matter (humus), which can come directly from decomposed vegetation or from animal manure. Organic matter holds water and air in the soil, contains – often to a rather limited extent – some of the elements needed for plant growth, and provides an environment for small organisms that are essential to the fertility of the soil.

Farmland must also have adequate amounts of about 16 elements, naturally occurring or otherwise. These are boron, calcium, carbon, chlorine, copper, hydrogen, iron, magnesium, manganese, molybdenum, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, potassium, sulfur, and zinc. Of these 16, the most critical are phosphorus (P), potassium (K), and especially nitrogen (N). Calcium and magnesium are probably next in importance. Some of the elements may be found in organic matter, but the quantities are generally insufficient. These elements might be abundant in the soil before any cultivation is done, but whenever crops are harvested, a certain amount of the three critical elements is removed.

The problem of inadequate amounts of the 16 elements is generally remedied nowadays by adding fertilizer, which can be artificial or can come from such sources as rock dust – the latter a fashionable “soil amendment” that will no longer be available without hydrocarbon-based mining and transportation. Acidity can be counteracted by adding crushed limestone (again, not likely to be available) or wood ashes, which contain calcium. Planting any legume, such as beans or peas, can provide nitrogen, since bacteria in the roots take nitrogen from the air; the plants must be dug back into the soil. Primitive societies had a simple but imperfect solution to the problem of maintaining fertility: abandonment. No fertilizer was used, except for ashes; as a result, the soil became exhausted after a few years, so the fields were abandoned and new ones were dug.

Nevertheless, a small human population might survive on agriculture, at least if it reverted to some primitive methods. Some Asian cultures brought wild plant material from the mountains and used it as fertilizer, thereby making use of the N-P-K (etc.) of the wilderness. Many other cultures used wood ashes. The nutrient “source” of the wilderness fed the nutrient “sink” of the farmland. (This is one of the basic principles behind all “organic gardening,” although few practitioners would admit it or even know it.)

A common response to the N-P-K problem, used in many countries for centuries, has been to turn crop waste into compost and put it back onto the land. The problem with that technique is that one cannot create a perpetual-motion machine. Every time the compost is recycled, a certain amount of N-P-K is lost, mainly in the form of human or animal excrement after the crops are eaten, but also as direct leaching and evaporation. One can come closer to sustainability by recycling those human and animal wastes, but the recycling will always be less than perfect. After all, nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium are elements, and by definition they cannot be created. Of the three main elements, nitrogen is by far the most subject to loss by leaching, but to some extent that can also happen with phosphorus and potassium.

There are partial solutions that are worth considering. Besides using vegetable compost and animal manure for – increasing the sustainability of agricultural land, many societies have employed such related techniques as crop rotation, fallowing (leaving land uncultivated for a year or so), cover-cropping (growing plants to protect the soil when not used for crops), and green manuring (growing plants to be dug back into the soil for their nutrients). Fallowing and cover-cropping also replenish the humus content of the soil. Some of these practices can even partly replenish the important elements: weathering can break rock particles down to release those 16 elements although this may be a very slow process in cool climates, and plants with deep roots can draw such elements to the surface. Some of these techniques are difficult with hand tools, however. In other countries, especially in Asia, vegetation was brought in from the hills, or mud was taken from streams that ran down from the mountains.

The term “irrigation” refers to any use of water other than the direct use of rainfall or other natural precipitation. In a post-oil economy it will not be possible to use a motorized water supply for irrigation. Yet if one were to try using an old-fashioned hand pump to get the water out of the well, a good deal of manual labour would be involved. A garden needs about 2 or 3 cm of water a week. On a garden of 1 hectare, that would amount to at least 200 m3 of water. That would mean carrying a bucket to the pump about 6,700 times a week, except when it rained. Not very practical.

What the North American native people and pioneers did was to give the plants plenty of space, and then just rely on the rain. Almost any type of crop, given enough room, can be left to the mercy of the weather, although some crops need to be watered as seeds or seedlings. The essence of water-efficient gardening is to space out the plants so that the distance between them is greater than most modern gardening manuals recommend. That way the roots can spread out and explore in all directions to find the water that has been stored there over the previous months. In other words, contrary to popular belief, “intensive gardening” is not practical without a garden hose and an unlimited supply of water. More plants per unit of land simply means using more water per unit of land. With such a method, the lack of bare ground between rows also means that it is not easy to get a hoe to the weeds.

Grains might or might not be a practical part of survival gardening. Most of what are called grains are members of the grass family, which has the scientific name of Gramineae or Poaceae. Grains are the most important plants in the human diet, contributing most of the carbohydrates as well as a certain amount of protein, vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Generally speaking, grains are quite undemanding in terms of soil or weather.

With the exception of corn (maize), grains generally require a good deal of land. Beyond a certain level of production, also, you need to use draft animals, and that in turn requires learning many other skills. The entire process of using grains, from sowing to bread baking, requires equipment of many sorts, even if you are working at only a “medieval” level. But I know these things are not impossible, because I have eaten bread that I have baked from grain that I have sowed. And even if grain production does not become a significant part of daily life right away, it is important that the knowledge be put to use at least to some extent, and thereby preserved.

Most of the information about raising grain in small quantities with simple tools has been lost, or at least it is hard to find. Nearly all of the present-day research is geared to modern agribusiness – hybridization, genetic engineering, and expensive machinery and chemicals. The information gained from such research will be of no use when there is a breakdown of the technical and economic infrastructure. Grains are all that stand between the human race and starvation, but the human race has made very little effort to record the fundamental information about pre-industrial production.

For the purposes of survival and small-scale gardening, never get involved with hybrids or with genetically engineered grains; this is most commonly an issue with corn. Hybrid grain cannot reproduce properly, so if you wanted more of the same you would have to buy again from the supplier. Genetically engineered grains pose a number of dangers, but the biggest problem is again that of reproduction, because such grains are often given a “terminator gene” that prevents you from regrowing such seeds. The excuse for creating such a gene is that the manufacturers need to recover the cost of research and development – sounds like science fiction, but it isn’t.

Wheat, barley, rye, and oats are grown in roughly the same way. The main difference is the hardiness of the grain. Wheat requires fairly good soil, and it cannot tolerate far-northern climates, whereas barley is less demanding, and rye will grow on almost any kind of land and in a great range of climates. Corn (maize) is a much larger plant, grown widely spaced, but producing abundantly. Buckwheat (which is not a true grain, although it is used in the same way) is worth considering, especially for cold climates or poor soil, although a crop is easily destroyed by heavy rain. Proso millet (Panicum miliaceum) or sorghum (Sorghum bicolor) would be worth growing, especially on very dry land. Only a few types of grain are described below, but actually there are dozens of cultivated species. One of the world’s most important grains, of course, is rice, but it’s not a very practical crop for most of North America.

Most grains are grown in roughly the same manner. Corn, sorghum, and rice are exceptions. But for wheat, rye, barley, oats, millet, and buckwheat, the “pre-industrial” process is essentially that of digging or plowing the land, and then broadcasting the grain and covering it.

Grain grows best on loose, well-tilled soil. However, you need the grain to be about 2 to 5 cm deep, and the easiest way to achieve this with hand tools is to leave the ground fairly rough and lumpy when you’re spading or plowing it. So broadcast the grain on rough ground, and then use a rake to get the grain properly covered.

The oldest and simplest way of sowing grain is broadcasting: every couple of steps, throw out a handful of grain, either to the left or to the right. Don’t worry too much about precision, or about the fact that birds and other creatures will come along later to get their percentage. When broadcasting, you should be able to cover a strip about 2 m on each side of you, so to cover the whole field you’ll be walking parallel strips about 4 m apart. When you’ve sown all the grain, go over it with a rake to cover it.

When the grain is ready to cut, you’ll need a good stretch of dry weather for harvesting. Since it’s summertime, you’re pretty likely to get good weather, but you can never be certain. Do whatever you can to get the grain harvested on dry days. Hand-harvesting generally means using a sickle: grab each handful of grain stalks, reach around them with the sickle, and cut them off. Bind the bundles, stack them, and leave them to dry.

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  • Peter Goodchild

    Peter Goodchild's most recent book The Western Path, published by Arktos, may be purchase at

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