Gardening for Survival

Gardening for Survival

By Pam, Editor-At-Large


The ultimate in self-sufficiency in terms of food is, of course, to grow it yourself.  I have read many articles lately inferring preppers should buy seeds packaged for long term storage so that when SHTF they can dig up part of the lawn and grow their own food. I would like to warn those who see this as a viable option. It’s not that it can’t be done but the scope of the project isn’t being clearly defined.

It’s that time of year when the garden plan solidifies. It is time to inventory the pantry to evaluate the most popular crops and adjust the garden space allotments accordingly. Heirloom seeds are inventoried, new seeds are ordered and indoor starts are planted.  Although we may grow significant quantities of fruit and vegetables, do we really know what it would take to feed a family of four for a whole year if the garden was our ONLY source of food?

Grandma Carrie grew and preserved everything that her family ate in the late 1880’s and early 1900’s short of wheat, sugar, salt and spices.  Her garden was well over a quarter acre. And she had a rule of thumb – One quart per person, per day. Since she was feeding ten people she would need to can 3,650 quarts of fruits and vegetables.  Add to that the crops that went into the root cellar, some crops were dried and stored in burlap bags, milk and eggs were gathered year ‘round, animals  were butchered as needed and the meat was stored in crocks.

Now, I just had to challenge Grandma Carrie’s rule of thumb so for five days I attempted to feed my family of 6 solely with 6 quarts of home canned fruits, vegetables and meat per day.  Let me clarify that, the little guy only had eight teeth and his next older sibling only weighed 30 pounds. We ate soups, stew and weird goulash. The only food I dished up to be eaten straight out of the jar was fruit. We learned that we could probably just barely survive on this diet as long as we weren’t doing much physical work. The lack of grains, pastas and rice left it woefully short of calories and the lack of REAL dessert made it nearly intolerable.

However, there is great value to those quarts when you consider the health benefits of home grown and the price of canned and frozen produce from the supermarket. To supply each member of the family with their “quart a day” you should plan approximately 1,000 to 2,500 square feet of garden space for each person.  This amount depends on soil fertility, the crops you choose to grow, methods of cultivation and the length of your growing season. Other food sources like fruit trees and livestock also plays a huge part in the amount of vegetables you need.  A 2,000 square foot garden would be a 40 foot by 50 foot section of your property. This can be a pretty significant undertaking especially if you have no experience gardening. Crops such as squash and cucumbers require significantly more space than spinach, Swiss chard, carrots, onions and beets.  Peas, tomatoes and some beans do best with a fence, cage or pole to grow UP on which decreases the square feet necessary.  

Here are some rough estimates on space to yield for feeding four people for one year:

Crop Garden Space Pounds Canned or Frozen
Beans (green) 300 square feet 175 90 quarts
Beets 100 square feet 75 24 quarts
Broccoli 100 square feet 75 48 quarts
Cabbage 100 square feet 150 40 quarts
Carrots 100 square feet 120 30 quarts
Cauliflower 120 square feet 60 20 quarts
Corn 200 square feet 150 40 quarts
Cucumbers 24 square feet (3 X 8) 55 35 quarts
Onions 50 square feet 130 5 quarts dehydrated
Peas 200 square 110 20 quarts
Peppers 50 square feet 75 30 quarts
Potatoes 300 square feet 400 – 500 Store in cool, dry place
Squash 24 square feet (3 X8) 100 20 quarts
Swiss Chard or spinach 200 square feet 90 35 quarts
Tomatoes 150 square feet 500 200 quarts *

*Estimate based on ½ whole and ½ sauce

This chart shows 2,018 square feet of growing space without any paths in between them. I have given the yield in quarts but to have a better idea if this would suit your family, you will probably want to consider pints (or twice as many jars half the size). For example, one pint of beets would probably be adequate for a meal for four people, a 100 foot row will yield around 48 pints which would provide enough beets for one meal a week for a year.

This chart provides 657 quarts plus potatoes, about half of Grandma Carrie’s rule of thumb.  Do you have a canner, pressure canner, enough lids and jars?

There are a number of options for planting. The most common method is rows approximately a foot wide with a 2 foot space or path between the rows. Obviously, crops such as squash and cucumbers require a wider space to allow for the vines to spread. This method requires the least amount of hand weeding between plants and is ideal if you intend to control weeds between the rows by rototilling. However, it is not the most efficient use of space.

A newer more space efficient method is square foot gardening where a 3 foot x 3 foot or 4 foot x 4 foot space is planted more densely.  The size of your ‘square foot’ is determined by your ease of reaching to the center to pull weeds and harvest crops. The paths between the ‘square feet’ can still be maintained mechanically if you wish but the small tillers are best due to the cross rows and increased chance of damaging crops.

A third method which I have found to conserve still more space is the wide row. Basically, a combination of square foot gardening and row planting. Having 3’-4’ wide rows allows us to reach to the center from two sides and it increases the space actually planted because there are no cross rows. Care should be exercised to be sure that the crops planted next to each other are compatible.

The quality of your soil is the imperative. Much more needs to be done to prepare a garden space than simply digging up the lawn. Friability or easy to crumble is normally the first obstacle to overcome. Grasses can grow in clay – or cracks in asphalt for that matter but vegetable need lose, crumbly, preferably loamy soil. Amendments need to be made in the way of compost, perhaps sand and possibly nutrients to alter the pH level. Do you have enough shovels, hoes and rakes?

How do you intend to water your garden? Tomatoes for example, need to be soaked 6-8 inches deep every 5-10 days depending on the heat and amount of rain you have. If the grid is down, is your water down? If you are collecting water in a rain barrel, do you intend to drip irrigate or hand water? Is one barrel enough? Do you have all the materials on hand now?

Successful gardening and home preservation of the bounty for survival purposes is doable but you really need to understand how much is required. The time to start learning is not when you are hungry.


Author Bio

Pam and her husband have fancied themselves homesteaders for over three decades with experience in raising livestock, gardening, food preservation, using long term food storage, living off-grid and everything else that goes with the self-sufficient lifestyle. They own Mayflower Trading Company with the motto: “A pilgrimage to Resource Efficiency”. The mission being: “To help others with products and/or advise in their own pilgrimage to self-sufficiency”. You can visit them at


© 2013, Seasoned Citizen Prepper. All rights reserved. On republishing this post you must provide link to original post.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email