The modern world seems so safe and secure that it’s hard to imagine a situation where your life might depend on your ability to feed yourself from your garden. Much more likely is a situation where you so short of money you need to grow food to make ends meet. It’s impossible to predict the future of course (probably not a bad thing), but whatever happens it’s comforting to know that your garden can help to keep your family well fed. Growing enough food to live on isn’t actually very hard, if you have sufficient land, seeds of the right crops and enough gardening knowledge.
How much land you need depends upon the size of your family (obviously), how good a gardener you are and the length of the growing season. You need less land in warm climates because you can grow year round, whereas in cold climates, everything must be grown from spring to fall, as all plant growth stops when winter comes. The smallest area of land I have seen suggested as being enough to grow food for one person is 1400 sq ft, but this comes with a lot of qualifications. It would require very intensive techniques, excellent soil, expert gardening, ideal circumstances and a little bit of luck, not a combination most of us can depend on finding.
One of the most important factors in determining how much land you need is what crops you choose to grow, because some are much more efficient at producing nutritious food than others. Potatoes are easily the most efficient common crop and contain enough carbohydrate, protein and vitamin C that you could actually live on them for quite a while. It has been estimated that you could grow enough potatoes for one person on only 3000 sq ft (64 x 48 ft or 1/14 acre) of land. Of course it would be a big mistake to rely on one crop alone, as not only would be it be boring and unhealthy (you need a variety of foods to supply all necessary nutrients), but a particularly virulent pest or disease could wipe out your whole planting and leave you in serious trouble (this is how the Irish potato famine occurred). Growing a mixed vegetable garden would mean growing some less efficient crops and it has been estimated that this would require as much as 14000 sq ft (128 x 108 ft or 1/3 acre) of land. These figures assume a vegetarian diet, if you wanted to add eggs you would need 25000 sq ft (128 x 195 ft or ½ acre) and beef would require 83000 sq ft (256 x 325 ft or 2 acres).
The best crops to grow will also depend upon where you live. In some places pests and diseases or adverse climate may make a crop difficult to grow (potatoes often don’t do well in hot humid climates, Sweet Potatoes don’t do well in cool climates). Obviously if the comfort of your stomach, wallet or life depends upon it, you would want to grow the crops that are least likely to fail. Your choice of crop will also be influenced by the amount of land you have. If you have lots of room you can afford to grow a much wider variety than if space is very limited and you need to maximize efficiency.
There is more to supporting yourself than simply having the land and the seeds of course, you also need to know what to do with them. The time to acquire this knowledge is before you need it, a time of major crisis wouldn’t be the best time to start learning. You can start a vegetable garden at any time and learn the necessary skills at your leisure, secure in the knowledge that any failure won’t be a big deal. Hopefully you will never need these skills but will continue to vegetable garden because it is such a rewarding activity.
Of course if you have created the type of food garden I have discussed previously, you will already have a wide variety of supplemental crops growing permanently in your garden. These would help enormously and could transform the situation from one of potential hardship to one of relative comfort.
The best crops for a survival garden
A good survival crop is easy to grow, relatively free of serious pests or disease, tastes good, is easy to prepare and packs a lot of nutrition (carbohydrate, protein, fat, vitamins). The following crops provide the most bang for the buck and ideally you would grow all of them in abundance.
Potato: If you could only grow one crop it should probably be the potato (if they grow well in your area). They are the most efficient subsistence crop you can grow; no other common crop even comes close to producing so much food in so little area. They actually provide enough calories, protein and vitamin C that you can almost live on them (Irish peasants often did live on little more than potatoes and milk). Of course they taste pretty good too and can be used in a wide variety of ways.
Sweet potato: If your climate is too hot and humid for the potato, then the Sweet Potato is the best alternative. They are rich in carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals. Unlike the potato the leaves are edible (and nutritious) too and can be eaten raw or cooked.
Corn: This crop needs quite a bit of space but is productive, reliable and easy to grow. When used as a staple food it should be prepared with lime (nixtamalized), otherwise you risk niacin deficiency. It is also deficient in certain amino acids, which is why it is often eaten with beans.
Beans: A dependable source of tasty protein. Which kinds will depend on where you live but could be pinto, soy, tepary, scarlet runner, fava, mung). Beans also fix their own nitrogen and so don’t deplete the soil.
Peas, Chickpeas: These produce tasty high protein seeds that can be used in the same way as dried beans, but grow in cooler weather
Quinoa: Grows like a weed and can be used for both seed and edible leaves. It can be used like rice, but is a lot easier to grow and process. The seed is a very useful high protein grain and needs little preparation (apart from washing to remove mildly toxic saponins).
Carrot: Easy to grow and a good source of nutrients and vitamins. Produces a lot of food in a small area.
Winter squash: Easy to grow, productive and has nutritious seed. It is also easy to store (which is why it’s called Winter Squash.)
Kale and collards: A good source of vitamins and various phytonutrients. Hardy and easy to grow, they have a long harvest season.
Sugar beet: High yielding, the roots can be used to make sweetener and give energy. The young leaves are also edible.
Rutabaga: This high yielding root crop was a staple winter food of northern European peasants because it is very hardy and stores well. It is rich in carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals and valuable phytonutrients. The leaves are also edible when young.
Amaranth: Grows like a weed and can be used for its nutritious seed and edible leaves. It self sows in my garden.
In addition to of these essentials it would be a good idea to have garlic, onions, shallots, hot peppers and various herbs for flavoring (and maybe tomatoes too). A source of oil would be nice too (Sunflower, Sesame) but this would require some means of oil extraction (such as a Piteba hand press).