Pandemic Gardening Starter Guide: From Survival Garden Layout To Preserving The Harvest

Samantha Biggers Samantha Biggers  |  November 16, 2020
Pandemic Gardening Starter Guide: From Survival Garden Layout To Preserving The Harvest

During times of crisis, it is important to develop a good mindset by thinking about what you can do instead of what you cannot. A lot of people have decided that gardening is something that they can do to improve their lives and the lives of their families during this unprecedented time. Some have compared the pandemic gardening movement to the victory garden movement of World War II. During times of crisis, the USA has a tradition of stepping up to the plate by gardening as much as possible.

No matter how serious or not serious you believe COVID-19 to be, the truth is that it has impacted the food supply chain for everyone and not just on a national level but a worldwide one. Just today I was reading that despite the constant reports of potential meat shortages, many companies have been exporting to China throughout the pandemic and are continuing to do so.

Vegetable farmers are struggling with the prospect of not having the labor available to plant and harvest. While growing your own meat may not be feasible for some people, a vegetable garden is well within reach of a lot of people even if the “vegetable garden” is actually all in containers.

This guide is for beginners and experienced alike. I find that it sometimes helps to review the basics even if I have done something quite a bit over the years. That being said, some of you may want to skip some parts and only refresh yourself on certain aspects of gardening.

This is a lot of information and I have tried to provide a lot of links to posts that go into greater detail about specific topics. It is impossible to fit everything into one post so I apologize if you find any one section a bit thin. If there are specific gardening topics you would like to see in a future post, please let me know in the comments.

Pandemic Gardening Starter Guide: From Survival Garden Layout To Preserving The Harvest

Space and Location: Planning Your Survival Garden Layout

The first step in gardening should be to determine what you really have room for. While this may sound fairly easy, it is not. I say this because there are so many small spaces where you can fit at least a small planter. If you have a yard that you are converting into garden space you should decide how much of your yard you are willing to give up to grow food. This is sometimes called an edible landscape!

You may decide that you really don’t want much of a yard at all. Remember that dogs and gardens don’t always mix that well. You may want to leave a space to let your dog out and not have to worry about them digging up the garden. Even the best-trained dog may find all that nice loose dirt too hard to resist.

A tape measure is your friend. Measure out your space and leave some room on the edges for accessing your garden and walking around. It may take doing this a few times to get your survival garden layout worked out.

Another very important factor when it comes to deciding where to grow things is sunlight. Most plants need a lot of sunlight to thrive. There are some crops that do better in partial shade than others but in general you need to plan to put your garden where you get the most sunlight.

If you are really low on space you can always use sprouting as a way to add protein and veggies to your diet.

Container Gardens and Vertical Gardening

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There are a lot of products out there that help people that are living in small spaces grow food. Garden Tower is one of the premade products that you can get to compost and vertical garden at the same time. You can also make your own vertical garden planter using a plastic barrel and a few basic tools. Check out the video below.

If you are interested in a premade option, there are several vertical planter systems available in various price ranges. The Garden Tower System has it’s advantages but the cost is fairly high. We were given one for review and the biggest disadvantage is that it seems to dry out fast so you must remember to water it every day.

Window Boxes

Window boxes can be beautiful and they are a great way to add some gardening space. There are even some that are for small plants and just suction to the glass. Cost varies a lot and there are people that make their own window boxes. Here are a few options that I found to give you an idea of what styles are out there. There are some really nice and fancy ones out there that are copper coated. Some boxes are made for attaching to rails and balconies while others are for windows. You can buy sets of brackets for installing window boxes.

Indoor Window Box With Tray and Suction Cups

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KINGLAKE Flower Pots,10 Pcs 

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Deer Park WB120 Large French Window Box with Cocoa Moss Liner

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Soil

Perhaps you have good soil already but I doubt that it is perfect. Some people are blessed with very good soil but that doesn’t mean it cannot be improved upon. If you are container gardening or if you have poor soil, you will need to buy some. The least expensive way to do this is to have someone dump a load at your house from a mulch yard. Otherwise, you will need to go to Lowes or another home improvement store and buy bags. They will deliver as well for a fee. Feed and farm stores are other options.

For those that just want to do a few small containers in an apartment perhaps ordering online is ok for you but I kind of doubt it. Soil weighs a lot and is thus cost-prohibitive to get via mail order. Coconut coir is sometimes available at a good price but you are going to need more than that to really grow vegetables well. Coconut coir provides good aeration and drainage but it is not a total soil substitute for vegetable gardening.

David Stillwell did an excellent post in building up great soil for growing food. Here is the link.

Deciding What To Plant

It is very important to be realistic what you can actually grow. There are all kinds of things I would love to grow that would be foolish to even try in my area. You need to grow things that are likely to thrive in your area. Talk to other gardeners online or look up info from your local extension service.

For an in-depth post on what you can plant in your garden to get the most calories in your space, check out my “High Yielding Crops For The Prepper Garden”. Here is an abbreviated list to get you started on finding varieties for your area.

  • Potatoes
  • Beans
  • Onions
  • Turnips
  • Radishes
  • Squash
  • Beets
  • Rutabagas
  • Collard Greens
  • Peas
  • Sunflowers

Also, be sure to check out our previous post “The 13 Best Staples To Consider For a Survival Garden”.

Herb Gardens

If you have some space you are trying to fill in, herbs are a great way to do that. Even a very small space can be utilized to grow something lovely.

Gaye wrote an article that gives some excellent examples of herbs to grow. Check out “The Healing Garden: 10 Herbs To Grow in the Survival Garden”.

Some herbs are very prolific so make sure you are not using too much of your space for a single variety.

Types Of Seeds

Open Pollinated or Heirloom Seeds

These are the best seeds to buy for long term survival because you can save them. For example you can dry out some beans at the end of the season and use that seed for planting next year. Heirloom seeds will also breed true. This means that the saved seeds will be the same plant as you grew last year as long as they are not planted too close to another similar species that they can cross pollinate with and create a hybrid.

For example today my husband and I planted several types of beans that are considered heirlooms. The package stated to plant them 25 feet from other beans if we did not want to risk cross pollination. If something like that happens, it doesn’t mean you won’t get good beans out of the seed necessarily, in fact these types of crosses are sometimes how people create exceptionally good new types of vegetables.

Hybrids

Sometimes hybrids get talked about more badly than they deserve. While I do agree that it is very important to have heirloom and open-pollinated fruits and vegetables, some hybrids can offer you amazing yields and disease resistance. The problem is that you cannot save the seed so you have to buy it each year.

Treated Seeds

Some commercial seeds are treated to prevent disease and enhance sprouting. Sometimes when at feed stores I have seen corn that is a bright pink color that really stands out. I am sure there are other treated seeds out there too. I don’t recommend them but they are something you should at least be aware of if you are new to gardening.

Seed Availability

There are more seeds available than you might have been led to believe. Don’t get me wrong, there are some disruptions. A lot of seed companies have reached the point of being so overwhelmed with orders that they have had to stop taking orders for a few days at a time but they let their customers know when they expect to start taking orders again.

Amazon also has a lot of seed variety packs. I am going to list a few that I found but I encourage you to look around. At the end of this article I have included a list of seed companies that I recommend and some books that offer a lot of good advice as well as a few web resources for gardeners.

Make sure that the packets are suitable for your growing area if growing outside. You can grow some things just about anywhere if you use a greenhouse.

Survival Garden 15,000 Non GMO Heirloom Vegetable Seeds Survival Garden 32 Variety Pack by Open Seed Vault

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Heirloom Vegetable Seeds Non GMO Survival Seed Kit

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Heritage Survival Seed Vault 25 Year Storage Life

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Amount of Seed Needed

There are some things that you need to reseed throughout the gardening season to ensure a continuous supply. Examples are lettuce, spinach, chard, and carrots. This means you might want to purchase either multiple packs or opt for a larger bulk package. It is often a better deal to get 1 large pack rather than several smaller ones.

Seeds will keep for a few years generally speaking if you store them appropriately so if you have some left over, hang on to them or if you want to, share them with someone else that is having trouble getting seeds or needs a little encouragement to get started gardening.

I also feel like I need to mention that a lot of seed packets have recommended initial planting rates that lead to a situation where you have to thin out a lot of seedlings. While it is good to have starts, you can waste a lot of seed this way and cause yourself more work.

If the seed is fresh, we usually don’t direct seed as heavily as the package might say. This is a personal choice and not without some risk. Remember that you can also take the starts and then get them spaced right but sometimes the transplants don’t all make it. Gardening is a bit of a risk. Sometimes a decision will pay off and sometimes it won’t.

Planning Your Rows

You can achieve a much greater level of efficiency by planning out your rows and beds well. For example, you can plant 4 rows of onions on 4 inch by 4-inch spacing and then have a path on either side to tend them. Drawing out your garden space can help with that.

Companion planting is a practice that can help you get the most out of your garden. Check out this article over at The Farmers’ Almanac for more on how to utilize this method.

Weeding

You are going to need to spend a lot of time weeding. There are some tricks that can help reduce how much you have to but you will have to do at least some weeding and probably a lot of it. The methods below can help reduce it.

Burning before planting can help sterilize the soil and keep weeds and grass from regrowing.

Burning brush where you intend to plant is a great way to start a garden spot. You can do this before or after tilling. Burning before turning the soil over will make it easier to till. Burning also seems to help with growth. I know that if we burn on a spot and then plant it, it seems to do better.

Mulching

The cheapest way to get mulch is to have a big truck dump some off via your local mulch yard. For smaller gardens, you can buy it in bags. Some people get on lists with local tree crews and have them dump loads of chipped wood on their property. While this is cheap, you have to let it sit for about a year or so before it is composted enough to use and I have to say that there are always a few old fast food bags and such in it.

Regardless, putting mulch around plants will reduce the weed load and help keep moisture in.

Ground Cloth

You can get ground cloth that helps prevent weeds from coming up. One of the biggest complaints about it that I have heard is that dirt and debris gets on top of it over time anyway and that results in weeds coming up on top of the cloth. Of course with a little work, you could prevent some of that. Groundcloth will last for many years if you get a good brand.

Cardboard

In our garden, we have been utilizing cardboard for some weed control. With all the online shopping we have been doing during the pandemic there has been a lot of cardboard to deal with. You just have to cut a hole for the plant and place the cardboard over it. A few small stones can help weigh it down. It doesn’t look pretty but it helps.

Composting

If you are not already composting then I advise starting if you are going to grow a garden. There are a lot of things that are compostable. Paper towels, paper that has been shredded, vegetable tops and scraps, and more can all be composted. Grass clippings and leaves can be raked up and added to compost piles. I do have to say that if you put a lot of chemicals on your lawn, you may not want to compost the clippings to use on the garden where you are growing food to eat.

Keeping bugs out and smells in can be a challenge if you have a compost bucket in your house. After trying to use a bin that was too large to collect our compost to dump on our pile near the garden, I bought a kitchen compost bucket that has a gasket seal. A lot of compost containers have charcoal filters and holes in them. I don’t want that for something that I plan on dumping every few days.

It is just something else to have to buy and it doesn’t keep out bugs well enough. Here is what I got to deal with the problem. There is a liner bucket that you lift out but the lid with the seal makes all the difference and it is small enough for my little kitchen.

Exaco Compost Bucket With Lid and Liner

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Fertilizer

The type of fertilizer you use in a personal choice. Synthetic fertilizers are less expensive unless you have a source of natural fertilizer. Chicken manure and cow manure are all great to use as long as they are properly composted.

Large amounts of fertilizer need to be bought at a farm store or home improvement store. Liquid fertilizers and smaller amounts are feasible to get online. Many stores offer delivery of larger orders for a fee.

Here are some of the common fertilizers when it comes to gardening. Non-organic fertilizers are less expensive. During a real survival situation, you might be glad to have a few bags of 10-10-10 on hand even if it is not organic. We try to do things conscientiously too but during this pandemic, I put back some inexpensive but highly concentrated fertilizer just in case.

Watering

A good sprinkler can help out a lot. A garden hose is essential. You must make sure that your garden is well watered but also don’t overwater.

One reason that drip irrigation is better is that it keeps the leaves dry and thus doesn’t encourage a lot of mold and rot. Drip irrigation can take some time and it costs way more than just buying a hose and sprinkler but for long term gardening and ease, it is hard to beat.

Consider how easily you will be able to get water to a spot you are trying to grow things in. We planted one of our gardens in a spot where we have to haul water and I can tell you right now that we are going to run a water line to that area as soon as we can get the materials and find the time.

Garden Tools

Garden tools vary a lot in price and quality. There are a lot of gadgets out there that make fantastic claims about what they can offer you in the garden. Around here we stick to the basics for the most part but we do have a really good tiller/walk-behind tractor.

Most people are fine with a very small tiller if they are just growing a small garden or doing some raised beds. This doesn’t mean you have to own a tiller, just that it can save a lot of work and create a better garden space in less time than some other methods like building up garden beds as Patricia Lanza describes in her famous “Lasagna Gardening Book”.

Here is a shortlist of tools that you should have for gardening. This is not an iron-clad list. Your needs will vary based on your space and how much gardening you are actually doing.

  • Hoe– I like the Bully Tools brand because they are tough and made in the USA
  • Garden Rake
  • Shovel (There are all kinds of lengths and styles of shovel out there)
  • Trowel
  • Small wheelbarrow or cart
  • Small to medium-sized sprayer for pest and fungus control.

Other things that are nice to have:

  • Tiller- I consider this essential if you have more than a few raised beds. It is very hard to do a decent-sized garden without a tiller. Get one that is sized appropriately for your needs. Everyone doesn’t need a huge tiller.
  • Cultivator rake

Dealing With Pests Organically and Conventionally

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For information on sprays that are both organic and conventional, I will refer you to my post “Organic and Non-Organic Pesticides and Fungicides For The Home Garden”. There are a lot of options out there for dealing with insects and fungus but I will tell you right now that you will have to do something to protect your crop. It is very rare for someone to not have to do anything and still get a good crop or a very high yield.

Tips For Getting The Family Involved

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Maybe you like to do a lot of gardening yourself but let’s be honest, it can be a lot of work. With so many people starting gardens with the intention of adding substantially to the family food supply during this time of need, it is advisable that you involve others and share the workload some. This is especially true if you are planting a large garden or multiple ones. Here are a few ideas to help get the family involved.

Invite them to participate.

This might sound a bit simple but sometimes people just don’t think about joining in on an activity. Also maybe they are not sure if you really want them participating in something you started? Gardens can be some people’s sanctuaries so family members or roommates may not realize that they are welcome.

Consider that a lot of people don’t understand how much work it is to grow food as well. They may really not understand that you need help. People get caught up in their own pursuits.

Offer instruction delivered with patience.

I remember when I was a kid that I would not be allowed to help cook with the women because they were convinced I was going to mess something up. I wanted to learn but they didn’t have the patience to take a few minutes and offer some instructions.

It was just quicker to do it themselves. If you are an experienced gardener and others in the family are not, of course, you don’t want to just turn them loose with a hoe or tell them to go weed things. Kids make great gardeners if they are given the skill and knowledge.

Consider getting younger kids their own tools that are the appropriate size.

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There are tools out there that are sized for kids under 8. These are really cute and the offer kids something that is their own. It also helps them to not lift too much or try to wield tools that are awkward and they can’t really do much with. There are some smaller shovels made for adults that would make a full-sized shovel for a younger child.

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Families working together on gardens may want to set up a garden chore system so that things get done promptly.

Organizing people can get complicated. Maybe your family already has a chore board that you can just add garden tasks too or maybe you need to start one now that you have a big garden to grow. This way things don’t get forgotten. When it comes to growing things, sometimes there is no way to correct the damage if something is not done on time.

Make it fun.

My husband and I listen to music and talk a lot when we garden and that makes it more enjoyable. Just having someone else with you can make it fun. Consider small rewards at the end of a session spent gardening. Have a picnic in the garden. I am sure you can come up with a lot of other ideas!

Preserving Your Harvest

A lot of people are surprised at how much they can actually grow when they put their mind and energy into it. While you should absolutely eat as many fresh foods from your garden as you can, it is very likely that some things will produce well enough that you have more than you can consume before it spoils.

There may also be times when you have to pick something but maybe you are going to be away for a day or two. Here are some options and some links that can help you determine the best method for preserving your food for future good meals. Many gardeners use more the one or in some cases all the methods below. You will have to determine what is best for you in terms of time, expense, and what equipment and tools you are willing to buy for food preservation.

Extending the Growing Season

Cold frames and row covers can help you extend the growing season. In some areas, it is possible to grow some vegetable year-round.

Here is a link to a Backdoor Survival article from a few years back that details some structures for extending the growing season.

Good Gardening Books

There are many gardening books to choose from but there are a few that I feel really stand out and offer a lot of comprehensive and easy to understand information.

Rodale’s Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening

This is a wonderful reference book that we have went back to time and time again. The one thing missing is it doesn’t really discuss any spray programs for disease and pest control.

Lasagna Gardening

This book is a classic in the world of gardening. It describes a method for gardening that can drastically reduce the amount of weeding and extra fertilizing needed because you use layers that compost and provide nutrients. The layered or “lasagna” method also helps your garden retain moisture so less watering is needed.

Web Resources For Gardeners

USDA Climate Zone Information

Southern Exposure Seed Exchange Grower’s Guides

Seed Companies I Trust and Recommend

Territorial Seed Company

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds

Sow True Seed

Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

For fruit and nut trees I recommend Stark Bros. They may be slightly higher in cost than some but with fruit and nut trees you get what you pay for in a lot of cases. I have made the mistake of buying trees that are priced too good to be true and it is not worth it.

Our Garden Projects

Matt and I have not grown a large garden in years to be honest. We have talked about it but something just always seemed to come up. This year the pandemic was a real kick in the rear to get going on food production. We have three different garden plots this year.

The Kitchen Garden

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This picture was taken before most things had even sprouted. Matt has added a few beds since then.

This is just the small garden of raised beds that we have the house. Matt has done the vast majority of the work in creating these beds on our steep mountainside. This is where we are growing some bunch onions, greens, basil, collards, kale, chard, dill, radishes, beets, mustard, peppers, arugula, cabbage, tomatoes, and broccoli. We do have some potatoes growing too. We would normally grow potatoes somewhere else but at the time we thought that it was the only garden we were going to grow this year. There are cherry tomatoes in the Garden Tower.

The Valley Garden

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This is located down in the valley where we used to live in the camper while building the house. We had just planted the onion starts when the picture above was taken. Since then we have added tomatoes, peppers, cabbage, broccoli, winter and summer squash, cucumbers, and tomatillos. There are also small side patches in the valley that got tilled. This is where we have bush beans and pole beans planted. There are also a few hills of melons and zucchini.

The Sorghum, Corn, and Sunflower Patch

When Matt and I were first married we grew a sorghum patch and wintered over a few goats and a heifer calf in what we grew. During these uncertain times we decided that growing some sorghum and corn would be a good idea.

Sunflowers are another good source of calories and nutrition for people and animals alike. This year we purchased Amber Cane Sorghum seed and Golden Bantam Corn. There is a little room left over so we will fill that up with the tomato and tomatillo starts we have sitting in our living room.

This patch is located down at the 2nd house where my Dad lives. It is next to a creek so it stays a bit wet which is good for production. It is in the same spot where my grandparent’s used to grow their main garden.

If you have specific questions on gardening or any wisdom to share, please do so in the comments below. Perhaps everyone can help each other out and we can learn together!

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3 Responses to “Pandemic Gardening Starter Guide: From Survival Garden Layout To Preserving The Harvest”

  1. Gardening is a good start but anyone with a yard can keep rabbits and most can keep chickens. It may even be easier to keep meat rabbits and hens than to garden since the best time to start gardening was as a child. It takes years to learn which plants grow best under your specific conditions, to save heirloom variety seeds and store them properly, how to combat plant diseases and pests, the right way to water, how to amend your soil so it stays healthy and allows your plants to take up nutrients…

  2. The biggest challenge to my gardening is raids by hungry wildlife: deer, woodchuck, rabbits, and squirrels. The countermeasures are plastic mesh and chicken-wire mesh “row covers”. Then the problem is that none of my crops can be allowed to grow taller than the covers, which rules out corn and sunflowers.
    The next biggest challenge is shade. Trees just west of my property line cast afternoon shade on my garden space. However, they also keep the yard and house cool, which saves on the A/C bill, probably far more than the cash value of the crops I could grow. If times get really hard, we’ll cut them for fuel, and open up more garden space.
    And finally, the soil around my house was once a stream bed (according to a geologist). I couldn’t drive a shovel more than 2″ into it, but over the years I’ve dug and sifted the stones out to cover the ground under the eaves, and pave paths. The sifter is a 2’x4′ frame of 2″x4″ lumber, with 1/2″ hardware cloth. Setting aside the stones and soil from one place, I refill the hole with sifted soil and compost, then move the sifter to fill THAT hole, and so on. Finally, the original hole’s soil gets sifted.
    The things you learn this year will make your garden better next year. You’ll wish you started ten years ago, but start today.

  3. Dear Samantha

    The seeds I get are heirloom and Mr Fothergill seeds from either Coles Supermarket Trev’s emporium, Permewans hard ware shop or cheap as chips.
    They have a wide variety of seeds from flower seeds to herbs and vegetable.

    You have given me a few ideas. Unfortunately I don’t have the money to buy a food drier, as I live on a pension.
    Learning how to preserve excess food, is going to be an interesting experience for me.
    To get mum to help me, I would need to hit her over the head with something heavy (Figuretivly speaking of course). I think the only way to get her attention would be if something worse were to happen, that would get her attention and the attention of the rest of the family.

    Regards

    Kieran

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