Thursday, December 3, 2020

Subsistence Gardening


A cover crop of turnips. An easy place to get massive amounts of turnip seeds is in seed packages for Deer Food Plots.

Subsistence gardening is different than quality-of-life gardening.

A gardener in the city might grow a 30 square-foot garden with herbs, chili peppers and a cherry tomato plant and be perfectly happy as a quality-of-life gardener.

Under current conditions, it makes no sense for them to expand their garden or to grow crops like potatoes or corn. Their point is "Why should I plant half of my garden to potatoes (three plants, maybe) to harvest a dollars worth of potatoes?"

To their way of thinking, the size of their garden and the current prices are Constants, not Variables. The subsistence gardener's thinking is inverted. "Everything is a variable except for the fact that every person in my household needs 3000 Calories a day.

From the subsistence gardener's viewpoint, foods like corn and potatoes and cabbage are awesome because they are cheap. The cost of those foods is a consequence of their ease-of-production and their inherent productivity. It is much easier to produce 3000 Calories of potatoes than it is 3000 Calories of Shitake mushrooms, for instance.

This guy gets it right

Link to his essay

I will just add a few comments.

He misses out on Brassicas. That would be cabbage, turnips and the like. Diets that lean heavily on easy-to-store and transport, starchy foods are often light on vitamins. Sure, you can devote energy into turning grain into sprouts but why not just scatter a bunch of turnip seeds on a bare part of your garden and harvest greens all winter long?

Gardening is a very local enterprise. Varieties that do well for me might not do well for you.


Light is energy. Calories are a measure of energy. No light. No Calories.


Some constants are universal. Crops need moisture. Some are more drought tolerant that others.


To produce well, crops need fertility. Most commercial farmers use about 200 pounds of Nitrogen per acre for corn, potatoes and cabbage. 

That is the equivalent of one pound of urea per 100 square-feet. If you have difficulty visualizing 100 square feet, then visualize three, 4X8 sheets of plywood.

Weed control

Weeds are likely to outgrow your crops because they are not genetically hardwired to divert much of their photosynthetic output toward fruit, tubers or succulent, edible greens.

The weeds will get the sun, moisture and fertility intended for your food crops.


This is not a child's story. You must control insects in some way.

Birds, rabbits, woodchucks, deer, squirrels....

Fences are your friend but if that doesn't work...they are edible.


Some crops are magnets for vandals and theft. Orange pumpkins are a prime example.

While the classic, orange pumpkin seems to beckon the worst elements of humanity from half a mile away the same cannot be said for a green or blue Hubbard squash or a tan, bottle-shaped Butternut squash.

Final note

Time becomes different when you are subsistence gardening. You don't schedule tasks in the garden. The garden does. 

It doesn't work to say "I will pull those weeds next Wednesday between 5:00 PM and 7. Ground needs to be worked when IT is ready. Seeds planted when the ground is ready. Weeds pulled or hoed when they are young. Soil watered when the rains don't come. Insects controlled when they show up. Food harvested when it is ready not when you are hungry.

Bonus link: If you can only buy one book on subsistence gardening, buy Gardening When It Counts: Growing Food in Hard Times 

Comments are encouraged. I know I have readers (Looking at you Milton, M.R. and Howard) who run circles around me in gardening know-how and execution. Do you have any cautions, tips or advice you want to share with the larger readership?


  1. The linked article mentions canning lids as a problem. Probably because the author is using disposable ones. Get some reusables like "Tattler" and that constant expenditure is taken care of.

  2. A very important part of gardening that is always understated or ignored is soil testing. It is essential to successful growing to get a soil test kit, which are really quite cheap and easy to use , and do multiple tests in all areas of your garden.---ken

  3. You nailed it Joe.
    SUN -- shade doesn’t work.
    WATER – make sure you’ve got access. A couple of rain barrels don’t cut it, not in my climate.
    FERTILITY – the ‘dirt’ doesn’t grow things on its own. The soil must be built and fed.
    WEEDS – like progressives, they are the thieves – don’t let them compete or go to seed.
    PESTS and HUMANS / Security – Matthew 21:33 – a fellow planted a vineyard, built a Wall around it and built a watchtower. What was the wall and watchtower for? (it was probably only needed just before and during the harvest). Green Hubbards verses Orange pumpkins – good comment -- out of sight, out of mind.
    “You don't schedule tasks in the garden. The garden does.” Very well said. Learn to follow the garden's clock and calendar.
    Thanks for the essay link. I may try to learn to grow dried corn up here in the Pacific North Wet.

  4. I live in one of the non favorable locations (Alaska) the linked article mentions. You have to adapt if conditions are not like the east and south. Potatoes are our go to calorie crop. Corn is a non starter most years even in a hoop house. For fertility keep some chickens. They should be penned (we have had hawks and falcons sitting on the covered pen looking for a way in!). They will pick over all the weeds etc that you dump in the pen and help compost what they don’t eat. You
    can cook surplus and cull potatoes and kitchen scraps and add a little mash for thickening at least for cold weather. Cabbage is high vitamin, and if you make sauerkraut out of some you get even more vitamins. Captain Cook used sauerkraut as one of his anti scurvy foods on his voyages of discovery! Kale takes quiet a bit of frost for late fall greens. Carrots, rutabagas, and turnips store. We extend our seasons with a greenhouse and two hoop houses so we can grow tomatoes, cucumbers (pickles) and summer squash. We have had no luck with winter squash even in the hoop house. We transplant beans through IRT in the hoop house. We use drip irrigation to conserve water and have roof collection on several of our buildings since we have to haul water from the public well. We cover root Magot succeptable crops under row cover. Don’t have potato bugs. Fence with electrical topper usually discourages moose and very fine bird shot from a .44 in the butt from twenty yards usually runs them off if you catch them trying to jump the fence. We have had major losses of Cole crops and peas to moose so we put some of the cabbage in the hoop house!

  5. Robert Wayne Atkins has some good tips on growing vegis. Check out his "Hard Times Survival" tab too.

  6. Another good book is Grow or Die by David the Good.

  7. "Every stinkin day" is what I would summarize.

    Your statement- "No light, no calories" is very precise, but the way to make errors, and benefit from them, is to BE THERE EVERY STINKIN' DAY. No days off, even when it rains or snows.

    Subsistence gardening means avoiding serious mistakes. So the more that you can observe, the better corrections you can make.

    Somehow, God has blessed us all with the skills to profit from our mistakes. Spend the cold season reading (good stuff listed above), and planning, and ordering seed. When you are growing, spend some (Lots?) of time with your plants.


    1. I like that.

      There is a story called The Chinese Prodigal Son. The last line is "The best fertilizer is the sound of the gardener's footsteps"

  8. We tried woven garden fabric for the first time this year in a 30x24 vegetable garden. Total time spent weeding the entire season: 1/2 hour. We are tripling the size of the garden next year,and it will all be covered.

  9. That's good stuff. I roll my fabric and store every winter ... this spring will be its 7th season. I still use my hoe but this fabric has saved me a lot of weeding time.