When I first started going off grid, growing all my own food seemed like a daunting task. But, it doesn’t have to be that complicated. Here is how you can grow your own off grid garden for survival or self-sufficiency.
Off grid survival gardens should grow crops that are suitable for the climate, can be easily stored, and are open pollinated. Use of succession planting and crop rotation is recommended. Care should be taken to have energy efficient irrigation and compost in place to support plant growth.
The gist of growing your own food off grid is really simple, but it each point may take some more explaining to really get it. In the following sections, I will cover each step of how to grow your own off grid survival and self-sufficiency garden.
Choose Proper Plants for Your Needs and Climate
The first key to growing and off grid garden is to choose plants that you and your family like, and that grow well in your climate. It is an extremely common mistake to plant loads of crops that no one really wants to eat. We all know that family with the loads of zucchini they try to give away every year.
Plant What You Like?
Eating from a garden can be a bit of an adjustment. So, while the common advice people give is to just plant the things you already eat a lot of, I think this misses the mark a lot of the time, unless you already grow a lot of your own food.
This is because, the difference between what you buy in the store, and what you grow yourself is huge in terms of both variety and taste. The truth is you probably don’t know what you would like to grow and what you don’t
The advice I give here is to plant about half of your garden with things you know you like — things you already buy in the store — and fill out the rest with new or interesting things. Try new foods each year, and only keep the ones that really hit the mark.
Fit Your Climate
While people in to gardening as a hobby are frequently obsessed with pushing the boundaries of what is possible, for the off grid garden this can be a mistake. You may have to come to terms with the fact that, tomatoes say, don’t really grow that well in your climate.
Focus your first efforts on plants that grow really well in your area. Zone charts can be help, but honestly the best way to find out is to ask people who already garden near you what grows really well there. They usually know more than the zone guides, because things as simple as a yearly late summer rain can totally ruin a crop that would normal grow just fine in your region.
Also, take a look at what commercial crops are grown or have historically been grown in your area. Industrial farming has moved to reduce the variety of local crops grown over time, but a quick trip to your local historical society will often uncover a wealth of information. In my home town, for instance, I found out that my region was once a major supplier of grapes, even though no grapes are grown there today.
Build the Soil Through Compost and No-Till Methods
Soil building should be the first thing you do when you start a new garden space. Rich top soil is the difference between a lush harvest and lack luster results.
The process of soil building can take a couple of years to get right, but the best thing about it is that every year, your garden will get better and better.
A compost pile should be the first order of business. It doesn’t need to be anything fancy, perhaps just a few pallets and bailing wire, or even just a pile of dirt on the ground.
Compost absolutely everything that you can — food scraps, egg shells, wood, leaves, other organic matter. The various rules about what you can compost and what you can’t are mostly misleading, just make sure everything is well covered in dirt when you put it in the pile, and let time take of the rest. Although, an injection of water now and again can significantly speed up production if your pile dries out.
No-Till / No-Dig
No-till or no-dig gardening is a time saving and effective method of gardening, that follows natures example when building up soil. Unlike traditional agriculture, which is constantly turning the soil over, destroying its structure, no-till works by adding nutrients on top of your garden beds each year to build fertility.
Soil structure is increasingly being recognized as the most important thing you can build to increase garden fertility and production. The contrast between bad soil structure and good is very clear.
Have you ever wondered why thousands of square miles of grass grows in the mid-west without irrigation, yet you constantly have to water and fertilize a lawn to keep it green? The difference is your lawn has only a few inches of good soil structure, if any. And, the mid-west plains has soil down more than 40’ feet in some places, built up over centuries of organic matter piling up layer after layer.
You find no-till naturally, in lush forests, plains, and jungles. And, now you find it on your homestead garden too.
Schedule Plantings for Optimal Use and Storage
One thing that is different between traditional gardening and off grid gardens is that you will need to spread out the harvest as much as possible, and maximize your ability to store the crop your produce.
Early or Continual Harvest
Include provision in your planting plans for early spring harvest. This could take the form of quickly maturing plant varieties, or by making use of early forms of the plant. Pea shoots and green onions are a good way to make use of early stage growth, and can be used as a way to thin plant beds and weed out slower growing seedlings from stronger ones.
Another consideration is ways to harvest from a plant when it is still growing. Herbs are the classic example here. By harvesting the tips of most herbs, it promotes bush, fuller growth which is better for production, while allowing you to have fresh herbs all season long.
Greens are another great continual harvest opportunity, where your can prolong the usefulness of a crop by only taking the larger lower leaves as the plant grows.
Garden beds should be fully utilized as much as possible, both to increase efficiency and to reduce damage to soil that can occurs when it is left uncovered
By planning ahead and developing planting calendar for your space, you can ensue that spring or summer harvested crops will have something ready to grow there for the rest of the season.
There are generally two ways to succession plant — through seedling transplanting or direct sew. Transplanting just means you grow the seedlings elsewhere, while the first crop is maturing, and then replant the space after the first crop is harvested.
Some planting combinations, such as asparagus and strawberries, can be planted in the same space at the same time. These plants naturally mature and grow at different times and have different heights, so there is no need to move them around or transplant.
The permaculture concepts of food forests and guild planting really take this concept to the next level, developing whole ecosystems within the garden that work together without the need for time or labor from the gardener.
Timing for Storage
Canning or otherwise preserving crops can be a lot of work. And, usually you are on a limited time frame when doing it.
A self sufficiency gardener should take the initiative to plan ahead when selecting crops to plant to make sure that multiple storage crops don’t mature at the same time.
If two harvests overlap, you have the option of either adjusting their planting date, or switching to a later/earlier maturing variety of one of the crops.
More information on food storage methods:
Build Up An Energy Efficient Off Grid Irrigation System
Pumping up deep well water for irrigation can be huge energy drain and a major expensive when gardening off grid. The best solution is to focus on gravity feed watering systems like the following:
Gravity Feed Surface Water Irrigation
If you have access to surface water such as a river, creek, or spring, then this may just be the best solution for off grid gardening. If you can place your garden downhill of your water collection point, then you can let gravity do all the work and make it simple to water your garden.
In cases where you have access to flowing water, but it is below your garden space, then you can build a self-powered hydraulic ram pump, which uses the energy in the flowing water to pump itself up hill. Ram pumps are simple and cheap to build yourself from hardware store components.
No Irrigation Gardens
In many climates, you may not need irrigation at all, with proper adjustments to your gardening setup.
If your region has summer rains then the use of berms and rainwater collection would easily work together to make your survival garden a self-sufficient rain garden.
Out here, in the West Coast of the United States, while known for our rain, we very rarely have any rain in the summer at all. However, it is still possible to grow crops without watering. The main way we do this is by increasing plant spacing significantly beyond normal, keeping the soil shaded, and allowing a natural crust to form on top by letting the soil be undisturbed.
Having deep, well structured soil in your beds will allow it to retain water throughout the growing season, and allow your crops to develop deep, healthy roots to take advantage of the stored moisture.
Reference for low water gardening: Water-wise Gardening in Central Oregon
Even in very dry climates, rainwater irrigation is definitely a possibility with adequate storage and collection area. The concept is simple, funnel rainwater in to a cistern, and use that to water the garden.
If your cistern is above ground or physically higher than your garden, you can again let gravity do all the work, although a small electric pump will also suffice in most cases if you collect water near the garden itself.
Protect Your Garden from Wildlife
Now that you have the makings of a new garden of Eden in place, you need to take steps to protect the harvest from mischievous wildlife.
In my area, the biggest potential source of loss is from deer. Here are four methods to discourage deer from eating up your crop:;
- Invisible fishing line fence
- Plant barrier consisting of strong smelling plants like lavender
- A double layer fence (instead of a 20’ tall fence)
- Guard dogs, goose, or other animals
I cover these techniques much more depth here:
You may also encounter a wide variety of other pests in your off grid gardening journey, which should be tackled as they come. Often, I find the best deterrent is addition of a proper predatory animal, such as chickens. So, I’ll talk about this more below in the section on livestock.
Plan for Seed Saving and Seed Crops
In order for a off grid garden to be truly self sufficient or prepared for catastrophic situations, it will need to perpetuate itself year after year.
For this, you well need some form of seed saving. Which is harvesting seeds are starter plants from the crops you grow each year.
How to Choose Plant Varieties for Seed Saving
First of all, in order to effectively save seeds, you will need to be certain that you do not plant any hybrid plants in your garden, since they do not produce viable or consistent seeds. Hybrid seeds should be marked as such by the seed producer.
Instead, you will need to procure open pollinated seeds, which are will produce viable seeds for next year.
Heirloom seeds may be a good choice, since they tend to have disease resistance properties and resilient genetics, but are not absolutely necessary for seed savings
This book is the best resource for seed saving that I have found, covering 160 different vegetables: Seed to Seed: Seed Saving and Growing Techniques for Vegetable Gardeners
Planning for a Seed Crop
Another thing to consider is that you will need to allocate a certain percentage of the area you plant towards seed production. Most plants will need extra time to go to seed, after the usual harvest time. And, some may only produce seed in certain months of the year, preferring hot or cool weather.
As a rule of thumb, you should allocate about 10% of your planting of each crop toward producing seed for next year, if you plan to grow about the same amount.
Mix in Beneficial Livestock and Animals
One way to massively increase the productivity of your off grid garden is to mix in appropriate livestock. Domestic animal manure is a great fertilizer, and always a welcome addition to the compost pile, or even directly on to fallow garden beds.
Chickens are probably the biggest hero when it comes to the garden, because they not only fertilize it to help it grow, but they also offer a natural pest control eating grasshoppers, beetles, and slugs that would attack the garden.
Ducks are also extremely effective at controlling slugs, and can be mixed in with chickens quite effectively.
Building a double layer fence not only acts as a great way to control dear, but doubles as a chicken run or “chicken moat” where poultry can eat bugs attaching the garden without making a mess of the crops themselves.
Rotate Crops to Insure Long Term Survival
Mixing the planting arrangement of your crops has two very important benefits:
- Crop rotation helps restore soils taxed by heavily feeding plants
- Crop rotation helps prevent disease
Different plants have different demands on the soil. Some take a lot, some take a little, and some give back more than they take. While guild planting can help alleviate this burden, if you are planting rows of the same plant only, you should rotate between each type of crop in a particular spot each year. So, in a given bed with a heavy feeder one year should have a light feeder and a heavy giver the next two years:
According to the “Arizona Master Gardener Manual” here are some examples of each category:
- Heavy Feeders –– Asparagus, Beet, Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, Cabbage, Cantaloupe, Cauliflower, Celery, Collard, Corn (Sweet), Eggplant, Endive, Kale, Kohlrabi, Lettuce, Okra, Parsley, Pepper, Potato, Pumpkin, Radish, Rhubarb, Spinach, Squash (Summer), Strawberry, Sunflower, Tomato, Watermelon
- Light Feeders –– Carrot, Garlic, Leek, Mustard Greens, Onion, Parsnip, Rutabaga, Shallot, Sweet Potato, Swiss Chard
- Heavy Givers –– Alfalfa, Beans, Clover, Peas, Peanut, Soybeans
The second consideration is reducing incidence of soil-borne diseases. Planting the same crop in the same place over and over again encourages disease. Potatoes and tomatoes are notorious for this, but almost any plant can be affected.
One simple rule to avoid this is to not plant any plant from the same family in the same spot for more than three years in a row. Of course, switching them up every year is OK too.
Expand Your Selection of Crops Beyond Common Industrial Plants
The species and varieties of plants in the groceries are chosen for two reasons, because they produce the greatest harvest per acre of intensive farming, and they store well enough when picked unripe to look good on the shelves.
Any decent seed catalog will have a wide variety of heirloom or other seeds that have many other beneficial properties, including better taste, good for long term storage, early producing, or late producing, among others. Making the effort to expand your horizons will pay off quite profoundly for the off grid gardener. You will wonder how you ever could stand store bought food at all!
Growing for sustainability, you will probably want to branch out to crops not usually grown on a small scale, like grains or sugar beets. You may be surprised to find out that there actually a huge variety of grains that are very rarely ever commercially cultivated, but grow great in climates where industrial wheat or corn crops may not thrive.
These ancient grains varieties heirloom seeds that include the following families:
There are a number of ancient grain seed providers online, and your current favorite seed catalog may also provide them as well.
How can I grow my own food?
Growing your own food starts by preparing the soil with compost and no-dig weed control. Select non-hybrid plants for seed saving potential, which can be either direct seed planted or started in a green house. Water with surface irrigation or rainwater. Space out harvests for maximum freshness and ease of storage.
How do I start a self sustaining garden?
Start a self sustaining garden by choosing non-hybrid “open pollinated” seed varieties that are capable of self-propagation. Always leave 10% of your crops to go to seed for next year. You can manually harvest seed, or use food forest methods that let the crops grow as they like and reseed naturally.