Captain Dave is pleased to welcome columnist NCPrepper. She plans to report in regularly on her first urban survival garden and share other cooking and food prep tips for preppers in the column Fresh Perpetual Stew. To learn more about perpetual stew and other prepping tips, check out our Captain Dave’s Survival Guide.
Growing up in rural Louisiana, I was always helping my mom with her garden. In the spring we’d sit on the couch at night and map out plans on a bright yellow notepad. Basil and rosemary in the front beds, tomatoes and cucumbers in the side yard, and of course new flowers along all four sides of the house. By the time summer rolled around there would be cosmos and zinnias popping up along the raised beds and our kitchen counter would be covered in more ripe, juicy cherry tomatoes and meaty Romas than we’d know what to do with. We’d water in the morning, checking the plants and picking a few veggies, then water again at night and pick a few more. Mom would even go through and pull these large green caterpillars off our tomatoes and squish them between her bare fingers—one of the many pests that loved our tomatoes. As the summer would wind down we’d give a hefty portion of our harvest to our neighbors and friends at church, mom would make basil pesto and freeze tomatoes for sauces in the fall and winter months.
Every year Mom’s garden rolled us through the seasons and every year the garden got bigger. By the time I was in high school, Mom was working at a greenhouse in the next town and bringing home transplants to give to the neighbors and filling our beds with a premium topsoil that was the secret recipe from the owner. From 1992 til 2008, Mom studied the light conditions and rain, read books on homemade fertilizers, and took each season to improve her gardening skills as well as the garden itself.
What my mom didn’t realize is the same thing that many preppers don’t realize—the experience you gain while building out a garden season after season gives you an invaluable set of survival skills. Many survivalists assume that gardening is quick and easy; it’s not.
You can pick up a knife and throw it at a tree, then immediately walk over, grab the knife and practice again. With a garden, practicing is a multi-year process you have to wait a few months to see results and a year before you get another throw.
Figuring out your gardening methods—what plants to grow, how to space out seeds or transplants, fighting off pesky bugs, protecting your plants from extreme elements, even figuring out how to properly water your plants—takes patience and observation. During those years, you learn how to optimize the available land, the best ways to season, cook, and store your yields, and even bartering techniques for fertilizers and more plants.
I’ve decided to get some hands-on practice in my new location by starting my own garden. Since this is the first fall I’ll be living here and my apartment is limited on space, it took a little planning and some research to find out what kind of planting would actually work in Zone 7A. Lucky for me, this weekend is the optimal time for planting a fall garden here in Durham and if you’re new to gardening, this is the perfect time and place to start.
According to the NC State University and NC A&T University Cooperative Extension’s publication Central North Carolina Planting Calendar for Annual Vegetables, Fruits, and Herbs, there are “three optimal growing seasons: spring, summer, and fall.” Furthermore, the publication is the best resource for starting a garden in North Carolina, but if you’re growing in another state, your state university system’s Agricultural department will have similar resources (many will even test the pH levels in your soil). With six pages of succinct and useful information, you’ve got an introduction to the climate, basic plant disease and pest control, and planting dates for bulbs, crowns, seeds, transplants, and tubers that are successful in our region. Look closely at the planting calendar and you’ll see that a long list of fruits and vegetables grow successfully during the North Carolina fall and the majority of your fall garden should be started in the beginning half of August.
Our winters are just slightly too cold for annual plants, so it’s best to opt for growers that will quickly mature through their whole life cycle in only one growing season. Also, from that list choose vegetables that you want to eat or at least pick the veggies that other people in your life will take off your hands. If you want, do a little extra research to see which plants will be the most beneficial to you in a survival situation.
I will be starting my garden very small this year because there are only two mouths to feed in my household, but it’s also good to see how much you can plant in the space you have, how much yield you can sustain at a time, and how much time you’re willing to commit to caring for your plants. I’m planning on growing three heads of kale, two tomato plants, two snap-bean vines, one pot of dill, and one pot of parsley, but depending on space and number of mouths you want to feed, you may decide to grow more. Whatever you choose remember that you’ll always be able to build out in the seasons to come.
I’m planning on buying kale and tomato transplants from a local farmer’s market, but they are often available at Lowe’s and Home Depot and local garden centers. I will buy seeds for snap-beans, dill, and parsley. Once I break ground, I may find I also need a few bags of nutrient-rich compost, and I may grow some items in containers so I can move them indoors when frost threatens. Farmers markets may also be good sources of supplies and I will visit both my local farmer’s market and the state farmer’s market in Raleigh.
These five plants mentioned above are easy growers for beginning gardeners who are limited on space and suitable for fall planting. All five have qualities that make them beneficial for survival gardening and can easily teach you a wide variety of gardening tricks without investing in a huge haul of plants:
I love kale and they don’t call it a super green for nothing. Kale is calcium-rich and contains high levels of vitamins A, C, and K. Low calorie and high in fiber, pairing kale with potatoes means that you can easily and quickly create a well-rounded, satisfying meal. Can it, cook it, blend it in a smoothie, or eat it in a salad, kale is a versatile food. Kale is a perpetuating green which means that you can pluck off a leaf and they keep growing.
Tomatoes are a family favorite in my house. Growing up we always had cherry tomatoes, Romas, and better boys in our summer gardens, and late summer in Durham is warm enough to grow another round of tomato plants for the fall. Make sure that you have room for tomatoes to vine up and they’ll grow really well on their own. You don’t have to be Italian to find a million ways to eat tomatoes (although it helps). Slice them raw for sandwiches and salads, cook them into sauces, or can them for storage.
Snap-beans are easy to grow and can easily take over a space. Vine beans grow fast and full so you’ll be able to yield a harvest between 50 and 70 days. If you’re in a survival situtation (or prepping for one) odds are you have dry or canned beans in your stores, but all beans are a little different. By starting with snap-beans, you’ll be able to learn more about growing things from the bean family which will eventually lead to drying and canning.
ill isn’t a vegetable, but since we’re starting small, herbs are great plants for a first garden. Dill is formally known as a dill weed and it grows just like that—an aggressive, take-over-everything weed. I’m going to put mine in a pot and away from my other plants so it can have it’s own space without choking out my other plants. Once the weather gets cold, I’ll be able to bring the pot inside and keep it growing all year round. Dill is also great for a survival garden because you can start practicing the process of drying out plants and herbs for long-term storage and they’re great for spicing up bland foods.
I chose this second herb because growing multiple herbs are great for new gardeners. While you can dry parsley and bring it inside for the winter, growing multiple herbs at the same time teaches you how to keep herbs in a small space without cross-contaminating their containers and essentially their flavors. Online you’ll see photos of herbs really close together in these really need growing setups and they end up tasting terrible because if they’re too close, they’ll all taste the same. No one wants a thyme-dill-mint-rosemary-parsley-oregano plant six times over. Yuck. Aside from being easy to grow, parsley complements lots fall and winter soups and sauces like tomato soup, chicken noodle, or even stew. By cooking with parsley, you’ll be mimicking a lot of the same types of meals you’ll be making in a survival situation like perpetual stew.
Even if you decide to just start with one plant you’ll find that growing a garden gives you more than just the benefit of healthy, fresh produce. You’ll save money on your grocery bill. You’ll spend time outside in the sunshine and feel satisfied knowing that you’ve grown something from your own efforts. With every plant you put in the ground, you’ll learn more about your ability to survive and teach your kids the responsibility of caring for their surroundings. You’ll find that gardening is way more than just a hobby—it’s a missing building block in your arsenal of survival and life skills.
Next week I’ll give you an update on this weekend’s planting adventure and what I found at the farmer’s market. Check in weekly for updates and articles on gardening, cooking, and DIY skills with a survival twist from Fresh Perpetual Stew.