When it comes to true long-term survival during bad times, it is your winter larder you have to put your most serious efforts into. Anyone can grow fresh produce during the summer and probably make it until fall; it is the months between October and June that separate the weak from the survivors. The Great Plains tribes that we often think of as totally focused on buffalo actually depended on what they called “the three sisters”—corn, beans and squash—as their primary means of sustenance during much of the year.

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This was basically the same for many eastern tribes as well. Hunting and gathering is an extremely rough way to guarantee your survival year in and year out; sooner or later, the game disappears or moves to another area. Cultures around the world discovered thousands of years ago that farming is much more reliable. On a recent trip to China, I saw examples of how as little as 2 acres could feed an entire family, with enough surplus to barter with for other essentials. And the Chinese have been doing this for several thousand years!

Living life mounding potatoes and shelling corn may not sound as romantic as becoming a mountain man roaming the forests living off fish and game, but it is far more realistic. The last 10,000 years of human civilization have proven that long-term subsistence will always depend on what you can grow, not what you can hunt. 

Here are some helpful tips for starting your survival garden:

  1. Potatoes are easy to grow in a wide range of climates and soils. In many places you can over-winter them in the ground if it is covered with mulch.
  2. Sow beans to dry as a source of protein and fiber.
  3. Winter squash is fairly easy to grow, a good keeper and rich in fiber and vitamins.
  4. Grow carrots to eat raw as well as cooked. In some places you can over-winter them in the ground if you cover the bed with mulch.
  5. Grow onions, garlic, chiles and tomatoes to add interest to the other ingredients listed. You may need to dry and can some to take you through the winter.
  6. Grow perennial herbs to spice up your everyday dishes.
  7. Plant crops that have more than one edible part.
  8. Check out how other cuisines turn these staples into flavorful, satisfying dishes.
  9. Experiment and plant less familiar root crops, such as parsnips and rutabagas, to see how you like them. They are a good substitute for potatoes, or can be mixed with them.
  10. If properly stored, cabbage is a good winter keeper, and in some areas you can harvest kale and chard most of the season.

This article originally published in THE NEW PIONEER® Winter 2015 issue. Print and Digital Subscriptions to THE NEW PIONEER magazine are available here.

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