What To Plant in Your Fall Survival Garden
Unlike the spring and summer, fall is a time when nature is winding down. Depending on how far north you live, this may be an almost complete cessation of growth with frozen soil and plants buried beneath snow and ice… or it may be in some half-living state where most everything is brown but there are still vibrant green patches of cold-loving weeds such as wild mustard.
Almost all the best staple crops for survival grow in the spring and summer months with many of them ripening in fall. Beans, grain corn, winter squash, sweet potatoes. These are storable calories you can pack away for the cold months of winter.
Fall crops have to produce fast before it gets too cold unless you live in the South. Even then, many species are not cold-hardy enough to consistently feed you every winter. Carrots and cabbage might do fine one year and be turned into frosty mush the next.
The predominant characteristic to seek in a survival crop is calories. The second attribute to seek is nutrition. Both are very important but it takes longer to have problems with nutrient deficiencies in your diet than it does to become very hungry. Planting kale is a very good idea but living on kale would be tough.
Cassava is a good survival crop for warm climates because it’s quite calorie dense. However, if you consume just cassava roots you’ll be dealing with nutrition issues after a while, making greens, berries, meat and other food sources important.
Potatoes are calorie-dense and more nutritious, but a gardener should still throw in beets, carrots, broccoli, etc., to round out his diet.
You get the idea. Throwing all your eggs in one basket isn’t a good idea, especially when gardening for survival. It’s not good for your health or your survival prospects. Just ask the Irish.
Let’s assume this fall garden you are planting is your first garden of the year or that you were not able to plant all you wanted to plant in the spring. Perhaps rats ate your corn (like they did with a lot of my corn this year) or you lost your prize Hubbard squash to blight.
What three high calorie crops would you plant in a fall survival garden to get you through a long winter?
Here are my suggestions.
High Calorie Survival Crop #1: Turnips
Though turnips will keep you alive, if you eat too many of them you’ll wish for death. Not because they’ll upset your stomach or anything; just because they’re painfully boring. I plant them anyway, because they are a bank of calories in the ground you can trust to grow in a crises. We have had them in stews, sautéed and even as an ill-considered pie. In my mind, the best part of the turnip is probably the greens. Those are quite nutritious, but unfortunately lack the caloric load of the roots themselves.
What turnips lack in appeal, they make up for in ease of growth. And they are beautiful.
Plant turnips in late summer or early fall, depending on your climate, and you’ll soon have more than you can eat.
Turnips like loose soil with moderate fertility and they need space to make good roots.
My preferred planting method is to rake out a seed bed and to scatter the seeds across the surface and cover lightly with compost or raking them into the soil. Water well and seedlings will usually emerge in a week or less. Cutworms and other insects will sometimes do some thinning for you so don’t be too quick in thinning out the bed. I usually let them grow at least their first pair of true leaves or a little more before snipping off some of them at ground level with scissors and adding those thinned plants to sautés or even fresh salads. Thin the young plants to about two inches apart. Then when those plants are touching each other and starting to crowd, repeat the thinning process and continue eating the nutritious greens.
If you are planting turnips over a larger space, planting them further apart in rows maybe a good idea as thinning becomes labor intensive in a larger space. A seed planter can help. The awesome seeder attachment for the Hoss wheel hoe designed by my friend Greg at easydigging.com is a marvelous tool I have used in the past – just be aware that it has difficulty in loose sand and needs some tweaking to give you good coverage in those conditions. A cheaper and less precise method is to make furrows with a hoe or by pressing a dowel or tool handle into the ground. Then drop seeds in by hand at about a two inch spacing and cover lightly with loose soil. Don’t plant turnips too deeply.
In two to three months, depending on temperatures, you can start harvesting roots. Final plant spacing should be at about six inches, but with a bed like this, you will likely only have to thin once. Ensure that the seeds you plant are for a root variety and not for greens, as those produce woody and inedible roots. Turnips may not be exciting, but they will keep you alive.
High Calorie Survival Crop #2: Jerusalem Artichokes
Jerusalem artichokes are a Native American staple which can sometimes be found wild in North America. Some people have difficulty digesting them but they produce a lot of roots for a little work.
To grow Jerusalem artichokes, plant tubers at two foot spacing in Fall, Winter, or early Spring. Though they will not feed you until next Fall, it is a very good idea to get them in the ground so they will be there for the future. In my mind, they are a better livestock feed than a human feed. The roots are delicious raw, with a mild earthy flavor somewhat reminiscent of a light carrot.
Just be careful, they can give you incredible gas. Seriously. Don’t eat many of them until you have tried them out. Some methods of cooking help, fortunately, but boy… they can mess you up if you’re not used to their power.
In the far South they are less reliable but they grow excellently all the way north into Minnesota and are a perennial which is an additional benefit for survival gardeners. Jerusalem artichokes do not require high soil fertility or much care. They prefer full sun but I have had them produce decently in half shade on marginal ground where the topsoil was stripped off by construction the previous year.
Plant Jerusalem artichoke tubers in a place where you don’t intend to grow another crop any time soon as they are very persistent and will regrow from any piece left in the ground. When you plant them in the fall and in the winter, don’t expect them to come up until the following spring when the soil warms. They look just like sunflowers when they emerge which makes sense as they are a species of sunflower. All summer they’ll grow taller and taller, bursting into bloom in the short days of fall.
After they freeze back, you can pull up the stems and harvest the abundant clusters of knobby roots. They do not store well once dug but store excellently in the ground and can be pulled all through the cold months until they start to sprout in the Spring. Then the tubers deteriorate rapidly to feed the new growth.
One final benefit: Jerusalem artichokes make a lot of biomass for the compost pile, often reaching to eight feet in height. That growth can also be cut and fed to cows, goats and rabbits.
High Calorie Survival Crop #3: Parsnips
Parsnips are an often overlooked high-calorie member of the carrot family.
Photo credit Troye Owens
Parsnips can take some freezing weather and actually improve in flavor after a frost; however, if your weather is quite cold you’ll need to shovel some dirt or mulch over your parsnip bed to keep them in the ground safely until spring. They do take almost four months to make good harvest-sized roots, so it’s time to get them in the ground if you live in a mild climate or you will have to wait until spring if you live where frosts are imminent.
Before planting, loosen the soil well so the roots can push deep. Plant parsnips like you would carrots and be careful not to bury the seeds too deeply.
They will take at least a couple of weeks to emerge so be patient. Thin as they grow to give each root about 4” of space, then wait until they get nice and fat and start to push the tops of their roots up from the ground before you harvest.
Other Crop Possibilities
For nutrition’s sake, I would recommend also planting kale, cabbage, mustard collards, beets, garlic and carrots.
Garlic cloves will live in the ground through the winter and emerge in spring to make nice heads, so don’t pull them early.
Some varieties of kale are hardy enough to live through lots of snow and still be dug for leaves in the winter.
One more winter crop I like to plant is the fava bean. It gets damaged when temperatures reach the teens, but it’s a nice thing to grow just for its nitrogen-fixing ability. If you have an unused fall bed, plant it with fava beans. Even if you don’t get a harvest, they’ll make that ground better for the spring. If you do get a harvest, you’ll be enjoying gourmet fava beans. No way to lose!
If you have enough time before frost, you can also plant some potatoes in fall and dig them up before they freeze completely, giving you some roots for the cellar.
Time is ticking away until temperatures end this year’s gardening for good. Get started now – and if it’s already too late in your area for most of these crops, start gathering leaves for spring composting and be sure to plant Jerusalem artichokes before the soil freezes. You may be glad for those in the future.
Any cold-hardy high calorie crops you think we should have added? Let us know in the comments.