Environment, Science and Technology

Survival garden: What is it and how can I set up one in my home or community?

Youth Grow Farm, REC, 2007

Youth Grow Farm, REC, 2007

Youth Grow Farm, REC, 2007

Youth Grow Farm, REC, 2007

What is a survival garden?

Three girls take me to their family survival gardens in Ghana

Three girls take me to their family survival gardens in Ghana

Survival gardens, as the name depict are gardens that are meant to serve as an immediate source of food, nutritional supply and a supplementary source of income for a household. While generating income may not necessarily be the primary motivation for setting up a survival garden, in most developing countries and in situations of refugee camps, it usually turns out to be the case.

How big should my survival garden be?

A survival garden can take several forms and shapes. It can be established anywhere in your house or in your yard. While some survival gardens maybe planted once in a life time by some people, to others it is a way of life, which is part them. A survival garden maybe established on a piece of landscape as (1m x 2-3m) or it could be done in several flower pots, planted in boxes made from wood, used car tires, on the shelves of your kitchen, garage, in your porch, along the walkways leading to your front/back doors of your house, on the roof top of your home provided the infrastructure is strong to support the addition of soil, etc. In essence, a survival garden can be established anywhere in your household.

My wood box (1M x 3m) survival garden planted with collard green, sunflowers, tomatoes, basel, mint, pepper, and cilantro  in Worcester, MA

My wood box (1M x 3m) survival garden planted with collard green, sunflowers, tomatoes, basel, mint, pepper, and cilantro in Worcester, MA

Sunflower from my survival garden.

Sunflower from my survival garden.

Usually, the size of the survival garden depends on the available space, your time, resources and your interest. However, the appropriate use of horizontal and vertical ‘spacescapes’ of your garden area can yield substantial returns in terms of overall productivity should you use these spaces judiciously. I have set up several survival gardens over the past few years in Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, Ghana and in the United States. It is the passion to see life grows and develops into something unique, special and natural and it is this love that drives the motivation to set up survival gardens, which may differ from individual to individual. However, the core is that it is much more than just a typical ‘backyard garden’ or something of such. It connects you back to nature and reality.

A gardener makes use of a termite hill space to extend his survival garden.

A gardener makes use of a termite hill space to extend his survival garden.

A survival garden shown to me here was planted with potatoes grown for both the tube and leaves as it is commonly eaten in West Africa.

A survival garden shown to me here was planted with potatoes grown for both the tube and leaves as it is commonly eaten in West Africa.

How can I setup a survival garden?

Survival Garden with Drip Irrigation, Green Mulching and Collard Green, Accra, Ghana, 2008

Survival Garden with Drip Irrigation, Green Mulching and Collard Green, Accra, Ghana, 2005

Making a survival garden at first may require some sort of expense, but not that much. If you have access to finance, it would be appropriate to first test the soil that you would like to use for your garden. This first step is important when doing any form of gardening. The recommended soil tests should consider the levels of some of the listed parameters and off-course you could always add or subtract from the list of tests as you go along. Some of the main parameters for soil analyses should include: pH, lead (you don’t want your kids affected by this), Nitrogen, Phosphorous, Potassium, Magnesium, Calcium, Sulphur, Chlorine, Zinc, Copper and Iron. This list is not exhaustive. There are series of ‘do it yourself’ affordable test kits you can use to do the analyses yourself with your kids helping and learning in the process. Most of these kits are USDA approved and recommended to be used at home, but with care and some levels of caution. The kits come with the required materials you will need to conduct the test as well as the analyses. There are usually color-coded charts, which come with each system to explain the results to you. In the process, you and your kids become the soil science experts, which is cool because you all learn and you know what the soil in your garden looks like and is compose off. You can always ask a community-based group specialize in soil analysis if you need extra help.

Survival Garden with Eggplant irrigated using Drip Irrigation Systems, Accra, Ghana, 2009

Survival Garden with Eggplant irrigated using Drip Irrigation Systems, Accra, Ghana, 2006

Complex tests such as lead assessment and others should be done by taking soil samples at the laboratory. In most developing countries, some of these services are not available, however, people tend to know nutrients deficiencies based on some visual symptoms such as leaf color, stem appearance, fruit size, flower, etc. Nature sometimes is its own expert. We just need to listen, look carefully and interact with it to be able to understand it. You may also want to test the physical state of your soil such as soil texture and structure, bulk density, and level of organic matter, etc. These are all important aspects to consider should you want to have a healthy garden soil, which is needed to support healthy plant growth and yield. Always remember, your plant will be as healthy as the soil that it is planted in. I would recommend at first that you randomly collect soil samples throughout the ‘gardenscape’ for detailed chemical analyses as this will tell you at face value what the health of your soil is, what you need to do and you can decide what plants to cultivate and how much compost or other source of organic amendments you could use to treat your soil for deficient nutrients detected from the soil analyses.

How should I plant my crop?

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Mixed-cropping, intercropping, companion planting are some of the recommended approaches used to encourage biodiversity, promote ecosystem services at the garden level, sustainable insects and disease management, weed control and the efficient use of land and other resources while producing multiple crop for household use. These cultivation methods reduce the amount of time you need to be at the garden, which gives you enough time to do other things. Also, each crop planted during different stages, develops and are harvested at different periods during the season.This allows you to also plant in between harvest and this process allows you to constantly have food available from your garden throughout the season. Three-sisters garden approach in which you plant squash (or pumpkin) with corn and beans (peas) together on small heaps or garden mounds.

What are the benefits of survival gardens?

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In areas where survival gardens are usually planted by families along small plots of land usually together with other survival gardens of community members, there is usually the spirit of ownership, community togetherness, co-sharing, shared interests and frequent interactions, which promotes peaceful living, love, serenity and togetherness. Survival gardens are the powerhouse and last defense system for poor or low income families as well as middle and high income families. It provides food for the home, generates small income by selling excess products to their neighbors (if necessary), it provides outdoor or indoor beauty to your home gives your ‘livingspace’ and surrounding landscape the essence to supports live. It reduces your dependence on outsourcing food supplies from afar thus minimizing your ecological footprints and taking control of what we eat, which also allows us to make the decision on how it is grown, and how we spend our money. If you are a parent, it presents a special and unique opportunity to do some home teaching with your kids. Children by nature learn very fast through environmental-induced teaching strategies. The environment is a classroom by itself. One without walls and limitations as is with the usual classroom environments, which restricts, controls and limits creativity with the objective of transmitting knowledge in a control environment. If you have a survival garden or any garden for that matter, it allows children the free space to explore their potentials on a different dimension and in different setting. Produce harvested from the garden supplements the food needs for the home and the nutritional needs of the family. It provides income when more is produce. It encourages ecosystem diversity, reduces our dependence on external food sources and keeps our pockets stock with some cash for some time. Survival garden is a great tool that can be used to transform the living space of your household into a system that is self-sustaining. A family growing their food together find much deeper meaning in what they grow relative to what they eat, because the two are inseparable. If you have not had a survival garden before, there are some resources online that you can read and try organizing with your family to try a little project, to set up a summer survival garden. Trust me, you will be dirty, sweaty and tired at some point, but as you see your plant grow and as you observe your garden flourish, the joy of the harvest with your family and friends will wash away the memories of hard labor.

Images Use Sources

1. Youth Grown Urban Garden [2007]. Regional Environment Council. Worcester, MA.

2. Johnsen, Jan. Serenity in the Garden: Grow A Three Sisters Garden. URL: http://serenityinthegarden.blogspot.com/2010/04/grow-three-sisters-garden.html. Accessed: 06/23/2014.

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