There’s nothing more irritating to me than reading an article about survival foods that focuses only on foods in the desert southwest, for instance, or woodland plants of the East Coast. I’m not in those places, and I’m not likely to be there in an emergency. Of course, it’s up to us to know the edible and useful plants of our bioregion–if you’re in the desert southwest you definitely should know what’s available around you. But it’s also helpful to know the plants that you can look for anywhere. Here are some.
Even kids know how to identify this widely available plant. The leaves are bitter but edible. Try using the youngest, tenderest leaves in a raw salad and cook the other leaves as you would spinach. The roots can be cooked and eaten or dried and made into a nutritious tea. Photo by Greg Hume
Sow thistle flowers kind of looks like dandelion flowers. The leaves are edible and can be prepared in the same way as dandelions. Dandelions have only one flower per stalk while sow thistle has many flowers per stalk. ALso, dandelion leaves are only at the base while sow thistle leaves grow all the way up the stalk. Unlike dandelion leaves, which are deeply lobed, sow thistle leaves have spines on them. Photo by Alvesgaspar
Look for this in damp, shady woodlands. It does sting unless you protect your hands when you touch the stalks. To me, it feels tingly like my hands fell asleep. For me it lasts about 12 hours, but it can vary depending on how much you touch and how sensitive you are. The feeling doesn’t really bother me but it does greatly bother some people. If you can’t protect your hands while you harvest it just know that it is not harmful and it will go away. The leaves are highly nutritious, can be eaten cooked like spinach and actually taste good. These are my favorite spring green and I go out intentionally looking for them. The eaves dry well and can make for a nutritious tea anytime. The sting is neutralized upon cooking or exposure to boiling water, as in tea. It’s best to avoid these plants once they start to flower, because the concentration of uric acid can make them taste gritty and it can irritate the urinary tract. Photo by Franz Xaver
Wild mustard grows all over. Here where I live, we get a mustard that tastes terrible. These plants also have very few leaves. But they usually grow in large patches where you can get something out of them. I’m told in other parts of the country is a black mustard that is enjoyable and versatile to eat. Whatever kind you get, the leaves are edible (you’ll probably want to cook them), as are the flowers and seeds. Photo by Jubair1985
I got lucky enough to acquire a full set of different size cast iron cookware from an ex-roommate nearly 25 years ago. He didn’t want to take them with him and I couldn’t bear to see anyone else get them. Even though I’ve moved multiple times since then, I’ve never even considered not keeping them. There were times when I didn’t always take the best care of them though, and I’ve had to reseason them a few times.
I also occasionally see perfectly useful cast iron cookware at yard sales or thrift stores and they can be intimidating if you don’t know how to reseason them, but it’s not that hard. Here’s a run-down of how to do it.
First, sand off the rust with steel wool or rough sandpaper or a steel brush. Use whatever is efficient to get off the rust without digging into the iron too much.
Oftentimes, a cast iron pan that has been neglected will have a thick coating of black carbon on it. This often means that something burned in it and the person didn’t know how to remove that or didn’t bother to. In this case, it can be burned off by putting the pan in a hot oven. Use the self-cleaning cycle of the oven if it has one. If not, turn on your exhaust fan and keep an eye on it so nothing catches on fire. Spraying it with oven cleaner and letting it sit, then scraping off the carbon also can work.
Once it’s clean, wash it with soap and water and dry it thoroughly. Once it’s seasoned you’ll never use soap on a cast iron pan! A well-seasoned pan allows the oils and fats from cooking to bond with it. You want this smooth surface to grow over time, and using soap erodes that.
Take your clean pan and place a blob of shortening in it. How much you use will depend on the size of the pan or pot. For a teapot or something like that, use quite a bit. You want this to melt and cover the entire surface. Place a clean pan underneath the cast iron item to catch any drips of shortening so you don’t start an oven fire. If it’s an especially deep pan and you can’t coat the entire surface, rub some shortening on the surfaces. Take the pan out of the hot oven once in a while and CAREFULLY rotate the pan so the melted shortening adheres to the sides.
This is like basting a turkey…cover up all the surfaces so it soaks in and coats everywhere. Leave the pan in the hot oven for an hour or so. Make sure all surfaces have absorbed as much oil as possible. Then leave it to cool. If it looks black but not shiny, consider repeating the oven process above a time or two more. The first time you cook with it, run some cooking oil over all of your surfaces.
When cooking with a cast iron pan, don’t overheat, because burning your food will destroy this seasoning you’ve worked so hard to create. Use oil or butter when you cook and avoid cooking tomatoes or other acidic foods, because that can erode the seasoning surface. Avoid cooking something that boils a long time in a cast iron pan, because that too can erode the surface. You can cook tomatoes or cook soup in a cast iron pan, but you should wait until the seasoning surface is well-developed.
Once you’re done cooking with it, clean it out right away so nothing sticks to it. It shouldn’t stick hard, but cleaning it promptly under running with a gentle scraping from a rubber spatula should be enough to dislodge your cooked-on food. Avoid soap, because it will wash away the seasoning surface you’ve worked so hard to create.
The first few times you cook with it after seasoning, you want to encourage a good seasoning surface to develop. Cook oily foods for the first 5 to 10 times. Good choices would be fried chicken, pancakes, fried potatoes, grilled cheese sandwiches, pork chops with fried apples, etc. The more you cook with it, the more your smooth, non-stick surface will develop. If you don’t cook with it often, rub the surfaces with oil in between use.
Once you get that season on the surface, if cared for your cast iron pan will last forever. Occasionally the less high-quality pieces will crack or break. But avoid putting a hot pan in cold water, avoid dropping it, and take general good care of it and that should not be a problem.
We all love to cook on the grill when it’s nice out. But what if you had no electricity for your stove and you had to find some other way to cook? There are numerous different stove types and they have advantages and disadvantages.
Open fire – This assumes that you have dry fuel, fire starting material and that you know how to build a basic fire. Also, this is not the best method for cooking if it’s raining or freezing cold.
Grills – You likely have an extra bag of charcoal laying around. If not, consider getting one. Also, you can cook in a charcoal grill just like you would in a campfire if you have the dry fuel. If all you have is a propane grill, just make sure you’ve always got back-up fuel. Again, this is not the best method for cooking if it’s raining or freezing cold.
Camp Stoves – You probably have a couple of different types of cook stoves in your bug out gear. I do. I have an alcohol gas stove with some extra cans of gas. I have a Jetboil (which works great for heating up water quickly). I have a small biofuel stove that doesn’t require any fuel other than some dry tinder and a match. I also have a fuel tab stove. I also have I wish I had purchased the Biolite Stove, because it can charge up a phone or light through a USB port on the side while it heats up your food. That may be one of my next purchases. I also have my family’s old two-burner suitcase style Coleman propane stove. The problem with all of these except the biofuel stove is that you have to have gas or fuel of some sort or it is useless. That’s always the drawback.
Biofuel Stoves – I recommend that everyone have at least a small version of a biofuel stove. These burn nothing but pinecones, twigs and small sticks and such. As long as you have a match of some sort, there’s no need for fuel tabs or gas cans. I go around my house in the summer and gather up fuel and put it in a small container, so I know I always have dry kindling. My stove is small and can’t cook much more than a couple cups at a time, but it will work and it will provide food and keep me alive. If you really want to make an investment there are huge biofuel stoves than can hold a paella pan and even transfer the heat to heat your house! Maybe someday I’ll have something like that.
Fuel Tab Stoves – These are typically small, lightweight stoves that burn a fuel tablet. Often, the stove frames fold up. One tablet will bring up 16 ounces of water to a boil and they burn pretty hot and clean. If you have the fuel tabs but not the stove itself, other small cans or containers can be used to transmit the heat. these also need more of a heat source to get burning than what you might get from a striker rod . . . they’re just harder to catch.
Alcohol Stoves – I’ve never used an alcohol stove, but I hear they are a little harder to get going than these other types. What say you who are more experienced?
Solar Oven – While I’d love to go this route for myself, I live where the sun shines only 3 or 4 months out of the year! I’d never be able to survive if I had to rely on a solar cooker during the winter in the Pacific Northwest.
So with that outline, what do you think is the best stove type for a SHTF situation? Why?
What? Eating that grub doesn’t sound appealing? Well it might keep you alive. I ate a hazelnut grub when I was learning how to prepare acorns (article link on using acorns as a survival food here) and it wasn’t bad! Of course it was small. I’d have a much harder time eating a grub the size of my thumb. I know it’s just a cultural thing though.
I’ve also eaten crickets at a Mexican restaurant and it wasn’t bad, but I didn’t want to look too closely at the eyes, legs and antenna before popping them in my mouth! The people who know that I ate a grub (actually, I ate more than one!) tell me that they would do it only in a life or death situation. They weren’t interested in eating one “just to try it.” So what do you think? Would you actually eat grubs or other insects if you really needed to? If so, here are 4 insects you can eat all year-round. There are nearly 2,000 edible species of insects around the world, and many of them people already eat. It’s not a weird thing.
1. Ants and Termites
There are a wide variety of ants available in all corners of the globe. There are even ants in India that are used to make a lemony sauce! Most ant species are edible. I would avoid fire ants. According to National Geographic, 100 grams of red ants provides some 14 grams of protein (more than eggs), nearly 48 grams of calcium, and iron, among other nutrients. It’s hard to find a credible source online of what specific ants you can eat in the US (plenty of info about the Australian honeypot ant and the Amazonian lemon ant — helpful to know if you’re ever lost in the jungle or on a walkabout. If anyone knows a credible list of ant species that are edible and identification let me know.
These are abundant and easy to both harvest and grow. The squiggly creatures can be eaten both raw or cooked–although cooked sounds a lot more pleasant to me. Plus, insects including worms can carry parasites so cooking them lessens your chances of catching something. Suggested preparation is to boil them first to remove the slime, and change the water a few times until it remains clear as you continue to boil them. Then, roast then, fry them, freeze them or dehydrate them. Grind the dried ones into flour. That could be the most appetizing way to consume them. If you can, let them eat something clean like potato or corn meal for a few days before you consume them.
Not super appealing, but if there’s a dead thing there’s going to be maggots. Many insects that are edible (snails, crickets, grasshoppers etc) are only available in the warm months for most people in the US, so a bug like a maggot is one that you can find all year round. Harvest them from meat that’s been left hanging too long, and spread them on toast.
4. Roly Polys (Sowbugs, Pillbugs)
These critters that roll themselves into a ball are ubiquitous under rocks or rotten pieces of wood. Once you collect a handful of them, boil them. If you can, let them eat something clean like potato or corn meal for a few days before you consume them.
I’ve long known that you could eat acorns. I just didn’t know how. I knew that Native Americans relied on acorns as a food source and that they somehow had a way to turn them into flour for little cakes.
I live in an area that has some oak trees, and eventually I became curious about how to actually utilize this resource. As you may know, there are numerous YouTube videos and chapters in books and website pages about processing acorns. The problem is, though, that once I started looking around, I found so much information I didn’t know what was reliable. There are many different ways that you can process acorns to make them edible. I wanted to know what really worked.
The resources I had also didn’t answer some basic questions such as whether it matters if the acorns are green or brown. One of the trees near me had acorns all over the ground, but they were all green. Does it matter if they have their caps on or not? I saw one resource on using acorns as a survival food that said acorn flour needed to be stored in the refrigerator or freezer. How will needing to keep the flour cold help me if I’m in a survival situation?
So when I saw that a group near me was offering a workshop on acorn processing, I immediately signed up. I was one of 10 students who spent most of a day with an instructor from a school of botanical studies (they teach herbalism and wild plant foods). We walked around an area with a lot of oak trees, learned to identify the different native species we have in my area (Oregon), and what the trees’ growth patterns can tell us about the environment. Regardless of what type of trees you have around you, all varieties of acorns are edible!
It’s fine to read books and watch videos, but if you have a chance to learn from a real instructor in person, that is highly preferable. You can ask questions, see, hear, smell and taste in a way that you never can by watching a video, no matter how detailed the instruction. Here’s what I learned about using acorns as a survival food. And to be honest, the acorn “mush” turned out so good that you might want to eat it all the time.
Our group walked around to learn how the trees grow. We learned that Douglas firs and other fast-growing trees compete with oaks for light, and if an oak doesn’t get enough sun over time it will die. Knowing what trees you might need to remove can help you manage oak trees if you want to make sure that the trees in your area stay healthy and keep producing. We also learned that oaks have some years where they just don’t produce much, and some years, called “mast” years, where the nuts are abundant.
Our instructor also reinforced the fact that native people had collected acorns from right where we were walking for thousands of years. It was a great feeling to know that we were learning how to keep this craft alive and that we were learning how to truly eat food on a local level.
After we walked around and talked, we collected our nuts. We learned to avoid acorns that still had their caps on. We picked up only brown acorns, avoided ones that had a hole in them which was due to an acorn weevil (more on that delicious little protein morsel later!) and we avoided ones that were cracked.
Then we got to work processing them. Our instructor let us spend a few minutes cracking fresh acorns before telling us that it would never work to turn fresh nuts into flour! So that’s survival lesson number one…if you want to use acorns as a survival food, plan ahead. They must be dried before you can pound them into flour. You can let them naturally dry over months, you can use an oven, or a dehydrator, or put them by a wood stove. But either way they can’t be used right when you collect them off the ground.
Here are some photos of the dried nuts she had pre-dried for us to use.
As you can see, the whole nuts that you use should be free of mold and yellow or green discoloration. The variation in color is ok as long as they are “clean” looking.
It takes about 20 minutes to pound about 1/2 cup of the nuts into flour using a mortar and pestle. If you use this method, pound, don’t grind. If you grind, you’ll release the oils, which will make it turn into nut butter. Maybe that’s what you want, but in this case we were going for finely ground flour.
If you have a meat grinder, that’s a much faster way to process the acorns. You’ll get some fine flour and some “chips” or “grits” size pieces. Those can be sifted out and finely ground by hand or cooked in a soup. You can also use a grain mill or some other technology if you have it available.
After you start processing your nuts, you’ll sooner or later find one of these acorn weevils. Go ahead and eat it! The little protein morsel tastes like nuts. It’s slightly sweet, and only a tiny bit chewy along the edges. If no one else in your group is willing to eat them, then good, that’s more protein for you. I ate one, and I lived to tell the tale.
After you collect the flour, it’s time to leach the tannins out of the nuts. The tannins are what make them bitter and you want to remove the tannins before you eat the nuts. There are many ways this can be done. One thing I was surprised to learn is that if you try to leach whole nuts (in the shell) it can take months. One person in the class had a brilliant idea of putting a bag of whole acorns into their toilet tank, so they were constantly being “flushed” through with fresh water. You can soak them in a large bucket. This takes months. Longer than you think. But the acorns are fine in the water for a long time. It’s better to store the whole nuts and process them into flour when you’re ready to use them rather than trying to store the flour. The flour won’t stay fresh for very long without freezing or refrigeration.
The smaller the acorn pieces, the faster they leach. We leached them in two methods…the first was to put the finely ground flour into a jar filled with hot water (photo 1 below). This could take about a week. You can taste it, and when the nut meal tastes good to you, you can use them. Replace the water when it turns brown. If you have the option, place the jar in a refrigerator because if it is hot out it can begin to ferment.
The second way was to put the flour into a bowl, pour water over it to cover and stir, then pour the whole thing through a mesh bag that you can get at a homebrew store (photo 2 below). Pour more water over the flour until it tastes good. You can “hot leach” the acorns by simmering them over a flame or on a woodstove. It can take over a day to leach whole nuts this way.
Our instructor had some already leached flour that we cooked with a little water into “mush.” One cup of flour will expand to about 3 cups of “mush.” The taste was good. It was nutty, but bland. The flavor really woke up when I put some salt on it. If you have any toppings like butter, onions, or salt and pepper, that would make the mush taste much better. But even with no flavorings at all, it was edible and even good, just bland.
Our instructor also had some already-prepared chili that she had made using whole acorns cooked in place of beans. The other ingredients were the same as what you would normally put into chili. The flavor of the chili was great, it was just odd because the nuts oxidized and turned the whole jar of chili a dark, inky black color. If you just focus on the taste and not the color, that too was good! The flour could be made into bread or pasta just as you would use any other flour.
One caution I have is that people can apparently be sensitive to acorns. My partner is allergic to pecans and walnuts, and when he ate the mush, he said it made his tongue feel fuzzy the same way that other nuts do that he can’t eat. So he’s not into using acorns as a survival food because of this. If anyone in your family does have a tree nut sensitivity, you might test it out and see if they can safely eat acorns before you plan for that to be a source of sustenance.
Bottom line…I will collect acorns now whenever I have a chance to. Do your research, read your books and watch your videos. But if you get a chance to learn from an expert, do it. It’s the best way to really master a survival skill.
Forms of food dehydration have been around for centuries. Modern devices have resulted in things like banana chips being popular snack choices in your local grocery stores. Now, there are many affordable options that can fit on your counter at home, allowing you to save leftovers from your garden and meals. Properly dried foods can last up to 10 years when stored properly. It can be an appliance that saves you the money you spent on it early in its lifespan.
With so many options and features however, it can be confusing to know where to start. Here we give you some simple things to keep in mind when searching for your first food dehydrator.
Size: Think about what you plan to do with it. If you aren’t in a hurry or don’t plan to dry large amounts of food at once, save the counter space, electricity, and money- and go with something more manageable. If you plan to use it often, have a big project in mind, or have cheap access to large amounts of food to preserve, go with something with larger food drying capacity. Just keep in mind that most foods take up to 12 hours to properly dry, so you are looking at 1-2 batches a day of food being dried for many foods.
Horizontal, or Vertical Layout: Food dehydrators work by applying controlled, warm air flow evenly over the food inside. Vertical dehydrators blow heat from a heating element from below the food, cycling the air up through the racks. Vertical is often less expensive than horizontal. But these are often less efficient because the lower trays get most of the warm air and the top trays get less. Vertical dehydrators work best if the trays are rotated on a regular basis, which means you have to monitor the drying more often to make sure everything is drying evenly than you would in a horizontal model. A horizontal model places the heating element off to the side or in the back, pushing the warm air across the racks evenly. Horizontal airflow can reduce mixing of flavors between different types of food being dried at once. It also eliminates concern of fluids dripping from foods down into the heating element, easing cleaning.
Features: They can come with all sorts of settings and functions, but there are 3 things to make sure your food dehydrator has. A custom timer is a must for perfecting your recipes and getting those banana chips just the right level of crunch. A temperature selector for optimizing heat for the type of food you are preserving (meats for example require higher temperatures to dry safely.) And finally, shoot for something that is easy to clean. If it takes as long to clean as it does to dehydrate your food, you won’t ever use it.
Price: Industrial quality dehydrators can cost you hundreds of dollars. You can find them for as cheap as $30. For a horizontal one like mine, that has some capacity and is easy to use, you can find similar models around $80.
Pick something that will fit your needs and experiment. If you are anything like me, you will have a pantry full of your favorite fruits, vegetables, and meats by the end of the month, and struggling to save them for eating in an emergency.
Image shown is a horizontal dehydrator with sheets filled with apple slices sprinkled with cinnamon.
We were shipped the NDUR 9-Piece Cookware Mess Kit with Kettle, distributed exclusively through Proforce Equipment, and intended to take it camping. We didn’t get to take it on a trip but we did put it to the test cooking all of our meals at home over the course of a weekend in it, as if we were camping. The result? We liked this kit and can feel comfortable recommending it for a backpacking kit, camping kit, bug-out bag or emergency at home cooking kit.
The only thing that keeps me from stopping short of saying that this is a “survival kit” is the tea kettle. I personally loved the tea kettle and the two cups it came with, but if I really am in a survival situation, having a cute little teapot with a lid and two little cups won’t matter much. The company also makes a 6-piece cookware essentials kit that doesn’t include the tea kettle and cups which might be more of a bug-out cooking kit than this one is.
The NDuR 9 piece cookware mess kit is made of hard anodized aluminum. The descriptions says it is easy to clean and I found that to be true. I cooked eggs in it for my breakfast both mornings, including a sunny side up egg that I flipped with a spatula as well as scrambled eggs that I scrambled in the pan. I used a little oil in the cooking and while some of the eggs stuck, it did clean up very easily. The handles get hot in normal use on a burner, so I imagine that if these were used over a fire the handles would get burnt up pretty quickly. The webpage does say to keep the handles out of the path of direct flame, but if you’re trying to cook over an open fire I imagine that would be hard to do. It does come with a gripper that can be easily hooked on to the side of any of the pots or cups to protect your hands from heat. everything except the drying pan/plate/lid comes with handles that fold away.
One thing I cooked was a combination of brown sugar and butter to make a desert. I stirred the butter and sugar with a fork, and I expected the fork to scratch the surface of the pot but it didn’t. After the butter and sugar cools off, it became a hard sticky lump. I expected this to be difficult to clean off, but it wasn’t. I had to scrub a little bit but this did not mar the surface in any way. I typically do not like drinking out of metal cups because of the heat transfer, and these did get hot, but they are made of the same easy clean material as the rest of the kit so I feel good about their durability.
The food in the pots did seem to heat up quickly. I warmed up water for coffee and soup for lunch. I made a grilled cheese sandwich and it heated up evenly and quickly. That’s a key part of cooking on these…the heat does go through quickly so it’s not cookware that you can leave unattended. One nice thing about it is that everything nests inside of itself. When combined together, the pots have a strap that holds them together and they also easily slide inside a mesh bag. The tea kettle does not nest all the way inside the pots but the strap keeps everything from being wobbly. If you really wanted this to be a survival kit, simply remove the tea pot and that would give you other space inside the inner pot where you could stuff some other gear. I hate to tell you to leave out the tea pot though, as that was the nicest part of the whole kit. But when we’re talking about survival, the creature comforts will quickly go by the wayside.
The large pot holds 1.8 liters. The smaller pot holds 1.4 liters. The large frying pan is 7.5 inches and the smaller frying pan, which doubles as a plate, is also 7.5 inches. The kettle holds .8 liters and the two cups hold 5 ounces each. The gripper can be used on all pots, pans and cups. Altogether, the kit weighs 31 ounces and when nested together fits into a space only 7.6 x 5 inches. I also liked that the handles on the kettle and on the kettle lid were sturdy and remained upright without flopping over.
A lot of preppers have seed kits, which is a smart investment because if there really is a natural disaster or a societal breakdown, being able to grow your own food is going to be a key to survival. Gathering wild plants can work but if you don’t find enough before winter hits, people who live in areas of snow and ice are going to be SOL.
Seeds stored for your garden should be heirloom varieties, because these will grow the same type of plant as the parent plant and produce seeds that will be the same type of plant as the parent plant, unlike hybrids, which product seeds that can be of varieties very different. But there’s another reason why a cache of seeds is a great idea for survival.
Many seeds can be sprouted easily. These sprouts, sometimes called microgreens, are highly nutritious, easy to grow and can give you fresh green food in a matter of days, even when you can’t fully garden with seeds in the ground. Sprouts are harvested before the first set of leaves develop from the seed. Microgreens are harvested after first leaves have developed. Sometimes, you need an inch of soil to grow microgreens unless you invest in a hydroponic tray. For this reason, sprouts are easier than microgreens.
Seeds are stores of nutrition that is meant to provide sustenance to the growing plant. When you eat the sprout, you are eating all of that stored nutrition. In winter, in areas of snow, or if you are having to move around from location to location and you either can’t risk putting seeds in the ground or you don’t want to, sprouting seeds is a great way to get nutrition and fresh food that you can pack along with you. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a survey lead by Agricultural Research magazine reports that “microgreens contain considerably higher levels of vitamins and carotenoids—about five times greater—than their mature plant counterparts.”
Most seeds can be sprouted in a jar. There are also canvas sprout bags made specifically for sprouting. You can even wrap seeds in a damp towel. I have successfully used a plastic “clam shell” container that lettuce comes in from the store. The seeds need to be kept moist for the first few days until they sprout. After that, experts will tell you that the seeds/sprouts need to be washed daily in fresh water. This is true, however in a pinch you can also just mist with water or rinse once a day or every other day if you don’t have access to enough water.
Choose seeds that are fast growing and have a flavor you like. Experiment a little to find ones that you really like to eat. Having a bag full of several types of sprouting seeds and beans can give3 you the versatility of making fresh sprouts or growing an actual crop when you can.
Here’s what we recommend having on hand for microgreens and sprouts:
Mung beans – these make the traditional “bean sprout” that is often used in Asian stir fry, nice and crunchy
Alfalfa – what people commonly think of as “sprouts”
Beets – sprouts in 4 to 6 days
Mustard – sprouts in 3 to 4 days
Radish – sprouts in 3 to 4 days
Broccoli – sprouts in 3 to 4 days
All lettuces are good choices for microgreens
Even some grains and seeds can be sprouted, such as quinoa and sunflower seeds. We recommend experimenting first with these before you stock up on them as they can be more tricky.
Let’s face it, we’re not all gardeners. Some of us have green thumbs and some of us don’t. I personally am in the camp of the person who wants to have a green thumb but it doesn’t come naturally. I didn’t grow up in a household that gardened, unfortunately, and my mother only grows flowers. Which are nice, but in general, you can’t eat ’em.
So when I wanted to get a garden going at my own home, I had to do a lot of research. I was surprised at some of the basic things about gardening that I didn’t know. For instance, the difference between determinate and indeterminate tomatoes. The first few years of my gardening I never paid attention to the tags that came with the garden starts I bought, so I was always surprised with the mixed results I got.
Determinate vs Indeterminate Tomatoes
To explain that difference, determinate tomatoes are often called “bush” tomatoes because they grow to about 3 or 4 feet high. This is the type to plant if you are into canning, drying or freezing because the plant produces the entire crop within a one to two week period. These types don’t need cages or staking, although it is fine to use it. This is also an easy to care for plant because you shouldn’t remove the suckers from these types of tomato plants. Because they are compact and more “bushy” these are a good type of plant for a container. Most hybrid tomatoes and early varieties are determinates, because commercial growers like the ability to harvest all at once.
Indeterminate tomatoes are often called “vine” tomatoes and these grow to about 6 feet tall. The last time I tried to grow an indeterminate tomato in one of those flimsy little tomato cages, the cage darn near broke in half. These plants will produce crops all season long, until it gets too cold. They like the suckers removed, because it helps them focus their energy on the fruit-setting. Because these plants grow so large, they are not a good choice for containers. Most heirloom varieties are indeterminate tomatoes.
There are some semi-determinate tomatoes, that as you might guess have characteristics in between the two types. Now, about hybrids….
Why You Should Only Save Heirloom Seeds
Choosing seeds for the garden, particularly for the survival garden, is different than just selecting seeds based on growing a nice looking vegetable. You can choose from three varieties of seeds: open-pollinated, hybrid, and heirloom seed varieties. Each of these seed types has something to offer, but for the survival garden, you should choose heirlooms, and here’s why.
Many of the seeds that are commercially available are from hybrid plants. Hybrids are plants that have had the parent plants chosen because of some qualities that the grower wants to pass on in the next generation of plants. Seeds saved from hybrid plants will not be true to type, meaning they are genetically not going to produce you the same type of plant you saved it from. The genetics of what plants result from your seeds will not be predictable. Farmers who grow hybrid plants have to buy new seeds each year because the artificial pollination results in seeds that will either not produce the type of plant you were expecting or may nor product a plant at all.
Open-pollinated plants produce fruit when some pollination happens from natural sources such as bugs or wind. These plants can easily cross pollinate, which can cause a great variety of resulting fruit, particularly among things that cross-pollinate easily, like squash. If pollen is shared among different varieties, as in a small garden plot, your seeds will not be true to type. Again, this means that seeds you save from these plants will not produce the same type of plant you saved them from.
Heirloom varieties are seeds that were passed down because they were particularly good at what they do, whether growing in a particular area, producing an abundance, being cold tolerant, bug tolerant, drought tolerant, or some other good quality. Gardeners saved these seeds because they were reliable and good tasting. Heirloom seeds will give you the same type of plant as the parent plant. In some cases, particularly squash, in order to avoid open cross pollination, you should grow the plants in separate areas.
And here’s another tip….we don’t recommend buying survival seed packages, even though the advertisements can make these deals sound too good to pass up. Thousands of seeds for hardly any money and all that. The reason we don’t recommend this is because the varieties are chosen for you. There are numerous different garden “zones” based on weather and some varieties will not grow in zones other than the ones they are well suited for. Varieties that grow well in Florida will not grow well in Oregon. Your best bet is to get in touch with a nursery that is close to you and get a list of varieties that are tested and proven to do well in your growing area. Buy those, because they’ll be more likely to perform wherever you are. Also, selecting your own seeds means you can get the seeds that you and your family will actually want to eat. If no one likes radishes, even though these are super easy to grow, do you really want 1,000 radish seeds?
We’re getting to know the Bushcraft series of books, because we already had “Bushcraft 101” by Dave Canterbury, then checked out “Advanced Bush Craft: An Expert Field Guide to the Art of Wilderness Survival” by Dave Canterbury, published by Adams Media. Now we’ve gotten our hands on the new one, “The Bushcraft Field Guide to Trapping, Gathering & Cooking in the Wild,” also by Dave Canterbury.
This one published October 1, 2016, so it’s brand new. And it’s also our favorite of the bunch. We had some criticisms of the past two books because the information Canterbury presents is focused on East Coasters and some of the information he chose to highlight didn’t seem that important. I’m happy to report that this one is full of more useful information. However, for advanced preppers or hunters, again, some of the information will seem silly. For instance, a list of veggies that can be carried that don’t require refrigeration, including potatoes.
I did love the diagrams of makeshift water filters using a two-liter soda bottle as a water filter or the tripod method using cloth. Using the bottle method, you cut the top off a bottle and invert it, layering fine to course sand and rocks to slow let water filter through.
If you have the opportunity to pack for your outing, there are many tips here that you can use. For instance, packing a few bags of spices or a box of Old Bay seasoning. He provides a long list of his favorite recipes that you can duplicate, such as jambalaya using ground sausage and fresh crawfish. There are extensive pages about ways to build cooking fires and stoves out of found materials, and “beyond the basics” of hunting which includes how to reload spent shells. My favorite parts of this book, which I thought were lacking in the previous book, was the short section including full color photos of edible plants and the foraging chapter. There’s also a section that goes more in-depth into trapping and butchering, which are key considerations for living off the land. Useful in this regard also is the chapter on preparing unconventional foods, such as insects. I ate crickets once at a Mexican restaurant in Las Vegas, and I can tell you that in this case that box of Old Bay would come in handy.
The foraging chapter is great info, provided you know how to identify the plants he’s talking about. If you don’t know how to identify yarrow, it won’t help you to know that it can be used as a natural insect repellent. I think that’s what’s the biggest source of frustration about these books, is that they are a mix of beginner and advanced knowledge, and sometimes where the line is drawn is a little arbitrary. For instance, if you’re already including full color photos of edible plants, why not include one of yarrow as well. On the other hand, this puts a lot of the responsibility on you, the reader, to make sure you know what plants grow in your area and how you might use them.
To wrap things up in a fun manner, I liked that there is a chapter on unconventional cooking, which includes things like cooking cheese bread on your car engine. This is something I’ve always wanted to try to do and this recipe has given me the push to try it. This is a book that you can just flip through and get something out of, if you want to learn how to make a stove out a tin can, for instance. But I recommend taking the time to sit down and read it, because there are lots of tips and tricks that even if you know, you might forget. For instance, I’m going to go around and gather sap, knowing that sap will burn for a long time. I know that I could heat up a can of beans on a fire of sap if I needed to. And I never would have thought that I could use a windshield reflector, the fold-up kind, to fashion a stove.
One thing that I think is a bit confusing about these books is that people who may not realize what they are buying will think they are getting a survival book. While many of the techniques such as making stoves and building utensils out of saplings can definitely be survival skills, there’s too many other things in the book that are not specific to survival, like what spices to keep on hand. However, there’s enough that is new and useful in this book that I recommend it for people who hunt and like to fashion what they use out of things they find along the way, or for people ho have a genuine interest in doing things in an off-the-grid manner, even if it’s just a weekend at a time.