Adventures in survival gardening: planting, sunstroke and flea beetle apocalypse – Edited to add frost and snow

Edit May 18: Pest now correctly identified as a flea beetle

Edit May 17: To add frost and snow – please refer bottom of post

Have you ever planned something to the very last detail and then had your project go completely sideways once you actually began executing the plan?

All winter I had poured over gardening information. I made lists. I made more lists. Then I organized my lists and began buying supplies. There has been increased interest in gardening due to Covid and I wanted to be ahead of potential shortages.

This was to be the year that I tested some of my ideas about survival gardening. How much food could I grow? Could I create a kind of secret survival garden in my yard? Would the idea of growing food plants among my flowers work?

I had spent last Friday and Saturday driving to two cities to collect bedding plants, six more 60 lb bags of soil and seven bags of assorted compost. My steel drive in posts and deer fencing had arrived. There were other garden supplies and all of it was neatly arranged inside my house. I managed to carve a path from my living room and the den to the rest of the house.

Did I mention that my husband is tearing apart the garden shed this year? He is redoing the shed storage he constructed last year. The shed was originally purchased for outdoor maintenance and tool storage. He now seems to consider it his workshop.

Last year it was below freezing before he finished his shed storage projects.

This means that this year everything is torn apart again and there is no room for garden supplies. I am also slowly inheriting odd automotive parts and snow shovels that were supposed to be housed inside that garden shed.

Despite the inside of my home looking like a retail garden centre, I was determined to learn and enjoy every moment of the gardening to come.

I had pre-arranged my bedding plants into groups for the planters and pots. They were lined up on foil pans ready to grab and go.

This past Wednesday, the weather finally turned and out I went to plant the three foot wide new planters on the North side. It was a slightly overcast day and nice for working outside.

I transplanted the bedding plants in the first and second North side planters without a problem. Then I hit the third planter and noticed these tiny bugs on my nice new white planters and trellis.

They were tiny, dark, fast, and jumped about very quickly. And, there were a lot of them. On the other side of my new planters is the neighbor’s brick outlined crushed rock bed with a few low evergreen shrubs planted in it. I had no idea where these bugs had come from or what they were.

I called my husband to look and he hadn’t seen anything like them either. He ran to the store to buy bug spray just in case. I kept planting and finished the seven planters, watered them and hosed off the bugs. I sprayed them all with bug spray to be on the safe side.

From there I went over to plant the thirteen front stoop planters and discovered that these tiny bugs were there as well. The bricks and lawn furniture were black with them.

Every planter had multiple marigolds as a deterrent for aphids. I also planted a lot of geraniums. Keeping ants away from the house and flowers usually keeps aphids at bay. These bugs didn’t look like aphids I had seen.

I finished planting, repeated the watering, hosing and bug spray and discovered I had been outside for seven hours straight.

The next day, I had to take my dog to the vet and pick up her heartworm medication for the year.

In the morning I checked my security cameras and discovered that my front stoop plants didn’t look right. I rolled back the footage and found the culprit. A single doe, very pregnant, had daintily nibbled her way through six geraniums, alyssum and lobelia. She actually climbed my brick stairs to do it.

Luckily, I had fencing stakes on hand for fast barriers and created a six strand deer fence with fishing line before I left for the vet.

While my dog was at the vet, I managed to pick up replacement plants and headed back home.

As the day went on, I was feeling more unwell. There was no fever, but I was in a cold sweat and really dehydrated. My husband has his industrial first aid and other training. My hair was up and he noticed the back of my neck. “You’re sunburned.” I told him I was wearing sun screen. “Did you wear a hat?” 

Um. No. I planned to wear a hat, but my big sun hat wouldn’t fit over the hair comb that was holding up my hair. It was overcast and I was excited to get outside and start work, and yes I’m the idiot who didn’t wear a hat.

My husband got two cold towels for my head and back of my neck. “You have minor sunstroke because you didn’t wear a hat.” “Overcast days are the worst for sunstroke.” “Next time wear a hat.”

Note to all prepping gardeners: wear a hat. Sunstroke really creeps up on you.

The next morning I felt a bit better than the night before and decided to work in the shade by my back door. I planted five ten gallon pails of assorted kinds of tomato seed and three smaller pails of Genovese basil seed. These pails were neatly lined up on the rock around the sunny South side of my house.

I covered the pails with plastic wrap to create a greenhouse effect and hopefully sprout them faster. I left a bit of a gap for air flow.

The raised beds couldn’t be planted until I finished my garden tags for the seeds. I still wasn’t feeling all that great, so I decided to work indoors on that project and do a last minute check and revision on companion planting for the vegetables and herbs.

I took a break to check the front yard plants and discovered that they were swarming with those little tiny bugs. They were so thick, that they now looked like moving black sand. I sprayed everything again. There were more dead plants.

Now I was really concerned about the vegetables that were going to be growing in the raised beds.

Saturday morning came and I checked again and the bugs were everywhere. I moved supplies around in my den so I could get to the computer and searched. 

I found a photo that could have been one of my plants. Sure enough, they are aphids. I had never seen newly hatched aphids before. I checked the front stoop and there were dead bugs all over the stoop. This meant that the insecticide my husband brought home had worked, but there were more of them. I sent him back to the store for more of it. They only had one bottle left, so we weren’t the only ones with a problem.

I don’t like using insecticides, but this is way beyond what hosing them off can control. I used a fine textured garlic powder and sprinkled that over the planter soil and plants. I couldn’t get it underneath the leaves very well, but I am hoping it will help to save what is left of my bedding plants.

I have never seen aphids in this number before, here or anywhere else. It is frightening considering the damage that they can do. It is one thing to lose flowers, but my real concern is their effect upon the food crops I plan to grow.

I have ornamental bedding plants, but the gardening is mainly about food production for survival and prepping. In the years I lived on a farm and gardened, we never had anything like this happen. 

There is a difference in geography. When I lived on a farm, in an area near Lake Manitoba, there was pasture, bush and trees and some smaller fields. There was a mix of agriculture, such as dairy, mixed farming, and beef producers. Where I currently live, there are massive open treeless tracts of fields for the huge grain farms.

Trees and bush hold moisture. We had more snow and more rainfall where I used to live.

I have been racking my brain since yesterday trying to figure out what is happening.

This is a very dry year for us here. We didn’t have much snow pack last winter. The local agriculture is in trouble and they are talking drought. One community about an hour away has no potable water and is on water rationing. Their water comes from a man made lake.

Our natural lake is about five feet down and I could smell algae on the lake yesterday.

There doesn’t seem to be more ants, but I noticed that there aren’t any ladybugs. 

Several years ago, Southern Manitoba had a problem with imported Asian ladybugs that had been brought in to control aphids. These ladybugs are not like our native ladybugs. The Asian ones bite. They became very invasive, swarming and intruding inside homes.

I am wondering if they are displacing the native ladybugs and plan to do some reading to find out more. I want native ladybugs and won’t order imported ones.

This is a huge infestation of aphids and they are killing plants rapidly. The way they are killing the plants doesn’t look like normal aphid damage. The plant is swarmed and literally collapses, shrivelled up and dead with some holes in the leaves.

Usually aphids will suck the leaves, which turn yellow and sometimes leave a black mould. Perhaps it is the life cycle that the aphids are at that is causing this different kind of damage?

As of this writing, I plan to go ahead with seeding, but am now scrambling to figure out how to protect the food crops first.

I am also concerned about how our climate is changing and the effects upon our food crops by predator insects. If a single winter of reduced snow pack and one dry spring can produce drought conditions that can impact predator insects this quickly, then there are some new things to consider in survival gardening.

If anyone has any ideas or suggestions, or has ever encountered this type of situation with aphids, please help.

Also, has anyone else noticed such a dramatic change in their gardening or environment after one season of reduced snow or rainfall?

I am going to continue searching for information and will check back later after I get some sleep.

May 17, 2021: I am typing this with one eye on the horizon and listening for the sound of thundering hooves. Another horseman comes riding, this one bears frost and snow.

Nope. There is no way to make what I have to communicate sound any better – I cannot **sassafrass**scoobie-do##double hockey sticks** believe this!!!

We are getting a low of 0 Friday and a low just above freezing the next day! Accompanied by, you guessed it: Rain! 15 mm of Rain! Plus some snow. It’s 30 degrees right now!

Do you know when I found this out? When I came indoors to get more seed. I planted more seed this morning and came in to find this out.

*Deep breath* I have had some time with a spoon and some ice cream to reflect and regroup.

This is a good lesson for preparedness. Usually people here don’t plant until after May long weekend, which is this coming weekend for us. Sometimes, people wait until the end of May.

This is on me. I made the decision to plant and seed now instead of waiting. I got taken in by the heat. Beware of fluke fluctuations in temperature. 

My action plan to counter this news:

I have lots of plastic on a roll as part of my preps, so I am going to tent my flowers on the stoop and the flowers in 21′ of new planters, south side tomato and basil seeded pails, and the 4’x16′ planter that is seeded with lettuce, radishes, carrots, chives, peas and beans. It’s a long shot because seed needs a certain temperature to germinate. The plastic might give it a bit of a greenhouse effect.

I have starter soil and plenty of containers so I am going to start a bunch of plants inside, beans, tomatoes, etc. This will give me a chance to germinate the older vegetable seed to see if it is viable. I had planned to do this anyway as a survival garden experiment. If it works, I can keep some and give some to others who may have lost their vegetable seeds or plants in the frost.

The positive side:

I learned a really good lesson about gardening too early. I was too eager because last year I did wait until just after the traditional end of May planting and got nailed by low temperatures. I had to replant all my seed. 

I learned not to get caught up in a stampeding herd of gardners. This year, stores were selling out of certain items. I had most of what I needed, but I got caught up in garden fever and started stampeding with the rest of the herd right out to the planters with my kneeling pad and bucket of seed.

This freezing spell may kill off those sassafrassing aphids.

I learned again to value having a huge roll of plastic on hand. I can’t count the times it has come in handy for emergencies.

Biggest lesson: Redneck is right: You can’t have enough seed. So many things can go wrong and today is a prime example of it. Even after our traditional planting times here, we have had snap freezing spells. Even one night is enough to kill plants and germinating seed.

What saved my neck is that I have extra vegetable seed on hand and plan to get more if it is available.

Thank you Redneck and please keep telling people to get extra seed, because nothing grows without seed.

I am going to catch up on the board, then get my supplies to start germinating seed indoors.

I think some Tom Petty is in order. “I won’t back down.” “You can stand me up at the gates of hell, but I won’t back down.”

Yeah, horseman, I can ride, too. Bring it.


  • Comments (21)

    • 8

      For aphid control, I use a mix of Dr. Bronner’s castile soap & neem oil.  Each individually will kill them but I like the combination.  Be prepared though, as neem oil stinks.  Then next spray I will use Spinosad.  Now Spinosad is my go to insecticide in the garden as it is organic and if applied correctly, only kills the insects eating your plants.  Won’t hurt the pollinators as they don’t eat the plant.  Same chemical used in flea treatments for dogs.  It is systemic so stays active for a bit.

      For sun protection, which is critical here in Mississippi, I wear the Sunday Afternoons Adventure hat.  It is not very manly looking but it works.  It has mesh ventilation to keep you cooler, big broad brims and neck protection.  The neck strap really helps on windy days.

      • 5

        Yes! Neem oil – I am going to order some today. They are running out of treatments here and now there are carpenters ants (I just posted thread on the now declared drought and the impact here. It is bad.)

        In times of water shortage, I won’t be hosing them off. The EndAll spray is killing them and I just checked again. It seems to be beating them back.

        I like that hat and I am going to look for one for husband and I. What I have currently is like this one:


        It covers the back of my neck really well and is nice for non windy days. 

        Thank you for mentioning the Neem oil again!

      • 2

        I was also going to recommend neem oil and Spinosad. For neem oil, make sure to get the cold-pressed stuff — it’s less likely to burn your plants. Mix it with water and a bit of soap and spray it on your plants in the evening. Neem oil also works as a fungicide, so you get two for one.

        Spinosad is sold under the brand name Captain Jack’s, and you can buy it at Tractor Supply. I have some but haven’t used it. I have friends that swear by it.

    • 4

      Oh, and by the way, I have plenty of failures and I often change up my plans at the last second.  For example this year, I put my amaranth seed out too quick & it didn’t germinate properly.  So in that area now I have planted 6 okra.  I was gonna grow a decent crop of upland rice but decided not to & have planted my peppers there now plus some cucumbers.  I prepped 4 locations for Fairy Tale eggplant, which I have started the seed in trays & pots.  I have English peas growing where the peppers were going to go, so now that bed will be available soon, as it gets hot.  I’m thinking of putting sweet potatoes there, if I can find some slips.  I left a smallish area between the peppers & the okra, and will replant the amaranth there soon as more seed comes in this week.  I don’t worry or freak out with change or failure.  I just adapt and get on with it.  That is all part of the fun.

      Yes, our climate is much less predictable nowadays.  Our springs are much shorter & it starts to warm up much sooner than in the past.  That causes the plants & trees to go ahead & want to wake up but there is danger of frosts when that occasional late cold spell comes thru.  When it rains, it rains harder & we seem to have longer dry spells in the summer.  This means having irrigation during a crisis can mean the difference between living & starving.

      • 2

        There are so many variables with food production. I also believe that irrigation is necessary from a reliable water source.

        On the drought thread I just posted, there are communities losing their sources of water. There is much to consider regarding how to plan for food production under these conditions and that’s why I started the separate thread for it.

        I also wanted to address how fast destructive insects could propagate. I swear Redneck, the aphids were like looking at moving black sand. I have never seen anything like it.

    • 2

      Oh no… I feel so bad for all of your challenges. It’s like you can’t get a break!

      I don’t have any advice except to keep going at it! Scale back if you need to and focus on one area for now and master that.  

      • 3

        Hi Liz,

        Thank you for the support. We used EndAll and it seems to be helping us get the upper hand on the aphids. 

        I started another thread on “Drought and how to prepare for food production” with a nod to how quickly destructive pests can become a problem during a drought.

        I think this is a good lesson for preppers. Weather conditions can absolutely destroy food production and rapidly. Farmers have known this as a fact of farming life. I had forgotten how fast it could happen. It just takes the right conditions. I am going to post any ideas or solutions for drought and food production plus pest issues on the other thread.

        Thanks again Liz, it has been a rough week, but better to find out a flaw in my prepping now than later. I hope this will help others as well.

    • 5

      I dealt with these large black ants last year that just would not go away. They were all over the patio stones right in front of our front entrance way, so they had to go.

      I tried all these natural and organic methods first. Just hosing them down, putting rocks over their holes, cayenne pepper, diatomaceous earth, borax, homemade ant traps with a combination of all the above, nothing would work. 

      Finally went to the store and bought some ant pellets that you are supposed to mix in with the soil around the holes and they like it and take it back to the queen who then gets poisoned. Didn’t eradicate them all the way, but got it down to a tolerable level.

      Winter came, ants gone, happy Jose.

      Spring is back, and ants are back, unhappy Jose.

      Going to try the store bought ant poison pellets again.

      • 4

        Hi Jose,

        I am glad to hear that you got your ants under control. I bought some similar pellets and use that as an extra precaution for the “regular ants” we have here.

        You certainly tried all the natural and organic methods first.

        I also prefer to go that route myself. But carpenter ants can destroy a home, so for me, I went for the Ortho-Ant-Be-Gone. It has a nozzle that can be rotated up to spray into the area between the siding of the house and the foundation which is very handy.

        It lasts until it is washed off by rain (which my eaves on the house cover) and I reapply in about a month to ensure I keep the ants out. I didn’t want them nesting in the house.

        I just had a funny thought – aren’t ants supposed to be good to eat as in a protein source? I did a fast check and sure enough you can eat them and aphids also. Here’s the link from Mother Earth News and a list of edible insects.


        If they destroy our food, well we’ll just eat them instead. 

      • 4

        True… An even better idea would be to get a chicken and for the chicken to thrive off of the aphids or ants and then we get high protein eggs!  

        I think it’s not good to have just one chicken though, it’ll get lonely, so you would have to have a few of them. Might be a bit more work than i thought

      • 5

        My chickens wouldn’t eat ants.  Maybe it was because we have a lot of fire ants.  Also not certain if they would eat the aphids but there would be a good chance they would eat the plants… much faster than an army of aphids.

      • 4


        It could make for some high protein eggs! Something to remember if I get the chance to have chickens again.

        I would love to have chickens again. I miss fresh eggs. I used to also raise turkeys but they don’t have the personalities that chickens do. 

        It would be really nice if they would allow them in town. Chickens don’t make a lot of noise and they are actually nice to watch or pat.

        The chickens aren’t too much work for caring for them. And, I just thought of this, there is a bonus with chicken and that is their manure which is prized as a compost. It’s expensive. The containers I have seen look like cardboard milk containers and they are around 15.00 to 20.00 Canadian.

      • 4

        Chickens are easy to care for & like you say, they have lots of personality.  Hard part is when predators tear them to pieces.  The really hard part is keeping predators away, and with all my efforts I failed.

      • 3

        Chicken predators are tough to cope with. We had three dogs who guarded them. Sometimes, a predator got through.

        The deaths are hard to take and at least you tried. Other animal stewards don’t care about the animals in their care. You did the best you could and that is never failure.

    • 3

      We are getting a low of 0 Friday and a low just above freezing the next day! Accompanied by, you guessed it: Rain! 15 mm of Rain! Plus some snow. It’s 30 degrees right now!

      On Friday we will be 88 and then going into the 90s after that.  Today we are a bit cool with a high of 77.  🙂

      Beware of fluke fluctuations in temperature.

      Happens to the best of us.  I planted my amaranth a few weeks ago & it was too early for such a warm weather plant… especially since their tiny seed are either on the soil surface or barely underground.  I’ll be replanting this weekend.

      Starting seed in trays is the best way to prevent such errors.  I keep a huge stack of 98 cell propagation trays in storage.  In a crisis, I will start much in these trays.  Granted they are tiny cells but they are perfect for getting a seed started.  That can buy you a few weeks extra time and can ensure everything you plant grows.  Also, for varieties with tiny seed like I mentioned above, planting in propagation trays allows you to baby them, as they can get their water from the bottom.  I’ve found when you direct seed tiny seeds into the garden, the act of watering can kill off a bunch of seedlings.  For example, my wife wanted Fairy Tale eggplant this year, and of course I’ll grow it for her.  The seed are tiny, so I have them in trays now even though it is plenty warm for them to start in the garden.  I’ll get much better germination this way.  Once they get two inches or so tall, they will be planted in the garden.


      Also, several ancient cultures did similar using a product call seed balls or earth balls.  They mixed clay soil with maybe some compost and added the seed.

      seed ball

      • 5

        That seed ball idea is really cool. I may try a bit if of that too.

        They were sold out of the starter trays with the plugs locally, but I think I can create a good substitute with the ProMix blend I have on hand and egg trays.

        I defnitely agree with direct seeding. There are problems with the tiny seeds and even the Deseronto potato bean I seeded today has to have a warm soil temp. It is finicky, but I was very interested to grow it. I only ordered the one bag to try it. But may be it will survive with the tent cover.

        So you have to replant Amaranth? I guess gardening is like that. We hear the siren call of spring and head for the seed.

        Your weather is incredible. I almost moved to the USA in the 70’s. There was much we never learned in school. They really kept your weather quiet – they didn’t want to start a stampede of Canadian gardners over the border 🙂

    • 5

      And here is what a pound each of collards & amaranth looks like.  Those two small packs hold hundreds of thousands of seeds combined.  This is why they are a critical part of my survival strategy.  Where else can you get so much food & nutrition, at such a tiny cost and take up so little storage space.  Because of their small size, IMO they are perfect candidates for freezing to greatly extend shelf life.

      2 pounds

      • 3

        Oh yeah, the picture says it all – a pound of each and that many seed? That is incredible. Every prepper should get a supply of these seeds.

        I like that I can store them in my deep freezer and they will still be good.

        It ticks my prepper boxes: quantity of food, nutrition, economical, and small footprint for storage.

        Thank you for the visual with this photo. It has really helped me to put the whole picture of these crops in perspective. I am ordering seed.

    • 3

      Update May 18: I have edited the name of the pest as it is now correctly identified as the flea beetle. This is what it looks like, where it comes from and explains why you can have it.


      Here’s another big lesson I learned about pest control:

      In a survival garden situation we have to be able to identify the pest we are dealing with. The flea beetle looks like the black bean aphid. 

      I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was wrong about the aphid identification because of how the flea beetles kept jumping around. Aphids don’t jump like that.

      Also, the damage to the plants was so fast and it was different than what I have seen in aphid damage. There were holes in the leaves of the plants. That didn’t make sense to me.

      Fortunately, the EndAll insecticide we used works for both insects. It explains why my marigolds didn’t stop them. I have used marigolds for years to protect plants. I don’t like having to use insecticide. Sometimes it is a last resort or necessary to save a vital crop.

      The flea beetle is common in canola groups and in the years I have lived here, I have never seen these beetles. This area is full of canola fields.

      However, the flea beetle can also be found in shrubbery. I think the flea beetles had lived and layed eggs in the low spreading evergreen foliage of the neighbor’s planter. It was bad timing. I just happened to put planters in an area infested with flea beetles. Then I planted early, just as the new flea beetles were active.

      Survival gardeners need to have a good current and reliable book on insect and pest identification, with complete instructions on how to deal with it and why you have the pest problem (so you can avoid it in the future).

      The gardening books I have are good, but some of them are from the ’70’s or don’t address the pest and insect problems in my area.

      I am going to source provincial agriculture and gardening organizations for more info on what we have currently in this province. I am also going to look for a book that specifically deals with insects and pests across North America. Species can migrate and in the event I move, I want a good source for any place that I live in one book.

      The weather forecast is up to 3 degree celsius instead of freezing Friday night, but I am still seed starting indoors today if possible. I still am unsure if I have the right conditions to do this indoors and don’t want to waste any seed. I may wait for things to warm up.

      • 6

        Flea beetles are nasty little SOBs.  Last year they went after my amaranth crop & within days, it looked like Swiss cheese.  Several treatments of Spinosad solved the problem.  Be prepared, when treating such an insect outbreak, you normally need several successive treatments, so that you break the breeding cycle.  Otherwise you kill the adults but in a few days the eggs hatch & it starts all over again.  Nice thing about amaranth is, it can quickly replace those damaged leaves… like a good weed.

        I don’t have a good, reliable book for insect identification.  With Spinosad, you don’t need it.  If applied properly (usually very late in the day when pollinators have left) it only kills insects that bite into the plant.  Won’t bother your pollinators or other insects, such as ladybugs, because they just visit the plant… don’t eat it.  Works the same, because it is the same, as dog flea treatments.  Traditional insecticides & even your oils & soaps will kill everything it hits.  Spinosad doesn’t.  I keep gallons of it in stock.

      • 4

        I had never seen flea beetles before here. They are nasty. They just coated my plants. Sorry to hear they got your amaranth last year. They do make weird holes in the leaves. That’s why I didn’t think it was aphid and keep searching for info.

        I did successive sprays with EndAll before I knew that it was a flea beetle infestation. That was a fluke because I sprayed extra because of watering and then being concerned I might have washed some of it off.

        They are all mostly dead now. But I am watching like a hawk. I don’t want to lose food crops.

        Spinosad used to be sold in Canada and was under 900 plus day review back in 2018. I can’t find an update and wonder if Covid side lined that decision. So much is changing here, it’s sometimes hard to find current info. But, I have the name noted and will follow up.

        Thank you for the info, much appreciated.