I have tracked down, purchased, and read over 25 books this past winter, all having to do with gardening, food storage, and food processing. My goal was to come away from many long winter nights soaking and reading in my claw foot tub with more than wrinkled toes. My agenda was simple: I wanted these new, used, and out of print gems to provide instruction and inspiration in formulating a plan to grow as much of my family’s food as possible as soon as the snow finally melted—and then put the harvest in storage. As I soaked in the hot water, I also soaked in the sage advice and timeless tips of generations of fellow growers. This in combination with a year of botany study I just completed with my kids and my previous gardening experience and I feel like I have a fairly good grip on everything from asparagus anthers to the best zone 5 zucchini varieties.
After all that study I needed to put together a plan. As great as it is to know how hand pollinate my squash blossoms, or that in my region I can grow one variety of from each of four species of squash (maxima, mixta, moschata, and pepo) for seed without them crossing with each other, how many squash seeds should I plant? Every gardener sets about planning their crops with a slightly different goal in mind and a different set of circumstances influencing their growth and storage. For example, I never so much as perused an article on how to grow 600 pound pumpkins and I read precisely zero chapters on how to produce gorgeous, prize winning camellias because those are not my goals. My sole goal is sustenance. Delicious, homegrown, nutritious sustenance, but survival food all the same. I wanted to try a sort of trial run on how I would garden if my life depended on it, all while working toward a large enough garden space to sustain my family and more if needed.
Surprisingly, I found nearly as much bad info out there as good. I ruled out the advice of a few “survival” web sites who seriously touted low fat, low calorie garden veggies as the best survival garden foods, extolling the low fat/ low carb/ low calorie virtues of all the veggies included on their lists. Now, I love lettuce and cucumbers just as much as the next gal, but if I had to choose my top twenty-five foods to survive on, then neither would make the cut. As I marveled at how impossible it would be to sustain life on cucumbers and lettuce, I also wondered how these “survival experts” would suggest that you store them. I was also wary of the “survival garden in a can” concept. Storing seeds is a great idea and these companies may offer a great service, but if all your seeds sit around in a can until society collapses what do you suppose you will do with them then? To me, when your life depends on it seems like a horrible time to learn to garden. Neither a healthy, tilled and enriched garden bed nor the means to preserve your harvest is magically included in that can of seeds. It takes more than seeds to grow food. We need practice. We also need tools, insect and animal control, a water supply, and in my northern climate some seed starting materials and a cold frame come in handy. Seed storage isn’t much of a plan at all if you can’t actually grow them when you need them to survive.
After consuming every last book I purchased and sifting through the wealth of both good and bad information on the Internet I wanted to get local. I have a friend who eats so much squash her skin turns orange… seriously. I peppered her with questions. Not only does she grow a multitude of squash, but she does it a couple of miles from my house in our shared climate and weather conditions, and in very similar soil. Then I spoke with a retired neighbor who used to grow a huge garden in what is now my back yard. What better expert could there be on my microclimate and soil capabilities? I spent some time in online gardening forums and exchanging ideas with my mom, who is a master gardener. I read, talked, breathed, and dreamed companion planting and compost for the last seven months (perhaps to the slight annoyance of some friends and family), but I did pick up a great deal of knowledge and ideas just by talking to people. In that spirit I thought I should take a break from hoeing weeds and share some of the things I have learned in case anyone else can benefit from it. Since there are endless resources available to explain how to grow food in your garden, I want to concentrate on what I’m growing and why.
Most importantly, I learned that reading a stack of books and not actually working up a garden makes a person akin to a ‘childcare expert’ who has a degree… but no actual children of their own. Secondary only to that, the most important thing to me is to prioritize for crops that require little or no processing, refrigeration, freezing, or other costly and time consuming special treatment that depends on electrons flowing through the power lines. I want to grow food I know will be useful even if the freezer no longer functions without having to spend all of August and September sweating over a canner. I don’t want to have to depend on electricity in any way for the production or preservation of the brunt of our homegrown food supply. These crops would also have to prove hearty and nutritious, something to fill you up and stick to your ribs. That is, something quite a bit more substantial than those survival cucumbers I read about. Root crops were the starting point as an answer to my family’s needs.
Root crops are a perfectly created source of calories, fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals, and are therefore quite filling and healthy. After all, those roots are where the plant stores all of its nutrition over its dormancy to be able to reemerge the next season. Potatoes in particular sustained most of Ireland until blight caused the infamous famine in the late nineteenth century. They may be my most important storage crop. Potatoes are also recommended as a first crop to plant in newly tilled ground. According to my research, every 100 row feet of potato plants yields somewhere between 150 and 250 pounds of potatoes. Late season varieties will of course have higher yields than early varieties because they have longer to mature.
Plenty of information is available on how to grow potatoes, but a few facts that I found interesting were: Smaller seed pieces planted farther apart (16-24”) will yield a smaller number of large potatoes. Larger seed pieces planted a little closer (12-18”) will give you more potatoes, but they will not be as large. Hilling up your potato plants gives them more loose soil to grow in, keeps weeds under control, conserves water, and reportedly increases yields. The plant will continue to grow roots up its stem and form more tubers in the soil you cover it with. Potatoes also must be protected from sunlight—that is fairly common information. Sun exposure will turn your potatoes green. Contrary to popular belief, however, that green pigment is only chlorophyll. It is only an indicator of poisonous (glycoalkaloid) toxin buildup and any green-tinged potato should not be consumed by man nor beast. Don’t just cut off the green parts. The poison is spread throughout the entire potato. Also of value to me was the fact that potatoes are on the “dirty dozen” list of fruits and veggies with the highest amount of pesticide residue. If you open a new bag of potatoes from the grocery store and take a whiff it is more often than not reminiscent of the fertilizer and pesticide aisle at your local gardening or hardware store. Try it if you don’t believe me. Then tell me again why you would never grow potatoes because they are so cheap to buy at the store. Commercially grown potatoes are routinely doused in chemical fertilizers and pesticides whether they are needed or not and then fumigated after harvest to prevent them from sprouting in storage. I apply wood ashes, Epsom salt, and bone meal in the trench I plant my potatoes in and use insecticidal soap to control bugs. Pyrethrin, a readily available pesticide which is derived from chrysanthemums, is dusted on my plants only if the soap fails to do the job. Which potato would you rather eat? Homegrown potatoes are basically dug, cured, and stored at the end of the season after the vines have died back. They can be transformed into a plethora of dishes too plentiful to list.
If there is a rival nutritional powerhouse to the potato, it could only be the sweet potato. Packed with complex carbs, fiber, vitamins A, B6, C, and minerals, sweet potatoes are a winner. While they are commonly grown in warmer climates, I have read of people growing them well into Canada so I started my sweet potato slips in a sunny window in late March. They are not actually related to potatoes, but a member of the morning glory family. The leaves and shoots are also edible and can be grown all winter as houseplants, nibbled on, then used to start a new crop the next spring. Yields seem to be very similar to potato, but depend largely on length of growing season. The longer they grow, the larger they get. Lift at your preferred size before a hard freeze or after the first light frost, cure in a warm, humid place, and store. You can mash, bake, fry, or smother sweet potatoes in marshmallows if that’s you preference. I can almost smell the sweet potato pie already. This year we are going to try making “sweet potato sugar” by drying and grinding slices of sweet potatoes. It sounds like a promising sugar substitute, oatmeal topping, and granola ingredient to me and I would love to get anyone’s input who has tried it.
Wrapping up the root veggies, carrots, parsnips, turnips, rutabagas, beets, onions, and garlic all appeal to me for the same reasons. Grow, cure, and store, or in some cases skip the curing and get straight to the storing. Surely devote as much garden space as you can to these important crops. Onions and garlic can also be interplanted with almost everything else in the garden and will help repel bugs, rabbits, deer, and any other beasties you can think of and have many health benefits aside from their food value. I hope to conserve plenty of time, money (freezer bags, canning jars and lids, electricity, etc.) and freezer space by devoting a large area to these crops. These are my stew, soup, casserole, and potpie fillers and flavor enhancers. They all roast well and most can be added to mashed potatoes or sweet potatoes for variety and flavor.
Although not grown underground, pumpkins and winter squash are next on my list. Grow, cure, store. See my pattern? In addition to feeding my family from the richly nutritious flesh, the seeds are also a notable source of protein, zinc, and other minerals. I add pumpkin and squash puree to everything I can think of. Breads, quick breads, pies, muffins, casseroles, and even my crowd pleasing homemade mac and cheese gets a nutritional boost and orange color enhancement from my secret ingredient: butternut squash puree, and no one has ever guessed why. Pumpkin cinnamon rolls are a winner and squash dinner rolls are a family favorite. Cubed squash roasted with potatoes and onions is a fall staple. Depending on the variety, I have come to expect from 2-10 fruits per vine, grown three vines per hill. My 14 hills of Waltham Butternut squash, Small Sugar pumpkins, Blue Hubbard, and Striped Cushaw should then give me somewhere in the neighborhood of 200+ squash and pumpkins with any luck. With only one variety from each of the aforementioned species and God’s will, I can save seeds from the cream of the crop and have even better squash and seeds to barter with next year. I can also share the squash bounty with my chickens, which was one reason why I planted so many. While squash is tasty, we don’t love squash to the point of turning orange from eating it! If you are interested in saving seeds I highly recommend the book Seed to Seed: Seed Saving and Growing Techniques for Vegetable Gardeners by Suzanne Ashworth.)
Corn is next on my list. For every 100 feet of corn planted, the conservative consensus seems to be an expectation of at least 120 ears. This is my first year trying open pollinated corn. I am a little concerned that the lack of sweetness we are accustomed to may not appeal to my family as fresh corn on the cob, but I am totally looking forward to good, clean, un-tampered with corn for my family and my flock. Sweet corn is only the beginning. Freshly milled cornmeal and corn flour ground from the dried corn is something I am looking forward to as a staple that far outweighs the corn on the cob of summer in my book. Cornbread, johnnycakes, polenta, muffins, sponge cakes, tortillas, and even adding some of the meal to biscuits, breads and pizza dough is what I am looking forward to. The eggs from my hens should also benefit from real corn instead of the nutritionally inferior Franken-food corn I am currently feeding them from the local elevator. Over 200 row feet won’t be able to support us and the birds completely, but it’s a starting point and I plan to till up more yard and add to it next year. Corn can be left in the garden to dry until you can get to it so long as there’s nothing else that will get to it first. Shelled corn will take up much less storage space than corn left on the cob. Grind corn as you need it to get the most nutritional benefit and best flavor.
Beans wrap up my easy storage list. Everyone I know is planting green beans or wax beans in their garden, but nobody seems to be planting dry beans. I am growing four varieties of dry beans this year for a little variety in winter usage and seed for next year. At 15-25 pounds harvested per 100 row feet, beans provide a great source of protein and fiber. Of special value to me is the Vermont Cranberry bean, which is a sweet heirloom dry bean that grows to maturity in 65 days. I could almost get two successive crops of this one, but at a minimum can put in staggered plantings. That should give me some protection from inclement weather, plus split the harvest and handling into easier to handle portions. Beans fix valuable nitrogen in the soil and are another beneficial crop to interplant with others. Outside of your usual chili, bean soups, and baked beans, beans can be sprouted for salads and stir fries, added mashed to ground beef (or TVP) recipes like sloppy joes and tacos, or pureed and used to replace part of the fats and impart some protein in flavorful baked goods like brownies and molasses cookies. Black bean salsa can be a meal in itself. Beans can be milled just like grains to add extra protein to your flour, and have been since Bible times.
Most people have heard of Ezekiel bread. In Ezekiel 4 God explains to Ezekiel how to prepare bread from grains, beans, and lentils to fully sustain life for 390 days of lying on his side and prophesying while the people of Israel were punished for their iniquities. As I read, “Moreover he said unto me, Son of man, behold, I will break the staff of bread in Jerusalem: and they shall eat bread by weight, and with care; and they shall drink water by measure, and with astonishment: That they may want bread and water, and be astonied one with another, and consume away for their iniquity.” (Ezekiel 4:16-17 KJV) I can’t help but wonder if we should heed our Creator’s advice to Ezekiel and lay in quantities of the prescribed ingredients against possible wrath imposed on our own wayward nation, but perhaps I digress.
Back to gardening, beans recently grown in your own garden won’t require baking soda to soften, will cook faster than the beans that sat on the store shelf for a year or two before you bought them, and can be replanted in a future year’s garden for a crop that pays dividends. Beans should be frozen or heated before storage to kill weevils and any other creepy crawlies. In a situation with no available electricity I would certainly have enough cold winter nights to do the job. Even with this treatment and shelling them (which I plan to coincide with family movie nights), you have an excellent source of protein and fiber that can be stored for years with a minimal time investment.
The previously mentioned crops make up the majority of my survival garden plan, but sunflowers and grain amaranth cap off my easy store harvest. Sunflower seeds are an easy to grow source of fat, protein, and many vitamins and minerals, most notably vitamin E. Sunflower seeds can be eaten out of hand with their shells intact or de-shelled through a very coarse setting on a burr grain mill and winnowed to remove the shells. Shelled sunflower seeds can be added to many baked goods, salads, stir fries, and trail mixes. Include them in a batch of pemmican for hikes and hunting trips. Roasted and ground, they make sunbutter, a tasty peanut butter substitute very popular with my youngest child. While whole sunflower heads can be fed to chickens with no processing, you can also reach for the opposite end of the storage spectrum by investing in a home oil press and creating your own sustainable source of cooking oil.
Amaranth is the only grain I know of that contains lysine, the amino acid missing from other grains and necessary to form a complete protein. That makes any flour suddenly far more nutritious just by milling some amaranth along with another grain and results in flour with protein your body can readily absorb. This is my first year trying amaranth in the garden, but my intention is to cut some seed heads to leave whole for the chickens and to thresh some for my family. [JWR Adds: As I’ve mentioned before, be careful with Amaranth. It can become a weed that tends to spread and it can take over garden beds and open spaces.]
To recap, without heating up your canner, messing up your kitchen, or opening your freezer door, you can have all of these fresh and nutritious foods available to help sustain you all winter long: potatoes, sweet potatoes, squash, pumpkins, carrots, parsnips, turnips, rutabagas, beets, onions, garlic, corn, and beans. Some will last longer in storage than others and their usage should be planned accordingly. Also noteworthy is that with the exception of bean seeds, these crops can all be planted early in the season, allowing you the opportunity to get them in the ground first and then concentrate on other crops. With a little more work you can add sunflowers and amaranth, which will require threshing. When I add just wheat, eggs, and chicken to that list I see a very diverse diet with so many possibilities. Although I advocate additional food storage items and techniques, I would still do fine if these were the only foods I could eat. (I would still miss my coffee terribly and long for an occasional Hershey bar or hamburger, but it sure would beat daily rations of white rice and old pinto beans in my book, plus it can be achieved on a much tighter budget than most food storage concepts. )
All that is left is to figure out where to put it all. For me, an unheated room in the basement will house the goodies that want to be stored just above freezing. My laundry room cabinets can hold the things that like it a little warmer. I will fully embrace fall décor by decoratively piling squash in every available corner of our home until their population is slowly transformed into delicious dishes and chicken food. Just in case the world unravels midwinter and jeopardizes my indoor stash perhaps I’ll bury a couple of trash cans of produce in the yard and blanket them in straw. For the easiest storage of all and assurance you will have something to eat when the snow is gone, many of these crops can be left to overwinter in the ground they grew in with a layer of mulch for protection in colder areas. You can “kill two birds with one stone” and rake your leaves on top of your parsnips this fall. If my power fails I can rest assured these harvested items won’t be harmed. My frozen peas and green beans may become a soggy mess, but my cache of easily stored veggies will still be a reliable part of my overall food storage plan.
Gardening certainly takes a time investment, but returns so much more than food. A sense of accomplishment, some physical exercise, knowing where your food came from and how it was grown, passing valuable knowledge down to the next generation, the spiritual peace of getting your hands in God’s dirt and witnessing His wisdom in creation, and at the very least a suntan are a few of the benefits you don’t eat.
I’m sure plenty of the people reading this article already grow wonderful gardens. This paragraph is for those who don’t: Growing food doesn’t require a vast swath of acreage. If lack of land is your reason for not gardening then stop making excuses for yourself. Even if you only have a balcony overlooking a busy city street you can practice container gardening (while you are hopefully making plans to move out soon). Plant a few pots of something and experiment with natural fertilizers and insect control on a small scale so you have a plan in case you are depending on your crop one day and Miracle Grow is no longer available. Go find a vacant lot or abandoned foreclosure house and stick some seeds in the ground there. See if your community has a community garden or growing co-op and start one if not. Or make a deal with an established gardener to help with the weeding in exchange for some of the produce. There is still plenty of time to get some practice under your belt this season. Wherever you are, I encourage you to find some seeds and put them in the earth. Do it with children if you can round them up. It is important for us to teach children how to grow food. Their generation seems destined for destitution and their very lives could depend on it. For that matter, our generation seems to be headed toward an overdue dose of hard times long before they do and I want to make sure my skills are up to snuff, don’t you?
I could go on from my soapbox all day about why the entire nation should be gardening, but since the sun is still up and so is the grid I am going to go stick a few more tomato plants and melon seeds in the ground then do a little online research to determine if it’s better to buy or build a large dehydrator. Now that my easy storage survival crops are in I have the desire to branch out into the other tasty things. Although I certainly can’t provide all of the details necessary to grow, harvest, and store all of these crops, I hope something I shared will encourage somebody else to get outdoors and get growing. God bless you and your garden.