Many of us have had a garden at one time or another given the space to grow one. We’ve had good gardening years with seemingly endless buckets of tomatoes filling all of the kitchen counter- top space not to mention the dilemma of what to do with all of those zucchini! Then there’s been the years when other things took priority. Maybe we didn’t get the soil prepared in time and finally got around to planting whatever seedlings we could find at the garden center in mid-summer. Perhaps we went away on a summer vacation and returned to find the garden engulfed by weeds. And then there’s the question of just why we planted “vegetable X”; it seemed like a good idea at the time and the picture on the seed package was so pretty but it turns out no one in the family actually likes radishes, or bok choi. And what on earth do we do with kohlrabi anyway?
While this sort of situation isn’t a big deal in normal times, in an emergency situation where our survival depends on what we’re able to grow, hunt or forage in addition to whatever food storage we have, our gardens can make the difference between life and death. At the very least having a well-performing garden that produces food that our family will eat and thrive on means that we make it through tough times with adequate calories and nutrients not to mention tasty meals!
As a market grower for 17 years (fruit and vegetables) I think I have a good grasp of which annual vegetables are solid performers, produce well, provide a high level of nutrients and are worthy of the space, time and effort needed to grow them when it really counts. When the lives of our families are dependent on our ability to grow solid producers, this isn’t the time to grow finicky crops, gourmet baby vegetables, esoteric veggies your family has never eaten etc. You get the picture. When your garden production is critical you want to grow food that will feed your family both during the growing season and through proper storage and preservation, year-round.
Short Growing Season
My farm was located on a mountain in Central Vermont so everything I’ll tell you is based on the ability to grow in even a very short growing season. You will need to adapt this to your area if you live in a hot/dry climate but even there most of these crops will grow for you at one time of year or another given adequate irrigation. For the most part I won’t name specific varieties as what grows well is specific to the region you will be growing in. If you’re buying seeds you’ll want to make sure that they will easily produce a crop in your growing season; check the dates til harvest carefully.
Disease resistance is also critical. Find out what diseases are commonly found in your locale. Is late blight is a problem in tomatoes or potatoes in your area? If possible look for varieties that have some level of resistance. Losing the crop to disease when you’re counting on it to feed your family is something you want to avoid, if at all possible. I suggest buying from seed catalogs that are regionally oriented, whenever possible. If you are able to purchase seedlings, local growers are often the best source of ones suited for your area as they are selling seedlings of the same varieties they depend on to grow crops. Big box stores and garden centers which are national don’t always sell varieties best adapted to your locale.
So let’s get started. What crops should you grow when you need to maximize your garden space and efforts to produce the most nutritious food? I’m not going to dwell on all of the “how-to’s” of growing each crop; I’ll assume you can access that information elsewhere. As well, it’s critical to store your harvest properly. Here I want to emphasize the vegetables I think are most worth growing when it really counts.
Start With Potatoes
If you’re going to grow anything at all, start with potatoes. Nutrient and calorie dense, potatoes deserve a prime space in your garden. Be sure to hill them adequately so that greening (which is toxic) doesn’t occur. While you can harvest some thin skinned “new” potatoes, be sure to leave the lion’s share to harvest when the skins are tough and the potatoes have reached full-size. Be careful when harvesting not to pierce them with the digging fork. Separate out any that were damaged during harvesting so that you can use them up promptly before they spoil. Store them carefully in the dark; I use 5 gallon buckets with lids with great success. I’d also suggest that you earmark a portion of the potatoes for planting the following year. Pick nice-looking ones to plant; not the small stunted tubers. Put these in a separate container marked “seed potatoes” so that you don’t inadvertently eat them all up!
If you live in a region where sweet potatoes will easily grow I highly recommend these as well due to their nutritional quality, flavor and storage ability. My caveat is to only grow these if you are solidly located in a region in which they will grow successfully. Having to spend an inordinate amount of time to coddle them and maybe/maybe not successfully harvest a crop isn’t workable for a survival garden. They don’t grow for me in Vermont and won’t do well in similar climates.
Although not commonly grown by home gardeners, dried beans are another nutritious and calorie dense vegetable you can easily grow. You’ve probably got a stash of dried beans but this will allow you to grow some you don’t already have a large quantity of plus replenish your supply. Even in the far north I was able to grow varieties such as black turtle, cannellini and others. You can purchase seeds for them through seed catalogs or just buy the desired varieties at a food coop which offers bulk bins of beans. Be sure to purchase whole beans that look plump and glossy and aren’t split or damaged. Again, check the frost-free dates required to produce a crop. They are quite easy to grow, similar to growing bush green or yellow beans. The difficult part is the processing. When they are quite dry and you’ve harvested them, you’ll need to separate out the beans from the dried pods. Spreading them on a clean tarp and beating them with a kid’s plastic baseball bat works. If you’ve got electricity, using an electric fan to blow away the dried chaff is one way to clean them. If not, wait for a windy day! Storing them fully dry is critical. These do take up a fair amount of space though so if space is tight I wouldn’t advise growing dried beans.
I can’t imagine a garden without tomatoes. Both highly useful fresh during the growing season as well as dried or canned to utilize during the rest of the year, tomatoes will add significant nutrients as well as flavor to your cooking. Concentrate on growing the most productive varieties. Heirlooms have a place but often aren’t as productive and have disease susceptibility issues. Grow full size, plum and cherry/grape tomatoes. Whenever possible choose varieties that display disease resistance.
Hybrids have a role to play here. Open pollinated varieties will allow you to save seed for the next year. You can save the seed of hybrids if that’s the situation you find yourself in; the plants they produce will still be tomatoes but will be different from the named variety you planted. Be careful to pick varieties that will produce in your growing season. Often the large beefsteak varieties are not geared towards northern climates. Much better to have a large crop of smaller tomatoes than few or no larger ones. Harvest green tomatoes prior to your first frost. They can be successfully ripened indoors when stored properly giving you fresh tomatoes for several months after frost.
Winter squash is a very valuable crop and deserves a major space in the garden. It’s critical here that you grow varieties that will fully ripen during your growing season. Unless you have a very large family, I’d avoid the large Hubbard varieties. Butternut, Acorn and Delicata squash varieties are generally easy to grow, store well, are tasty and nutritious. Be sure to carefully clean the skins after harvest. Some utilize a bleach and water solution to clean the skins to reduce rotting. When harvesting be sure to harvest with 2-3 inches of stem still attached to the fruit. Use any that have their stems broken off first as they will not store as long. Follow instructions on how to store them to maximize storage time.
Pumpkins are also an excellent crop to grow. By this I mean the smaller sugar/pie pumpkins and not the large watery Halloween style. They can be baked in a pie, pureed for pumpkin soup, used in a roasted vegetable melange, etc. Pumpkins are really just another variety of winter squash but many people think of them separately.
(To be concluded tomorrow, in Part 2.)