“If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need” Marcus Tullius Cicero.
In this 3rd blog of the series on small-space, high-yield gardening, we turn our attention to growing survival plants. When we think of the typical garden, we tend to think of traditional garden plants like rows of tomatoes, corn, carrots, beets, peppers, peas, lettuce, squash, and similar vegetables. As any seasoned gardener will tell you, what you plant will depend significantly on your growing zone and the amount of sunlight you get daily. We have seen many gardeners boast about their tomatoes that, when everything was said and done, cost 10s if not 100s of dollars more per pound than what they could have just bought at the store. One plant that requires a ton of attention and loads of money for minimal yield hardly qualifies as survival food, nor does it have a place in a garden you are trying to set up for food independence. In this blog, we’ll discuss the most important considerations for plants you plan on putting into your small space garden.
The more calories you can produce in your small space, the better off you will be if there are severe shortages and you need to supplement your stored food supplies. There are just a few that truly fit into this category, and even fewer can qualify as small-space high-yield food sources. The high-yield calorically dense foods are beans, corn, rice, lentils, amaranth, quinoa, sorghum, potatoes, sweet potatoes, rice, and sunchokes, also known as Jerusalem artichokes. It’s not likely that most people can turn their patio into a rice patty or grow rows and rows of corn, so we need to remove them from our list here. Let’s examine some of the remaining high-calorie foods and nutritionally dense foods. There are a dozen, or so we will cover here, but there are many:
While beans are excellent for a small space survival garden, you must consider the yield and total calories you can produce from a healthy plant. Beans can be trellised up walls and railings and will yield about 1/2 to 1 pound of beans per plant. Pole beans, like your common green bean, would only net you around 140 calories from that. Pinto beans would provide you with ten times that amount. Fortunately, well over 400 different types or varieties of dry beans are grown worldwide. As you consider what beans you will plant, find some images of mature plants and learn how many calories are in a cup of beans. Those two factors should determine whether you grow pole beans, Anasazi, adzuki, garbanzo, lima, or soybeans. You need to know the space the plant needs, the yield, and the caloric density.
While these are staples in many parts of the world, you won’t commonly find these growing in gardens of the western world. They are pseudo cereals, legumes, and whole grains, vastly different from each other. They are similar in that they grow densely in controlled plants and can yield copious amounts of calories. Here are just the heads of some amaranth I recently harvested. The amaranth plant is also called Chinese Spinach; the leaves, shoots, and sprouts can all be consumed. One cup of cooked amaranth has 251 calories, 9.4 grams of protein, 3.9 grams of fat, 46 grams of carbohydrates, and 5.2 grams of fiber. Amaranth is an excellent source of manganese, phosphorus, magnesium, and iron and a good source of zinc, vitamin B6, vitamin B5, and folate.
We will probably be doing a video just on this plant because most people are unaware of it, and it is such a powerhouse of nutrition. I often throw a 1/4 cup in my sourdough baguettes to provide a nutritional boost to my bread. It gives a nutty crunch to the bread. It definitely fits the bill as survival food. As a bonus, it’s one of those plant-it-and-forget-about-it crops which require almost no attention but provide a high yield. The red and gold varieties are stunning in a garden. Sorghum doesn’t contain gluten and can be forced to grow in a compacted plant by limiting the container size or selecting smaller varieties. The plant looks similar to corn when it is growing. One cup provides a whopping 660 calories, 143 grams of carbohydrates, 21 grams of protein, and 12 grams of fiber. Historians place sorghum as an early staple food in diets across North Africa and the Indian subcontinent, where its edible grains and leaves are used in savory and sweet dishes.
Most of these grains can be cooked like oatmeal or rice, mixed into soups, or even popped like popcorn, so they can also be consumed in a variety of different ways. If your garden is genuinely intended for survival and supplementing your food sources, consider these pseudo cereals, legumes, and whole grains from ancient times that are experiencing a revival today. After a disaster, when people are searching for food, they will likely walk right by these, and they can be planted in the wild quite easily. Sorghum, for instance, is often spread from millions of bird feeders and messy birds.
POTATOES & SWEET POTATOES
The first thing to understand about sweet potatoes and potatoes is that they are different plants. The potato plant is in the nightshade family, and the leaves cannot be eaten. There are over 5,000 different varieties that all originate in a small area of present-day southern Peru. That alone is incredible to fathom. On the other hand, the sweet potato is in the morning glory family, and the leaves can be eaten as an additional food source. It is native to the tropical regions of the Americas but is now cultivated worldwide. Unlike the potato, the sweet potato is an herbaceous vine and can be trellised quite easily. Though they are entirely different plants, I categorize them together here for three reasons.
First, they require a sizeable enough container, whether a trough, as we demonstrated in our blog on sweet potatoes, or a tower, which we demonstrated in another blog. Second, they are a caloric powerhouse of starches, sugars, and carbohydrates. One medium-sized potato has 161 calories, 4.3 grams of protein, 897 milligrams of potassium, and 37 carbohydrates. One cup of cubed sweet potatoes has 114 calories, 2.1 grams of protein, 448 milligrams of potassium, and 27 grams of carbohydrates. If those two reasons weren’t worthy enough of putting one or both of these plants in your survival garden, the third reason should be enough. That is that they store for an incredibly long time on their own, so they don’t need very much attention to be preserved. You can even leave them in the ground for far beyond the 90 days it minimally takes, and you will end up with even larger tubers. Some varieties of both can winter over and don’t need to be harvested before frost sets in with winter. With sweet potatoes, this can lead to just a larger and larger tuber. The Official Guinness Record for the world’s heaviest sweet potato weighed 37 kg – an incredible 81 pounds and 9 ounces. While we are not suggesting you will have similar results, that record-holding sweet potato packed a massive 31,787 calories, 7,443 grams of carbohydrates, and 580 grams of protein. You can feed an entire village with that.
When you consider your survival garden, you definitely want to consider the potato and sweet potato. Here too, is a plant that most people will walk right past.
SUNCHOKES & SUNFLOWERS
If you only grow sunflowers for the seeds, you are missing out on much of the nutrition available. The entire sunflower is edible from root to leaf, flower, and seed. Most sunflowers grow pretty tall, so factor that into your space if you are confined to a balcony with a roof. Both sunflowers and sunchokes are in the Helianthus genus, and there are about 70 species. We have previously done a video on sunflowers, making sunflower flour from the stalk and the sunchoke, and cooking that. I will link to both videos below. Helianthus are also native to north and central America but are now grown worldwide. The Incans worshipped sunflowers as the symbol of the god sun.
A single sunflower head may contain up to 2,000 seeds. Just a 1/4 cup of just seeds will provide you 163 calories, 5.5 grams of protein, 6.5 grams of carbohydrates, and 3 grams of fiber, but don’t limit your consumption to just the seeds. You’ll get calories, carbs, fiber, and protein from the leaves, and you will also obtain from their high levels of vitamins K, A, C, B6, and folates. It’s a nutritionally dense food that definitely has a place in your survival garden. When it comes to the sunchoke variety, you get a healthy dose of carbs, calories, fiber, protein, and potassium, but you also get a plant that will come back year after year. The roots which hold the bulk of the nutrition can just be left in the ground year after year and pulled up as needed. It grows so well that gardeners must make extra efforts to contain it. It is also one heck of a plant with a large 2-8 foot stalk around 6 inches in circumference and a bush of small sunflowers that branch out like a tree where the upper stems terminate in one or more flowerheads on peduncles up to 8″ long.
KALE, CHARD, COLLARD GREENS & OTHER CRUCIFEROUS VEGETABLES
We usually would not put these in a list of survival foods because they lack caloric density like the others discussed; however, where they lack calories, they more than make up for nutrition, abundance, and hardiness. The trick with these is keeping them pest free, as many insects and caterpillars are fond of the tender leaves. We have succeeded in using neem oil to keep these pests away. Beyond their nutritional density, cruciferous vegetables can bring in massive harvests when a hydroponic system is used as in a grow tower, which we will build later in this series of videos. Because of this, they can provide you with tons of bio mask bulk that can leave you feeling full.
We will be honest. We weren’t much of a kale fan until someone gave it to me, wilted in a little bit of bacon grease and a dash of vinegar or lemon juice. Cooking it in this manner completely changes the bite and taste of it. It’s the versatility of the cruciferous vegetables, which is another reason they make the list here. Whether you’re drying them, powdering them, blending them, or eating them in a traditional salad, there is a diversity of different ways you can keep consuming them in your diet. If you grow them right, you will have more than you can consume, so you will look for different ways to eat them. You will also have a diet rich in iron, vitamins A, C, and K, and trace minerals like calcium and selenium. These will keep you functioning well at a cellular level. So, though they lack enough calories to sustain you over the long haul, they make the list of survival plants for other reasons.
Those are the dozen or so survival plants you absolutely should consider in your survival garden. One or more assures you calorically and nutritionally dense, high-yield potential food sources. We are by no means saying these are the only survival plants out there. Nor we are saying there isn’t value in a highly productive bush cherry tomato variety or other plants. These are simply the powerhouse calorie and nutrient-dense varieties we cover in this video. We will release a future video that will provide many more options for you to consider, along with more significant details about those plants.
The size of the plant and the amount of space required to grow it to maturity are critical considerations as you evaluate what you will grow in your small area. Of course, your grow zone is also a chief consideration. If you try to grow sweet potatoes in the desert, you will soon find out they need moister soil. If you try and grow a citrus tree in the pacific northwest, you will quickly find out they favor warmer climates. You can do either, but you went from an easy garden to one requiring a tremendous amount of special attention and care. One bad day or event can destroy all your hard labor. You are better served to select plants and varieties that thrive in your climate zone. Given my desert climate, we grow and use as a food source pear cactus, for instance. It’s far from a ton of calories, and we rarely harvest any and eat it, but we can. It is an excellent source of vitamins, sugars, and carbohydrates in a crisis situation. In the meantime, we let it grow naturally and slowly, as it would, on the side of our house. Whatever climate zone you are in, make that your chief decision as to what you venture to grow. You may find other foods we haven’t covered here that will thrive in your environment.
To find your climate zone use the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map. You can simply put in your zip code and zoom into your zone. The zones range from 1 through 13. You are not limited solely to that zone, but that is your optimal zone number. The further you deviate from that zone up or down in scale, the more attention you will have to give to your plants and their environment. Also, your yields will be lower than they would be in their optimal growing zone. Something like amaranth is considered hardy because it will grow in zones 2-11. Tomatoes are in a more narrow range between 5 and 8, but if you account for the shorter growing season and frost, they will grow all the way down to zone 1. If the temperature in your area doesn’t stay above 55 degrees for three or more days, though, they won’t set fruit. After setting fruit, they could suffer frost damage if they get too cold.
Sometimes, when determining your plants, you will find a range of cold hardiness zones on the plant label, zones 5–8, for example. This indicates the lower and upper climatic thresholds for the plant. This can vary by variety within the same plant species.
WHEN TO PLANT
When to plant is also a significant consideration. Certain plants are only going to produce well in warmer months. Asparagus, onions, ramps, garlic and other alliums, radishes, and root vegetables can be planted late into fall for an early spring harvest. In many cases, they can be mulched over in beds and will be the first to pop up and give you sustenance after the snow melts and the frosts pass in spring. The more control you have over your growing conditions, the less relevant when to plant becomes. If you are growing all indoors with grow lights, fans, and a heater, your climate is regulated, so you can grow whatever you want to whenever you want to. If your apartment balcony receives decent sunlight in the winter, shades and an outdoor heater may be enough to ward off bitter frost die-offs until you can harvest.
Each plant you consider in your space will give you a climate zone and recommendations for planting dates, as well as the minimal time to maturity, which is the point you can first harvest mature plants. We still use the Old Farmer’s Almanac to identify future weather pattern probabilities, the best times to plant, and potential periods of frost. Some people use it to plant by moon cycles or for biodynamic agriculture, but we wonder if there’s any credibility to that. Others argue there is. When you do plant, consider planting over a period of several weeks with some plants. This will allow you to have a continual supply of maturing plants instead of all at once. Three heads of lettuce per week are much more manageable than 40 heads all at once.
GROW WHAT YOU WILL COOK, PRESERVE & EAT
We have things in my garden, specifically as survival food. For instance, we only occasionally eat Sunchokes, but we have a well-established patch of them. The carrots we plant mainly for the greens, so we plant them close together and don’t worry about the carrot part growing deep, though they will still give me decent carrots. Most people don’t consume carrot tops. Most people have never tried pea pod pesto. Understand what plants you can eat the leaves off and how to prepare them. Use as much of the plant as possible and compost the rest to return it to your garden. We cook with copious amounts of garlic, but it takes nine or more months for our garlic to mature. Some things you eat occasionally, and some you rarely eat. Only plant things that you will eat and that you can digest well. If you hate the taste of Kale, don’t plant it because if you are forced to eat it after a disaster, your pallet and your body will hate it. Whatever you grow, make sure you have the plan to preserve it. Don’t let any bit of your hard work go to waste. Consider trading with others if you have too much. Learn to pickle, dry, freeze-dry, or otherwise preserve your harvests.
SPACE & GAPS
You may want to grow squash, but that takes a good deal of space. If you have good vertical space, however, it can be trellised and the fruit supported by being gently tied to the trellis to support the weight. Each plant you consider will have indicators for how far to space it from other plants. It’s printed on the seed packet or on an insert in the potted plant. If you can grow it tightly together, like garlic only needs 4 inches of space between plants, you can better maximize your space. Bunching onions, bush cherry tomatoes, bush pepper plants, carrots, chard, and radishes can all be grown in tight spaces. Corn has to be grown in tight rows, or it won’t pollinate. Whatever plants you choose, plan to do some reading on the optimal conditions for them to grow.
Though they won’t provide much but vitamins and trace minerals, fill in the gaps with flavor-enhancing plants like herbs, ginger, turmeric, or lemon grass. You won’t eat a plate full of any one of them in particular, but they can elevate bland food to more than palatable. They can also provide you with some medicinal benefits. If you have a medical condition that a particular herb is proven to help with, consider growing that as a backup should your medicine supply run dry after a crisis. You want to ensure every usable piece of your area produces to its maximum potential.
Some plants like other plants, and some don’t. It’s just like people. Perhaps the most notable companion planting trio is the three sisters. Indigenous Americans planted maize, climbing beans, and winter squash together. The beans could climb the corn stocks and also fix nitrogen into the soil for the other plants. The low-growing squash shaded the ground to prevent moisture loss and discourage weed growth. The plants thrived in harmony together. Basil or edible nasturtium flowers planted next to tomatoes will reduce the number of leaf-eating caterpillars. Hundreds of time-tested combinations of plants do well together and even help each other. With each plant, you think of growing, see if there is a companion plant for it.
There are also combinations of plants you want to avoid growing together. Some plants compete for nutrients or space or attract damaging insects or fungi. Beans are considered allelopathic plants, which means they produce biochemicals that can hinder the growth of another plant. Sunflowers are allelopathic. They give off toxins from all their parts that impede the development of other plants or even kill them. Some plants are solitary, and some like companionship. Know your plants. Maximize your space by planting some plants together, but give those who like to be solitary their own space.
HEIRLOOMS, COMMERCIAL, and UNKNOWNS
A final consideration for your small-space, high-yield survival garden is heirloom versus commercial varieties. There are around 10,000 varieties of tomatoes, 400 varieties of dried beans, 100 varieties of squash, 1,000 varieties of potatoes, and 1,000 types of bananas. Still, you wouldn’t know that if you went to the produce section of your local grocery store. You will find carefully selected and cross-bred hybrids that favor thicker skins, disease, pest-resistance strains, and genetically pretty fruits and vegetables. You might be tempted to harvest some seeds from these commercial varieties, but some are specially modified not to favor successive cultivations.
Some commercial seeds are specific varieties that favor large fruits and vegetables and offer more significant pest and fungal protection. That may be great for you over heirloom varieties. An heirloom vegetable is an older cultivar of a plant that likely fell out of favor or was crowded out by commercial varieties. While sometimes more temperamental, sensitive, and challenging to pollinate, heirloom varieties can allow you to rediscover the food of your ancestors. Some grow better in wet or dry conditions, so they may be better than your commercial varieties. Most heirlooms have better, more complex, rich flavors than early harvested commercial varieties. Growing heirlooms also take us all a step back out of the monoculture farming system that is peaking this century. When that one variety of banana, the cavendish, succumbs to a virus, fungus, or pest, we will all suffer a global shortage despite the 999 other types that could be grown.
We always have a combination of commercial and heirloom varieties in my garden space. We also have what we call “unknowns” growing in my garden. You should watch our video on Purslane we did this year to get an understanding of those. They are plants that, while commonly eaten in other places in the world, aren’t likely in your local grocery store. Purslane, Egyptian Walking Onions, dandelions, Goji berries, Poke weed, lambs quarter, stinging nettles, Jelly melons, bitter melon, yard-long beans, gooseberries, huckleberries, and thousands more vegetables and plants are out there that we don’t typically consume as food. Still, they could give you an abundant harvest of flavor, calorie, and nutrient-rich foods. Don’t discount them. Find a new one that interests you each season and seek it out to taste it. If it appeals to you, make a space for it and try growing it for a season. You will be glad you did.
To plan your survival garden heed the guidance in this blog. Make sure to plant one or more of the survival foods to ensure good calories, nutrients, and extended storage capabilities. Consider your zone, the best time to plant, spacing, companion plants, the abundance of varieties, and how to maximize your space. Right now, in this series, we are still in the planning phase of our garden. We like to call it the dream phase. There are many things we dream of growing, and these winter months are when we contemplate and narrow my options. Visit one of the seed sites listed below, request their available catalog, and see if there is a variety you would like to grow. The seeds from these sites will be of better quality than what you will buy at the store, as many of those seeds are on the older side and may not germinate as well.
Read our previous blogs on small space and high-yield gardening, and we look forward to seeing you for the next one. For now, imagine and contemplate all of your survival garden’s possibilities as we move closer to planting season every day.
As always, stay safe out there.
THE OLD FARMER’S ALMANAC – https://amzn.to/3FmWsSh
KNOW YOUR GROW ZONE – https://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov/
SEEDSNOW.COM – https://bit.ly/3PoA0ww
BAKER CREEK HEIRLOOM SEEDS – https://www.rareseeds.com/
BURPEE – https://www.burpee.com/
GARDENING 1: Gardening in Apartments: 3 Rules to Obey – https://youtu.be/U-jIdL8_MT0
GARDENING 2: The Ultimate Garden Soil Guide for Successful Growing – https://youtu.be/oqDgtt9sIeg
PURSLANE: The Edible SuperFood Weed Growing In Your Yard – https://youtu.be/aYVOqBh_pZ4
SUNFLOWER: The Many Uses of The Ultimate Survival Flower – https://youtu.be/TYvX8VyxoGk
POTATO: How to Build a Potato Tower – https://youtu.be/Xv7TG4yAWto
CONTAINER SWEET POTATOES – Nature’s Survival Food – https://youtu.be/o4gU8MUoxGw
25 Survival Vegetables To Grow In Your Apartment (pt1) – https://youtu.be/9XyuVIYcDvg
25 Survival Vegetables To Grow In Your Apartment (pt2) – https://youtu.be/ywNyKFhUDD0