If the next crisis hits hard, one of the best friends you can have is a practical garden. A key consideration in such a garden is which types of produce can be harvested and simply dumped into a root cellar or dark closet, without processing, and left there until needed.
Another consideration is the types of crops that can be grown in a small area, side-by-side, or among other crops to save space.
Crops you should grow for self-sufficiency:
Grow Irish potatoes. They are a rich source of complex carbohydrates, one of the essentials of a good diet. A standard practice of many experienced gardeners is to make potato hills six feet apart in rows spaced six feet apart so they can get their garden tractors and tillers into the space between rows.
But if you have a small garden space, this space between plants and rows is not only wasted but a superb breeding ground for weeds and other garden pests. If you grow Irish potatoes, there is no reason for this wasted space as the tubers usually concentrate their growth to a space 18 inches in diameter under the plants.
Between the rows and plants, you can grow a variety of other vegetables. If you can spare the space, plant four rows 200 feet long. You can plant two or three eyes in each hill, and the hills need not be more than 18 inches apart.
I advise resisting the temptation to grub the new potatoes too early. While these little nuggets are wonderful, remember: for each tiny potato you scratch and eat, you have eliminated the chance for the young spud to triple or quadruple in size within the next few days. Each tiny potato harvested destroys a large one.
When you dig the potatoes, store them in a cool, dry place, such as a good basement. That’s all you need do. No canning or freezing or dehydrating is necessary or even recommended. However, if you do not have a good storage space, you can can potatoes in a very easy manner. Because they are non-acid, however, you need to pressure-can them to prevent botulism.
And you can, if you wish, dehydrate or dry them. But once dried, store them in a cool place in sealed containers, otherwise, temperature and humidity will rehydrate the potatoes and cause them to spoil.
Another good crop is corn. I recommend one of the old-fashioned types that can be used for what we used to call roasting ears. If you have a large garden space, plant an entire field. If you have a small space, plant corn between the Irish potato rows (and you can plant beans alongside the potato rows and let the beans climb the cornstalks).
How much should you plant? You will harvest at best two or three ears from each stalk. If there are five adult members of your family, figure three meals of corn per week, so you will need one ear or its equivalent for each diner per meal. That’s 15 ears per week, 60 per month, or 720 for a year. That’s roughly 300 corn stalks.
Corn can be canned, dried, or frozen. Again, it is not a high-acid vegetable, so you will need to pressure it at a high level for 90 minutes or so. Usually, 10 pounds of pressure will suffice, but check your canning books for details.
If you dry it, it will keep on the cob for several months unless it absorbs too much moisture. But remember, mice, rats, and squirrels love it too, so keep it protected. You can also freeze corn, either as whole ears or as kernels cut off the cobs. But if you have a long power loss, you will need to use the corn quickly or lose it.
A crop no garden should be without is beans. There are many kinds you can grow, but pinto beans grow well in many parts of the country, and they produce bountifully. The more you pick them, the more they seem to grow.
You can shell beans and then let them air-dry before storing them in bags, or you can leave them on the plants, and they will dry naturally. The problem is that if you don’t pick them, the plants will stop producing blossoms or will at least slow down.
You can also leave the beans in their shells and dry them. A favorite way for the old-timers to shell pinto beans or peas was to put the unshelled beans or peas into a tow sack, then beat the daylights out of the sack until the dried shells were smashed and the beans were loose.
Another dandy way to dry many kinds of beans was to use a needle and thread and sew them into a long string and stretch the string from one nail to another in a spare room (near the ceiling) and let them dry on the string. Such beans, usually green beans, string beans, or half-runners, were called leather britches.
How many beans should you plant? For the big gardener, I recommend four or five 200-foot rows. Stagger the planting so that all of the beans won’t be ready to pick at the same time. Make the plantings two weeks apart, and as soon as one row dies out replant it. You can get two or three crops, depending upon where you live.
For the small gardener, plant the beans around the corn stalks in the potato patch. I don’t mean dropping a bean between each set of two cornstalks. Plant the beans, particularly the half-runners or other climbing beans, in a circle around each of the cornstalks. Let the plants climb the stalks, and when it is time to pick the beans, you don’t have to bend over for agonizing lengths of time.
Another bonus: when the beans are growing off the ground, there is not as much rot or pest damage.
How many beans should you store?
A bushel of beans in shells reduces to a small sack of shelled and dried beans, but a cupful of dried beans will expand into a nice potful of beans for a family meal. If I had a family of five, I’d plan to eat dried beans at least three times a week. This means six cupfuls of dried beans per week.
You’d be wise to have at least 25 pounds of dried beans on hand if you plan to be prepared for months of emergency.
If you eat a generous helping of dried beans and another helping of rice you have consumed enough protein to keep your body fit, healthy, energetic, and strong. You do not need any animal protein if you have your regular fix of beans and rice.
Grow tomatoes. Lots of them. There are few quick meals more satisfying than a tomato sandwich with a plate of beans and an ear of corn. You can can tomatoes easily, and you can freeze them. But did you realize that dehydrated tomatoes are wonderful and also easy to prepare?
You can also wrap the tomatoes in newspapers and store them in a cool, dry place. This method of storing works best if you will wait until the very last part of summer and, before the first frost of the season strikes, pick all of the green tomatoes you can find. Pick tomatoes of every shape and size because the frost will destroy any left on the vine.
Inside the house, wrap the green tomatoes individually in pieces of newspaper and place them in a box or other stable container and store the box in a closet or under a bed. The root cellar is a great place. They will ripen slowly and uniformly in their wrapping paper and will taste as if they were just picked.
How many tomatoes should you grow? If you have plenty of space, grow 100 plants and can them as fast as they produce. Tomatoes are high-acid, and the danger of a botulism problem is minimal. Remember, you can also dehydrate them easily.
If you have little space, you can grow tomatoes in five-gallon cans or in the back corner of the lot. Set them out behind or beside the garage. Grow them alongside the woodshed or utility building. Tomatoes are loaded with nutrients and flavor, and you can use them in a variety of dishes and sauces.
As space permits, grow tons of cucumbers. These delights will produce wonderfully if they have a fence to climb and grow upon and, if you don’t have a fence, you can use the circular wire cages for the same effect. But if you wish, grow them in the corn patch. Let the cucumber vines run along the ground throughout the corn field. The ground cover provided by the cukes will help to hold in the moisture and to keep the weeds down.
Nature had decreed that no two plants are likely to grow in exactly the same space, so since Nature abhors a vacuum, if you do not fill the available ground space with plants, there will be weeds, and you must spend a great deal of time hoeing.
Cucumbers will not keep long in a fresh state, but you can make them into pickles of all sorts. And pickles add spice to almost any meal you can serve.
Grow a dozen hills of acorn or winter squash. These plants produce in large numbers, and squash will keep without freezing or canning for months and months.
Regular crookneck or yellow squash provides a quick and bountiful harvest. This squash is wonderful fried, baked, raw, in salads, or in casseroles. You can also dehydrate or can squash with good results.
How much should you grow? If space permits, set out a dozen hills, and every two or three weeks, start additional hills. You must have ample time to handle the profusion of squash you will harvest. Don’t let it go to waste. Can it or dry it constantly. As one hill dies, start another in its place. It will produce well until frost or freezing nights.
If space is at a premium, settle for two hills and keep replanting them. Even when the hills are still producing, punch seeds into the ground under the older plant and let the new growth move toward adulthood while the older plant is fading.
One plant that thrives under nearly all growing conditions is the pumpkin. You can start a row or two of string beans, and when the beans begin to climb the poles or cords, you have set up for them, plant pumpkins between the rows and let the vines have their own way, and cover the soil in the bean patch and beyond.
You may harvest two dozen pumpkins from the patch and, while the number is small, the size may be great. Pumpkins, like acorn squash, will keep indefinitely if you will leave them in the patch until they reach full maturity then take them indoors to a cool, dry place.
We hauled some of our pumpkins in an old wheelbarrow into the storage area and simply left them in the wheelbarrow. They were all sound and terrific when we were ready to use them.
Remember you can freeze, can, or dehydrate pumpkin, and it will keep well if you don’t have a good storage place for the whole crop. Pumpkin is nourishing and makes an appetizing pie. You can also bake the seeds for another treat.
A crop that requires little space but produces well is the carrot. You can chop the soil finely around the perimeter of other plants, or under corn, and sprinkle carrot seeds into the soil. Carrots require very little attention, and when you harvest them, you can hang them in a cool, dry place, and they will keep indefinitely. Or you can freeze or dehydrate them.
Make an all-weather lettuce bed (and sprinkle spinach seeds in along with the lettuce) and you can harvest greenery for salads and sandwiches all year. Best of all, you need not worry about canning or preserving in any way. Let the mature plants go to seed and they will reseed the patch.
Other inexpensive, easy, and long-lasting crops are greens. A pinch of seeds will plant a fairly large area and you will find that the crop will germinate within three or four days, and within a few more days you can start picking and eating from the garden. We usually buy rape, kale, mustard, turnip, and radish seed (and whatever else looks good at the time) and sow them all together.
When the crop is far enough along, you can pick the greens and cook these, or you can add a turnip or two and maybe pick a few of the radishes for a special treat. Greens are filling, and they are filled with vitamins.
You can use some of your corn to grind into meal and have your own supply of cornmeal for cornbread to enjoy with the dried beans and turnip greens.
Wherever there is a little space, set out a cabbage plant. You don’t have to plant these in a patch the way it is traditionally done. You can grow one here and there, anywhere you can find the empty space. In a really efficient garden there should be very few places where the soil is visible during the height of the growing season. A cabbage plant will require about two square feet if the cabbage does well.
We have grown cabbages that are 36-inches across the huge outer leaves and weighed 12 to 15 pounds. You can keep cabbage indefinitely by putting the heads into a mesh bag or sack and hanging the sack in a cool, dry place. If you start to smell the cabbage as it becomes stronger and stronger, you can use it to make kraut, which will keep, essentially, forever.
If space permits, grow melons: watermelons, cantaloupes, honeydew melons, and others. You can eat the melons fresh, or you can store them in a cool place, such as on the basement floor, for several weeks. You can also dehydrate the melons, and they taste terrific with all the moisture removed.
Wheat and rye
If you can, grow wheat or rye. Or both. You will need an area 100 feet long and 75 feet wide for a sufficient growth of wheat. You can start your wheat while it is too cold for other garden plants to grow and you will harvest the crop before you need the land for other crops.
When the wheat is mature, the plants will turn a golden brown and the seeds will be in a cluster at the top, like grass seeds. You can pull the grain by hand and later winnow it by rubbing a handful briskly to free the grain from the chaff.
You can grind it in a small hand-operated grinder you can buy for a fairly small amount of money. The grinders last forever under normal usage and, while you cannot grind the grain fast enough to produce enough flour to market, you can keep your own family supplied with flour for breads, gravies, pie crusts, and cakes.
Grow as many peanuts as you can. These tubers, which are not nuts but are in the legume or pea family, are very nutritious, and can be used in many recipes but are enjoyed most by eating them roasted, either in the shell or shelled.
It is rare to find anyone who does not like peanuts, whether in peanut brittle, as a substitute for pecans in pies, or on their own. You will need to grow a dozen rows 300 feet long if you have the space.
When you harvest the peanuts, you can pull the bush up and leave the tubers attached and haul the crop to the storage area. Later you can pick off the peanuts store these. Peanuts will keep for ages in the shell or outside it.
Warning: mice, squirrels, moles, and other pests love peanuts, so you will need to keep them protected.
One crop that is absolutely priceless is the soybean, which grows easily and produces mightily. You can plant a modest patch (an area 100 feet long and 75 feet wide) and harvest all the beans the deer and mice leave for you.
Soybeans keep for years if they are protected in a closed container. Be sure they are well dried when you store them.
You can use soybeans to make flour, milk, and nearly anything else you want to eat. They are loaded with nourishment, taste terrific, and are versatile.
One way we enjoy them is to put the beans in a pot, add plenty of water to cover them, then boil them for several minutes. After this, let the beans remain in hot water for an hour or so, then remove and bake them for one hour at 250 degrees. We salt them to taste and eat them like the roasted peanuts.
Finally, grow your own herbs. You need only a tiny amount of space to grow basil, rosemary, mint, thyme, and the other popular members of the herb garden. These plants will dry readily and retain their vigor and pungency for months. That does it for the crops you can grow that are easy to cultivate and preserve, as well as those that will keep for long periods of time without any preparation whatsoever.
This is not an exhaustive list: obviously many favorites were omitted. If you have your own favorites, add them to the list. Delete anything to which you are allergic or sensitive. Or if you simply don’t like it.
And what if, after all this work, it turns out that the crisis you are prepping for does not happen at all? What if there simply are no major problems? In that case, your only problem is how to eat all of that food you have stored. And that, folks, is one of the nicest problems you will ever have.
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