To rely on your garden to feed your family, you need to grow staple crops — those foods that are the basis of the human diet. The best staple crops for building food self-sufficiency should be easy to harvest and store, return good yields, and be calorie-dense to provide the food energy from carbohydrates that you need each day. (See our Crop Yield and Calorie Density chart for a comparison of the staple crops discussed in this article.) Most of the 10 staples spotlighted here are also rich sources of other nutrients.
In her book The Resilient Gardener, homesteader and seed breeder Carol Deppe provides in-depth information about staple crops, and names potatoes, corn, beans, squash and eggs as the “five crops you need to survive and thrive.” I’ve expanded on that list, adding wheat, sweet potatoes, peanuts, cabbage, collards and kale. To show yield comparisons between these staple foods, I’ve used the average crop yields and servings-per-pound numbers from the charts in my previous MOTHER EARTH NEWS article, A Plan for Food Self-Sufficiency (October/November 2012). The calorie references are from John Jeavons’ book How to Grow More Vegetables, a worthwhile resource for anyone interested in food self-sufficiency.
Food storage and preservation qualities are key aspects to consider when selecting staple crops to increase your household’s food security. I love to grow food that doesn’t require fossil fuels to preserve and store it. The puzzle then becomes where and how to store it. Check your house carefully for good food-storage areas. I’ve found that a bottom kitchen cabinet is often 10 degrees Fahrenheit cooler during winter than the kitchen itself. I store potatoes, sweet potatoes and squash there. You might also have a closet in a spare room that stays cool. Find more creative food storage ideas at Food Storage: 20 Crops That Keep and How to Store Them.
Potatoes and Sweet Potatoes
Potatoes (along with grain corn) will give you the most calories for the least space. They are easy to grow — just bury a piece of potato about the size of an egg with a couple of “eyes” on it in the ground in a 4-inch-deep furrow. In climates with cool summers, plant early, midseason and late varieties two to three weeks before your last spring frost date. Potatoes will be ready to harvest in about 65 to 90 days, depending on the variety.
Sweet potatoes, with their high beta carotene content, are one of the healthiest foods you can eat. They love the heat, but you can grow them as far north as Canada.
I’ve found I can keep potatoes in a basket, covered with newspaper, in the house or a shed. In October, I transfer the potatoes to plastic boxes with holes drilled in them for ventilation, and then store the boxes in the crawl space under my house. I store sweet potatoes in baskets in a relatively cool area of the house, or in the plastic boxes under the house. Generally, potatoes do best stored at 40 to 55 degrees, and sweet potatoes do best at 55 to 60 degrees.
Providing grains for your table is satisfying, and growing corn is about as easy as it gets.
There are three main types of corn: flint, flour and dent. Flint corn is suited to cooler, wetter climates and is the most difficult to grind. Flour corn, grown by American Indians in the Southwest, is the easiest to grind. Dent corn is characterized by the dent in the top of each kernel. Common field corn is dent corn, and, unfortunately, almost all of it is now genetically engineered.
You can grind all types of corn for cornmeal, but flint corn makes the best polenta, johnnycakes and puddings, and flour corns are best for bread and pancakes. I’ve been growing ‘Bloody Butcher,’ a dent corn, for at least 20 years, and I use it mainly for hot cereal. Deppe has developed her own corn varieties for specific uses, such as ‘Cascade Ruby-Gold’ for johnnycakes and quick-cooking polenta.
The grain corn you grow and process yourself will be more nutritious than what you can buy, and you can harvest roughly 30,000 calories from 100 square feet of planted corn. ‘Floriani Red Flint’ is a variety that originated in North America, was taken to Italy (where it flourished for centuries), and has now been brought back to the States. Tests have shown that ‘Floriani Red Flint’ has higher nutrient values — including almost twice the protein, and more than three times the magnesium and phosphorus — than the de-germed yellow cornmeal available in the supermarket. (For more about the various types of corn and how to grow and cook them, we highly recommend the new book Beautiful Corn by market gardener Anthony Boutard. — MOTHER EARTH NEWS)
Look for open-pollinated varieties and save your seeds. If stored carefully, seeds from flint and dent varieties can be saved for five to 10 years or longer.
An interest in heirloom wheat varieties has emerged among growers in recent years, and your garden is the perfect place to try them out. Heirloom varieties tend to grow taller, have more extensive root systems, and can be higher-yielding in organic systems than modern wheats. Some people who normally have an intolerance to gluten can reportedly eat heirloom wheat varieties. Eli Rogosa, director of the Heritage Wheat Conservancy, has been doing extensive work to make these older varieties more widely available. Find out more at Heritage Grain Conservancy.
Often with heirloom varieties, you pay more for a small amount of seed, and it’s then up to you to grow them out to increase your supply. Winter wheat is planted in fall and harvested the following summer. I harvest wheat in June in my Zone 7 garden. In areas with winters too harsh for winter wheat, gardeners can opt to plant spring wheat instead.
To plant wheat, I broadcast seeds into a garden bed and then chop the seeds in with a rake or cultivator to cover them. Come harvest time, I use a Japanese-style sickle to cut the stalks. The initial yield of straw and grain must then be separated, or “threshed,” which you can do using a plastic baseball bat or your feet. The wheat then needs to be winnowed to remove the chaff, which you can accomplish by pouring the wheat and chaff from one bucket to another in front of a fan. After you harvest your wheat, the stubble remaining in your garden beds will be loose and the soil will be soft. You can put in your next crop without removing the stubble.
At a yield of 6 pounds of wheat per 100 square feet, you could grow enough wheat in just 800 square feet to keep you supplied with a loaf of fresh bread each week for a year. Store whole grains of wheat in enclosed jars in a cool, dry place, grinding as needed, or grind grains into flour in larger batches and store the flour in your freezer.
Staples Crops: Dry Beans
Dry beans, or legumes, are a mainstay of food plans. With an average yield of 3 to 5 pounds per 100 square feet, you won’t get rich growing this crop for market, but you will richly enhance your food stores. Beans contain more than 1,500 calories per pound, and you can expect about 13 (soybeans) to 17 (favas) servings per pound. Bush varieties have a shorter maturation time than pole varieties do, so grow bush beans if you want a concentrated harvest. Good cool-weather legume crops are peas, favas, garbanzos and lentils. All other beans grow best in warm weather. Stored properly, you can keep bean seeds for several years, but for cooking, they are best if used within a year.
From speckled and oval to tiny and brightly colored, a long list of descriptors could be applied to the plethora of bean varieties out there. Black beans, red beans and limas are a few popular kinds. Experiment until you find a few varieties that grow well in your garden.
Searching for a dry bean crop to grow for my pantry, I tried pinto beans and wasn’t successful. Pintos do well in regions with low humidity, hot days and cool nights. When I focused on what does best in my region, however, everything clicked. I found that cowpeas — sometimes known as “Southern peas” or “crowder peas” — are better suited to the hot, humid conditions here in Virginia, and they’re not bothered by bean beetles. The average yield in the United States for pinto beans is 4 pounds per 100 square feet. For cowpeas, it’s 3 pounds, but my cowpeas generally yield from 3 to 5.5 pounds per 100 square feet, with my top yield being 6.3 pounds.
For her garden in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, Deppe has bred ‘Fast Lady Northern Southern Pea,’ an early, northern-adapted cowpea. Tepary beans, a drought-resistant species, do well in the hot, dry climate of the Southwest.
Harvest beans when the pods are dry, and store the pods in sacks you can then hang in a shed (old pillowcases work well). You can thresh your harvest by hitting the sacks with a stick to separate beans from pods. Store the cleaned beans in jars in the pantry alongside your corn and wheat.
Learn More: Go to All About Growing Beans for a guide to growing many different types of beans.
Native to tropical South America, peanuts don’t grow well everywhere, as they need ample water and 110 to 140 days of hot weather to yield a good crop. Traditionally, they do best in the southern United States, but climate change has created longer growing seasons, which means they may now do well even farther north than they did previously. If you can grow them, peanuts are worth it. They are rich in protein and have more pantothenic acid (vitamin B5) — which is needed for the breakdown of carbohydrates, proteins and fats — than any other food except liver. Plant peanuts about a month after your last frost, and allow at least 110 days to maturity. You can shell them to eat or press them for cooking oil.
When you dig peanuts, the pods will cling to the plants, allowing you to hang the whole bunch to dry. After a few weeks, you can pick off the nuts. I store peanuts (still in their shells) in an old crock in my pantry. Eat them within a few months.
Learn More: For information on using a Piteba oil press to make cooking oil from peanuts, see my blog post Using a Piteba Oil Press.
Winter squash, rich in fiber and vitamins A and C, include several species: Cucurbita maxima, C. mixta, C. moschata and C. pepo. Here in Virginia, I grow ‘Waltham Butternut,’ a moschata, and have kept some for as long as a year before eating. The moschata types are more resistant to vine borers and disease, but they usually need a longer, warmer season than do maxima and pepo squash. During the cool summers in Oregon, Deppe is fond of growing ‘Sweet Meat — Oregon Homestead,’ a maxima variety that reaches 16 to 24 pounds.
Winter squash yields 50 to 91 pounds per 100 square feet, on average. I plant butternut squash at the base of a compost pile so that the vines grow over it, discouraging weeds. My best yield using that method was 177 pounds per 100 square feet!
You can store winter squash in a shed until frost, eventually moving them to a frost-free location by the time the weather turns cold. If you’re short on squash-stashing spaces, simply use them to make a colorful fall or winter display right in your kitchen. Check your squash — along with your potatoes and sweet potatoes — every couple of weeks, and use or remove any that are starting to turn bad.
Learn More: For know-how on growing winter squash and for recommended varieties, go to Winter Squash at a Glance.
Cabbage, Collards and Kale
Cold hardiness and health-giving qualities are why cabbage makes this list. It can stay in the garden late into fall and store in a root cellar or cold greenhouse. Sauerkraut, a fermented food rich in vitamins and probiotics, is a traditional means of preserving cabbage, and your kraut can keep in a crock for months.
Collards and kale — members of the cabbage family — are cut-and-come-again crops, and with a little safeguarding, depending on where you live, you can harvest these crops all through winter. In a sense, the winter garden can “store” these crops for you thanks to their cold hardiness — and having fresh greens on hand even in the dead of winter rounds out a staple-crop plan nicely.
Collards and kale are nutritional standouts because of their impressive calcium content. The recommended daily intake of calcium for adults is 1,000 milligrams (mg), and many of us don’t get that much. One cup of cooked-from-raw collards provides 266 mg of calcium, or about 26 percent of your recommended daily dose, which is about the same amount of calcium as one cup of whole cow’s milk. One cup of cooked-from-raw kale has 93.6 mg of calcium, or about 9 percent of the recommended daily amount.
For some good varieties to start with, see Recommended Staple Crop Varieties for Your Region. Begin by growing these tried-and-true varieties to build up your food supply as you continue learning about growing, harvesting, storing and cooking these staple crops. You’ll want to discover something that works well for you so you can compare it with the new varieties you’ll try later. Read seed catalogs carefully, inquire at your local cooperative extension service, and talk to other gardeners to find out which crops and specific varieties grow best in your area. No matter which varieties you single out as favorites, you’ll find that growing staple crops for your table adds a new, satisfying dimension to your gardening and your diet.
Cindy Conner researches and reports on how to grow a well-rounded, sustainable diet in the least amount of space. Learn more at Homeplace Earth. Her new book, Grow a Sustainable Diet, is now available.