our gardens can feed us -- practice growing calorie crops

mountainmoma's picture

Even if some of us are just beginning or have a small space, it takes time to learn what grows and how. I am still learning, and I will have some experiments this year, but the focus is to see about growing "easy" to grow calories, how much for the space and effort.

One place to start learning about gardening is the Biointensive self-learning free materials, here : http://www.growbiointensive.org/Self_Teaching.html with a short, free handbook and a short video course series. The main book, of course, for this method is "How to Grow More vegetables..." and is in many languages. The Diet/21 bed booklets are interesting as well for ideas on one way to learn to grow your own complete diet, it is not the only crops to use, but is an experiment into one of the ways it can be done, with the least square footage. This has now been replicated for other areas and cultures with different crops.

Booklet 14, complete 21 bed model is the original one that runs the numbers on one way to grow a complete diet on around 2000 sq ft of space. Companions to that are the short 1 bed teaching/learning beds. SO, try it out with just one bed to learn how to grow these types of crops and to rotate (booklet 26), there is also the 3 bed model for Kenyan diet ( booklet 25) and one basic mexican diet ( booklet 15). Looks like there is an update to the 21 bed model, using less stringent and possibly more easily doable space, booklet 36, including a 3 bed model to learn on and plans for at scale. http://www.growbiointensive.org/ePubs/index.html

So, they use the term calorie crops for what we need the most of to feed ourselves, things like potatoes, sweet potatoes, winter squash..... And I will be practicing some of these this season.

First, and main crop for me is the potatoes, more than I have ever tried for. I have 3 beds planted out to potatoes. These are the first 2 early planted beds of Yokun gem, Yukon gold and red norland, they should be out and done before end of june, and I plan to replant to early corn.

add photo: 
mountainmoma's picture

I have been starting these sweet potatoes slips for months, organic from the grocery store, before lockdown in January. One is all purple, hte other is Japanese, purple outside, white inside. There will be one 40 sq ft bed of sweet potatoes. Likely this will not be a high yielding crop here, I tried it once before, but it has been years, so this is an experiment. I will be planting closer this time, and we will see what the yield is.

add photo: 
ClareBroommaker's picture

Ah, that looks so lush. The surrounding vegetation is part of the lush appearance. Will these all be eaten during the summer? Will you plant a second round of potatoes?

mountainmoma's picture

I have had such health problems come and go for years, so you never know for sure. But, the plan is to do a second potato crop. I have never had one work, due to the heat here, so we will see. If I can get these chilled then warmed so they will sprout, and if the soil temperature allows it, I will try the second crop

I would be hard pressed to eat all those myself in the summer ! I will weigh them, and decide what to do, many will be shared out

You are seeing the brief, fake lush time. It will soon look like the drought sticken place that it is, with the raised beds well watered and lush

mountainmoma's picture

Actually, the background behind those 2 tandem beds of potatoes is one of my apple trees, so it will stay green all summer. It yields too much, never can use all those. It is a Hudson Golden Gem apple on M111 rootstock, not irrigated at all except the first couple years as a sapling, pruned to not need pruning later , so delayed central leader but modified by alot of deer predation the first few years, they almost killed it to the ground. The other pruning goal was to have a tree to be very climbable by small children. That and we all just love its shape, just seems pleasing

mountainmoma's picture

We had very erratic spring weather here ! Hot, very hot, no rain, then a few late bought of freezes ! SO, I had to uproot some of the onion transplants and wait. The replants are stunted, compared to the other variety, but should rebound. New York Early and Newburg onions, started from seed inside. Not very many, I started this seed before the whole pandemic and my decding to up the garden ! Initially, I was going to make a "me" sized crop. SO, there are only about 104 onion plants, that's 2 onions a week for the year. Garlic is also small crop and late started.

add photo: 
Sweet Tatorman's picture

Here is a post of mine from the old forum which addresses your topic of high calorie garden crops. Suitability is definitely climate dependent. Peanuts would be a struggle in many climates.

mountainmoma's picture

I may again, but not this year. A gopher got into that bed and decimated them, it was hard to keep them watered enough too it seemed. There are likely other varieties to try. All legumes are difficult here due to bird, rodent and insect predation. Potaotes are way easier

mountainmoma's picture

I get 2-4 times as many pounds per sq ft from my white potatoes due to the biointensive growing methods than you show from yours. It is due to not using rows and planting one potato plant every sq ft, they can go closer than that, down to every 9 inches once you get your soil built up, but I am still getting my soil back in shape, I had a few years of neglect in the garden. One pound of potatoes is 350 calories, and that is a poor yield per square foot with this method, I would expect at least 1.5, maybe 2 even with the shape of the soil this year.

I not only organic garden, but I buy in NO soil additives or fertilizer. Planning for a power down, simplier future means we need to practice growing with what we have without factory fertilizers.

mountainmoma's picture

But, this is not the main use of area. Intensive bed, sugar snap peas, kale, brocolli, dwarf cabbage, carrots, radishs, lettuce, bok choy. winter/spring bed. This bed will be done before august to potentially go to potatoes. A different bed will be summer green veggies, although most summer greens are not given the coveted raised bed space, but are kicked out to edges around the garden, next to and outside the beds on the ends, that is already transplanted out there in gopher territory, chard, magenta spreen lambsquarters, borage, other flowers

add photo: 
mountainmoma's picture

I had to pull this up as it was in the bed were the tomatoes need to go. The plant was immature, smaller than the ones in this years early potato beds, just a small potato left from last fall sprouted. The variety is yukon gold ( I can tell as yukon gem has pink eyes) The yield this immature was still one pound of potatoes. The larger spud is about fist sized and itself is 1/2 pound

add photo: 

Thanks for the link, Sweet Tator. I’m about to put peanuts between my 2” tall okra to see what happens. Space is limited in my suburban lot; and with all the trees and existing shrubbery, their are only a few spaces for normal linear beds. Today I plan to finish double digging the last one.

I’m also trying a mixed stand of sorghum, amaranth, sunflower, field corn, and field peas, hoping to improve the soil as they grow. Separately I’m growing a little millet and rice, just to experiment. Other potential calorie crop I have to work with are sunchokes, ground nuts, and a nice big white oak. I’m not really expecting to grow all my calories, but maybe I can supplement.

Mountainmoma, what are your strategies to build up soil fertility in your garden?

mountainmoma's picture

The first thing is to not leave bare soil because doing that kills soil life, esp. the sun exposure. So mulch or close planting ( correct plant spacing means not having a bunch of empty space without plant cover ( see spacing recommendations from BioIntensive links I put above in the OP, I also put the lnks there for the self teaching booklet and videos, which are free and give a good introduction on one way to do all this) or leaving a cover crop ( or weeds) off season. Soil compaction is also bad, so dont walk on the garden, stick to the paths. Organic matter must be added back into the soil, either with applications of compost or with mulch on top ( the worms will work that into the soil)

For me, what I usually do is: raised beds, no walking on the soil or tilling ( but I do use a garden fork to loosen the soil, I just dont turn it over). I did double dig or turn over soil initially, when first starting the garden. ( If I mess up, like when I was injured and the garden was ignored and the soil wasnt covered, and blackberries moved in, then yes, then after that couple years of neglect, I had to do more digging/loosening ). Soil kept covered, usually by constant mulch on top, often deep. I use a mulch that feeds the soil, right now that is goat stall cleanings, which is alfalfa that they throw on the ground of their stall and pee and poop on. If I do not have goat stall cleanings, I use alfalfa itself, from the feed store, bales of alfalfa so this has nitrogen ( unlike straw or other hay it does not have weed seeds and also it has much higher nitrogen than straw or grass hay ). I sprinkle wood ash on the garden beds ( potash). Since there is goat poop in the stall cleanings that has phosperous Sometimes I add dilute human urine ( more nitrogen) but not often, realy, as collecting it isnt as easy for us ladies. I also rotate crops, I do not grow the same things in the same spot. Pay attention to types of crops, you can look at How to Grow More Vegetables (book) on things to think about with rotating I even rotate the strawberry patch to a new bed every 3rd year, just dig it all up, they get crowded and the soil compacted after 2 years, so just dig them all up, divide the strawberry crowns, replant what you need in a different loose bed, give away all the extra strawberry crowns, and put a nice deep sheet mulch on that bed over the winter.

I have also grown here on untilled, new garden areas using sheet mulching. You can do this, and it in some ways is less work. For example, before the fruit trees filled in, one year we did a large 3 sisters planting on a non-garden area. Meadow-ish area. So, going into summer, there was green grass and weeds a few feet tall, so step on it and flatten it. Put down cardboard or layers of newspaper over the area. Then, take a truck to the local stables where they have composted horse manure they load with the tractor. Spread that out over the area. For the 3 sisters, we concentrated that into the hills, leaving almost none on the paper between the hills, the hills had 4-6 inches deep of the compost, and if the paper is cardboard, you cut through it once or twice below the hills. Spread some straw over the top. I think we only used rice straw for this ( not alfalfa). Plant the hills with corn seeds, squash seeds, bean seeds. I have gotten very good yields of corn and squash this way, I have never gotten bean yields in a 3 sisters. That last one we did this way years ago was 20x20 feet, previous ones had been 10x10 feet. At the end of the season the soil in this area will not have the grass/weeds anymore and be somewhat looser and more organic matter than before you did it, and you have the corn and squash.

Absolutely agree. I never leave bare soil if I can help it.
Everything that gets weeded out is composted, or, depending on what it is, I just toss those yanked out weeds into the deep shade areas where last fall's leaves got eaten up by the worms.

For all of us without goats, collect all your neighbors' leaves and, if you're energetic, get their grass clippings too. Grass clippings are more work because you'll need a surly teenager to turn them every few days.

mountainmoma's picture

Yes, gather leaves, grass, weeds, whatever you can get of organic matter to mulch with, and to compost. So that gives organic matter.

If you sheet mulch with this stuff instead of having it on the compost pile you are also feeding the worms and rolly pollies and other soil critters. There are downsides to this too, but below I talk about things we add to soil to get the basic big 3 fertilizing minerals and how we have to have phospherous, which is in manure. But, even if it is not all the time, but off season or between crops, do not discount the adding of organic matter on the soil, mulch. This feeds the worms. The worms do a few things, including loosening the soil for you, and also the worms poop -- this is super good for the soil, they eat all that mulch and make worm manure

Look up Ruth Stout gardening. She is known for her promotion of only mulching, deep mulch, with organic matter, no adding other stuff, no adding manure, or bone meal etc.... She would use hay or straw, about 8 inches deep on the garden. This provided ther fertility and kept weeds from growing. This works because the worms and other soil organisms eat the hay and the worm poop, etc... provide all the plant nutrients. Feed the soil. https://www.backyardgardenlover.com/ruth-stout-gardening-method/

Fertilizer you buy in the stores talk about 3 main elements, NPK, Nitrogen, Potash( potasium) and Phospherous. So, if you are not feeding the worms enough, you will need to make sure this makes it back in the soil. Nitrogen is provided by things like alfalfa ( alfalfa meal worked into the soil or alfalfa hay as mulch), fish emulsion, diluted human urine ( Dave T. has a post here mentioning that one) , Potash can be provided by bone meal, or wood ash, phopherous is harder to get and usually is from dung -- eventually you need to get some of this back to the soil ! We mine it right now commercially for fertilizer but sources of that are running low. SO, then poop of some type, any type also has this. Bunny Poop will work, and you can raise bunnies in a small area for fertilizer and food. All the farmyard manure. And, if all you have is yourself, you can use composted Humanure. Night soil. This is traditional in many parts of the world. But, we also now know there can be some issues from this, so compost well and hot. I have had friends do this in a small yard in the city, their neighbors never had a clue. So, you need some of this too for your garden, from some animal or human. You can read the Humanure Handbook, download to read online for free here : http://humanurehandbook.com/contents.html find out now how to do it safely, in case you ever need to.

mountainmoma's picture

So far, with the first 2 harvests of potatoes, I got 94.5 lbs in 90sq ft. This is equivalent to 105 lbs for 100 sq ft. This is 36, 225 calories, which is over 18 days worth of calories. This is not all available to eat as seed potatoes need to be saved, so I will weigh those at some point and update.

If one ate nothing but potatoes, and 2000 calories a day, you would need 2,000 sq ft with this yield. I think this is a poor yield and it can be improved. But, I also like to eat other things than potatoes !

mountainmoma's picture

It can be hard to change eating habits. And come up with ideas. So, if you have been running the calculations of what you would need to eat if growing all your own food, eating that variety of foods might take an adjustment.

You can practice this now, even before you have the area or time to grow it all.

Practice 2 things, First, learn how to grow. Even if very scaled down, and even if you have other valuable skills, everyone should know something about growing, I think. So, grow what you can, practice now, then if you are able, or have to, scale up, you will have the skills. Second, learn how to cook and eat a more sustainable diet for your area. Even if you yourself are not growing it all. For example, we know what crops get the most calories for area of growing space, and I bet you dont eat as much of them as you need to if you were living off of them. So, I think that gardening by hand means I would need to eat alot of potatoes and winter squash for calories. I might realy need to eat 1 pound of potatoes a day, and one or two butternut squashed a week, plus some sweet potatoes ! Obviously, I would eat other things, but just thinking about those items, well, that is not how I used to eat, and likely not most of us. So, you can practice cooking and eating those types of quantities of the staple foods like that that would be grown in your climate. Those are likely my big 3.

So, for me, what are the meals and menus to make with: every week, 5-7 pounds of potatoes, a winter squash, y pounds sweet potato, xx pounds of dried corn ( likely only 1/4 or 1/2 pound a week), 2 pints of canned tomatoes ( fresh in season), 2 onions, fresh or dried cooking greens ( pot herbs), a jar of canned fruit, fresh fruit, dried fruit. Every month a bottle of wine, a jar of pie filling for pie. Wean off of the bag of frozen stir fry mix, for example. Other things can be bought and added, of course, we are never going to be islands, but we may need to part time provide some of our needs we can easily do in a little time. I think about annual bulk shopping, like a 50 lb bag of wheat berries, a 25 bag of beans, some oil. Either bulk annual stock up of animal feed or buying local eggs/dairy. Maybe very local small meat like spent laying hens, bunnies, squirrel on site or bought. This can be practiced now while you still live in a small space. Canning is a skill and can also be practiced with produce bought at the farmers market, and cider/wine is a skill that can be learned and practiced now

lathechuck's picture

Small grains (i.e., not corn) can produce a lot of calories per acre, but also require a lot of effort to prepare for human consumption. I've grown "hull-less oats", wheat, and sunflowers as experiments. I also buy a lot of each, in the form of rolled oats, bread, flour, shelled sunflower seeds, and ground sunflower butter. (Now that I've grown a little bit of each, I have a new appreciation for the process from field to table.) But suppose I'm too lazy to thresh my own grain, and raise my own livestock, what about trading it to a small meat producer for animal feed? Would chickens and rabbits chew through the husks without complaint? My backyard birds seem happy enough to shell their own sunflowers, and steal the seeds from my kale. If a chicken grows 1 kg on 1.6 kg of feed, maybe I could swap 3 kg of feed for 1 kg of fresh slaughtered chicken?

Way back when I lived in York, South Carolina, I came across a self-published gardening book in the stacks at the library.

John A. Freeman wrote 'Survival Gardening' and self-published his book in 1982. I was so impressed with his extensive tables of vegetables, their calories, and their nutrients, that I had my dear husband make me a xerox copy of the book. Even back in 1994, it was already difficult to find this book other than getting lucky at at second-hand bookshop or the library. On abebooks.com right now, the cheapest copy is $75 plus shipping.

You've seen much of the growing information elsewhere. What you haven't seen is extensive charts breaking down vegetables by type, calorie, and nutrients, and lengthy discussions about what to grow to keep one adult alive for one year in 1,000 square feet.

Mr. Freeman (a Winthrop College professor) recommended turnips with their tops as >the< must-grow vegetable for calories, nutrients, productivity, ease of growing, etc.

There are a few copies of 'Survival Gardening' floating around at libraries so you can probably preview it via the interlibrary loan before you spend $75.

As a side note, he wrote his book for the Carolina Piedmont region so if you're anywhere near there, he's already covered the local climate and soil issues.

Because he wrote in 1982, he doesn't assume you have any fancy equipment or access to a fancy garden shop. It's all manual labor. Oh, and as you grow your veg to keep yourself alive, the veg you grow is also improving your soil.

lathechuck's picture

An elderly woman from Germany once told me about her experience after WW-2. "We ate a LOT of turnips," she said, "and we were glad to have them!"

For comprehensive information about economical diet choices, see: https://efficiencyiseverything.com/ The author claims that you can live safely on $1.50 of food per day. By the way, potatoes and kale are prominently featured, and I have found kale to be easy to grow through the winter (with protection from trauma when frozen; I've written about that elsewhere on this site).