Growing a Doomstead Garden
When I was a child in the 1950s, my mother and probably about half of our neighbors grew a vegetable garden. Many of those who did not have a garden were the elderly or infirm, or were beleaguered single parents (yes, we had them back then). A few of our presumably more affluent neighbors could not be bothered, and there were also some who preferred to spend their spare time in other ways.
Several neighbors even kept livestock in the city limits of our small town, which was allowed at that time only if you were “grandfathered in.” We had neighbors who raised pigs, chickens, turkeys, goats, and guinea hens—and one neighbor even had a milk cow. Most of the neighbors who kept livestock had very large lots right at the edge of town, but the neighbor with the biggest menagerie managed to cram an amazing number of animals into a residential lot that was only 150 feet square, which also included a large garden that covered nearly half of his lot.
Back then, I think many people felt that not growing a garden was nearly sinful—a sign of anti-predestination, so to speak. The adults of that era had been children during the Great Depression, and they understood food insecurity. Or, if they had been raised on farms, they understood food security and how to get it.
Today, there is something of a resurgence of interest in gardening, partly because of the often poor quality of store-bought produce and partly because more people are becoming interested in food security in a difficult economic climate.
WHAT ARE THE BEST CROPS TO GROW FOR FOOD SECURITY?
The crops that people are most likely to grow in the home garden today are tomatoes, green beans, and corn. Probably the main reasons these are the first choices are because of their outstanding flavor when homegrown, and many gardeners grow fresh foods only for summer treats and have little interest in preserving significant amounts of food for winter use.
Sweet corn, especially, is usually grown for a summer treat, and I understand that canning or freezing large quantities of sweet corn can be quite a project. This is mainly because corn takes a lot of space, and the home garden will usually not produce much surplus of corn for canning or freezing. Green beans are often very productive and can be canned—or frozen, if you don’t own a pressure canner. Tomatoes can produce quite a large surplus in a fairly small area, and these can be canned in a simple boiling-water-bath canner, which makes them a favorite for canning.
But suppose you were a serious “doomstead gardener,” and your aim was to grow a complete (vegetarian) diet for your family? And, in particular, what if you wanted to do this in a fairly small space? What are the best crops to grow?
As it turns out, there is a book on this very subject: David Duhon’s One Circle, which suggests fourteen crops that were selected for nutritional density, small space requirements, and high yields. Duhon’s book was published by Ecology Action, the developers of the biointensive method of gardening, a group which has been researching small-space organic gardening since the early 1970s, and whose early pioneering work on this subject was John Jeavons’s How to Grow More Vegetables: Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land than You Can Imagine. Jeavons’s book is now available at most libraries, and also widely available as a used book. (Earlier editions, of a book that has since expanded to become encyclopedic, may be easier for the beginning gardener to digest.)
Duhon suggested 14 crops that by themselves, with no other food inputs, would provide full (though very Spartan) nutrition—and could be grown in the smallest possible space. You will notice that several of these are not immensely popular crops with modern home gardeners.
While you might not choose to grow your own food using Duhon’s model, the crops suggested in One Circle have much to recommend them, at least as additions towards self-sufficient gardening efforts.
These are the crops that offer the most nutritional “bang” for the garden area required—and/or provide essential nutrients that may be missing if other food sources are not available.
Collards are a non-heading and heat tolerant form of cabbage that is widely grown in the South. They provide greens continually throughout the summer and are harvested by cutting off the larger outer leaves, which encourages the plant to continue to produce. Collards are delicious stir-fried in olive oil with garlic. Extra good if hijiki seaweed is mixed in, after soaking the dried seaweed for 15-20 minutes to rehydrate, rinsing, and draining off excess moisture. Then add soy sauce to the collard mixture.
Filberts (Hazel Nuts)
Filberts provide essential nutrients that are especially available from nut crops. As a nut crop, filberts have several advantages: Filberts are a small tree (or large shrub) that grows about ten feet tall and ten feet in diameter, so they don’t take much space and make a good hedgerow planting. They begin to bear in only three or four years after planting, and they are easier to shell, and the nut meat is much more easily removed than with many other kinds of nuts.
Duhon suggests growing them as a hedgerow or fencerow, so that they don’t take up valuable garden space.
I grow filberts, myself. Mine are the local wild species, so the nuts are comparatively small. Hazelnuts are highly variable as to size, flavor, and productivity, which means that the serious gardener will probably want to search for “improved strains” that are more reliable. You may want to research locally adapted and productive varieties that produce larger, tastier nuts.
Onions, Leeks, and Garlic
These members of the allium family are essential for nutrition, flavor, and even medicinal use. It can be somewhat difficult to grow large onion bulbs in some parts of the US, and attention must be given to day-length adapted varieties for particular regions. Leeks are planted out in early spring, usually after starting indoors, and don’t mature until fall. As one gardener put it, “Leeks take so long!” On the other hand, leeks are a fairly carefree crop and provide a very special flavor for many dishes. They are nearly indispensable for a really delicious soup. The tops should be saved for making soup stock—because that’s how you make good soup stock.
Parsley was selected for its high mineral content and high content of Vitamins A and C. Parsley is a biennial, and the plain-lead type is considered hardy in Zones 3-9—though it may not live through the winter at the colder end of this range.
Parsnips are a highly productive starchy root vegetable that provides calories and carbohydrates. One of the advantages of parsnips is that they can be left in the ground all winter and dug as needed, provided the ground isn’t frozen. Duhon tells us that its cultivation was first recorded by Columella in the first century A.D. It was an important European staple root vegetable that lost popularity after the introduction of the potato. Modern cooks view the parsnip as the ingredient that “makes the soup good.” (Another root crop that can be left in the ground for digging over winter is salsify.)
Peanuts are a high-protein, high-fat, low-carbohydrate crop that has a reputation for being almost staggeringly productive. Peanuts require 120-130 frost-free days to produce a crop, and so are best suited to growing in Zone 6 and further south, although Duhon says that peanuts have been grown successfully as far north as Michigan, Massachusetts, and South Dakota, with season extenders. Local growers tell me that planting a single packet of peanut seeds will have you drowning in peanuts.
White potatoes are very productive in terms of nutrition, calories, protein, and minerals, from a relatively small area. A microbiologist friend once told me, “When they’re grown on good soil, you can live on them.” Well, just about. Choose a variety that is adapted to your area by contacting your local county extension agent.
Soybeans are a highly productive and protein-rich staple crop that is also extremely versatile, since so many different kinds of foods and dishes can be prepared from them. The Book of Tofu and The Book of Tempeh, by Shurtleff and Aoyagi, are perhaps the definitive sources on making these foods and using them to prepare quite an array of culinary delights. Homemade tofu and tempeh are both quite a bit tastier than commercially prepared products—and they’re rather fun to make. And of course you can make homemade soy milk with soybeans, or sprout them, or roast them a “nuts.” Tempeh is fun and easy to make and can be made in an egg incubator.
Sweet potatoes are a productive crop that is high in iron, carotene, and B vitamins. The leaves of the vines are also edible and are an especially concentrated source of these nutrients. According to Duhon, “Most varieties need a minimum, four month frost-free growing season, a sunny location, and warm nights.”
This is another crop that provides excellent nutrition. Duhon suggests sprouting the seeds before eating—which not only helps loosen the hull but also improves the nutritional value of the sunflower seeds. The hulls can be shaken free and the sprouts eaten, once the sprout is about the length of the seed.
Turnips are a concentrated source of almost all the vitamins and minerals. The tops—turnip greens—are highest in nutritional value, along with the bolted seed stalk, called raab, or broccoli raab. The roots are stored for winter use. According to Duhon, it is believed that turnips have been used as food for 4,000 years or more.
Perhaps surprisingly, wheat is included among the crops suggested as a nutrient-dense food suitable for small-space gardening. Ecology Action has taken a special interest in developing methods for producing high yields of wheat in small plots, and wheat seems to an essential element in the minimum-space diet designed by Duhon. Two of the suggested methods of preparation are sprouting and grinding into a dough for baking, or sprouting and allowing to grow as a short grass for about a week and juicing, because of the high nutrient content of wheat grass.
MY OWN SUGGESTIONS FOR HIGHLY NUTRITIOUS AND PRODUCTIVE VEGETABLES FOR THE HOME GARDEN
The crops suggested and the diet designed by Duhon are intended to produce maximum nutrition—actually a complete vegetarian diet—using an absolute minimum of garden space. These crops are all excellent suggestions for anyone who aims at food security, because of productivity and nutritional value. Also, except for collards, all of these foods are imminently storable over winter.
However, few of us would be satisfied with so austere a diet, and if there is no absolute need to attempt to grow full nutrition in the face of severe garden-space restrictions, most of us will choose a different selection of primary crops.
Here is a selection of crops that I would definitely grow if I were growing a garden with full food self-sufficiency in view.
While I have done quite a bit of gardening over the years, my experience is incomplete, and I have only occasionally attempted to grow field corn varieties for producing cornmeal—and that on a very small scale, as an experiment. I also have very small experience with growing dry soup beans for winter storage, so my thoughts and comments on these crops will not give you much to go on.
With all vegetable crops, the best way to learn which varieties do best in your area is to talk with other local gardeners, chat up the vendors at local farmer’s markets, join a garden club, and contact your county extension agent and/or check online for recommended varieties for your area.
Tomatoes are nutritional powerhouses and can be extremely productive. The fruits are easily canned in a boiling-water bath canner, and several smaller-fruited varieties are suitable for drying. I am told by a friend who is a vendor at our local farmer’s market that tomato plants grown in raised beds of deep, rich compost can be several times as productive as tomatoes grown in the usual way.
There are hundreds of varieties of tomatoes, and the choice of variety is often dependent on which kinds are locally adapted. It’s good to grow tried and true favorites, but to also experiment with a few new varieties every year. I have never had any luck with the so-called “black” tomatoes, for example. Maybe they will do well for you, in your soil and climate.
If you intend to save seed, you will of course want to choose open-pollinated varieties.
Some of my favorite widely adapted open-pollinated tomato varieties (ones that do exceptionally well for me on the border of Zones 5 and 6) are:
Druzba: a very productive of delicious large red fruits
Jaune Flamme: a smaller yellow “salad tomato” that has an exceptional flavor and is excellent for drying
Principe Borghese: a small, very productive Italian red tomato, traditionally used for drying
Cherokee Purple: a large purple, very sweet tomato—delicious flavor
Rutgers: a very productive medium-sized red tomato
My favorite hybrid tomato:
Early Girl: Despite my usual commitment to open-pollinated tomatoes, I always grow Early Girl, because it reliably produces the first tomatoes of the season. It is also very productive throughout the season.
Some other suggested varieties, not included above because they are perhaps a little less reliably productive (for me) are Persimmon, a huge and flavorful yellow-orange tomato; Giant Belgian Pink, a very large wonderfully flavorful pink tomato; Stupice, a smaller red open-pollinated tomato that is as early as Early Girl; and Amish Paste, which everyone else tells me grows into a huge and staggeringly productive vine, but which has never done well for me. I have grown Boxcar Willie, and I was impressed by the size and productivity, but few of the fruits ripened. I suspect this would be an outstanding variety further south, where the season is longer. Purple Calabash is a good, tough, medium-size purple tomato (really almost chocolate colored), with a good flavor and good productivity.
No one is really going to grow a garden and not grow green beans. Here’s a tip for crazy-good productivity: Grow only pole beans.
Romano Pole: These are insanely productive, and I personally prefer the Italian-type green beans for flavor. The only drawback to these is they are not stringless and need to be picked fairly young to avoid having to remove strings before eating or canning.
Kentucky Wonder Pole: One of the “gold standard” beans for flavor and productivity.
Blue Lake Pole: Another of the finest of green beans, especially noted for its excellent flavor.
Dry Soup Beans
The serious doomstead gardener will be sure to plant dry soup beans for winter use. I don’t have a great deal of experience with growing dry soup beans, but here are my observations from the two I’ve grown:
Cherokee Trail of Tears: Black pole-type beans, and highly productive.
Christmas Lima: This may be the finest flavored of all limas, but it requires a long season to be productive. (Said to taste rather like chestnuts—which is not too far from the truth.) Plant as early as possible. This lima probably would work well for anyone in the southern part of Zone 6, or further south.
The doomstead gardener who is intent of food self-sufficiency will want to be sure to grow corn that is suitable for grinding into cornmeal. Field corn varieties can, of course, be eaten as “green corn.” They just aren’t as sweet as the hybrid sweet corn varieties. Much of the literature on self-sufficient communities of the past notes that corn was the preferred grain crop and wheat bread a luxury, because of the greater space requirements of wheat. There are many, many varieties of field corn, and they are probably all worth trying. For cornmeal, probably your best bets are:
Golden Bantam: This is perhaps the oldest and most widely grown traditional “flour corn” variety, widely adapted and productive.
Hopi Blue: This is an excellent variety of corn for making blue cornmeal. Widely adapted.
Kale is, in my view, one of the best greens to grow in the garden.
Russian Red Kale: This is, hands down, the finest flavored variety of kale there is. While kale is not as productive as collards, I’ve found that this variety of kale survives heat and drought better than collards.
Beets are another of the most essential of garden vegetables. There is nothing better than cooked fresh whole beets with salt and pepper, served with cottage cheese. Beets also provide greens, and beet greens are some of the finest flavored greens you’ll ever taste. It’s good to grow lots of beets, just for their wonderful greens!
Detroit Dark Red: This is the old reliable, delicious, deep red, productive beet. I’ve tried several kinds, but Detroit Dark Red remains my favorite.
Zucchini (any kind): This squash is almost notorious for productivity. I like them stir-fried with green beans (and sometimes mushrooms) or included in other stir-fries—especially with lo mein or soba noodle dishes, to which they seem to give a sweet, nutty flavor.
Bennings Green Tint: This is a patty-pan type summer squash that has the finest flavor of any summer squash I’ve grown. Patty-pans are not as productive as zucchini squashes, but this one is worth it. This squash is delicious fried with potatoes and onions and seasoned with Mrs. Dash Extra Spicy.
I don’t think there’s a vegetable in existence that is as productive as okra—except maybe pole beans. Grow any kind. You will be drowning in okra. The easiest way to preserve okra is to simply cut it up and freeze it without blanching. Small okra pods can be frozen whole. One of the best ways to cook okra is to bread it and deep fry it, which is easily done if it was frozen without any other processing than simply cutting it up and throwing it in a freezer bag. Okra is also an essential ingredient in chicken gumbo, and pickled whole okra is a regular gourmet treat!
Perhaps the best way to preserve peppers is to put them in a freezer bag and throw them in the freezer. They require no other processing.
Sweet Banana Peppers: This is the most productive sweet pepper for my area.
Cayenne Peppers: These are another hugely productive pepper. Pick them red, as they ripen, and then be sure and gather all the green ones before frost. Freeze them all whole. Both red and green cayenne peppers work equally well for any recipe that calls for green chiles to “heat it up” a bit: Indian curries, gumbo, fajitas and other Mexican dishes, black bean soup (for black beans and rice), etc. Just take one or two (or more) out of the freezer bag and chop to add to whatever you’re cooking. Cayenne peppers can, of course, be strung for drying as well.
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