In good times there are tons of reasons to garden. It saves money, gets you closer to your food supply, teaches you valuable skills and gives you some independence. In bad times there is only one real reason to garden—to grow food so you can survive.
But looking deeper, it isn’t the food that keeps us alive but the calories within. It may be difficult to tell, but most garden vegetables contain more than 80% water and then a good deal of the remaining 20% is tied up in dietary fiber that is basically indigestible material. Water will certainly help keep you alive and dietary fiber will keep you feeling full but water can be more easily gathered elsewhere and dietary fiber fullness is an illusion.
Whatever is left over is generally calories in the form of mostly carbohydrates as well as any vitamins that may be present. I don’t discount the need for vitamins but without enough calories you probably won’t make it to the point of vitamin deficiency.
When it comes to survival, calories count!
The simple fact is that some garden vegetables are simply better calorie stores than others. I’m not saying that variety isn’t good when it comes to macronutrients such as carbs, fat, and protein. I’m also not saying to avoid the crops that aren’t heavy on calories, but I’m certainly recommending that if you plan on surviving on lower calorie vegetables, you may be in for a rude awakening.
As I mentioned above one major goal of gardening in good times (or whatever times we are in) is the fact that gardening can save money. In no crop is that better illustrated than with greens such as lettuce and spinach. Unfortunately, it would be quite tough to thrive or even survive on these crops if your life hung in the balance. Lettuce contains upward of 95% water (even higher than other veggies) and nearly the balance in dietary fiber. A hundred grams of lettuce will only yield you about 13 calories. Spinach fares only slightly better at 23 calories.
Another crop that’s sure to be popular when things turn bad is the tomato. While I love tomatoes, I do understand that at 93% water, the outlook for survival isn’t great. In fact tomatoes contain only 18 calories per 100 grams. Even though the vines get large and produce a lot, we have to look at the ratio of time+work:rewards. It’s just not worth it unless you plan to live on lycopene alone.
The Cucurbit family (cucumbers, melons, gourds, squash and pumpkin) is also a loser, not yielding higher than 20 calories per 100 grams.
The Brassicas (Broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, brussel sprouts) are slightly higher at up to 40 calories per 100 grams.
The Root crops continue up the scale with turnips at 21 and parsnips at 60!
Now that I’ve ruined everyone’s favorite crops, what’s left?
The best produce for higher calories
These are what I call the big three of the food crops: beans, grains, and potatoes. There’s a reason why people have subsisted on these crops since ancient times. They simply work and work well.
There is a very good reason that beans are the food of choice in the survival slogan, “beans, bullets, and band-aids”. In most of the world, beans refer to the kind that are grown and dried, not the green bean type, although some varieties of the green type are quite nutritious.
Simply put, beans are one component of a complete protein diet (I’ll get to the other one in a moment). An incomplete protein is simply one is deficient in all of the necessary amino acids to heal tissue and promote growth.
Beans are also easy to store. Once dry they store almost indefinitely if kept from pests. Diatomaceous earth (the edible type) is the best additive to prevent pest incursions.
In addition, beans are pretty easy to grow. In healthy soil, they make their own nitrogen. Being a legume means that they form root nodules filled with symbiotic bacteria known as rhizobia. These bacteria take a small amount of oxygen and sugars from the plant and help make usable nitrogen. When the plant dies, the nodules fall off, leaving nitrogen in the soil.
Beans will grow during most of the year when frost isn’t a threat, and except for bean beetles, they have few enemies.
The next part of the complete protein diet is a little harder to grow. All continents with substantial human populations have had grains growing over a large portion of the land at one time or another.
It’s true, though. Grains are hard to grow. The fortunate thing is that there is such a variety in this category that finding one that grows in your particular climate and growing conditions is possible. For instance, rice likes warm flooded land while wheat likes cooler, drier land. In addition, there are the more exotic types of grain, such as quinoa and amaranth. Corn is a good grain to grow as well. Just be prepared to feed it tons of nitrogen rich matter and water.
Like beans, grains are generally easy to store as well, although they might be a little more susceptible to pests.
Though they add little to the protein game, there is little doubt that for carbohydrates potatoes rule.
Except for the French who refused to eat the dirty common food, potatoes were a staple across much of Europe for a long while. Despite the Potato Famine in Ireland (due to monoculture) they continued and still remain an important crop.
The benefit of potatoes is that they grow in conditions that grain isn’t always fond of. Moist, cold conditions are no real problem for potatoes because the bulk of their energy stores are below ground. And though they fare less well in storage than the other two foods, it’s not impossible to keep a batch fresh as long as they stay in a cool root cellar.
It’s always a good idea to hedge your bets and grow a variety of things. Being informed about the calorie contents of our favorite vegetables is never a bad thing. We need to know which we can depend on in hard times and which might leave us hungry.
Jason Akers writes at The Self-Sufficient Gardener and is a frequent contributor to Backwoods Home and BackHome Magazines.
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