Your Survival Garden: Time to Start Thinking About Calories

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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.

Your Survival Garden Time to Start Thinking About Calories via The Survival Mom

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.

Your Survival Garden Time to Start Thinking About Calories via The Survival Mom

14 thoughts on “Your Survival Garden: Time to Start Thinking About Calories”

  1. We see our garden as not only our food pantry but also as a teaching tool for ourselves and neighbors. Even in wide open spaces, it is not common to see a small garden. Horses seem to be more prominent and horses and gardens don't seem to go together. 🙂

    This time of year (in my area) I have not found much spinach in sores. It's a common ingredient in my daily smoothies. I have learned to improvise and use what ever greens are in my garden. Lettuce, kale, collards and even cabbage greens. I have been known to blend up my kids turnip roots in smoothies to get them into my children. It's much easier for children to get nutrients this way than having a plate of turnip roots for lunch. And they get the other nutrients of the fruit and sprouts or whatever seems to find it's way into the smoothie.

    Whether bad times are upon us just around the corner or during the next generation, now is the time to be educating our children (and ourselves) on proper nutrition and real foods. I believe a garden makes a perfect opportunity.

    I think I will add a few extra rows for beans as well as lengthen my potato rows this spring.

    Thank you for the calories vs grams illustration. I never thought of that.

  2. herdofchihuahuas

    you can also grow potatoes "vertically" using a stack of three or four old tires. Simply start your seed potatoes inside one tire laid on its side and filled with soil, then as the plant frows upward you add a tire and soil loosely around the green part always leaving a couple of inches of the green plant above the soil level. As you add each tire the potato plants will grow additional offshoots into the prgressively stacked tires. I haven't seen it done more than four tires high though. We keep them behind the privacy fence since my teenage daughter proclaims us the to be the rednecks on the block! She doesn't mind it too much when I make her fresh bread with homemade butter and blackberry jelly though!

    1. Love this idea!

      A few questions:
      1. Do you harvest the potatoes all at once?
      2. Are the bottom potatoes larger than the top?
      3. Do you grow or buy your potato seeds?

      1. I use a chicken wire frame, lined with brown paper bags split open to grow my potatoes. Yes, the paper is a mess by harvest time, but it's only there to keep the soil in, after all. I always harvest all at once, though if you use good loose soil you can sneak your hand down the edge and feel for baby ones to steal early. Yes, the ones at the bottom are usually larger, since they're older.
        I have used seed potatoes and ordinary store bought ones. The certified seed actually produce better. About a quarter of the store bought ones don't sprout, and they're more likely to get blight. Certified seed potatoes are treated to avoid blight and fungi.

      2. herdofchihuahuas

        I buy seed potatoes at the local feed store and harvest from top to bottom over the course of several weeks, always getting the last ones in before the first freeze. We have very mild winters in east Texas and seldom see a freeze before Christmas.

  3. It's true, in times of stress, heavy labor, or when healing a bad wound, or working in deep cold we need more calories and protein. It's nearly impossible to get high protein levels from a strictly vegetarian diet. One cup of grain plus one cup of legumes provides all the necessary amino acids for a complete protein, but only an average of 17 grams of it. There is a reason all the more primitive cultures use a lot of animal fats in their diet.

    Trust me, you still need that vegetable dietary fiber, though. Your bowel habits will thank you to keep vegetables in your meals. And vitamin C is hard to get in a lot of storage foods diets. If you have questionable gum health, look to your vitamin C intake.

  4. Hmm….We tried corn twice in our garden. The first time the hail got it. The second time the bugs got it….we decided not to try a third time. Now that we've moved we're fond of going for drives on the weekends, and buy from some of the family farms around here that are somewhat off the beaten path. They'll sell it to you right from their porch.

    As to the blending in of unknown nutrient in your kids food, its something my parents/grandparents did to me and my siblings when we were younger. And also something I plan to experiment with when I actually have a kitchen to cook in. To use April's example, just because I'm not a kid anymore doesn't mean I like having a plate of turnips for lunch. I'd rather substitute something or at least add to something in a way that I don't have to taste them….course I'm not a big fan of smoothies (or most fruits and veggies) either,but I'm working on it.

    1. Good point about the problems of growing. IMO way too many people think growing food is simple/easy. It isn't The time and effort – not to mention the sheer size of planting needed – to provide just half the diet for an adult is enormous.

  5. I'm glad you all found the article thought provoking. I was not aware of some of the nutrients (or lack thereof) involved until I really sat down and did the math.

    @Chris–you are right, corn is tough!


  6. While the article is thought provoking, it isn't balanced. The calories for the "bad" crops are given, but not those for the "good" crops, which would be better for the comparison. Calories and carbs are important, but dietary fiber and other nutrients provided in the low calorie crops are very important for good health, and will be even more so in coming bad times. For example, one serving of spinach, which is 180 grams, contains more than the daily requirement of vitamin A, 24% of needed calcium, 29% of vitamin C, and 36% of iron. Non-meat sources of iron aren't absorbed as well, but if you eat a tomato (149 grams) with your spinach, the absorption rate goes way up, and you gain another 32% of your needed vitamin C as well as lycopene, potassium, and several B vitamins. I'll continue to grow tomatoes, squash, and greens, but don't intend them to be my family's only source of food.

    1. From the article:

      "I don’t discount the need for vitamins but without enough calories you probably won’t make it to the point of vitamin deficiency."

      100 grams of potatoes = 76 calories
      100 grams of wheat = 330 calories
      100 grams of pinto beans = 349 calories

      You need calories to live and a variety of food to live well.


  7. One principal that sustained many of the Native American cultures here in America was the "Three Sisters" method of planting corn, beans and squash together. The corn grows but robs the soil of nitrogen, the beans climb the corn and replenish the nitrogen, and the low laying squash acts as shade for weed control among other things. This combination provided Native Americans for generations with their nutritional needs and I have taken that concept as the foundation for my own gardening habits for both pre and post TEOTWAWKI.

  8. Hi, I realize I’m a bit late on discussing this article – I think you make a great point on calories being our first priority in a hard times situation. However, I was wondering about which plants would be most productive in terms of space. For example, I grew pinto beans – two eight meter rows that yielded less than a kg (for all the effort involved it didn’t seem like much). I have plenty of space but for a lot of people calories per square foot might be a more important consideration?

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