Wednesday, May 11, 2016

What If You Could Only Choose Five ...

The best vegetables to grow in any area are the ones that thrive in that particular hardiness zone. My hardiness zone is 5, but there are parts of Maine that are zone 3 – much colder. While that allows for a wide range of possible food plants, a very short, often very cool, growing season means that many types of food plants have to be abandoned, or require special equipment (like heated greenhouses) at the beginning and/or end of the growing season.

But let’s make the situation even more tenuous. Let’s imagine that the gardener has a very small space in which to garden, but desires to grow most of the food her family will eat. A short, cool growing season plus a tiny piece of land could mean that the gardener would just be SOL for having a good food crop, but it doesn’t have to.

For gardeners in cold climates with limited space, the solution is to pick plants that have a short growing season, have a long storage life, produce a lot of food per square foot, are calorie dense, and contain a lot of nutrients. There are many plants that might satisfy all of these criteria, but the top five are: beets, potatoes, garlic, pumpkins and beans.

The chickens love hanging out under the squash vines

Short Growing Season

My growing season in Maine is, roughly, from the end of May to October. That said, plants have different quirks and so while the general rule of thumb for gardeners in Maine is to wait until Memorial Day to plant the bulk of the garden, there is some wiggle room. Garlic seed can be put into the ground in the fall and harvested in the summer. Beets can be sown as soon as the soil can be tilled, and for the savvy gardener, the beets aren’t just the red part underground. In addition, to their energy-packed roots, which are ready for harvest about sixty days from planting, they also provide tasty greens. Potatoes, pumpkins and beans prefer to spend most of their growing time in warmer temps, and they won’t be ready for harvest until the fall, but they have no problems producing prodigious amounts of food in the few short months they have to develop.

Long Storage life

With such a short growing season, it is important to have vegetables that can be stored for a very long time. Potatoes and pumpkins, properly stored, will last until the next spring, and beans and garlic can both be dried for long-term storage, as well. Beets can be stored, like carrots, in cool, dry areas, but they can also be pickled, and the greens can be dried to add a nutritional boost to winter meals.

Lots of nutritionally and calorie dense food on this one ... AND it stores for months

A Lot of Food in a Little Space

One clove of garlic can produce a fist-sized bulb. One pound of seed potatoes will produce about five pounds of spuds. Beets do not need a lot of space to grow and because they like cold weather and can be planted early, they will provide two or more crops per season with subsequent plantings. One pumpkin vine, depending on the variety, will produce three small or two large pumpkins. Pole beans can be grown vertically on trellises, thus saving ground space for other plants, and one plant will continue to flower and produce bean pods from early summer until the first frost. In addition, pumpkins and beans can be paired in a much smaller planting area with corn (which provides a trellis for the beans) in a companion gardening technique often referred to as the “Three Sisters.” The corn stalk provides a support for the beans, the squash/pumpkin vine provides shade and weed control for the beans and corn, and the beans fix nitrogen in the soil, which feeds the other two plants. It’s one of the most popular companion planting techniques, especially in the northeast, but knowing what grows well with your intended crops can be both beneficial to the success of the garden and to one’s food storage endeavors.

Dried beans have a long storage life

Calorie Dense

According to the Positive Health Steps website kidney beans, which are an easy to grow, pole bean, have 100 calories per 100g, four slices of beetroot contains 30 calories, 1 clove of garlic provides 5 calories, one baked potato boasts 175 calories, and 100g of baked pumpkin provides 120 calories. With the exception of garlic, which is best grown for its health and flavor benefits, there are very few other vegetables that provide the power-packed punch and do well in the cooler climes of the northeast gardens. As such, if one is growing a garden with the intent of providing most of one’s food, giving space to beans, pumpkins, beets, and potatoes is a good investment.

Nutritional Value

Of the eleven essential minerals listed at this website, nine of them are found in one or more of the vegetables listed. Additionally, seven of the twelve important vitamins listed on the same website are found in one or more of the vegetables that grow well in the northeast. Of the other five vitamins, vegetables are not a good source for three of them, and perhaps adding a few meat animals to the garden space would be beneficial for all of the reasons above (calories, nutrition), but also because animal manure provides a powerful source of nutrients for any garden.

Garlic can also be used to stop a cold in its tracks

In my many years of gardening small spaces with the goal of self-sufficiency, I have found that the best vegetables to grow in my area are ones that have a short growing season, have a long storage life, can be grown in small spaces, are calorie dense, and have a high nutritional value. After considerable trial and error, I have found that the best five plants to grow so that I can feed my family without depending on too many outside food sources are: potatoes, pumpkins, beans, beets, and garlic.

If you could only choose five vegetables to grow in your small garden, what would they be ... and why?


  1. I actually agree with your five - but I have to have tomatoes too...there is something about tomatoes that make all the meals I make easier :-) I never thought to grow pole beans, I always do bush beans. But that would probably help with space!

  2. I would definitely miss tomatoes.

  3. I would never play the game of only five, but would add turnips to the beets, onions to the garlic, potatoes and winter squash obviously, my favorite Maine bean is Jacob's Cattle bean, and I can't imagine there being reason to do without kale, fresh lettuce, cabbage. Except for lettuce it is all "storable" in one way or another.

    1. Well, when one is extremely limited by space and weather, one, occasionally, has to make choices. Everything needs space to grow.

    2. well, yes, but one is often not so limited as one believes. The whole "one straw revolution" guy and all. Although he's pretty darn skinny! But if I were limited on space, I would have nothing that didn't produce food. We love, for example, jerusalem artichokes -- they grow on any fringe and produce great food.

  4. My five would be potatoes, pumpkins, onions/garlic, beans, and either carrots (the large ones, we call them wintercarrots) or parsnips.

  5. Late to the game - but I grow potatoes, beets, garlic, beans and radish. Radish because it will produce a crop quickly and is relatively high in Vitamin C.It also grows well in the shoulder months and can be inter-planted with the beets. I would grow squash but don't have the room. SJ in Vancouver BC