Growing Staple Crops for a Calorie Dense Harvest

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If you’re like most gardeners, you pack your growing space to full capacity: Tomatoes, lettuce, peas, beets, carrots, green beans… But consider growing some staple crops to get the most out of your vegetable garden. It will make a big difference in your grocery budget.

Grains are another great staple crop to consider.

green, yellow, and orange winter squash in a pile, from above - great high calorie vegetable option!

High calorie vegetable staple crops

You can gorge yourself on fresh veggies all summer long, then preserve marinara sauce, pickles, salsa, relishes, and chutneys to fill your pantry for the winter, but you’re still going to need to supplement your diet with something more.

If you’re forced to live off just what your garden produces in a survival situation—even if it’s a giant garden—you’re going to get hungry really quickly. Unless, of course, you take care to include some high calorie vegetables and starchy staple crops in your survival garden plan.

Corn

Regular sweet corn is best eaten fresh from the garden and does not store well. It’s a great option for seasonal calories, but an ambitious gardener might consider growing shelling corn. Dry it on the cob, then remove the kernels to grind your own cornmeal for wintertime.

A medium ear of corn has about 77 calories.

red potatoes just harvested from the garden - America's favorite staple crop

Potatoes

One of America’s favorite staple crops, potatoes are easy to grow and will do well in a large container, too. Once the plants are well established, you can carefully dig in and harvest tiny “new potatoes” for summertime meals. When the leaves start to die off later in the season, you’ll dig up the entire plant to harvest the full-sized potatoes. Be sure to include some Russet potatoes in your plan; these will keep through the winter.

A regular ‘ol potato has about 160 calories.

pink sweet potatoes in a basket - a good staple crop for backyard gardeners

 

Sweet Potatoes

In the right conditions, sweet potatoes are tremendously easy to grow. These high calorie root vegetables take up a fair amount of space as they vine across the ground and they need a lengthy growing season, but if you can get them in the ground early enough, even many cold region gardeners can have success with sweet potatoes.

You’ll need a minimum of 90 days from first frost to last. And just like regular potatoes, sweet potatoes store well for winter use. You can also turn sweet potatoes into sweet potato flour!

Sweet potatoes provide about 115 calories for a one-cup serving.

green beans in a wooden box

Beans

Most people who have been gardening for any length of time are familiar with growing green beans. The dried beans you can get at the store? They come from a plant just like that, but the pods are allowed to mature completely, and the seeds—or beans—are removed from the shell and dried for storage.

Cowpeas, kidney beans, black beans, runner beans — even lentils. You can grow all of these staple crops right in your garden for budget friendly meals and dry them yourself.

Calorie counts vary based on variety, but a cup of cooked beans will net about 200 calories.

squash plant

Squash

Winter squash and pumpkins aren’t quite as calorie dense as the aforementioned vegetables, but they are an easy to grow and store staple crop. The vining plants do take up a fair amount of space, but they produce generously. Whole pumpkins and squash will last throughout the winter season. (Be sure to cook one up to indulge in this winter squash cheesecake!)

A cup of cooked pumpkin or squash has about 50-80 calories, depending upon variety. (Plus? Pumpkin pie!)

A surprise staple crop to consider: parsnips

Related to carrots and parsley, parsnips are a root crop that needs a long growing season. I’ll be completely honest: I’ve not had a lot of luck growing parsnips. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give them a try! It doesn’t get a lot of press, but the cream-colored veggie is good roasted, mashed, and in soups.

A cup of parsnips nets about 100 calories.

red beets with greens sitting on a wooden table

Beets

Fresh beets come in red, orange, or yellow varieties. If your only experience with beets involves a can, you might be surprised at just how lovely they are straight out of the garden. These high calorie vegetables are great roasted with a bit of salt and pepper, tossed with balsamic vinegar in a salad, or added (cooked) to a smoothie.

Beets offer up about 60 calories per cup.

Duck eggs

While not technically a garden crop, it’s worth noting that duck eggs are more calorie-dense than those you’d get from a chicken. Ducks lay eggs with a higher fat content than chickens, they’re higher in Omega-3 fatty acids, and protein, too. They have nearly double the amount of calories compared to chicken eggs. They’re a great source of calories for people who strive to produce much of their own food on site.

One duck egg has about 130 calories. (A large chicken egg has about 72.)

Survive and thrive with staple crops in the garden

If the idea of generating more calories from your garden intrigues you, I highly recommend that you read The Resilient Gardener. Author Carol Deppe goes into explicit detail about growing most of these high calorie vegetables successfully. She lists the varieties of staple crops that she’s had the most success with. Read my review of The Resilient Gardener for more.

Originally published in February 2014; this post has been updated.

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Meet the Author

Kris Bordessa

Kris Bordessa founded Attainable Sustainable as a resource for revitalizing vintage skills. Her book, Attainable Sustainable: The Lost Art of Self-Reliant Living (National Geographic) offers a collection of projects and recipes to help readers who are working their way to a more fulfilling DIY lifestyle.

8 comments… add one
  • Jennifer Feb 17, 2014, 5:22 pm

    This is an excellent article. I love to eat squashes, tubers, and beans so why not grow them too!

  • Little Mountain Haven Mar 4, 2014, 12:28 pm

    After reading ‘The Resilient Gardener’ I picked up the sweet meat squash. Carol raved about it so much I just had to buy seeds and I’m looking forward to growing them this year. I’ve given up on corn for now, it’s hard to grow with our short season, but we’re growing over 12 varieties of squash this year (perhaps it’s a slight heirloom addiction?…)

  • CAPERNIUS Mar 15, 2014, 4:39 pm

    one thing that many people have over looked, or maybe just had no idea of, is cattail roots.

    Yes I’m talking about the plants that grow along side creeks & rivers, and can also be found in drainage ditches & around culverts(them big drain pipes that run under a road, or drain into a pond)

    The roots, or tubers as they are called, look like onions when you cut them free from the plant(they have the layers like an onion) & can be eaten raw, or cooked, sauteed, or fixed just about any way you wish. 
    They are naturally crunchy & have the taste of potatoes.
    To learn more about Cattail roots, check out these websites:

    https://www.eattheweeds.com/cattails-a-survival-dinner/

    https://www.squidoo.com/wild-foods-cattail-roots

  • nicola Jul 11, 2014, 10:57 am

    I would add Jerusalem artichokes (sunchokes) to that list, they’re a starchy tuber that is super easy (invasive if allowed) to grow. The other point that strikes me is that squash don’t take up a lot of garden area for the plant roots. I like to plant them at the edges of beds and then let them ramble over areas where I can plant. They are quite happy growing across gravel or rocks as long as their roots are in good soil. They can be a great plant if you have some of these inhospitable areas in your yard.

  • Jennings Jul 11, 2014, 12:54 pm

    I grew navy beans. You need a LOT of plants to get many! It’s like peas – lots of shelling without a whole lot of beans. Next year I’ll be doing many many more (they did grow great). I also have potatoes. Unfortunately we all dislike winter squash, pumpkins and sweet potatoes in my house. Although pumpkin seeds are good nutrition!

  • Tonya R Mar 10, 2016, 2:32 pm

    I freeze my corn. I use an awesome “recipe” that was passed down from great-grandparents. Everyone loves when I pull a bag of corn out of the freezer!

  • JL E Jan 4, 2020, 4:30 pm

    One big glaring omission is peanuts. Yes, peanuts need a long growing season, approximately 110-130 days for most varieties. But they’re a high calorie food source. They are also useful as a source of cooking oil. In fact peanuts are one of the most useful & versatile vegetables you can possibly grow. Read what George Washington Carver was able to do with the humble peanut, you’ll be in awe of his genius with peanuts. If you do grow peanuts, you must cure them properly in order to be able to store them for future use. Learn the proper way to grow, harvest, cure & store peanuts & you’ll be well on your way to self sufficiency.

    One other note: some of the other vegetables mentioned must be cured properly before they can be stored. This includes potatoes, sweet potatoes, winter squash, onions, garlic, etc. If sweet potatoes & winter squash aren’t cured properly immediately after harvest, not only will they not store for very long, they will also be bland & tasteless. You will wonder what went wrong during the growing season or you’ll think that the varieties that you grew weren’t any good. Gardening is an art not just a way to obtain food. If you don’t know what you’re doing your efforts will produce only mediocre results. “FOOD FOR THOUGHT”…

    • Kris Bordessa Jan 5, 2020, 8:29 am

      Peanuts are on my short list to try, since I’ve got the right climate for them.

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