Fast-growing nutritious crops for uncertain times

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Fast-growing nutritious crops for uncertain times

The global COVID-19 crisis is highlighting many of the flaws of our current economic and social system. In a matter of weeks, many countries faced shortages of basic needs. This was due to actual production decline and transport restrictions, combined with erratic fear-driven consumer behaviour, such as hoarding food. In response, there has been an explosion in interest in self-sufficiency as people are becoming less confident that the system can provide for their needs in times of emergency.

Planting a small vegetable garden is an easy and popular way to provide some level of food self-sufficiency during such a crisis. However, how easy is it to actually provide a significant amount of the nutritional needs for a family? In general, most of our calories come from staple crops. Only three crops (corn, rice, and wheat) provide 51% of the global caloric intake [1]. Despite being high in calories, these crops are quite low in nutrients and require a lot of space. For example, about 5 m2 of land is required to produce 1 kg of wheat flour, rice, or corn [2]. In addition, common plant-based protein sources, such as lentils and chickpeas are very inefficient, requiring around 15 m2 to produce 1 kg. These products are currently inexpensive and readily available in the market, mainly because of government subsidies, rather than efficient agriculture. When planning a survival garden that can provide significant amount of nutrition in a small space, it is clear that our diet needs to be diversified away from such staple crops. In tropical regions, bananas are an excellent staple food, but require some space. The starchy varieties can be cooked like potato in a variety of dishes.

Crop choice should focus on nutrient-dense crops that are easy to grow and give high yields in a small area. In addition, their versatility, and ability to be stored and eaten both raw and cooked can be considered [3]. Leafy greens are a popular backyard garden crop as they grow quickly and easily. While it is nice to have fresh greens to supplement dry stored foods, they provide very few calories as they contain mostly water. Instead of lettuces, it is better to choose leafy crops with higher nutrient contents, such as spinach and kale. It is also important to select plants with as many edible parts as possible. The leaves of many common vegetables are edible, although not commonly eaten. For example, the leaves of root crops such as carrots and beetroot can be eaten. All parts of the zucchini plant (leaves, flowers, and fruit) are edible.

Although many people are choosing not to eat animal products due to ethical and environmental reasons, animals can be a valuable addition to a survival garden. In the same space required to produce 1 kg of lentils, 10-15 chickens could be raised, giving daily protein and fats in the form of eggs, and occasionally some meat. Healthy oils are a very important part of our diet as they are extremely dense in calories and necessary for many metabolic processes, especially for the brain development of children. Like staple crops, plant-based oil crops have low yields. Some small amounts of nuts and seeds can be grown in backyard gardens to provide healthy omega oils, as well as proteins and complex carbohydrates.

The following list suggests excellent crop choices for a survival garden. While most of these crops will not be able to be grown in sufficient quantity in a typical family backyard to completely provide self-sufficiency, they cover most of the required macro- and micro-nutrients.


Moringa oleifera is often called the tree of life because it is rich in proteins, vitamins, and minerals. In particular, it has high levels of iron and calcium, which are hard to find in other plants that grow so quickly and have high yield. It also contains potassium, phosphorous, zinc, beta-carotene, magnesium, folate, and vitamins A, B, and C. All parts of the plant are edible. The leaves and bean pods can be cooked and eaten as a green vegetable. Vegetable oil can be extracted from the mature seeds, which can be used for cooking, as well as industrial applications in production of biofuels and pharmaceuticals. The seeds can also be used for water purification. Moringa is native to India, where it is used medicinally for its anti-fungal, anti-bacterial, and anti-microbial properties, as well as the treatment of anxiety, depression, and fatigue. Moringa grows quickly and easily from seed and is drought tolerant. It prefers a drier climate, but we have successfully grown it in the humid tropics. Although moringa can grow into a large tree, it can also be grown in pots and coppiced regularly when harvesting the leaves. Moringa is our first choice for a survival garden as it is highly nutritious and has a multitude of uses.

Staple starchy crops

Sweet potato and potato are both starchy vegetables that provide a high level of carbohydrates and calories and are excellent alternative staple crops to grains. Both grow easily in the ground or in containers, and can be stored for long periods of time in a root cellar. Potatoes prefer cooler weather, while sweet potato (which is not actually a member of the potato family) is a tropical plant. Both can be grown from “slips”, which are simply pieces of the root vegetable that are placed in the soil. Potatoes are rich in fibre, antioxidants, magnesium, vitamins B6 and C, copper, manganese, niacin, and phosphorus. Sweet potato is a rich source of beta-carotene (precursor to vitamin A) and resistant starches (which feed friendly gut bacteria). Unlike the potato, which is a member of the nightshade family and has poisonous leaves, the leaves of the sweet potato can be eaten. They are high in oxalic acid (an anti-nutrient), so they are best eaten cooked.

Vegetable crops

Tomatoes are a very popular vegetable due to their versatility, and can be canned or cooked into sauces for storage. All varieties contain nutrients such as vitamins C and K, antioxidants, folate, potassium and many other minerals. They are extremely easy to grow, even indoors or on a balcony, and can be harvested quickly. Spinach is one of the fastest growing crops, and can be harvested 4-6 weeks after planting from seed. Spinach contains folate, vitamins B6, B9, C, and K, iron, carotenoids, calcium, magnesium, and potassium. It is a good source of non-haem iron (when cooked to remove the anti-nutrients). Vegetables in the cabbage family (cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, kale etc.) prefer cooler climates and can be tricky to grow to maturity to achieve large full heads. However, they are worth growing just for the leaves and flower spikes. Such vegetables last well after harvesting. Cabbage is particularly easy to ferment as sauerkraut or kimchi for long-term storage. Fermenting makes the cabbage easier to digest, while providing beneficial probiotics. Such fermentation methods have been used for centuries to preserve vegetables and increase their nutritional value. Zucchini and other squashes grow very quickly, have high yield, and all parts of the plant are edible. While the fruits are mostly water and do not provide high levels of nutrition compared to other vegetables, they contain a variety of vitamins and minerals, and small amounts of fibre and protein.

Grain alternatives

Quinoa and amaranth are becoming known as superfoods and gluten-free grain alternatives. Both are actually seeds, rather than true grains. Although the yields of the seeds are low, they contain important nutrients. The leaves of the amaranth plant can also be eaten and contain vitamin A, C, and folate. Quinoa contains all nine essential amino acids, and is high in antioxidants, fibre, protein, iron, zinc, folate, calcium, vitamins E and B, copper, magnesium, potassium, and phosphorous.Potatoes are rich in fibre, antioxidants, magnesium, vitamins B6 and C, copper, manganese, niacin, and phosphorus. Sweet potato is a rich source of beta-carotene (precursor to vitamin A) and resistant starches (which feed friendly gut bacteria). Unlike the potato, which is a member of the nightshade family and has poisonous leaves, the leaves of the sweet potato can be eaten. They are high in oxalic acid (an anti-nutrient), so they are best eaten cooked.

Flavour and medicinal value

Onions and garlic require little space and provide important flavour and nutrition, as well as medicinal benefits. Both are easy to grow and can be grown indoors. The green shoots can be used continuously as the bulbs are growing. Ginger and turmeric grow easily indoors in pots and are attractive houseplants which yield aromatic roots to give flavour to dishes and provide medicinal value, including anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Ginger is known to aid digestion and is a common home remedy for congestion and flu. In addition, a variety of herbs can be easily grown indoors and outdoors in a small space. As well as providing flavour to dishes, they can be used for making teas and as home remedies for a variety of ailments. Peppers and chillies are high yielding and easy to grow. Peppers are rich in antioxidants, vitamin A, B6 and C, folate, potassium, and fibre, and can be eaten cooked or raw. As well as adding spice to dishes, chillies are a good home remedy for colds and flu and can be used as a natural anti-parasite medicine for animals, and as an organic pesticide [4].

Oil crops

In addition to moringa seed oil, healthy oils can be obtained from seeds and nuts. While the yield is generally low, small amounts of healthy oils can be provided by growing chia, sunflowers, and mustard seeds. Nuts, such as peanuts and sacha inchi, are also good survival plants as they quickly yield nuts (unlike tree nuts) and provide a rich source of calories, healthy fats, and nutrients.

Animal protein

Both chickens and rabbits can be raised in a backyard (if permitted by the local government) and are good sources of protein and fat. Rabbits are particularly easy to feed with kitchen scraps, grass, and other waste from the garden. The animal manure gives nutrients back to the garden.


David Norris · May 9, 2020 at 9:54 am

We’ve been doing a bit of gardening since things shut down, and this article was very helpful. We fortunately have a huge chayote vine in our yard, and we do a stirfry of fruit and shoots/young leaves a few times a week. My question is about moringa. Would it be useful for us to have just one tree for the family of 4, or would we need more to get much benefit? We’re in Uganda, and the growing season is pretty much year-round. · May 11, 2020 at 10:10 pm

    Moringa grows well in Uganda and would be a great crop for nutritious leafy greens. If growing mainly for the leaves, it can be left shrubby and pruned often to harvest the leaves. The trees can get very large (several metres high), and will produce abundant leaves and pods. It is very dense in nutrients, so a little goes a long way in terms of supplementing nutrition. The leaves cook down like spinach, so a decent bunch is needed for a stir fry. Frequent pruning encourages growth, so it loves the haircut.

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