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Month: April 2016

Growing calories

Growing calories

In addition to the vegetables, berries, and herbs, we’re growing some crops that have a wallop of calories. Hopefully we’ll be able to eat many full meals from the food we grow right here, without needing to get the main course from somewhere else. There is often an assumption that home gardens are for growing vegetables because it would take lots of space and machinery to grow what fills the belly. It is possible to grow 40 pounds of wheat on 1/40th of an acre, though. That would be a fairly significant portion of the flour a person needs for a year. If you have time to do it, even with fairly limited space, you can grow a lot of food. We are abundantly blessed to have a half an acre to work with.

There is also the fact that most staple crops are ridiculously cheap in the store. So why on earth would you take the time to do something like growing your own potatoes when you can buy fancy organic ones for $1 a pound? It does take time, and we are blessed to have the time. But like the space, it may take less then you’d think, and it is well worth it just because it feels good to work with your hands outdoors. There is so much more, though. If you have a family, and especially if you have kids, growing food is a fantastic thing to do together. There is immense spiritual benefit to, as a family, physically living out diligent stewardship, and seeing the literal fruit of your hard labors together, and yet being made very aware that all of it is completely subject to God’s provision.

For a while at least, we’ll still buy some potatoes and flour at the store. What we won’t buy at the store is anything that lets me and my family glimpse a bit of eternity together.

Back to practicalities. In terms of growing calories, there are a few considerations. I want them coming from a number of crops. I do not want failure of one thing to take out the whole food supply we were trying to grow. It is healthy to eat a diverse diet, too, so shooting for diversity attacks two birds with one stone.

Another consideration is ease of harvest and processing. Most of the calorie crops we are growing are straightforward to use. We will be growing some wheat and other grains, but that will come with a learning curve before we can harvest and process it in bulk. Right now, we’re just growing out seed stock, so we have a year or two to get set up for that.

Lastly, amount of replanting and soil disruption required. Currently our calorie crops are things that are either annuals, or perennials with underground food stores that require digging. This involves a lot of disturbance to the soil, and ongoing replantings. Over time we’ll bring in some tree crops to contribute so that we can have some areas of more permanent plantings that provide solid amounts of calories. Given that we are just establishing our garden, however, these will not being helping out for years.

What we are growing

We’re growing a lot of ordinary staples: beans and peas, pumpkins and squash, wheat, corn, potatoes, tomatoes, onions, carrots, beets, etc. At some point we’re going to have fruit and nut trees, but those aren’t in yet. Some of the not as common staples we are growing are…


Amaranth is a pseudograin originally cultivated by the Aztec civilization. It is a lot like quinoa. It grows like a weed, has edible greens, and produces up to a couple of pounds of high-protein yield on a single seedhead, and is much easier to harvest and process than things like wheat. And not only that, it is planted in the hot season here, so when a lot of other crops are tapering out this shoots up.

Garlic, leeks, and elephant garlic

Garlic, leeks, and elephant garlic are regarded more as flavorings than as calorie crops, but they actually have a pretty decent yield of calories per area cultivated. Obviously these are not eaten in huge quantities, but eaten in fairly normal quantities they could provide 2-3% of caloric intake. And what I’m trying to do is have diverse sources of calories, and if everything grown for calories produced 3% of what was necessary, I’d only need about 30 calorie crops. That doesn’t even account for the calories that do come from greens and other vegetables.

Elephant garlic gets a bum rap for being a weak knockoff of garlic. Another way of looking at it is a member of the alium family that is high-yielding, easy to harvest and process, and can be cooked up however you like. If onions can be a staple crop, so can these. What I’ve done is sliced the cloves and fried them with seasonings, and they go along well with the kinds of things you would eat with grilled onions.


Sunflower seeds are tasty, healthy, and fairly calorie dense. I scattered Mammoth Sunflower seeds over about an acre of a neighbor’s yard (with permission!), and will be completely neglecting them until harvest time. I got the seed from a friend who has been saving them for a few years and generally selecting for ability to grow well without being coddled, so hopefully we’ll get a good yield of food and also seeds that are incrementally better at growing without being coddled.


These are also called Jerusalem Artichokes, or Sunchokes, but I like the name Sunroots because that is closest to what this plant is: a sunflower with edible tubers. It grows like a weed, does not seem to have disease or pest pressure to speak of, and supposedly is good roasted with oil and salt. When I hear that something grows like a weed, what I take that to mean is that the plant is not going to need a lot of work or the best soils in order to thrive and produce. I like that. I’d rather do some extra chop-and-drop work because my crops are too vigorous than try to coax spindly things into not dying. And if such a weedy edible plant is good with salt and oil, it is especially welcome in my garden. Sadly, this does not make large, tasty seeds like other plants in the sunflower family, but I can forgive it that.

Twists on some ordinary crops

Twists on some ordinary crops

Tree collards, potato onions, perennial wheat, potatoes and garlic from seeds, and Douglas Fir, Cedar, and Western Hemlock all have a place in our food garden this year. These all are familiar, with a twist. We’ll be sharing seeds, starts, and cuttings if you want any. Just let me know, and when I have extras I’ll give them to you. By the end of this season we should have a lot of seeds, tubers, cuttings and more to share.

Alrighty, on to the details…

Perennial wheat


In some ways this is a very plain crop. Wheat is one of the most prominent staples in all of human history. The twist is that it is perennial, not annual. We will plant it, and the plants that survive the first year will form clumps and keep coming back year after year after year. The reason we’re growing this is because first, I want to grow at least a little bit of all the foods we eat. There are many reasons for growing the perennial strain. Perennials have deeper and longer-lived roots than annuals. This helps build a more permanent, complex soil and lets the crops access nutrients and water that are deeper down. They should be a more stable crop through difficult years, especially through dry summers.

The perennial in the below picture isn’t the same as what I’m growing, but hopefully the result will be similar:

Compare the huge roots of the perennial to the tiny ones of the annual.
Compare the huge roots of the perennial to the tiny ones of the annual. Photo by Dehaan – Jerry Glover, CC BY 3.0 [source]
Also, it saves the work of having to replant every year, and means we don’t need to reserve as much of the crop for seed. And leaving the straw standing will provide for nice beetle banks throughout the garden to help keep slugs and other pests from eating the vegetables.

I got this from Caleb Warnock’s Renaissance Seeds.

Potatoes and garlic from seed



Potatoes and garlic are almost always propagated clonally. You plant a clove of garlic, or a chunk of a potato that has a few eyes on it. This is convenient because the crop turns out genetically identical to the planting material, so you know exactly what you will get. Where this is not so great is that you have no genetic diversity. If conditions change, or pests come along, your entire crop can easily be wiped out. Also, just like with annual wheat, you have to reserve a significant fraction of your yield for planting the next year.

The twist here is that garlic and potatoes can be grown from seeds formed from flowes. If we have seeds, we can eat the whole crop if we want to (although we probably will still leave some in the ground for the next year). The genetic diversity and crossings over will help them adapt to our location. And in a sense, every seed I plant of garlic and potato will be a variety never before grown. It’ll be fun to dig them up and see what grew.

I got these from Joseph Lofthouse.

Tree collards


We like collard greens at our house, and the twist here is growing them as a perennial tree, rather than an annual plant. Or at least if not a tree, hopefully a roughly 6-12 foot tall shrub. This should produce a lot of greens with a small footprint, and will probably be harvestable year round in our climate. We’ll see!

It doesn’t often produce seed, and from what I gather the seed either doesn’t come true or is infertile, so it is propagated by cuttings. If I can ever get mine to flower I’ll see what I can do about breeding some out. That’s a project for the future…

I got these from a seller on eBay. Just search for “tree collards”, there are a number of options.

Potato onions

These were a variety of onion popular with homesteaders of old, but are less convenient for machine harvesting so they fell out of common use with the industrialization of onion fields. They are onions, with the twist that they divide like garlic. This means that instead of needing to go through a biennial cycle to get seeds, and then trying to get starts from seeds, you can simply leave part of the harvest in the ground as seed for the next year. Yet they do grow readily from seed, so that can also be done to keep adaptation moving forward.

This may seem a bit at odds with what I said about growing garlic and potatoes from seed. One difference is that these are easily and regularly grown from seed, so they are not a mono-clonal population to begin with. Maybe the more important and fundamental difference, though, is opening up options. If I can grow things from seed, or clonally, then I can do both. I can keep the genetic diversity high, and adaptation moving forward, and also have underground roots, tubers, and bulbs ready to spring out.

I also got these from Caleb Warnock: potato onions.

Hemlock, red cedar and Douglas fir

The twist here is regarding these as foodcrops, rather than lumber.

It’s cheating a little bit to include these as foodcrops – but only a little. We’ve got a few of these trees on our property, and they provide a lot of benefit. They provide habitat, fresh air, and shade for cool summer breezes. They also hog a lot of sunlight, and perform a lot of photosynthesis whose products get locked up in cellulose. Bah.


But here’s one weird old trick for eating cellulose: feed it to mushrooms. Conifers are the preferred food for different kinds of tasty mushrooms, and when these trees are ready to shuffle off their mortal coil, we’ll simply inoculate their stumps and maybe some of their branches, and enjoy the product of all that sunshine they kept from the vegetables. Probably fried with garlic.

It may seem strange to think of eating our trees. But that is more or less what we do when we eat mushrooms. And if that is the case, it isn’t too far off to look at them, and consider them a crop. It is a humbling privilege to be stewarding a crop in our garden that has been there for decades already, and won’t be ready for harvest for decades or a century yet. And besides, this gives me a good answer when my kids point at a tree and ask if we can eat it.

I got these when we got our place…

Last week I mentioned a talk by Larry Korn that I was planning to attend. I did indeed go, and it was fantastic. I’ll have the notes for that in an upcoming post.

Feral anchoring

Feral anchoring

I want to grow plants that are the best of all worlds. Delicious and high yield and beautiful, and drought tolerant and pest resistant. As I mentioned a couple posts ago writing about resilient crops, there are often tradeoffs for crops between attractiveness as food for people and degree of scrappiness and resilience.

Quick review — if it is juicy and delicious for people, it will be for pests, too. And if it’s juicy and delicious, and quickly grows lush and huge, it’ll wilt up at the first sign of drought. Best bet for something tasty? Grown in a greenhouse, watered every day. Best bet for tough? Something leathery and bitter that doesn’t care about a month without water. So there is a balance to be found between wildness and domesticity, and balances take wisdom.

I take a lot of inspiration from Masanobu Fukuoka. One thing he emphasized was letting nature make decisions as much as possible. The ability of organisms and ecosystems to find balance is far above what our ability to intellectually find balance ever could be.

My application of that idea here is to have nature find the balance between resilience and my desires for tastiness, yield, ease of harvest, etc. In my garden, I’ll do some breeding and selection for those conventionally sought things. And I’ll have patches of land where I simply scatter seed and neglect it henceforth, and what grows, grows. Periodically – maybe every year, maybe every five years, I’ll plant some of the feral seeds in my garden, and scatter some garden seeds in the feral patch, and let them all crosspollinate and compromise.

The two patches won’t ever agree with each other all the way. There will always be a tension. But over enough time, the garden plants will be as tough as possible given the traits I want to see in them, and they will have high genetic diversity. And the feral patch will have as much of the traits I want as is possible for to have while growing wild.

It’s basically a system of checks and balances. It’s not perfect, but it’ll fundamentally anchor my domesticated plants in some kind of external reality, and give them high genetic diversity so they can adapt quickly to changing conditions. This “feral anchoring”.

This week I’m planning to attend a talk by Larry Korn, a student of Masanobu Fukuoka, so next week’s post will probably be thoughts on his ideas of Natural Farming