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  • Growing for Food Security with Limited Space

    July 03, 2023 13 min read 0 Comments

    Growing Pea Shoots

    When you have a limited amount of space to work with, it is best to focus on the crops that can have the biggest impact when paired with easy to store pantry staples. Quick growing plants with multiple edible parts are also great to grow in small spaces. Things like beets, turnips and potatoes can be harvested multiple times as they grow. Herbs, green onions and radishes pack a lot of flavor in a compact package. 

    A small space may not be able to provide you with all of the calories you need but it can certainly help make those calories taste far better. All of the plants we have included below can either do double duty being eaten as both early greens and in their mature state or provide a lot of extra flavor with limited input. 

    There are also the nutritional components to consider. So many of the best foods to keep on hand for possible food shortage are great for providing protein and carbohydrates. Things like dried beans, rice, whole grains, and dried or canned meats store well but they can’t provide all of the vital nutrients that you need to be at your best. Vitamin C, potassium, iron, folate and vitamin A are all vital nutrients that vegetables and fruits provide. 


    Consider growing microgreens.

    We have many articles available in our resources on growing microgreens. If you are looking to grow quickly and in very limited space they should be your first consideration. When you are ready to move beyond microgreens all of the plants below are great choices to start with. If you have particularly limited space, as in an apartment, you may want to check out our article on growing microgreens in 1010 trays

    Where to Grow Your Plants When Space is at a Premium

    You can grow in just about any container that you can find. Window boxes, five gallon buckets and decorative pots can all be used to grow food. Mixing herbs in with your flowers is a great way to get started. Turning over the sod in your lawn can also turn any front yard into a gardening space. 

    If you want to grow on a deck or patio, grow bags can be a great way to get started. They allow you to move plants around as you learn about the shade and sun patterns in your space, you can even bring your plants indoors if frost threatens. For more on starting a grow bag garden check out How to Plant a Grilling GardenFor an easy and cost effective way to fill your grow bags check out this article on Growing Blueberries in Grow Bags for an easy recipe and instructions for filling bags.

    Be ready to grow: have seeds on hand for times of need.

    While it is a great idea to have a few packets of seeds on hand, keep in mind that their ability to germinate and grow declines significantly after a year or two. Storing them in a cool, dry and dark space will help them stay viable for longer. Almost all of the plants listed below will stay good for at least two years when stored properly. 

    In a pinch you can grow seeds from the grocery stores dried food stocks. Only dried beans and peas can be planted. Split peas or split lentils will not germinate as the plant needs both halves to develop properly. Germination may be spotty depending on the age of the seeds so plant extra just in case. 


    Growing beyond the seed

    Some plants can also be grown directly from produce you already have in the house. Potatoes can be grown from existing tubers by planting chunks that have at least two eyes each. In this way a single potato can be grown into additional pounds of food.

    Green onions, and their onion and leek relatives, can be regrown by planting the cut off root ends back into soil or even in a glass of water. Leave enough of the root end on the cut off tops of your beets or turnips and you can replant these as well. While they may not grow another edible root you will be able to harvest the greens for fresh eating. 

    Plants that you can grow augment your stored goods. 

    These plants are all great for growing in small spaces. Most are recommended for growing during food scarcity because they produce relatively quickly and many have edible greens that can be harvested selectively while you wait for them to reach maturity. 

    If you know how to grow, get started with some or all of the plants below. Practice now, before you need them, know these plants and how they grow. If you are new to growing these crops read on under the list for a little help getting started. 

    Top 10 crops to grow in a food shortage

    • Herbs — add lots of flavor in small quantities, have health benefits due to high levels of phenolic compounds and attract beneficial insects to help protect your plants. Many herbs can be perennial in mild climates or moved indoors over winter. Keep these growing to add flavor to what can otherwise become bland and repetitive staple food. 
    • Amaranth — grows like a weed, good for green leaves which can be eaten like spinach and for the edible seeds
    • Beans — green beans during the growing seasons, for winter purposes fava beans can grow in much colder weather than other beans (the young leaves are also edible).  
    • Beets — high in sugars and minerals, edible roots and greens 
    • Green Onions — fast growing and full of flavor
    • Kale — high in minerals, easy to grow and nutritious  
    • Peas — vining crop that saves space by growing up instead of out, edible pods, leaves and tendrils
    • Potatoes — a pantry staple that contains high levels of protein for a plant as well as potassium and other nutrients
    • Radishes — fast growing and great for adding spice and crunch, radishes are also a great source of trace minerals and vitamins.  
    • Turnips — another nutritious cool-weather crop, edible roots and greens

    Bonus crop in warm weather:

    • Cherry tomatoes — high in vitamin C and folate
      • They have to be planted early so they can ripen in the heat of summer but if kept well picked they can keep producing up till the first frost. If you find yourself with more than you can eat, dry some to add flavor to winter meals.  

    Growing Herbs to Liven up Your Meals of Dried Goods

    Our top five herbs to have on hand whether kept growing year round or dried to get you through snowy suppers are:

    Basil — An easy and prolific warm weather herb. There are many delicious types of basil from the common genovese to the holy Tulsi basil of India. All of them have their own unique growth habits and flavor profiles. 

    Oregano — This hardy herb adds great flavor fresh or dried. Oregano is hard in zones 4-9 and will regrow from its root in the spring if you remove dead wood in the late fall. The seeds need light to germinate so start them inside where you can keep them moist. Transplant outside when the plants have at least four true leaves. 

    Rosemary — Depending on where you live, rosemary can grow year round. It is tricky to start from seed but easy to propagate from cuttings. Buy a small plant and bring it indoors if you live in zone 5 or below. In zones 6-10 it can stay outdoors and often flowers in the late winter. 

    Cilantro — Despite its popularity in warm climate cuisine, cilantro prefers cooler temperatures to grow. It can be planted in the early spring through late summer for fall harvests, in warmer regions it will grow through the winter. In the heat of summer cilantro will bolt (go to seed) quickly. Cilantro can be harvested at any stage, the leaves, flowers and green seeds are all delicious. Allowed to dry on the plant the mature brown seeds are known as coriander. 

    Parsley — Ubiquitous in many dishes, parsley is a pantry staple. The plants can get quite large and all parts of the plant including roots are edible. It is very hardy and will overwinter in most areas. As a biennial plant, it will produce flowers and seeds in its second year of growth. The seeds can also be used to flavor cooked foods.  


    How to grow for food security

    Start with the best soil you have access to. In many cases existing pots and flower beds can be converted easily to food growing by cutting any plants you want to remove off their roots an inch or so below the surface of the soil. Leaving the roots in place will help enrich the soil and reduce soil loss.

    Depending on the seasons and the plants you can direct sow your seeds outdoors. Although for security and ease of controlling the environment we recommend starting your seeds indoors. Most seedlings appreciate the same growing conditions as you, 65-75 degrees with minimal humidity and consistent moisture. 

    Just about any container can be used to start seeds in a pinch, from cardboard rolls to red plastic cups. For ease of watering, caring for your seedlings and planting out we recommend using something like our 32-cell trays with reusable pots. For total control over your growing environment having one of our small-batch seed starting kits on hand will allow you to start seeds in any season. 


    Growing Amaranth

    Outdoors, amaranth can be surface sown two weeks after your last frost date. Keep moist until germination occurs. For smaller types and greens harvests thin to one very 6”-12”. Don’t get rid of the thinnings; they make delicious microgreens all on their own. If you plan to grow for the edible grains, give each plant about two feet each. 

    Amaranth can be grown as a smaller green indoors and then planted out once all danger of frost has passed. Follow the spacing suggestions above when transplanting out. To learn about hardening off seedlings and transplanting check out the rest of our seed starting blog over here.


    Growing Beans

    Beans are actually a large family of related plants. Common beans are easy to grow and if kept well picked will produce all season long.  

    Green Beans

    For small areas grow pole beans and make use of vertical space. The vinging types of green (or purple or yellow) beans can grow easily over 10 feet. They grow so quickly that they can be equally successfully planted outdoors or started indoors. Soak the seeds for 4-6 hours before planting for better germination rates and faster growth.  

    Put in your climbing structure at the same time that you plant, they will climb faster than you can imagine. A simple upside down tomato cage can work or plant your beans alongside a railing and let them climb that. 

    Fava Beans

    Unlike the rest of the bean family, favas can overwinter successfully down to zone 6. They do well planted in the fall and can overwinter in areas with temperatures down to 15℉. They can also be planted very early in the Spring. For this reason and for their ability to fix nitrogen in the soil, favas are often planted as an overwinter cover crop. 

    Fava beans harvested for fresh eating will need to be removed from their pod and peeled. For dry beans, allow the pods to dry on the plant before harvesting. 



    Growing Beets

    Beets and swiss chard are actually two types of the exact same plant. One grown for its large sweet roots and the other for its prolific leaves. Both are excellent providers of minerals and vitamins. Beets can also be used as a sweetener when sugar is scarce. 

    They are a great crop to grow because the roots mature quickly (50 days) and you can eat the greens while you wait. Just be sure to leave enough leaves on the plant that it can continue photosynthesis to feed the growing root. 

    Start beets when daytime temperatures are between 55-90℉. Sow the seeds in loose soil that is at least 8 inches deep and cover with ⅓ of an inch of soil. Once they are 3-6 inches tall, thin the plants to one every 4 inches. All of the plants you pull for thinning can be eaten fresh. 

    Beets grow in most weather and can even tolerate frosts. For continued harvest plant every few weeks.  Beets can be harvested when small or allowed to reach full size. Baby greens can be eaten fresh and mature greens are great sauteed or added to soups. 

    green onion

    Growing Green Onions

    Green onions are a humble gift that just keeps giving.  Nearly all parts of the green onion, often called scallions, are edible including the flower buds. They grow quickly, can be eaten at any stage, add tons of flavor to dishes raw or cooked, and green onions will regrow from their own roots. In my garden there is a patch of green onions that has been growing for over 3 years now.  

    Green onions can be started anytime from early Spring through late Summer and will last through the winter in well drained soil. Seeds should be sown ¼ inch apart and ¼ inch deep. Green onions do not bulb up like traditional storage onions but you can extend the strongly flavored white portion of the root by hilling soil up around the base as they grow. 

    When you harvest you can pull up the entire plant or cut it at the soil level and leave the roots to regrow another time for you. If you do pull the entire root system up you can cut it off of the edible portion and place the roots in a shallow bowl of water to resprout and replant.


    Growing Kale

    Kale can be grown from early spring through late fall and will even continue to grow year-round in areas with mild winters. It can be planted close together for baby greens or 12” apart for full sized plants. Plant 3 seeds per hole ½” deep and keep moist until germination occurs. 

    Continuous harvest of side leaves are possible as long as you allow the center of the plant to continue growing. Once it starts to flower the leaves will become more bitter but are still edible. The flowers are also tasty sprinkled fresh on salads and pasta dishes. 


    Growing Peas

    Peas grow in the early spring and late fall. They can be planted outside 4-6 weeks before your last frost, making them one of the earliest crops planted out. Peas don’t like the heat of summer and will die back making room for heat loving crops. In areas where summers are milder they can be planted again around 2-3 months before your first fall frost. 

    Plant peas directly in the garden as they don’t like to be transplanted. Plant seeds 1 inch deep and put in a climbing structure for them at planting time as they will begin to climb early on. They will start to produce quickly but need to be kept picked to keep producing. The pods, peas, flowers and baby leaves/tendrils are all edible. Young leaves can be added to salads and eaten fresh. Older tips and tendrils are great stir-fried with garlic.


    Growing Potatoes

    Potatoes take time to develop but we have included them here because they are one of the best foods to keep you going. Potatoes contain one of the highest protein contents outside of meats and nuts, they are high in carbohydrates for energy, and rich with vitamins and minerals. They are grown by cloning existing potatoes and planting them is a great way to make use of store bought ones that have begun to turn green or are sprouting in your pantry.  

    Cut your “seed” potatoes into 1-1 ½ inch pieces with at least one eye per piece. Plant them 2”-3” deep in a pot with 6”-8” of soil. Using a pot that is at least 18” tall will allow you to hill up the plants as they grow. After about 6-8 weeks, when your plants are around 8 inches tall, add around 4 inches of soil to the pot. Repeat this process as they grow until you have filled the pot. Each time you bury the growing stem more roots will emerge from the stem and more potatoes will be produced by these new roots. 

    New or baby potatoes can be harvested 7-8 weeks after planting by carefully digging into the soil and harvesting a few at a time. When foliage has begun to die back, stop watering and leave the main crop on the ground for another 2 weeks to “set the skins.” To harvest from pots or grow bags, dump the entire pot onto a tarp or sheet so you can save the soil. Brush soil from the tubers and allow the skins to dry completely before storing. Wash just before cooking. 


    Growing Radishes

    There are actually two types of radishes, small salad types like french breakfast or white icicle and giant winter types like daikon and Spanish types. Salad radishes are one of the fastest maturing crops you can grow, being ready in as little as 3-4 weeks. For both types plant them about ½ inch deep. Salad types can be planted or thinned to 1 inch apart larger fall harvest types like daikons should be given 3”-4” of space as they can grow quite large.  

    Although not common in the US, eating radish greens is also possible. They are spiky though so be sure to cook them first, either by sauteing or adding them to soups. Radishes are also great for planting amongst other crops as they deter pests. 

    Salad types are typically eaten fresh. The longer growing types can be stir-fried, cooked like turnips or pickled for storage. 


    Growing Turnips

    Turnips have a growing habit very similar to radishes although they do tend to prefer cooler weather. They also sport edible roots and greens that can be cooked into many dishes. Plant seed ½ inch deep and 1”-2” apart. Once plants are growing well thin to 3”-4” apart. These thinnings are a great addition to midseason meals. 

    There are two types of turnips, the traditional purple topped cooking type and the Asian salad types that can be eaten fresh or cooked. Turnips are extremely versatile in the kitchen; they are a fantastic mashed like potatoes, the greens can be lightly wilted or cooked similar to collard greens. Salad types can be cooked or eaten fresh and are more mild than the longer growing cooking type or radishes. 


    Growing Cherry Tomatoes

    Cherry tomatoes started indoors in the early spring will produce earlier and longer. We have an entire article on How to Grow Tomatoes from Seed for more information but the basics are simple. Start your seeds indoors as early as 8-12 weeks before your last frost. Put 2 seeds per cell or pot about a ¼ inch deep in good potting soil. Tomatoes like warmer temperatures to germinate, 75-80℉ is ideal. If you don’t have access to a heat mat you can start seeds on top of your fridge where the temps are often about 10℉ higher than room temps. 

    Once your seeds have sprouted, snip back the weaker of the two and pot up to larger pots as needed until outdoor temperatures are staying well above freezing every night. Plant out in the warmest, sunniest spot you can find. Provide growing support like a trellis or tomato cage. Pick your tomatoes as soon as they are ripe and keep picked to keep them producing. 

    Tomatoes are more susceptible than most of the above crops to nutrient deficiencies. Provide them with the best soil you can and plan on supplemental feeding with a nutrient solution that includes calcium once a month or so to prevent blossom end rot.   

    Start Growing Now for Food Security

    It is often said that the best time to plant a tree is 10 years ago and the second best time is now. Growing for food security follows the same line. The best time to start is before you need it, at the least have the supplies on hand so you can be ready to start growing. Most seeds will stay viable for a few years if stored in a cool, dry, and dark place. 

    Herbs in particular are a great place to start even if you have never grown before. Whether you start with little pots, window boxes or one little garden bed, at least you know you will have flavor when you need it.