Garden planning: calories vs. nutrients vs. herbs

VermontCathy Posts: 1,980 ✭✭✭✭✭

As I plan my garden each year, I find myself having to balance different food needs against each other for my limited gardening space.

On the one hand, we all need a certain amount of calories each day to survive. It's surprisingly difficult to get a lot of calories in a small space with a reasonable amount of work. Corn takes a lot of space, wheat takes a lot of work, salad greens have very few calories. Dried beans or shelly beans only produce one crop a year, so again not a lot of calories per square foot.

I find potatoes to be the best bet for producing calories, just like the Irish did. If you live in a hot climate, sweet potatoes would be a good addition, but they are hard to grow in cool climates because they need soil that is very, very warm.

Nuts would also be a good choice for calories, but getting them going seems to be time-consuming. They are more of a long-term perennial investment rather than an annual, so I haven't tackled them yet. Ground nuts would probably be the way for me to go. Some of you probably having hazelnuts or walnuts growing nearly wild, and if so, use them!

We also need nutrients and fiber. There is a wide range of salad greens that can be grown much of the growing season, including lettuce, spinach, chard, mustard, bok choy, mizuna, mibuna, mache, claytonia, and others. They are tasty and healthy, but have few calories, so they have to be balanced against something like potatoes. They are all cool-weather tolerant, and many will bolt in the heat. I haven't found a way to preserve them into winter that I like, so instead of freezing or drying them, I grow a few greens in pots under lights all winter.

Legumes are very productive. Growing pole peas (Tall Telephone, also known as Alderman) and pole beans (many available; I find Fortex among the best if you can get the seeds) can produce quite a bit of food per square foot. The beans are especially productive because their season is longer and as long as they are kept picked, they will keep producing.

Tomatoes are delicious, but actually have little food value. They are a good source of vitamin B, but not of calories. Still, I plan to grow more because we really like tomato sauce.

Herbs make your diet more interesting and can also help you maintain health, but if they are competing for space with your main calorie producers, you have to think about the balance. Some herbs, such as mint, will happily grow in the shade and so could be planted where your food plants wouldn't produce.

How do you balance the needs of a healthy diet against the space you have available and the foods that you want to eat?