Published on May 18, 2020. Updated on September 7, 2023

As we steward into uncertain times, we begin to ask questions about our survival – especially about food. Will there always be food on the shelves for our family?

With all the news circulating of farmers having to destroy their crops brings up a stark reminder that we have become too dependent on the factory food system to feed us.

Luckily, we still have time to start a survival garden and provide ourselves sustenance.

Once you start shopping around for seeds or plants to grow, you may start to feel a bit overwhelmed about what sort of plants you should grow. There are tons of varieties of plants within each species, after all!

And that is exactly why I wrote this article, to help you navigate the best food choices for your survival garden and why.

In this article, I give you the information you need to choose the appropriate produce to start growing immediately for a multitude of different benefits.   

Before we get into the meat of this article, I would like to discuss heirloom seeds.

If you are interested in saving your seeds to keep growing for years to come, you will need to purchase heirloom plants and seeds.

Heirloom plants are open pollinated and will produce highly similar fruits and veggies to the parent plant. Heirloom means that the plant has been only pollinated within its variety and not with other plants.

Hybrid plants are plants that have been cross pollinated with other plants. For example, a cherry tomato could cross over with a beefsteak tomato, which would produce a tomato with both characteristics of each parent.

These hybrid plants will not make viable seeds and are likely to be sterile. Therefore, you cannot seed save from a hybrid.

In the name of survival, I always recommend purchasing heirloom seeds and seedlings for your garden.

The variable factors of planning a survival garden

There is no one size fits all for gardening! You have to consider a multitude of situations in normal circumstances, let alone in a survival situation! I have broken down what I feel are the largest factors that will influence your decision making when it comes to planting survival crops.

How much space do you have to garden?

Many of us fantasize about living on a sprawling ranch in the middle of the countryside – for most of us, that is not the case. Shoot! We live in an RV and travel! So our availability to garden can change every season. Luckily, we have landed at an RV park that has allowed us to place a garden – even though it is small, 25 foot by 25 foot, we have planned it to be as effecient as possible.

I assume people have less space than more to garden with. I suggest if you have a lawn or are planting flowers to stop and plant food.

If you have a smaller space to work with, you will want to choose plants that can grow produce in abundance and can grow vertically, or even be hung from a planter. You can check out my guide to vertical farming which works well for small and even indoor spaces.

small raised bed for small space gardening

How quickly will the crop produce food?

In a normal gardening situation, we don’t feel the urgency to harvest our crops. But in a survival gardening situation, each day waiting for fresh produce feels like an eternity!

Choosing produce that grows fast is an essential factor.

You may also have a shorter growing season and need your garden to fruit within a limited window. All reasons to choose fast growers over longer growers.

How long of a shelf life does the produce have?

Certain things are much hardier for storing over time which make for better survival garden choices. A potato can last for months if properly cured, whereas a strawberry has a shelf life of less than a week.

Other plants, like beans, can be dried and stored for years. Some produce, like tomatoes, can really well.

lots of homemade canned vegetables in jars

What is the calorie density of the food?

Calorie dense produce is a crucial factor in deciding what to grow. In a survival situation, you need more bang for your buck and a piece of celery which is only a handful of calories isn’t going to cut the non-existent cake.

Opt for high starch items such as potatoes and carrots. High protein items such as legumes are also a high calorie choice.

What is the nutritional value of the food?

Calorie density is important, but it is also important to consume a variety of produce in order to get the vitamins and minerals you need.

Eating vibrantly colored fruits and veggies of every color in the rainbow is a good way to ascertain that you are getting the vitamins and nutrients you need.

You can choose certain produce which provides both calories and nutrients, like a sweet potato over a regular potato.

What about your geographical location?

Let’s face it: many foods will not grow in all areas. Melons and sweet corn do much better in the south where the heat and sun makes them sweet, whereas peas and spinach prefer cooler climates and soil.

You want to have the most successful garden you can for your area, so don’t try to grow something that will have a higher chance of failure – a failure you cannot afford to have in uncertain times.

Gardening in the winter for vegetables
Winter gardening has its own set of challenges!

The Best Foods to Grow for Survival

I have broken down several types of produce into the factors as listed above, so you can design your survival garden for your unique situation. You may choose to grow faster, more abundant growers over calorie dense foods.

Let’s get cracking!

Highest Calorie Garden Crops

The most fundamental need from food is calories. You will want to concentrate heavily on which crops will provide you the most calories along with nutrients. Choose at least a few from this section for nutritional variation.

All of the nutritional values stated in this article are directly from the USDA Food Data website.

stack of red and russet potatoes

The potato – Potatoes have gotten somewhat of a bad rap in the past years, but I feel the exact OPPOSITE about potatoes! These are nutrition powerhouses that provide not only a whopping 116 calories per cup, but they also pack in over 600 mg of potassium (20% DV), 50% of your vitamin C intake, 20% of your vitamin B intake, and has valuable minerals and fiber.

Potatoes are also easy and prolific to grow.

stack of sweet potatoes

Sweet potatoes – at 114 calories per cup, sweet potatoes will fill you up along with over 300% vitamin A, 448 mg of potassium, many minerals, and 4 grams of fiber.

Sweet potatoes are also super tasty and can be served sweetened or saltened.

different types of legumes

Legumes – Beans such as pinto, kidney, black, navy, etc. pack a bunch of protein, averadging about 15-20 grams of protein per cup.

Beans also offer up huge amounts of fiber, lots of vitamins and minerals, and around 300 calories per cup!

stack of corn on the cob

Corn – good old sweet corn has a whole lot of starchy calories (132 calories per cup) and can be ground into corn meal, giving you a lot of baking and cooking options. Corn also is a decent source of minerals and fiber.

bunches of carrots

Carrots – Although they are not as high in calories as the other crops mentioned, carrots come in with 45 calories per cup which is much higher than other produce. Carrots also offer up a whole lot of nutrients and are easy to store.

loads of winter squashes

Winter Squashes – squashes like butternut, acorn, and pumpkin all have higher caloric rates (around 60 calories per cup) and are loaded with potassium and minerals. They are hardy to grow and provide lots of fruits per each plant.

stack of parsnips

Parsnips – although these are not as well known as other crops on this list, parsnips are a carrot like cream colored vegetable that comes in at 100 calories per cup.

The typical way to prepare a parsnip is to dice and roast them and they become sweeter after the first frost.

Highest Yielding Garden Crops

Veggies in this category produce a bunch of food and keep on producing throughout their growing cycle. This is a good option if you can only manage to plant a few crops. Note that these are not the highest calorie available produce, so you will need to supplement with other food sources or choose from above options.

tomatoes growing on the vine at different ripeness

Tomatoes – the average yield of a tomato plant is around 8 lbs, but you can get as high as 20 lbs if you trellis your tomato plant! That is a whole lot of tomatoes! Tomatoes are easy to preserve as well.

lettuces growing in the ground

Lettuce and greens – lettuces such as romaine, buttercrunch, and leaf lettuces will keep putting on new leaves throughout its growing season. By the time you end up harvesting and eating the ripe large leaves, there will be tender new leaves to harvest in a week’s time.

bundle of string green beans

Green beans – bush and pole green beans provides bounties of beans throughout the season and are quick to grow. You will find yourself picking ripe green beans daily!

blackberries growing on the bush

Blackberries – these delicious berries grow rampant all over the country and can produce 10 to 20 pounds of berries per plant!

Blackberries are also highly nutritious and are known as a superfood.

various types of summer squashes

Summer squashes – squashes like zucchini, crookneck summer, and cucumbers, all produce a bounty of food from one plant. This can range anywhere from 5 to 25 pounds of squashes, depending on how successful your garden is for the year.

Produce with the Longest Shelf Life

You will want your produce to last long after harvesting for as long as possible. Things like strawberries and peaches only have a few days of shelf life, which is fine if you are ready to eat them, but you will want to focus a lot on produce that you can store for possibly months – even better if you can store them without refridgeration.

stack of red and russet potatoes

Potato varieties – any type of potato (sweet, russet, golden, etc.) can be easily cured to last for literally months on the shelf! Place harvested potatoes in a cool, humid place (45-60 degrees in 80-90% humidity) for two weeks. This hardens the skin and if stored in a cool temp, potatoes can last for 6 to 8 months!

head of cabbage growing

Cabbage – any type of cabbage can last for up to two months if stored in a cool climate like your refridgerator, keep your cabbage staying fresh by not letting it get bruised up or wet.

cloves of garlic

Garlic – although you may not think of garlic as a survival food, it has a very long shelf life (up to six months if stored in a dark dry place) and has a ton of medicinal values along with adding some flavors to your food. I love to grow garlic! They don’t take up much space, repels insects from plants, and is good for your ticker and blood.

broccoli and cauliflower florets

Broccoli and cauliflower – it is noticeable that these two veggies tend to outlive others in the refridgerator! Although they may get a bit wilted, I have eaten both broccoli and cauliflower a month after I bought them and they tasted good. Covering the produce with a damp paper towel helps them stay hydrated and crisp.

growing kale

Kale – for a leafy green veggie, kale can last for a couple of weeks in the fridge as long as you keep them dry. Although you will want to add some hydration to the leaves by covering them with a damp paper towel, this will keep the leaves more fresh.

different kinds of winter squashes

Winter squashes – these squashes can last for several months, usually up to three, and can be stored right on the shelf – no refridgeration needed. The flavors of the squash can change with age, however.

a stack of carrots

Carrots – carrots that unpeeled and fresh will last for a month or longer when stored in the refridgerator.

Fastest growing garden crops

If you are in a serious survival situation and have a place to grow food, you want to add in some fast growing crops while waiting for your other produce to ripen.

Radishes – some species of radish, like the icicle radish, can be harvested within 30 days of planting, and possibly as soon as 21 days! They may not provide a whole lot of sustenance but can help curb the appetite and are yummy on foraged greens.

Lettuces – most varieties can be harvested in 45 – 55 days and you can keep harvesting leaves once a week as they keep on growing.

Peas – sweet peas are usually ready in about 60 – 70 days. Do note that peas prefer cooler weather so plan to harvest your peas before the warm weather hits.

Bush beans – beans are ready to harvest within 50 – 55 days. Make sure to harvest them at their peak as if you wait too long the beans will become tough and stringy. Harvesting at the correct time also promotes season long flowering.

kale growing

Kale – kale is ready from seed between 70 – 80 days and will keep on producing more food like lettuces do throughout the season. You can also take leaves a little sooner if you need to.

bunch of harvested turnips

Turnip – turnips are very fast growers and can be harvested from 30 – 60 days. Although turnips are not so well known in the USA, turnips can be cooked just like a potato and have a crisp sweet taste if harvested younger.

mix of summer squashes

Summer squashes – these fruits can be harvested within 60 days and can really be eaten at any point of the growing cycle. You can also eat the flowers too, they are good deep fried.

Food that grows good in small spaces

When you don’t have a lot of room, you need to get as much output as possible in a small space. Luckily, many veggies grow well in small spaces, and even in containers, or in a vertical garden!

tomatoes ripening on the vine

Tomatoes – they grow well in a container, can be grown from a hanging planter, and do well grown vertically.

leafy green lettuces still growing

Lettuce, chard, kale – leafy greens have a small root structure and can be grown easily in containers and even do well in vertical pocket systems.

pole beans growing up a trellis

Pole beans – these types of beans need support from a structure, which makes them great for planting in a small space. They will climb up a trellis or pole quite nicely.

mix of colorful peppers

Peppers – these nice compact plants usually have one stem and grow straight up. One plant will produce many peppers all through out summer.

a stack of carrots

Carrots – carrots do well in a slim row and have a tall profile which doesn’t grow wide, making it a good contender for a small gardening space.

stack of potatoes

Potatoes – although it would seem that potatoes would take up quite a bit of space, you can actually get quite a harvest from just one plant in a small space, even when grown in a bucket or sack!

eggplant growing on vine

Eggplant – these purple beauties grow nice and neat off of a small plant that provides quite large fruits. You can easily grow them year around in a container.

The 6 Best Overall Crops to Plant in Your Survival Garden

The ones I have chosen as the overall winners for your survival span at least two or more categories as noted above.

#1: The potato variety – potatoes are high in calories and nutrients, have an extremely long shelf life, and can grow an abundance in small spaces.

stack of potatoes

#2: the beans variety – high in calories, proteins, grow very quickly, can harvest all season and grow in small spaces.

different varieties of beans

#3: carrots – carrots can be harvested quickly as baby carrots, don’t take up much space to grow, are high in calories, and have a long shelf life.

a stack of carrots

#4: leafy greens – Kale, lettuces, and chard grow quickly, proliferate all season long, can be grown in small areas and containers, and offer lots of vitamins and minerals.

leafy green kale still growing

#5: tomatoes – you get tons of fruits off of one plant, preserve and dehydrate easily, has a bunch of vitamins and minerals, and grows in small spaces nicely.

tomatoes ripening on the vine

#6: garlic – even though it isn’t something you eat on its own, garlic offers serious health benefits, can last for a long time on the shelf, is easy to grow, doesn’t take up much space, and makes your food taste good.

cloves of garlic

I hope you have found my guide to the best survival garden crops helpful and informative. We have been working hard to provide valuable information to you so you can become more food independent in these uncertain times.

I invite you to take a look at our survival heirloom seed vault. We are focused on preserving heirloom seeds that can produce crops which yields fertile seeds for generations to come. Please be a part of this important movement for humanity’s – and your family’s – sake.

Regina Cal is a solo homesteader on 30 acres in Southern Arizona. She specializes in off grid water system design, homestead gardening, minimalism, and self-sufficiency.

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