Dried Beans…Rising in Popularity in My Garden

Do you know what the ten most popular homegrown vegetables in the United States are?  You may not be able to guess all ten of them, but I’ll bet you can guess number one…

Uh huh,  it’s the tomato.

Okay, before we get too far into this post, I just want to let you know that I’m not going to be talking about the ten most popular homegrown veggies.  Don’t worry,  though.  I’m not going to leave you hanging.

According to The National Gardening Association’s 2009 survey (and I haven’t found anything to show that the list has changed since then), the most popular homegrown veggies are:

  1. Tomatoes
  2. Cucumbers
  3. Sweet Peppers
  4. Beans
  5. Carrots
  6. Summer Squash
  7. Onions
  8. Hot Peppers
  9. Lettuce
  10. Peas

In the past, I’ve focused my efforts on growing all of these wonderful crops because they are foods that my family enjoys to eat, they are easy to grow, look pretty in the garden, taste much better than the store-bought varieties, and, well,  they are the top ten varieties, after all, and there’s too much pressure not to grow them!

Over the years, I’ve expanded my horizons in the garden to include a wider variety of crops.   Besides the top ten varieties, my garden also includes other goodies, such as kale, chard, okra, turnips, beets, melons, and other fun and exotic plants, like goji berries and yellow strawberries.  In fact, I love growing the unexpected — they are wonderful conversation starters!

As I get ready to start planning next year’s garden, one food crop that I’m going to be planting a lot more of are protein-rich plants, like these Rattlesnake Beans and Pink Cowpeas, which I did manage to get small crops of planted in my garden, this year.  In fact,  these are going to become my number one crop, even surpassing tomatoes, in next year’s garden.  Why?

 Three simple reasons…

1.  They are easy to grow, care for,  and harvest.  Bean seeds are nice and large, making them super easy to plant. They grow with little help, other than water and a trellis.  They are also one of the easiest plants to harvest, and they can be harvested in two different stages:  the green stage, when they can be eaten as snap beans, or the dry stage, when they can be used in soups, stews, and other fine dishes.  Because the pods are large, the beans are very easy to shell (I find it quite relaxing, too!)

2.  They now make up a large part of our diet.  Since we’ve switched to a plant-based diet, my gardening priorities have changed.  I’m no longer merely growing foods just for salads, or for sheer enjoyment, but to provide our family with a substantial amount of our daily protein needs.  Dry beans average about 22% protein in the seed, the highest protein content of any seed crop, and are a good source of vitamins and minerals.  We love to eat them in burritos, tacos, soups, and even desserts (like one of our favorites – deep dish cookie pie!)   It just makes sense that if we’re going to eat more, I should grow more.      I’m going to have to grow a lot of beans, next year, and they’re going to take up a lot of space if I want to produce enough for more than just a few meals.  I don’t know how cost-effective it is going to be for me to grow my own beans — I may not even be able to come close to producing them for what I can buy them at the grocery store for, but I’m definitely up for the challenge — seed catalogs, here I come!  

3.  They are a great survival food source.  Although we don’t live in an area of the country that experiences many natural disasters, after attending a disaster preparedness meeting at our church, and watching the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy, my husband and I have decided that the more we can do to prepare for the unexpected, the better we’ll be able to care for our family if and when that time comes, thereby putting less of a stress on our community and, possibly even being in a better position to care for others.  This is probably the most important reason why I’m going to be focusing on growing more high protein crops, like legumes that can be dried, next year.  According to the Utah State University Cooperative Extension, “Beans in normal polyethylene (food-grade) bags have a shelf life of 1 year or more”, and “When packaged in #10 cans or Mylar-type bags, with the oxygen removed, they have a shelf life of 10 or more years.”  In fact, A BYU study indicated that “samples that had been stored up to 30 years had greater than 80% acceptance by a consumer taste panel for emergency food use.” That’s great news!  When it comes to disaster preparedness, it gives me great peace of mind to know that, as I increase the amount of beans grown in my garden, that translates into more food to store in our pantry in case of an emergency where we won’t be able to rely upon the local grocery store for food supplies.

As I think through the reasons why I grow what I grow, each year, my garden keeps evolving.   I don’t think there will ever come a day when you won’t see each and every one of those top ten most popular veggie crops growing in my garden.  However, I do think that they will begin to occupy less space as I seek to grow more of the crops that will satisfy my family’s dietary needs, and ones that will serve as useful and necessary foods in case of an emergency.

In years to come, I think it will be interesting to see what the top ten list of popular crops, out at our Happy Homestead, will be.

How do you choose food crops for your garden?  What are your favorites?

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The Top 9 Things I Learned From My Garden This Year

One of my favorite experiences, this year,  has been creating a large backyard garden, nurturing it, and watching it grow.

Now that it’s nearing winter, and there’s not much to do out there, I thought I’d take a moment and reflect back on the year and all of the things I learned from it.   Here we go…

1.  I learned that I need to grow more of the vegetables that we actually eat and less of the types I’m just enamored with growing.

~ I grow an abundant supply of many different varieties of heirloom fruits and vegetables – many for their unique looks, exotic names, and interesting histories.  I learned, this year, that we don’t consume them all equally, though.  So, over the winter, I’m going to be re-examining my garden plan, and redesigning it so that it better reflects our actual diet — more carrots, peas, beans, onions, garlic, and fruits/fewer squashes, cabbages, cucumbers, and eggplant.    Waste not, want not.

2.  I learned that I need to better plan the harvest.

~ While I incorporated succession planting into this year’s garden, I still had too many items coming into harvest all at once.  To regulate this, next year, I’ll be planting more early, mid, and late season varieties (I’ll be paying much more attention to the “days ’till harvest” when I order my seeds), and I’ll be sowing fewer seeds at more regular intervals than I did this year.  Hopefully, this will give us a more steady, year-round harvest.

3.  I learned that I need to pick fruits more often and as soon as they are ready.

~ If you’ve ever grown zucchini squash, you know what I’m talking about.  One day, it’s the perfect size, tender and ripe for picking.  The next day it’s the size and feel of a wooden baseball bat!  This happened to me with more vegetables than I care to remember:  green beans, tomatoes, and lettuce – just to name a few.  Next year, I’ll know:  whenever I hear myself saying, “I’ll pick that tomorrow”, I’d better pick it right then and there, or suffer the consequences of producing overripe, bitter, mushy, woody, or spoiled fruit that’s more fit for the compost bin than our dinner plates.

4.  I learned that straw mulch really is the best solution for weeds.

~ Wow!  Can you see the difference between the areas of my garden where I applied straw mulch or no mulch at all?  The results speak for themselves…

5.  I learned to ask myself, “Are some crops really worth growing?”

~ We love corn, and consume a lot of grains and beans.  So, last year, I devoted a large portion of my garden to growing them.  They were very easy to grow, but some of the varieties didn’t produce very well, and harvesting some of the smaller beans and grain crops was extremely labor-intensive and time consuming!  For example, after three hours of hard, dirty work, we managed to harvest only a pint full of French lentil beans.  I must admit that the taste of these beans was out-of-this-world amazing, but I just don’t think they were worth the cost of production.   At just $7 an hour, it would have cost us over $100 in labor alone to produce one pound!  At the grocery store, I can purchase the same amount for a little over a dollar.  Although I did cherish the family time we spent together, and the knowledge and appreciation we gained for old-fashioned harvesting; even though these are the plants we really should be growing the most of for self-sufficiency, unless we invest in a mechanical harvester, I don’t think I’ll be growing many of these crops next year.


6.  I learned that I want to plant even more flowers to attract lots of beneficial insects and boost pollination.

~ Half of my garden was filled with native, volunteer sunflowers this year.  Boy!  Were the bees buzzing in that area!  I’m sure there will be a lot more that pop up in those areas again, next year.  I’m already planning on growing corn there – a crop that needs a lot of bees for good, uniform pollination.  I also found some large packs of native wildflowers, on clearance, at a local feed store that I’m going to introduce into the garden, next spring.  Insect predators watch out… You’re days are numbered!

7.  I learned that I need to give my tomatoes more room to grow.

~ Although I scatter tomatoes here and there, throughout the garden, (this seems to really help with horn worm control), since I mostly grow indeterminate varieties (ones that keep growing until freezing temperatures), I need to give them more space so that they are easier to harvest.  Tomatoes that were difficult to get to simply didn’t get harvested, and were wasted.  Next year, I am going to build larger cages for them to grow in and leave a couple feet of space around them so that I really have enough room to maneuver in and around them and not so much of the harvest goes to waste.

8.  I learned that large gardens are a lot of work!

~ Gardening on a grand scale is definitely not for the fainthearted, especially when you grow organically, and do everything by hand.  There are always seeds to sow, crops to harvest, beds to maintain, hoses and sprinklers to move, gophers to trap, and a seemingly endless list of other chores to do.  It can be physically demanding, at times, and can consume a lot of my time.  But, it is a labor of love, and no matter how much work it requires, the benefits I receive from it, I’ve learned, far outweigh the costs.

9.  I learned to treat my garden as a grocery store, and not a museum.

~ Although I designed my garden to be aesthetically pleasing, it’s main purpose is to supply our family with food.  I’ve struggled, at times, with harvesting plants – knowing that doing so will subtract from the overall beauty of the garden until new crops grow in their place.  Viewing the garden as a grocery store helps me to maintain my focus on the main reason why I grow fruits and vegetables:  to provide our family with fresh, organically grown produce and to help us live a more economical, self-sufficient life.

Self-Sufficiency and a Pretty, Beige Dress

When I think about what my life might look like, if I were the sole supplier of all of the Whitaker household food,  I get a vivid picture in my mind of pioneer life — in particular the Ingalls’ family from  Little House on the Prairie.  I picture myself in a pretty, beige work dress with a white apron (just like “Ma’s”), hectically following behind a horse-drawn plow, sweat dripping from my brow.  I’m working from sun up to sun down, plowing the fields, sowing seed, harvesting, threshing, winnowing, butchering, and preserving food hour after hour, day after day, year after year, with no end in sight.

In some ways, I’m enchanted with the thought of returning to that past civilization and a time that seemed much simpler and slower.   I’ll admit that I  have a very romanticized, if not idealized view of those days.  However, when I think about all of the work it took to get a full course meal on the table, I don’t think I really want to go back there.  I honestly find great pleasure living in an industrialized, technologically advanced society and taking advantage of the modern conveniences that come with it —  flour that is already ground,  butter that is already churned,  and chickens that have already been butchered, de-feathered, gutted and skinned (I have to leave the story of our rooster butchering for another time, but suffice it to say, it’s definitely not something we’d want to be doing on a daily basis, now that we have intimate knowledge of the process).

Perhaps I’m looking at this all the wrong way, though.  Maybe providing more of our family’s food has more to do with the future, than the past.  According to John Seymour, author of The Self-Sufficient Life and How to Live It, “Self-sufficiency does not mean ‘going back’ to the acceptance of a lower standard of living.  On the contrary, it is the striving for a higher standard of living; for food that is fresh and organically grown and good; for the good life in pleasant surroundings; for the health of body and peace of mind that comes with hard, varied work in the open air; and for the satisfaction that comes from doing difficult and intricate jobs well and successfully.”   It is  “accepting complete responsibility for what you do or what you don’t do”, and it means “husband[ing] the land wisely, knowledgeably, and as intensively as possible”.  Well, that doesn’t sound too archaic!

I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to completely replace all of the food we buy from the grocery store, but, according to Mr. Seymour, my success won’t be measured by attaining full-fledged independence from all outside sources; victory will be found in the “striving” (and, I venture to guess,  even in my infinite failures!

In striving for self-sufficiency, will I ever grind my own wheat, churn my own butter, or butcher, de-feather, gut, and skin my own chickens?  It’s possible.  Given that we’ve ventured into goat raising  it is likely that, by this time next year, we’ll be eating our morning cereal with fresh goat’s milk, buttering our toast with homemade goat butter, and feasting on homemade pizzas topped with freshly processed goat cheese.  Doesn’t that just sound so fantastic and dreamy?  Can’t you just picture me waltzing out to the goat pen, beige dress fully girded, blissfully milking our two highly cooperative goats…okay, now we’re approaching fairy tale status.  Seriously, though, some of it might actually happenafter all, all things are possible with God!

Thus, as I endeavor to provide more of our family’s own fresh, organic, home-grown varieties of food, and reflect upon the nostalgic past – a time when self-sufficiency was just a normal part of everyday life, I am thankful that I live in an age where convenience is affordable, and grocery stores abound.  As food prices continue to rise, the future state of our national economy becomes more uncertain, and our family faces the real possibility of  living off of  those meager unemployment checks, I’m even more eager to pursue self-sufficiency.  Growing and producing more of our own food,  will, at the least,  better prepare us and make us more able to withstand these coming economic challenges.  But, heck, if all goes really well, it’s feasible we may never have to set foot inside of another grocery store again!  When that day comes, you can bet I’ll turn my attention to eliminating the next budget category… clothing.  I mean, really.  How difficult can it be to grow and process a few bales of cotton?  — Well,  at least just enough to make myself a pretty, beige dress.

What Would It Take To Grow All of Our Family’s Food?

I’ve never really thought about it before.  It’s an interesting question, isn’t it?  It’s also one that’s very intimidating.  Some of the questions that run through my mind as I think about the prospect of our family going “off- grid” food-wise are: What type of foods shall I  grow?  What will be the best method for growing them?  How much land and how many plants will be sufficient?

I’ve spent a lot of time researching, reading,  and looking for answers to my questions.  There is a myriad of great information out there, and so much to learn!  It’s overwhelming, at times, when I think about where I currently am on the learning curve (which is somewhere near the beginning).

However, as Pablo Picasso once said, “Action is the foundational key to all success”.

Each time I put what I’m learning into action, I become a little more proficient at growing more of our own food.

I don’t know if we’ll be ever to completely go “off-grid”; however, given the fact that food prices keep rising, the shaky state of our U.S. economy, and the very real possibility that my husband my soon be facing unemployment, I’ve never been more motivated to begin implementing all I’m learning about mini-farming in order to replace even more  store-bought foods with with fresh, home-grown crops and move a little closer towards self-sufficiency regarding our family’s food supply.

In the next few posts, I’ll be looking more specifically at what it will take to get us there.  I’m excited to share with you all that I’ve been learning, and talk with you about the real challenges and great possibilities that lie ahead of us.

Perhaps it will inspire you to begin growing just a little bit more of your family’s own food, too!