There’s a lot of reasons for wanting to become self-sufficient and grow your own food: home-grown food is healthier and tastier, it gives you food security, and it allows you to not be a part of the devastating environmental impact of grocery stores and industrial farms. Due to these reasons and more, a lot of people have decided that they would like to be able to grow their own food.
Rather than stress yourself out by deciding that you need to be 100% self-sufficient RIGHT NOW, become self-sufficient in stages and feel good about every accomplishment along the way! I’m going to list easy crops that you can become self-sufficient on to get you started. Maybe the first year, you’re only self-sufficient on one of these, or maybe just during the growing season. It is still commendable and puts you miles above the average person in terms of environmental impact and self-sufficiency! Each year add a little more and soon enough you’ll be well on your way!
Squash: Squash was the first thing I became totally self-sufficient on, even while living in Boston with my tiny yard. It’s been years since I bought any squash. It’s got to bed the easiest and most prolific vegetable to grow. Grab a packet of seeds, stick them a half inch in the dirt, water them (or not!) and watch them produce prolifically.
You’ll want to grow both a summer squash and a winter squash. I prefer to grow the yellow squash varieties such as straight neck or golden zucchini. That way you can easily spot them and pick them before they get huge. The vines look a lot like zucchini and because of this the squash can blend in easily if you grow a green variety. Do not grow more than 4 plants or you will have more summer squash than you can deal with!
I do not can or in other ways preserve my summer squash. These plants are so prolific that I find that by the time the winter comes that I’m tired of eating it anyways. You’ll find in reading this list that I’m not a huge fan of canning food in general.
Winter squash includes squash like pumpkins. You grow them all summer and then eat them all winter. They store EXTREMELY WELL. You don’t have to do anything fancy to store them. I just stick them on a shelf in my basement and they stay fresh until I finish eating all of them in April. If you are new to growing winter squash, I recommend growing Waltham Butternut. If you plan on saving your own seed (which you should), you can only grow one type of winter squash because they cross-pollinate easily.
Overall these plants are very easy to grow and produce A LOT of squash to eat. It’s also quite easy to have the vine snake through your flower garden. In Boston, people walking by on the sidewalk would stop to point out the winter squash to their children with big smiles on their faces. It will put a smile on your face too. You will NEVER buy squash.
Radishes: These guys grow so quickly and so easily from seed that they are considered to be one of those survivalist crops. You can grow them under cold frames in the winter or pickle them, but I find that I eat so many in the summer that I don’t want to eat anymore by the time that winter comes.
Lettuce: We eat salads every day, but if you buy it at the grocery store it comes in a non-recyclable plastic clamshell and goes bad quickly. And yet, it’s also one of the easiest and more prolific things you can grow.
Lettuce is also super easy to grow from seed. You really can’t mess this up! It’s good to grow two different kinds of lettuce in order to have a proper salad going. Me and my husband eat big salads every day, and yet we find that one 4’x8′ garden bed of lettuce is plenty. You’ll want to start a new bed of lettuce about every other month because it gets bitter after repeated picking and re-sprouting.
Lettuce is also very easy to grow continuously all winter using cold frames. Yes, you can grow lettuce outside in the snow just using a cold frame. In order to do this, in September, switch to “winter lettuce” seed. For more information on this, use the book “Backyard Winter Gardening”. You will be amazed what you can grow all winter long just using cold frames. There will never be a need to buy salad greens ever again.
Bok Choy: This is another one that I was able to get self-sufficient on while still living in the city. Bok Choy is basically cabbage for people who don’t like cabbage. It’s great in stir fries and Asian dishes. This is another cut-and-come-again vegetable, but it doesn’t have the problem of becoming bitter like lettuce does.
If you stop harvesting it and let it grow flowers, it will eventually go to seed. Have one in the middle of the bunch that you allow to do this. It will then spread new bok choy seed and new seedlings will come up. Bok Choy over winters well using this method and you will have new plants next spring without any effort. It is for this reason that I consider Bok Choy to be perennial.
Peas & Beans: Just pop the seeds in the ground and forget about them until you notice the pods! If you have a chain link fence, it’s super easy to just plant the seeds about 2 inches from the fence and let them grow up it. It also does not take them long to be harvestable and the seeds are super easy to keep and reuse for next year.
For peas, we just treat this as a nice seasonal food for the spring and early summer, although you can also can them or dry them. Beans however are super easy to dry and enjoy all year round. For the beans, focus on varieties that you eat the most. For most people, that will probably bed black beans, pintos, and garbanzo beans. You can add more beans as the years go by or if you have more land. This is an easy crop to master.
Tomatoes: Of course we have to include tomatoes! I grow three types of tomatoes:
- Beef steak: For sandwiches a sliced tomato
- Cherry tomato: Typically these guys are very prolific and if you prune them right it’s not hard to get a pint of tomatoes per day. I use them on salads
- Paste tomatoes: These are for making your tomato sauces and including cultivars such as San Marzano. You cannot make tomato soup or marinara sauce from just regular garden tomatoes. It needs to be a type of paste tomato.
I just grow two of each type. If you learn some canning, you can easily never buy spaghetti sauce again. However, unless you have a green house, fresh tomatoes will be limited to just the summer and fall.
Berries: Once established, berries pretty much just take care of themselves. Extremely easy and prolific to grow, they cost a fortune at the grocery store. Just grow your own and be self-sufficient all summer! If you learn some canning skills, you can never buy jam or pie-filling ever again. Growing up, my dad would take us to his secret blueberry patch in the woods and we would pick enough blueberries that my mom would then spend the rest of the weekend canning and freezing them. We never bought blueberries, but we would eat them all year round.
Here on my two-acre homestead I have 10 blueberry bushes, 48 strawberries, 6 raspberries, and 6 elderberry bushes. This is plenty of berries to last all year round, and really no work on my part other than the occasional weeding.
Potatoes: For potatoes I use the French straw method so that I can just leave them in the field all winter and only harvest as needed. This way I don’t have to worry about storing or preserving them.
For the French method, dig a trench a good foot deep and space out the potatoes in the trench. You do this in the Spring, just like you normally do. Instead of back filling with dirt, fill in the trench with straw. I get my straw at Tractor Supply. Because the potatoes have to grow through a foot deep it’ll take them a while to grow through the straw, but they will eventually grow through.
You can start harvesting them roughly two weeks after the potatoes flower, but just harvest as needed. You want to plant enough that you have potatoes through the winter too. In the fall, add more straw so that there’s a good mound of straw over the remaining potatoes. The plants will have died back completely, but that’s okay. As the straw decays, it creates both a rich nutritious soil and it generates heat.
If you plant the potatoes in regular soil, the soil will freeze and you will not be able to harvest them in the winter. Also, if the freeze gets to the potatoes, it will ruin them and they will get mushy. The straw both keeps the ground workable and keeps the potatoes safe from the freeze. In the spring, whatever little baby potatoes are left, you can replant and grow your next crop.
Beets & Carrots: I grow these from seed is succession from spring until fall. They grow fast and store well all winter. Read up on how to store them though because there are a few different methods for doing so. You can also grow them under cold frames in the winter.
Fruit Trees: Like the berries, fruit trees are a perennial that pretty much take care of themselves. If you are low on space, you can look into growing dwarf variety fruit trees. For beginners, I recommend these varieties:
- Gala Apple: Usually with apple trees, you have to grow three different varieties nearby in order to produce fruiting trees. However, if one of those varieties is a Gala, then you only have to grow two. Also, who doesn’t like Gala apples? These are a great tasting and good-sized apple that anyone will find agreeable.
- Arkansas Black Apple: This is the legendary storage apple of homesteaders of old. I’ve heard that these can stay fresh in a root cellar for 18 months. If you want apples all year long, this is the apple you have to grow.
- Bosc Pear: This is another great fruit for storage. These wont store as well as the Arkansas Black, but they will last most of the winter.
Fresh Herbs: This is another grocery store item that comes in a plastic case, is rather expensive, and goes bad quickly after you bring it home. And yet you can also grow them easily even if you live in a small space in the city. To have them all year round, you can transfer cuttings to pots and take in orders, dry them in the fall, or grow under a cold frame. Your musts are:
- Mint: Prolific perennial
- Rosemary: There are cold hardy perennial versions
- Saffron: YES! You can easily grow your own saffron!
- Dill: Essential if you plan on pickling. Also butterflies love it
- Parsley: Another one that butterflies love
If you have room to expand, it’s quite easy to grow your own tea garden.
Vining plants: This includes watermelon, cantaloupe, and cucumbers. These guys are just as easy to grow as winter squash, and like I said, you can just let the vines weaved in-between the flowers and other plants in your garden. I really only eat watermelon in the summer, so it’s not difficult to just pop a seed or two in the dirt and never buy watermelon again. The cucumbers can easily be pickled or eaten fresh on salads. Save the seeds so that you can plant them again next year.
Corn: The idea of growing corn used to seem intimidating to me. It was like serious farmer stuff. However, once you try growing it you realize it’s really just glorified crab grass and basically grows itself. Seriously, I don’t ever water it! I just plant the seeds and then harvest the corn later. It’s very resilient stuff.
The only thing that you need to know is that the corn that you eat off the cob and the corn that you grow for popcorn or cornmeal are two different kinds of corn and unless you have a very big homestead you can’t grow both. Like winter squash, corn cross-pollinates very easily and you will end up with weird-tasting corn. If this is your first time, just grow sweet corn, which is the corn you eat off the cob.
Peppers: Peppers are easy to grow from seed, eat fresh, can, and grind into spices. If you grow two cayenne pepper plants each year, that will give you enough pepper flakes to last all year and give away as gifts. You can also grind some of those flakes into powdered cayenne and never buy it at the grocery store again.
I love peppers and grow all kinds of varieties. You can easily dry them and use them in soups and curries all winter. If you can can your own salsas. You can also make your own hot sauces.
Grapes: Grapes can be easily grown along a fence. They can quickly form massive grape vines and produce prolifically. My grape vine (yes, singular grape vine) produces more grapes than we can possibly eat. You can use the excess to create jams and even make wine. I was shocked at how easy it is to make your own wines. I also make wreaths out of the vines when I prune it every summer. This is a fruit that gives a lot and asks for very little back. I never even water the thing and it is 100 feet long.
Garlic & Onions: If you grow what is known ass “hardneck garlic” you can easily become self-sufficient in garlic. Hardneck garlic is a gourmet garlic that you will not find in grocery stores. The taste is so much better and makes it so worth it to grow and store your own. They also reward you with edible garlic scapes in the spring.
Onions are also easy to grow and store yourself all year but be sure to grow “storage varieties” and to start with “onion starts” rather than seeds. It’s certainly possible to grow them from seed, but that is much more advanced.
Microgreens: Microgreens are something you can grow all winter long with just a window sill. You might have noticed that I like to focus on become self-sufficient on things that you can only buy in plastic cases and are oddly expensive. Microgreens are one of those fancy things that are actually really cheap and effortless to grow yourself. It’s also a nice boost of fresh antioxidants you can give yourself in the winter months.
Create a community: I think that if you grew all the plants I listed above, you would be well on your way towards self-sufficiency as well as being able to continue eating from your garden all winter. However, it’s not possible to grow everything yourself. Nor should you. This is where a community can become essential.
I for instance, do not grow any grain. I find it to be too labor intensive and I would rather focus on other things in my garden space. However there is a water-powered grist mill not far from where I live. I know that probably sounds like “Where do you live, 1750s middle earth?” but here in rural Virginia there are quite a few of them. It allows me to buy fresh organic grain with a low environmental impact.
There are also homesteading meet-up grounds. You can meet other homesteaders and trade crops with them to have a more varied diet. You can also learn natural crafts and sell them to pay for the things you can’t grow yourself like sugar, salt, and olive oil.