Ask Mr. Green: The Best Crops for My Backyard?
I’m looking for optimal use of my backyard space, so I need to know the easiest to grow—least water usage, most drought tolerant, most productive per plant, that can be stored dry without freezers, electricity, or a lot of plastics (maybe grains or beans for example), least land damage, least pests, most butterfly/bee- and beneficial-insect-friendly food plant that will help save on grocery costs while being environmentally friendly and totally organic. I’m wondering if rice, beans, or amaranth would fit the bill as the greenest way to grow the most dry, storable food.
—Connie, in Springfield, Missouri
I’d love to give you a nice, easy answer, but there isn't one, simply because of the hundreds of crop possibilities, the huge variety of local conditions, differing nutrient contents and fertilizer requirements. This sheer complexity is why I distrust most generalizations about food production put forth as gospel by foodies and armchair farmers whose knowledge of agronomy and nutrition is often very limited if not downright suspect.
Unless you have a huge backyard to experiment with, you should forget about growing rice or beans and concentrate instead on vegetables, because that’s the only way you’ll meet your other goal, of saving on grocery costs. Why? Well, grains and beans are so cheap that you’d be better off just buying a bushel of soybeans (60 pounds) from a local farmer at current prices of around $12-$13 a bushel (70 pounds) and concocting your own tofu; or snag a bushel or corn (56 pounds) for $4-$5, or rice at $6-$7 a bushel (45 pounds). You’ll pay somewhat more if you want to go organic, but it will be nothing compared to shelling out a buck or two or more a for bunch of spinach or kale. As for your aversion to storage in plastic and to freezing, you could can, dry, and create a root cellar without being tainted. If you have doubts about which veggies are most suited to your area, contact your Cooperative Extension Services.
As for amaranth, the latest “miracle food,” whose boosters tout its protein content, there is one catch. A good yield is only 1,000 pounds per acre, only about a third as high as soybeans and one-eighth that of corn. They rightly note that amaranth’s protein content is higher than some grains, but it’s considerably less than, say, kidney beans. Besides, the amaranth gurus recommend growing amaranth in rotation with soybeans or corn anyway.
As for attracting beneficial insects, butterflies, and bees, I have found that the best way is with a variety of flowers. Those flowers will end up being both beautiful and useful, because their ability to nurture defenders of your crops might well compensate for the space they require. Organic Gardening has a nice list of some possibilities and many local cooperative extensions or native plant societies also provide excellent resources.
Above all, do your gardening in the lofty spirit of agricultural experimentation. —Bob Schildgen
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--illustration by Little Friends of Printmaking