Food prices keep skyrocketing, but our incomes aren’t necessarily increasing to match them. Cultivating a food security garden at home is an ideal way to keep food on the table when money’s tight.
A food security garden doesn’t require a lot of financial investment and can provide lots of food for you and your family.
Up ahead, we’ll talk about affordable ways to build up a food security garden and the best crops to plant that will give you the most bang for your buck.
Food Security Garden History
Up until the Industrial Revolution, just about everyone on the planet cultivated a significant portion of their own food at home.
In the 1920s (that’s a century ago now!), 50% of people in North America grew a significant amount of their own food in their gardens.
That dropped to about 14% by the late 1990s, but we’ve seen a massive resurgence of home food gardening in recent years. With the cost of food rising on a near-daily basis, it just makes sense to try to grow as much as we can, wherever possible.
While people who have higher incomes often grow vegetables and herbs as a hobby, lower-income families often do so out of necessity. When one doesn’t have much money to spend at the grocery store, a food security garden growing in the yard or on the patio can make the difference between going to bed hungry or with a full belly.
A recent study by the University of California showed that people with home gardens saved an average of $92 a month.
We’re sharing a list below of the most cost-effective crops for home food security. These can be adapted to almost any space and grown with minimal investment.
Draw Upon Free Resources Whenever Possible
Many people hesitate to start a food security garden because they think the startup costs are prohibitive. When someone is just scraping by financially, they can’t simply walk into a garden center and drop a few hundred dollars on soil, containers, fertilizers, and seeds.
The good news is that several options for starting a garden with minimal financial investment are available.
Score Free Soil
Did you know that many North American and European cities offer free soil to people who want to start their own gardens? Check out the websites for your local public works or parks and recreation departments to see if they offer soil to residents.
You can also check out local listings on social media or exchange forums. Many people offer free garden soil if they have extras, or if they’ve dug up their garden to install a pool.
Additionally, you can create soil by starting your own compost heap or bin. By doing so, you can transform kitchen scraps and cardboard into nutrient-dense compost to use for growing food.
Get Free Seeds
Many communities have seed exchange programs or even seed libraries to help folks start their food security garden. They’ll offer free seeds to people to grow food, and once their plants are mature, seeds from the ripe fruits can be returned to the library for the following season.
Additionally, many seed companies offer free packets to community garden projects or can be asked for donations at the end of the season.
Unsold seeds are normally discarded because they lose viability quickly, so companies are often more willing to part with items for the cost of shipping.
Another way to score free seeds is to harvest them from produce.
When I worked with community gardens, we often “dumpster dived” behind organic grocery stores after hours. A rotting tomato or pepper may not be edible anymore, but one of those fruits can have a few hundred viable seeds inside it that can be used to grow more.
Use a Variety of Containers
You wouldn’t believe what you can transform into a container for growing food. A quick sweep around your home will likely yield various options for your food security garden. Or take a stroll around your neighborhood on recycling day and score a bunch of containers.
For example, you can grow a startling amount of plants in upside-down soda bottles. You just need clean, empty two liter bottles, string, aluminum foil, and soil to make these. Then string them up wherever you like!
I had about 50 of them growing all around my rooftop patio when I lived in Toronto. Hang these along fences or balconies, or secure them from hooks on a sunny indoor wall.
Metal juice or tomato cans (28 oz) and coffee tins make great planters: punch holes in the bottom for drainage before putting soil in. You can also hang these to maximize space by punching holes on the sides for twine or using macrame hanging planters.
Did you know that many places are willing to give burlap sacks away for free? Many nurseries and garden centers transport items in burlap and then have a surplus afterward.
They’re often willing to let you have them for free if you cart them away yourself. From there, you can sew it into bags to grow a variety of different food plants.
Alternatively, many farmers transport produce to markets in burlap sacks. Towards the end of farmer’s market season, consider asking your local farmers if they have torn sacks that they would otherwise discard or compost.
With a bit of mending or patching, these can easily be transformed into grow bags.
Scrap Wood Raised Beds
Do you have scrap wood lying around? Grab a saw, hammer, and nails, and make some simple raised bed containers to grow plants in. Then, line with a natural fabric like wool or empty paper potato bags to help retain soil and moisture.
Another option here is to use an old dresser or desk drawers. Many people discard old furniture at the side of the road on garbage day. Pull the drawers out of broken or unwanted wooden pieces, drill some drainage holes, and fill them with soil.
As you can see, you have a ton of free resources available to you if you get creative with upcycling!
12 Best Plants to Grow in a Food Security Garden
When you’re trying to determine the best choices for your own edible garden, there are a few factors to consider:
- Which foods do you like to eat?
- How much space do you have available?
- What are the start-up costs for each?
Ideally, if you’re creating a food security garden to supplement a low income, you’ll aim for the lowest possible startup costs. As such, look for plants that can be grown from cuttings, slips, transplants, and minimal investment but have significant yields once mature.
You wouldn’t believe how many potatoes (Solanum tuberosum) can be grown at home. If you choose a good variety, you can end up with a couple hundred pounds of potatoes in a single 55-gallon barrel!
Old plastic or metal garbage cans are ideal for this. You simply need to drill some drainage holes around the bottom.
Then, add a mixture of soil and compost, and plant a few budding potatoes (or budding pieces) into each barrel.
If you have room in your yard or driveway for a few of these bins, you could be looking at 500+ pounds of potatoes at the end of the growing season.
It’s a good thing they store well for such a long time!
2. Sweet Potatoes
Sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas) are ideal food security garden crops for numerous reasons.
For one, you only need to buy one sweet potato at the grocery store to cultivate a garden’s worth of tubers. You can get anywhere from three to 30 slips from a single sweet potato, and once planted, each of those will produce about five pounds worth of tubers.
If you grow ten plants successfully, that’s 50 pounds of sweet potatoes to feed your family.
Secondly, sweet potatoes are dual-purpose plants because their greens are edible, as well as their tuberous roots. Those leaves and stems can be cooked like spinach and have just as much iron.
Thirdly, you can grow sweet potatoes just about anywhere. I’m currently growing some in baskets hanging from my mezzanine, so they’ll provide us with food throughout the winter months.
You can grow these beauties as long as you have a fair bit of light in your space—natural or artificial. Although they store well as they are, you can also try canning them to keep them around even longer.
Beans (family Fabaceae) are also vital in a food security garden for several reasons. One is that, like the sweet potatoes mentioned above, many are dual-purpose. Look for pole beans that can be eaten fresh as green pods (aka “haricots vert”) and left to mature on the vine as soup beans.
Once planted, a single dry bean can grow into a plant that’ll produce between 10 and 40 pods, depending on the cultivar. Each pod has the potential to mature into several beans, which can be cooked into soups and stews, dried and ground into flour, or planted.
You’ll only need to spend a few pennies at a bulk food store for a handful of dry beans. From there, you simply need to plant them and let Mother Nature work her magic.
Don’t forget to read our guide on how to dry them so they can last a long time.
Lathyrus oleraceus are ideal for the same reasons as the beans listed above. Sugar snap peas have edible pods, so you can eat the tasty gems within, along with the shells.
Alternatively, if you prefer shelling peas, simply use the pods when you’re making soup stock, then compost them once they’ve been leached of nutrients.
Certain pea shoots are also edible, making these quick-growing plants ideal as multi-purpose food sources. You can eat the peas fresh, freeze them, or can them for later. You can even dry them for future soups or grind them into protein-rich powder.
Few plants are as prodigious as zucchini (Cucurbita pepo), making them absolutely perfect for a food security garden. If you like these plants, you’ll be able to supplement your food budget with hundreds of pounds worth of deliciousness.
Like zucchini, cucumbers (Cucumis sativus) can also be trained vertically. They’re abundant, high-productive plants whose fruits have a variety of versatile uses. These can be enjoyed fresh, added to different recipes, pickled, or transformed into relish or chutney.
Choose the varieties that you feel would work best for your space, as well as your culinary preferences. For example, if your family members love pickles, then choose smaller pickling varieties such as “muncher.”
In contrast, if you like fresh pickles in salads and such, consider long, slender Asian cucumbers instead. Then, train them up lattices (or your walls) to maximize growing space.
We’ve touched upon this in different articles, but it never ceases to amaze us how many tomatoes (Solanus lycopersicum) can be grown from one single fruit. If you save the seeds from just one organic tomato, you can grow a few hundred plants from them.
Each of those can produce dozens—if not hundreds—of fruits in turn. This makes tomatoes some of the best return-on-investment plants for a food security garden.
Choose varieties that best suit the space and lightfall you have available. You can grow tomatoes in the ground, in planters, grow bags, or upside-down plastic bottles, either outside or indoors.
If you have pots of tomatoes indoors, maximize your food production by interplanting them with basil or oregano. These herbs will improve the tomatoes’ flavor while simultaneously attracting beneficial pollinators and fending off mites and aphids.
This nutrient-dense green grows quickly and easily in most gardens. Furthermore, it’ll keep re-growing if you harvest it from the outer leaves inward. Depending on the type of kale (Brassica oleracea, Cultivar group Acephala), you can get a surprising amount of food for little labor.
Consider cultivars such as ‘Thousandhead’ or ‘Walking Stick’ kale. A single leaf from one of these plants can feed an entire family for a day. When planning your food security garden, always aim for species that’ll give you a significant return on your investment.
These plants take up a lot of space, but if you have a yard that you can use to grow food, definitely consider growing cabbages.
One head can be used for a few different meals with enough left over to preserve. I’ve used a single cabbage head for stuffed rolls and salad and still had enough to make a jar of sauerkraut.
Considering how abundant and versatile cabbage can be, consider it a top contender for your food security garden.
Furthermore, there’s a cabbage recipe to suit any preference or palate. Kimchi, coleslaw, soup, and fritter pancakes like okonomiyaki are just a few ways to prepare this gorgeous vegetable.
10. Swiss Chard
Much like kale, Swiss chard (Beta vulgaris subsp. vulgaris) is a healthy, easy-to-grow green that’s as nutrient-dense as it is adaptable to various soil types.
Additionally, it’ll re-grow after being cut so you can have a constant supply of greens to supplement your grocery store purchases.
If you like fiery roots and tasty greens, then be sure to add radishes (Raphanus raphanistrum subsp. sativus) to your food security garden seed list. They mature incredibly quickly, and you can grow them year-round if you cultivate them both indoors and outside!
Radishes mature in 25-50 days, depending on the cultivar. As such, if you plant successively, you’ll be harvesting bulbs and greens alike every week.
They don’t require a lot of room to mature and grow readily in pots. If you don’t have a lot of indoor space, consider cultivating yours in hanging planters up a sunny wall.
Much like radishes, beets (Beta vulgaris subsp. maritima)offer delicious roots and healthy, delicious greens. These nutrient-dense vegetables are incredibly versatile and hardy enough to be grown in the winter months, depending on where you live.
While beets require more space to cultivate than radishes, they can also be grown indoors. Consider using old Rubbermaid bins with holes at the bottom for drainage.
These can be moved around as needed so you can grow your food inside or outdoors, depending on the time of year and available sunshine.
Once you have your harvest, can and pickle them so they’ll last a good, long time.
Garlic (Allium sativum) is packed full of nutrients, repels pests from the garden, stores for a good, long time, and can be grown through the winter when the rest of the garden is dormant.
In other words, this easy-to-grow plant is an excellent option for your food security garden. In just a few square feet, you can have enough garlic to last you the entire season.
Known as Swedes outside of the US, rutabaga (Brassica napus Cultivar group Napobrassica) isn’t as popular in the US as it is in other countries. It’s a fantastic food to grow, though.
Not only is it versatile in the kitchen (mashed rutabaga, anyone? How about grilled?), but it stores for a long time.
They grow in extremely cold temperatures in Zones 2-10, provide ample nutrition, and you can eat the leaves, as well.
Parsnips (Pastinaca sativa) are closely related to carrots and parsley, and they look like both. They have carrot-like white roots and a parsley-like top.
It tastes better after a frost, so it’s excellent for those who live in areas with cold winters. You can eat it raw or cooked, and the roots can be stored for several weeks in the fridge.
They’re even sweeter than carrots, so if you have a kid with a sweet tooth, this is a must-have in the food security garden.
16. Onions and Shallots
Be sure to cure them well so they’ll store for a long time.
Some fruit trees can be a bit challenging to raise, but you can find dwarf apple trees that are self-fruitful. That means they won’t take up too much room, and you don’t need two to grow fruit.
One tree can keep the family in nutritious fruit for a long time. Preserve your harvest by making fruit leather, apple sauce, apple butter, or dry the sliced pieces.
Closely related to spinach and swiss chard, amaranth (Amaranthus spp.) is another multi-purpose plant. The leaves are edible and are ready for consumption just a few months after planting.
Once they develop, you can eat the flowers and seeds, as well. It’s the seeds that the plant is famous for and they are treated as a grain.
Both golden and perennial rice make fantastic food security garden options. Golden rice is a genetically engineered form of Oryza sativa that contains an abundance of Vitamin A, which is seriously lacking in underfed populations.
Perennial rice is the result of breeding several species of Oryza that are perennial growers. Most domesticated rice is an annual and dies back after one year. But this rice will come back year after year without reseeding.
Either way, it takes a fair bit of space to grow enough rice to feed your family, but it’s a reliable crop that can be stored for a long time and provides lots of essential nutrients.
Yams (Dioscorea spp.) are an essential food security crop in Western Africa because they reliably produce large crops, and each tuber provides ample nutrition.
Because they are proficient climbers, you don’t need a ton of room to grow them. The downside is that many cultivars take up to eight months to be ready for harvesting. But you can find cultivars that grow quicker and are ready in just three months or less.
Some white Guinea yam landraces (D. rotunda) are ready in about 85 days and will produce two crops in one year.
Corn must be grown close together for pollination.
Experiment and Figure Out What Works
Many other crops can be cultivated in your food security garden, so don’t feel that you’re limited to these. A lot will depend on your location and your family’s food preferences. There’s no point in growing radishes and beets if your spouse or kids refuse to eat them.
No matter what vegetables and herbs you grow at home, they will do wonders for supplementing your food budget.
It’s likely that food prices are going to keep rising, so starting a garden now will help to ensure that you and your family get enough to eat on a regular basis. Monetary wealth is all well and good, but a plate of healthy, nourishing food is worth its weight in rubies.