I'm experimenting with growing my own food, and have been for a few years now. My goal, in the very long term, is to be able to homestead and grow as much of my own food as I can. In terms of sheer number of pounds of food grown, I think that zucchini is the most prolific. However, it's not very highly caloric. I'm interested in growing a substantial number of calories, so I'd like to know which crops might be best for that, in my area, which is southern Ontario, Canada.

I believe that I'm just outside of the zone I need to be in to grow something like soy, or even peanuts, without some kind of greenhouse. I'd be interested in trying some grains.

In short: I mean that I want crops which produce the greatest number of harvestable calories for a given amount of land.

  • 2
    The answers so far make me think that you might want to clarify 'calorically dense'. Do you mean that you want crops which when harvested provide a high number of calories per pound? Or do you mean that you want crops which produce the greatest number of harvestable calories for a given amount of land?
    – Jeutnarg
    Commented Jun 12, 2017 at 19:18
  • The second, my apologies. I want high calories per given area. Commented Jun 12, 2017 at 19:26
  • 2
    Maybe potatoescanada.com ? Tates can yield a lot of pounds per square meter. Commented Jun 12, 2017 at 20:05

7 Answers 7


"Calorically dense"? Look at fruits. Apples, brambles (raspberry/blackberry), currants, strawberries, blueberries. Pie cherries (sweet will depend on your microclimate, pie are hardier), apricots, plums.

These folks think you are wrong about soy: The soybean, agriculture's jack-of-all-trades, is gaining ground across Canada.

Until the mid-1970s, soybeans were restricted by climate primarily to southern Ontario. Intensive breeding programs have since opened up more widespread growing possibilities across Canada

Peanuts are rather more tender, though I think we managed to grow some as a novelty and without a greenhouse in Zone 3 - but it wasn't much of a yield, as I recall.

Rye, barley, oats, flax and wheat are all possible crops. Flax as an oilseed may be among the most "calorically dense" of those but I'll leave you to check the numbers on it.

"Canola" (rebranded from the original name, a member of the mustard family) is another common oilseed in cooler regions.

Canola (Rapeseed)

  • 9
    "Canola" is simply a marketing term for rapeseed since some people get bent out of shape by the first 4 letters of rapeseed, and won't buy "rapeseed oil" as a result.
    – Ecnerwal
    Commented Jun 12, 2017 at 14:45
  • 2
    Oh if only that were true - canola and rapeseed are absolutely not the same thing. In the UK we can get rapeseed oil,, sometimes sold as vegetable oil - if you put Canola oil on the shelves here, we'd torch the supermarket, because it is GMO, been genetically altered to make it 'healthier; only it doesn't, it makes it virtually toxic
    – Bamboo
    Commented Jun 12, 2017 at 14:48
  • 2
    Dehulling oats presents a fair challenge to the home gardener. There are hulless varieties. Commented Jun 12, 2017 at 14:58
  • 19
    @Bamboo wikipedia disagrees with most of what you said. Also, this whole "GMO" thing is insane. Would you consider apples GMO because we cross specific ones to get the apples we want? Are there any actual risks involved just due to that?
    – JMac
    Commented Jun 12, 2017 at 17:51
  • 2
    Grain crops are not really suitable for home gardens. First, you can't buy the seed commercially in small enough quantities, though you might be able to do a deal if you know a farmer. Second, you can't get the grain harvested, dried, and ground (into flour) commercially - not only are your quantities too small for a commercial miller to bother with, but he won't take the risk of ruining hundreds of tons of commercial products because his machinery has been contaminated by something from an unknown and uncontrolled source - i.e. your garden!
    – alephzero
    Commented Jun 13, 2017 at 6:44

Are you familiar with John Jeavons? If not, I highly recommend checking him out. I think his "How to Grow More Vegetables" is still the best resource for this type of information. Unfortunately, I can't find my copy right now, but I do have a smaller, less detailed book of his on hand, and this is what he says:

If you compare all of the foods we commonly grow in North America, the most calorie dense per pound are beans and wheat. Beans offer a little over 1,500 calories per pound, wheat offers a little less. By comparison, potatoes offer 279 calories per pound.

However, if you compare how many square feet are required to grow enough calories for one person to get their calorie needs for a year with these three foods, you'll need over 5,000sf per person of beans or wheat, but less than 2,000sf to grow the same number of calories of potatoes.

He's a big proponent of relying heavily on potatoes, sweet potatoes (which may be out of range for you?), garlic (although it seems to me this would be a tough one to eat enough of as a main crop) and parsnips. If you also plant some wheat, beans, other veggies, and fruits you can use those to diversify your diet.

  • 3
    Start "roasting" (it's only sort of like roasting, really, as it's typically done in foil) garlic and you may find you can eat quite a bit more of it.
    – Ecnerwal
    Commented Jun 12, 2017 at 16:44
  • 2
    If the soil is fertile enough, you can grow potatoes and beans simultaneously on the same plot. Grow dwarf (or French) beans for the best results. Wheat and similar grains are too much hassle to harvest and process as a staple food IMO, except in "industrial farming" quantities. The same goes for fruit like apples, and you will have several years to wait before you get full crops from your orchard.
    – alephzero
    Commented Jun 13, 2017 at 1:06

From someone who grows a lot of their own food in a more northern climate, I would say that not only do you want calorie density, but you also need the ability to store long term.

I would personally begin thinking of winter squashes (like butternut), beets, and potatoes. You should also look at long term (perennial) plants like Asparagus, rhubarb, apple trees, etc. In southern Ontario, you will be able to plant blueberry bushes as well.

One of your best sources of "what to plant" is what the historical settlers planted in your region. They had to survive with minimal trips to town and therefore survived off their gardens.

A little more detail on the above suggestions

  • Winter squashes can be stored in a cool place like a cellar or basement, and then can be split in half and baked with a little water in the pan until soft. These plants are prolific and easily stored until needed.

  • Beets can also be stored in a cellar, but my favorite way to preserve them is to boil them until soft in a big stock pot, slice them up and then store them in manageable portions in freezer bags in the freezer. When the time comes to use them in a meal, we quickly warm up the portion on the stove or in the microwave.

  • Potatoes were traditional foods used in many cultures. The climate of Southern Ontario would be perfect for these. Potatoes can be stored on a flat shelf (so they can get some air). Make sure they are stored in a dark, cool room. Again, a basement cold room or cellar would be good.

  • Asparagus will take a while to take hold, but will be easy on you as it comes back every year. This is an early spring crop, but can be frozen if you prefer. Plant a patch of it in full sun.

  • Rhubarb is an early season crop that comes back year after year. If you plant a few of these (they make great landscaping accents and borders too), you should have more than enough. You eat the stems of these, not the leaves. The flavor is similar to a tart apple. Rhubarb thrives in cooler climates. It can be stored by washing the stems, chopping them into half inch wide pieces and then freezing in 2-4 cup portions. There are many official recipes where rhubarb can be used. It can also be used as a fruity filler in many other recipes. Just be sure to pick like crazy and save it in the spring.

  • Apple trees are a late season crop that can yield big results. Apples can be sliced and frozen, dehydrated, canned, or even just saved in a cool place. If you choose to keep apples in a cellar, be mindful that they release ethylene gas, which can cause other stored vegetables to continue to ripen in storage, so keep them away from your other produce.

For nutritional information on vegetables, use a nutrition data resource like: Self Nutrition Data. Just search for the food you are interested in.

Overall, I suggest looking at traditional recipes for your region. Those recipes were often popular because people at the time were able to use the ingredients efficiently. Best of luck on you gardening endeavor!

  • 2
    Ability to store and preserve food is very important point I wanted to raise as well. So I would add following vegetables that can be effectively preserved as well and can be grown intensively in Ontario: tomatoes, sweet peppers, cabbage, onions, garlic. Also spices/herbs as they are expensive to buy, but easy to grow, and also kind of required to make food/preserves that taste good. (if we are talking being self sufficient here)
    – InitK
    Commented Jun 13, 2017 at 15:46
  • 1
    @Terry We humans only need a bit of vitamin C. Anything above what our bodies need is peed out. There is still lots of vitamin C in those 'sun dried' tomatoes. Not a worry. I am liking this segway into thinking about self sufficiency here as well! Gardening, preserving, storing takes time to learn. If one hasn't a clue and they need to grow their own food...well, Good luck learning when you are starving.
    – stormy
    Commented Jun 13, 2017 at 18:34

Very interesting question. There are a few dimensions that you might not have considered.

First; anything grown from the earth is a carbohydrate. Should be at least 60% of our diet. Honest injun. I know plants well and the other thing I know really well is the human body.

From a garden the only type of 'nutrient group' you will be dealing with is carbohydrates. Artichokes? Avocados? Some harvests will have fats included. Not that many. What I think you are looking for are crops that store very well such as beans; pinto, anasazi beans, wheat berries, lima beans, amaranth!

4 calories per gram for carbohydrate; all carbohydrates. You need to figure in the percentage of fat available at 9 calories per gram. Protein not counting the fat that is usually included if animal is 4 calories per gram. Alcohol has been made into a food group for reference more than anything; 7 calories per gram. Straight across the board.

Best stuff with most nutrients, easiest to grow and get great harvests (at 4 calories per gram) that I grow are potatoes, beets, tomatoes, peppers, spinach, kale, cilantro, basil, squash especially the gourds. Snap peas, berry shrubs like blueberry, boysenberry, raspberry that come back every year.

I can but I've found dehydration is the best way to preserve. You're not carrying around water weight and have not damaged the nutrients in any way.

Cultivating grains takes huge acreage. Tree fruits are spectacular dehydrated. Tomatoes, really dehydration is my focus. You will not be able to grow everything. Not even close. Start purchasing non GMO fruits and vegetables from a trusted vendor on the main street somewhere. Make sure they are Non Gmo. Get going on preserving; canning, dehydrating...some freezing. Great but not that easy to control if no electricity.

The problem with growing soy, peanuts, wheat is space as well as GMO crop pollen, if you save seed. Get a 'root cellar' going. That will help stage crops or store when there is too much to handle at once as well as over winter storage of potatoes, onions, garlic, winter squash, rutabagas, parsnips...

Nutrition is a far better indicator than calories for how you spend your energy and time to allow successful crops. Watermelon is wonderful but all water little nutrition for instance. How long something can last preserved, stored in root cellar and hold onto the nutrients as well as calories is more important. I've read that one could live off just wheat berries for years. I'm thinking I'd rather die. Amaranth. That is a big deal as are the Anasazi beans. Do not forget rice. Brown or wild or mixed or gourmet or Jasmine, store rice. Store spices, salt, molasses, oils...other wise the wilderness is very bountiful even during the winter. Boring but calories, no dishes to clean...

  • 1
    "Tree fruits are spectacular dehydrated" As a garden crop, tree frults are spectacularly useless if the blossom gets frost damage - you can lose the entire year's crop in one night. A commercial size orchard can afford to run heaters, smoke generators, etc to avoid the problem. As a home gardener, you can't do much about it.
    – alephzero
    Commented Jun 13, 2017 at 6:33
  • Can you explain exactly what is "wrong" with GMO crops from a trusted vendor? Most of the objections seem rather like Bertrand Russell's definition of "belief" - "that for which there is no evidence". Also, "GMO pollen" is completely irrelevant if you are growing F1 hybrid varieties, which don't breed true from seed under any circumstances - unless you are going to classify F1s as "GMO" as well as the usual definition of GMO.
    – alephzero
    Commented Jun 13, 2017 at 6:39
  • 1
    I agree with the canning and dehydrating of fruits. I love both methods. For someone getting started, dehydrating is very easy. However, just a caution on fruit dehydration, dehydrating often destroys much of the vitamin C, so do not rely on dehydration as a method of preserving that particular nutrient.
    – Terry
    Commented Jun 13, 2017 at 15:09
  • 1
    Best way to add protein to your diet is to add chicken-coop next to the vegetable plot in the homestead situation. :)
    – InitK
    Commented Jun 13, 2017 at 15:51
  • @InitK ha ha ha, or bunnies! Feed the bunnies and they would be easy pickings! I'd have to get very very hungry though.
    – stormy
    Commented Jun 13, 2017 at 18:11

If you want to be autonomous, you must plant various kind of crops. This will avoid you to starve if for some reason a disease or pest or bad weather destroy your yield of a given crop.

So here is another idea: SunChoke; it's like potatoes, but need not to be replanted each year. Many material on our site about them (e.g. here ).

  • Not much of a starvation danger when you have a backup supermarket.
    – pipe
    Commented Jun 13, 2017 at 9:28
  • 1
    Oh, I remember my parents used to have that one (Jerusalem artichoke) in the corner of the garden growing wild. As kids we liked nutty taste of it and ate it mostly raw. It might be good crop to add to this topic as it stores well and indeed good source of many things.
    – InitK
    Commented Jun 13, 2017 at 19:24
  • I'm not sure how nutritious or calorie dense it is, but another root vegetable that's supposed to be easy to grow (and reseeds, although perhaps invasively) is salsify. Commented Aug 23, 2017 at 19:48

As others have mentioned, potatoes are probably your best bet in terms of calories per acre. If you use the trick of stacking soil as the plants grow up, you'll do even better.

For variety, you can also grow sweet potatoes in southern Ontario. I've done it, and was surprised that it worked. Apparently they really love heat, so I put down transparent plastic to increase the soil temperature. I'm trying it without the plastic this year, but the squirrels got at them early, and I'm not sure how well things will go....


I would personally be more interested in how the food makes you feel nutritionally when you live on it than how many calories it has, but that's me. So, I would recommend a wide array of things that combine together to make a good meal. Zucchini is very nutritious, though (I've eaten raw zucchini for 30 to 55% of my food while it was in season, and it felt pretty good, but it wasn't the tiny zucchini that people usually eat). Each kind of fruit/vegetable gives you unique nutrients. I'll bolden the items that I think would be higher in calories, and italicize items I think have special nutritive and/or culinary properties that might be particularly helpful to sustain health (these are just my opinions based on how I feel when I eat them and what I know about them).

Anyway, you might try sunflowers (ones with large heads and seeds), walnuts, plums, pears, apples, potatoes, early starchy winter squash, cabbage, brussel sprouts, broccoli, garlic, bunching onions, amaranth (the leaves and seeds are high in protein), wheat, oats, corn, peas, cucumbers, early melons/tomatoes/peppers/tomatillos fit for your area, other summer squash, cold-hardy mulberries, soybeans (if you're into fermenting), spinach, sorrel, beans, cranberries (which are excellent), etc.

If your area has reasonably hot summers (however short they may be), I strongly recommend growing Armenian Cucumbers (which are technically melons, and not cucumbers, but are used like giant cucumbers). Note that Metki melons are also Armenian cucumbers. They get huge, they're early (you can harvest them much earlier than regular melons, and they do get huge much earlier than other melons, too—at least in my Idaho garden), and they can handle a lot of conditions that regular cucumbers struggle in. While Armenian Cucumbers might not be very calorically dense (although they and regular cucumbers probably have more sugar than a lot of people suppose), they are very refreshing, and in my experience, they hold me over pretty well if I'm thirsty and don't have any water handy (even better than watermelon, in that regard—at least with the large Armenian Cucumbers; I'm not sure about if you harvest them smaller like a lot of people do, since I think they're less juicy then; I'm not saying they're juicier than watermelon, but I'm talking about the thirst-quenching powers of it that make you feel like you've consumed more fluids).

This is kind of off-topic, but if you're looking for life-sustaining foods, you may be interested in lacto-fermenting them, as I've read that you don't need to eat as much food if you include lacto-fermented foods in your diet. It's one way to make pickles, and preserve food longer (in a raw form; the fermenting increases the nutritional value, and the resulting pickles have beneficial bacteria, too).

Dried plums can be pretty nutritious. Zucchini pickles are supposed to be pretty nice. Green onions feel quite nutritious, and bunching onions grow lots of them (Crimson Forest is my favorite, so far), and they're both cold hardy and easy to grow, even from seed. Mulberries feel nutritious to me (especially compared with other berries), but I hear you shouldn't ferment them, whether or not that's true.

Cabbage is a good vegetable to eat in reasonably high quantities (not so high that you get thyroid issues, though). Potatoes, too, but that's a given. :)

One thing to consider is that although some fruits may be high in sugars, if you eat lots of them, you'll likely get diarrhea, a sore tongue and sensitive teeth (from the acids). So, I would look for foods you can eat in large amounts safely, and eat things like blackberries, strawberries and ground cherries in lesser amounts (and/or in pies/jam).

Another thing to consider is the variety of the plant (not just the species). Some of them have unique qualities and are more productive and tasty than others. How you grow your plants can make a big difference, too.

I would look at the mineral contents, in addition to fats, acids, sugars, starches, etc. Minerals help with lots of things, including enzyme production (especially magnesium and zinc).

Flavor shouldn't be underestimated, either. If you can't choke it down in reasonable quantities on a regular basis, you might be in trouble. Nevertheless, there are a lot of culinary ideas that would help out with most and/or all things. Onions, green onions, garlic, garlic scapes, chile peppers, herbs (e.g. basil, oregano, and tarragon) and such shouldn't be overlooked here.

Elephant Garlic is interesting, as it's much larger than regular garlic (although technically, it's more closely related to leeks than garlic).

I'm not sure if it's a real concept, but in the Good Earth, by Pearl S. Buck, the main character seemed to live on nearly garlic alone when he was poor at the beginning of the book (and he relished in it). Eating garlic seemed to be the norm for more poor people in the book. I don't know if that's really possible, as it sounds iffy, though. Garlic is high in minerals and flavor, but I'm not sure about other nutrients.

Potato onions and walking onions might be good things to consider, since they multiply every year, and you don't have to buy more bulbs or grow from seed.


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.