R. Ann Parris on Establishing High-Value Crops


Gardens: Establishing High-Value Crops by R. Ann Parris

Whether we have acres with helping hands and mechanized tools or a few soup cans and jars in a windowsill, we want to get the most out of our growing space. We can do that by prioritizing our planting by the value of each crop. We just have to prioritize what we value most first.

Cash Value is what we would pay (or be paid for) a crop. It’s a common point for gardeners trying to cut supermarket costs and for growers looking for market income. Salad greens and berries are two of the most common examples, with low overhead, fast turns, and big price tags, versus staple crops like cereals and dry beans that are typically inexpensive in supermarkets despite their long growing season and post-harvest processing.

(Fun fact: Those examples reflect perishable-v.-nonperishable cash values. For market sales, the high-loss and loss-prevention methods and packaging add enough costs to outweigh the time-labor costs.)

Calorie Staples allow us to produce base diet foods for humans and livestock, which greatly increases self-reliance.

Nutrient-Rich Fruits & Veggies don’t offer much for staying-power/energy, but can add much-needed vitamins and minerals, fiber, and variety to diets. It’s the most versatile category as well, as applicable to containers in windowsills and on balconies as to large acreage and dooryard pottagers.

Luxury/Feel-Goods such as crops for sweeteners, oils, alcohol/vinegar, flavored teas, or caffeine can be highly valuable now, with the potential to be more so later. Other times produce becomes a valuable “luxury” crop due to neediness of plants, difficulty in saving seed, and even regional restrictions.

*We already see regional value with foods like bell peppers that are more of a luxury in areas with a shortage of warmth and strong light. They cost a blessed fortune *there* due to the climate restrictions, their climate and space needs, and the shipping costs of perishable items vs. nonperishables.

Bearing Cycles – Determinate/Indeterminate crops each have value. Determinates can be helpful if we have short seasons (hot or cold, or dry), and when we want things to yield all at once so we can clear a patch for another crop. Indeterminates yield over a longer period, which is great for a crop we’re consuming fresh and for spreading out preservation workloads.

Indeterminates and the determinate crops that will re-flower if something happens to their initial load of fruits can also be hugely valuable in reducing losses if insect pollinators aren’t there, a storm strips away pollen or flowers, temperatures lead to an imbalance in male-female flowers, a nutrient deficiency or disease affects the first-maturing cycle, or immature fruit is eaten by something, blown/knocked down, or rots from contact with wet soil.

Yield per Area — The space plants occupy affects smaller-scale growers more than larger-scale growers, but it’s still a consideration. Most of us will work by the footprint in square-feet or square-yard, but the vertical space occupied is also a factor in yield versus other crops, and in the possible shading and air-flow disruption, both of which can be benefits or detractors.

Yield per Period — Along with space is the amount of time a crop is going to occupy its given spot in the garden, and how much we’re going to reap from it (broccoli vs. brussel sprouts, cabbage vs. spinach, spaghetti squash vs. pattypans or Hubbard).

Specific Neediness — All plants have needs, but some of those needs reduce value due to the time or inputs required. Among others, that can be susceptibility to multiple pests or diseases, copious irrigation needs, specific cycles of irrigation to prevent damaged yields, low resilience to crowding and-or weed competition, lack of hot or cold temperature resilience, transplant difficulties, and general fertilizer sucks or extra micro- or macronutrient needs, especially those that can be difficult to source naturally or are in high competition with animal and human needs (beets-boron, tomatoes-calcium & magnesium).

Seed Saving can make plants more and less valuable based on how easy it is to get a seed from them. There’s lots of factors there, too: whether it takes a few extra weeks or a couple extra months for a plant to produce that seed, or is a full year or two-year cycle; how many plants we have to let stay to get “enough” seed for another planting; how much physical separation work is required; and whether or not that seed needs stratification, scarification, or even fermentation to become viable for replanting.

Processing affects the manhours that crops require after they’ve grown, from harvest to preservation.

Given typical seasonal workloads, we may highly value the ease a crop that gives us leeway of weeks or months, while the crops that require faster attention and more attention for preservation take on greater luxury value due to the labors and inputs (apples and winter squashes moved to cellar shelves, vs. carrots that stay in the ground or damp-sand boxes, vs. husking corn, vs. hulling and winnowing other grains and beans, vs. canning and drying tomatoes and peaches).

Processing can also be seen as the need for water changes and sometimes multiple simmer/boil water changes to make something safe or palatable, such as quinoa or some wild greens.

Crop Rotations — Because so many plants are susceptible to pests and disease, and so many can host them, it can become exceedingly important to work in cycles up to 3-7 years before a crop returns to the same spot. We may also want to avoid planting crops that draw copious amounts of the same nutrients from the soil right after each other to limit fertilization needs. Some styles of planting mitigate crop rotations in part or in whole, but it’s usually a factor and can add value to a low-draw crop that’s capable of being plugged in anywhere, following and followed by anything else.

Value changes person to person.

While there are crops that perform well in each category, our personal preferences as well as our needs, situations, and other priorities will change which categories matter most to us. Being aware of the aspects that give crops value can help us make better decisions with our growing, whether it’s plots in a field or pots in a windowsill.