If you’re looking for a crop that will feed your family all year round, you can’t go past starch foods.

The potato is Australia’s most popular staple food. Full of starch, a type of carbohydrate, it sustains the body and supplies us with energy. This cool temperate, frost-sensitive crop provides average to above average returns for little skill or effort, in the right conditions. But unfortunately Australia’s varied climatic regions mean it’s not always easy to grow.

Back in the days of Australia’s European settlement, First Fleet colonists learnt this while trying to survive on food from Sydney’s first farm (now part of the Royal Botanic Gardens). Unable to adapt to their new environment, the farm withered and famine loomed. In Brisbane’s subtropics I, too, have lost potato crops to drought and flooding rains, so I have had to look for alternatives.

Diverse crops

Starch staple crops are indispensable to sustainable living. However, to reliably feed your family you need to diversify your starch crops. The best supply of starch is found in plants with edible underground tubers.
I grow arrowroot, banana (including plantain), cassava, cocoyam, sweet potato, pawpaw, yam and potato. By growing these different crops, I proved to myself that I can ensure there’s a surplus of cheap, organic staples from my 300m² productive garden to feed my family of three, year round, regardless of the growing conditions.
My latest discovery was last winter when I agreed to grow lunch for 100 people, who were guests at my August open day with Australia’s Open Garden Scheme. The challenge was to see if the same plot of land could feed an extra 100 people over one weekend. It worked, and the biggest surprise was how much food remained afterwards, boosting my confidence as a ‘survival food grower’.

Apart from providing starch, these crops give you food low in saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium, and they supply fibre. But most importantly, by growing a wider range of these staples, home food gardeners can grow continuous harvests of crops, and enjoy steady supplies in our unpredictable climate.
Arrowroot and yams tolerate full sun to semi-shade and they require little maintenance, but if it’s a reliable harvest you’re after, you must provide adequate water and nutrients to guarantee strong growth and plentiful yields. Starch staples are not only productive – many also make handsome garden plants.

Sourcing plants

When I decided to plant this diverse range of starch-based edible plants, I discovered that I couldn’t purchase everything I wanted to plant from local nurseries. There were pawpaws in abundance but, to source the other crops, I found many community and government organisations were good suppliers of the more unusual varieties. It’s a legal requirement to obtain a licence before you can grow bananas in Queensland, the Northern Territory and parts of New South Wales. Your local department of primary industries will be able to supply you with a licence, plus tell you the types of banana you are permitted to grow in your area and which government-approved suppliers are allowed to sell them to you.

  provided me with yams, while local community gardens supplied arrowroot and cassava. My local fruit shop sold cocoyams, and I collected cuttings of sweet potato.

Growing tips

Incorporate plenty of well-rotted compost and manure into your soil before planting starch staples, as the nutritional value of the harvest largely depends on the nutrients you provide. This ensures that plants have strong growth and contain a full range of vitamins and minerals.

Growing any crop in the subtropics and tropics, you need to prepare for heavy downpours, and tuber-producing starch staples must have good drainage. Planting in raised beds, containers or on ridges reduces the risk of crops rotting. Good drainage is particularly important with pawpaw and sweet potato. As well as providing nutrition when preparing the soil, I feed my garden fortnightly with a foliar application of liquid seaweed. This supplies the plants with the trace elements they need to maintain their full nutritional value.

Beyond the potato

Don’t limit yourself to potato for your carbohydrate fix – there are many other food crops you can grow that are full of nutrients, including yam, sweet potato and pawpaw.

Yam (Dioscorea spp.) This warm-climate, winter herbaceous, perennial climber thrives in eastern and northern coastal Australia. Aerial potatoes produce tubers in the axils of leaves, whereas other types, such as the winged yam, produce underground tubers. Under the right conditions, winged yam tubers can reach 15–30kg. Harvest them as they lose their leaves in autumn.Dice and boil the yams, then mash them like potato, or you can cut them into wedges, parboil then deep fry.

Pawpaw

(Carica papaya) Usually grown for its sweet fruit, unripe green pawpaw is also a widely used and nourishing staple in Asia. Raw, green pawpaw can be thinly sliced or grated to use in a salad, or diced and boiled like pumpkin. It needs a frost-free climate, excellent drainage and regular watering during dry weather. Pawpaw is a highly productive addition to the garden.Flavour green pawpaw salad with lemon or lime juice, soy sauce, and chopped peanuts and chillies.

Sweet potato

(Ipomoea batatas) This has an annual harvest in warm temperate regions and up to three harvests in the subtropics or tropics. Propagate with cuttings or young tubers. I prefer cuttings to avoid weevils. Take cuttings 30cm long in spring, then remove the side leaves and leave the tips. Plant, leaving tips exposed. Water often until roots develop, then water sparingly. Cook the sweet potato tubers as you would potatoes. The young leaves can also be steamed like spinach.

Cocoyam

(Xanthosoma sagittifolium) Often also called white taro, this clumping perennial relishes warm, moist to wet, fertile soils, and thrives during flooding. However, it also grows well in shelter and when it’s only watered fortnightly in dry conditions. Planted in spring, cocoyam takes a year to mature. Peel, dice and boil corms to neutralise irritating calcium oxalate crystals.
Cook the stem bases and corms by boiling in salted water. Don’t eat the leaves or green leaf stalks.

Arrowroot

(Canna edulis) This is a type of canna lily. All have edible leaves and rhizomes but arrowroot is the most productive species and its tender new leaves are rich in protein. Cannas can also serve as stock feed, mulch or compost. In Brisbane, with reasonable conditions, I can grow a crop in 4–5 months. Rhizomes store best when they are left growing in the ground.
Peel and slice the rhizomes, then soak them in water for six hours before boiling or roasting in the oven.

Banana

(Musa spp.) I grow Bluggoe (Musa x paradisiaca), the only plantain type of banana permitted for cultivation in Queensland. Boiled for 20 minutes, green plantain tastes similar to potato, and its ripe fruit taste like sweet banana. Plantain needs regular watering, shelter and fertile soil, otherwise the yield is variable. Banana becomes unreliable south of Sydney.
Slice off tips of banana, slit lengthwise (just cut through skin) and boil in skin in salted water for 20 minutes.