Wondering what the best plants to grow in your vegetable garden are? Sharon Astyk shares her best bets.
In the face of ecological and economic crises, living more simply, cost-effectively and gracefully may be the most urgent project of all. Making Home (New Society Publishers, 2012) by Sharon Astyk demonstrates that the new good life is within reach, exploring how to save money and use fewer resources in every aspect of our lives, all while preserving more for future generations.
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There are a million gardening books out there to tell you how to grow perfect tomatoes and lettuces. And that’s important — in my house, salsa is a food group. For those of us attempting to grow a large portion of our calories ourselves, however, tomatoes and lettuce are not sufficient — we need to either get the most calories or the best possible nutrition out of our kitchen gardens and landscaping. So I’ve compiled a list of plants, both annual and perennial, that I think are an important addition to many home gardens.
1. Buckwheat. Buckwheat is the perfect multipurpose plant. Many of you have probably used it as a green manure, taking advantage of its remarkable capacity to shade out weeds and produce lots of green material to enrich the soil. But it is also one of the easiest grains to grow in the garden — simply let it mature and harvest the seed, and the leaves make a delicious and highly nutritious salad or cooking green. Although it won’t be quite as good at soil building if you do it this way, buckwheat can be used as a triple-purpose crop — plant a few beds with it, harvest the greens steadily (but lightly) for salad (it is particularly good during the heat of summer since it has a lightly nutty taste not too far off lettuce and will grow in hot weather), cook some of the mature greens, harvest the seeds, then cut the plants back to about an inch, leaving the plant material on the ground. The buckwheat will then grow back up again and you can harvest young salad greens and cut it back again for green manure.
2. Sweet potatoes. Think this is a southern crop? Not for me. I grow “Porto Rico” sweet potatoes in upstate New York. Garden writer Laura Simon grows them in cool, windy Nantucket. I’ve met people who grow them in Ontario and North Dakota. Sweet potatoes have quite a range if started indoors, and more northerners should grow them. They are enormously nutritious, unutterably delicious and store extremely well (some of my sweets last more than a year). They do need light, sandy soil and good drainage, so I grow them mostly in raised beds with heavily amended soil — my own heavy wet clay won’t do.
3. Blueberries. If there was ever an ornamental edible, this is it. A prettier shrub than privet or most common privacy hedge plants, it produces berries and turns as flaming red as any burning bush in the autumn. I have no idea why more people don’t landscape with blueberries. Add to that the fact that they have more antioxidants than most other foods and, unlike other good-for-you crops, will be eaten by the bucketful by kids. They do need acidic soil, but there are blueberries for all climates. They are definitely worth replacing your shrubs with if you can.
4. Amaranth. I’ve grown amaranth before, but my first year growing “Golden Giant” and “Orange” was fascinating. In two five-by- four feet beds, I harvested 11.2 and 13.9 pounds of amaranth seed respectively. The plants are stunningly beautiful — nine feet tall, bright honey gold or deep orange, with green variegated leaves. The leaves are also a good vegetable cooked with garlic and sautéed or done Southern style. Amaranth is an easy grain crop to harvest and use, is delicious, can be popped like popcorn and makes wonderful cereal. Despite its adaptation to the Southwest (where it routinely yields extremely well with minimal water), it tolerated my wet, humid climate just fine. My chickens love it too.
5. Chickpeas. Unlike most beans, which must be planted after the last frost, chickpeas are highly nutritious and extremely frost tolerant. Plant breeder Carol Deppe has had them overwinter in the Pacific Northwest, and they can be planted as early as April or as late as July here and still mature a crop. Unlike peas and favas that don’t like hot weather, and most dry beans that don’t like cold, chickpeas seem happy no matter what. If you’ve only ever eaten store chickpeas, you’ll be fascinated to experience homegrown ones — they are, in many ways, as big a revelation as homegrown tomatoes.
6. Beets. I know, I know, there’s no vegetable anyone hates as much as the beet. Poor beets — they are so maligned. We should all be eating more beets — especially pregnant women, women in their childbearing years who may become pregnant, and those at risk of heart disease or stomach or colon cancer. Beets are rich in folate and good for you in a host of other ways. They store well, yield heavily, provide highly nutritious greens for salad and cooking and are the sweetest food in nature. If you hate beets, give them another try — consider roasting them with salt and pepper or steaming them and pureeing them with apples and ginger. Laurie Colwin used to swear her recipe for beets with angel hair pasta could turn anyone into a beet lover, while a recipe for beets with tahini has converted many of my friends. Really, try them again!
7. Flax. You can grow this one in your flower beds, mixed in with your marigolds. Flax is usually a glorious blue — the kind of blue all flower gardeners covet. But the real reason to grow it is the seeds. Flaxseed oils are almost half omega-3 fatty acids. A recent article claimed that we have no choice but to turn to GMO crops to provide essential omega-3s without stripping the ocean — ignoring the fact that we can and should be growing flax everywhere, and enjoying flaxseed in our baked goods and our meals. Flax is particularly valuable in northern intensive gardening, which tends to be low in fats. If you grow more than you need, flaxseed is also excellent chicken feed — my poultry adore it.
8. Popcorn. If I could grow only one kind of corn, it would be popcorn, which is particularly suited to home-scale gardening. There are many dwarf varieties, and many that yield well. And popcorn can be ground for flour (it is a bit of work, though, since it is very hard), or popped for food. My kids like popcorn as breakfast cereal, or, of course, as a snack. Popcorn yields quite well for me in raised beds, and is always a treat at my house. It has all the merits of a whole grain, but is “accessible” to people not accustomed to eating brown rice or whole wheat — a great way to transition to a whole-food diet.
9. Kidney beans. While kidneys have less protein than soybeans, they are very close to soy in total protein and yield more per acre. There are a number of pole-variety kidney beans that are suitable to “three sisters” polyculture as well, so you can grow the two together. If I could grow only one dry bean (I usually grow ten or more), it would probably be a kidney variety.
10. Rhubarb. Why rhubarb? Because once established, it will tolerate almost any growing condition, including part shade (most vegetables won’t), wet soil and you jumping up and down on it to try to get it out. Rhubarb is tireless. It is also delicious, though it does require a fair bit of sweetener (stevia, apple juice or pureed cooked beets will do if you are avoiding sugar). We like it cooked to tart-sweet for a few minutes with just a little almond extract. But its great value is that it provides fresh, nutritious, “fruity” tasting food as early as April here, right when we are desperate for something, anything, but dandelions and lettuce, and goes on as late as July, happily producing spear after spear of calcium-rich, tasty food. I’m in the process of converting the north side of my house to a vast rhubarb plantation (OK, not that vast), because we can never get enough of it.
11. Turnips. Let’s say you live in an apartment and want greens all winter but don’t have even a south-facing windowsill available. What can you do? Well, you can buy a bag of turnips from your farmer’s market. Eat some of them raw, enjoying the delicious sweet crispness of them. Shredded, they are a wonderful salad vegetable. Cook some, and mash them or roast them crisp. And take a few of the smaller turnips, put them in a pot with some dirt on it and stick them in a corner — east- or west-facing is best, but even north- will work. And miraculously, using only their stored energy, the pots will go on producing delicious, nutritious turnip greens even in insufficient light. It is magic. If you do have a south-facing windowsill, save it for the herbs and put your potted turnips on the other sills.
12. Maximillian sunflowers. These are the perennials. They are ornamental, tall and stunning in the back of a border. They will tolerate any soil you can offer them, as long as they get full sun. They also produce oil seeds and edible roots, prevent erosion and can tolerate steep slopes, minimal water and complete and utter neglect. Don’t forget to eat them!
13. Hopi orange winter squash. We all have our favorite winter squash, and perhaps you know one that I’ll like even better. But this variety has the advantage of keeping up to eighteen months without softening, delicious flavor that improves in storage and high nutritional value. I have to put in a plug for banana squashes as well — they just produce a ton of food value to the space you allot them. Twenty-five pound monsters are not unusual — and they store well and tolerate you hacking off chunks for a while without a noticeable decline in quality.
14. Annual alfalfa. Most alfalfa is grown for forage, and it has to be grown on comparatively good, limed soil. But alfalfa is good people food too, and even a garden bed’s worth can be enormously valuable. First, of course, it is a nitrogen fixer. While you can grow perennial varieties, the annual fixes more available nitrogen, faster. It can be cut back several times as green manure during the course of a season, or you can harvest it for hay to feed your bunnies or chickens. Don’t forget to dehydrate some for tea — alfalfa is a nutritional powerhouse. And if you permit it to go to seed, the seeds make delicious sprouts and last for years. I’ve found that the annual version will make seed at the end of the season for harvest.
15. Potatoes. A few years ago I did an experiment — I threw a bit of compost on top of a section of my gravel driveway (and by “a bit” I do mean a little bit — not a garden bed’s worth but a light coating), added a sprinkling of bone meal, dropped some pieces of potatoes on the ground and covered them with mulch hay. Periodically I added a bit more and replaced the sign that said, “Please don’t drive on my potatoes,” and in September, I harvested a reasonably good yield, given the conditions (about thirty pounds from a four-by-four foot square). I did it just to confirm what people have always known — potatoes grow in places with rocky, poor soil (or no soil) that no other staple crop can handle. Don’t get me wrong — potatoes will be happier in better conditions, but they can tolerate all sorts of bad situations and come back strong. And they respond better to hand cultivation than any other grain — until the 1960s, hand-grown, manured potatoes routinely out-yielded green revolution varieties of grains grown with chemical fertilizers. If there’s hope to feed the world, it probably lies in potatoes.
16. Sumac. No, not the poison stuff, but yes, I mean the weedy tree that grows along the roadsides here. That weedy tree, you may not realize, has many virtues. Besides its flaming fall color and value for wildlife habitat and food, sumac makes a lovely beverage. If you harvest the red fruits in July or August and soak them, you’ll get a lemony tasting beverage as high in vitamin C as lemon juice. Since sumac essentially grows virtually everywhere in the US that doesn’t support lemons, this is enormously valuable. You can freeze or can sumac lemonade for seasoning and drinking all year round. Poison sumac has white or greenish-white berries, so it is easy to tell apart. Sumac’s other value is as a restorative to damaged soil — densely planted sumac returns bare sand to fertility fairly quickly, as a University of Tennessee study shows.
17. Parsnips. If you don’t live in the Northeast or do bio-intensive gardening, you probably don’t eat parsnips. Me, I’m a New Englander, and the sweet, fragrant flavor of parsnips is a childhood joy. But even I hadn’t ever had a real parsnip — one left in the garden after the ground freezes for its starches to convert to sugars. Parsnips are one of the most delicious things in nature, nutritionally dense and just about the only food you can harvest in upstate New York in February (though you do have to mulch them deeply if you don’t want them frozen in the ground).
18. Potato onions. Onion seed doesn’t last very long — and that’s a worrisome thing. The truth is that if we can’t get seed easily, and we can’t grow out plants for seed easily because of some personal or environmental crisis, we might find ourselves without onions, and what a tragedy that would be. Who can cook without onions? No, we need to have onions. Which is why the perennial potato onion, that simply stays in the ground and is pulled and replanted, is so enormously valuable. It tastes good too, and you can put them where you want, pull up what you need and ignore the rest. They’ll give you scallions before you could get them any other way, and will provide a decent supply of small but storable and delicious onions.
19. King Stropharia mushrooms (aka winecaps). Mushrooms have complex nutritional values, and offer soil-improving benefits. The King Stropharia has the advantage of growing well in wood chip mulch in your garden, having few poisonous cognates (i.e., you are unlikely to kill yourself harvesting it), tasting great and being a natural nematodacidal. They give you something meaty and tasty from your garden and can actually improve total yields in a given space. If you fear fungi, this is an easy one to start with.
20. Filberts/hazelnuts. The best small-space nuts, these have an astounding range and the various varieties tolerate quite a number of soils. The nuts are delicious and fairly easy to grow, and the yields are generally high. In cold climates, oil-rich plants can be hard to come by — this is a useful exception Oh, and if you have chocolate, you can make that basic food staple, Nutella.
21. Elderberries. Got a wet spot? What doesn’t care if it has wet feet, has incredible vitamin C value, delicious and nutritious flowers, makes a champagne-like wine and a red-like wine, grows like a weed, is ornamental and will feed the birds anything you don’t want? Yup, the remarkable elder. What’s not to love?
22. Annual sunflowers. Our local dairy farmers sometimes alternate cow corn with sunflowers as a winter feed. There is truly no more beautiful edible crop in the world than a field full of glowing sunflowers in late summer. They would be valuable enough if they didn’t produce delicious food, high in vitamin E and a host of trace minerals, food for the birds and stalks that burn extremely well when dry and hot in your woodstove.
23. Rice. Rice feeds more people in the world than any other grain, and a surprising amount of it is grown in what we’d consider garden-sized plots. While the far northernmost growers may struggle with this, rice is one of the few staple grains that is totally amenable to homescale cultivation, and if you can grow rice, you might want to consider it. It is a nearly universal staple — studies have found that rice allergy essentially does not exist. While growing and harvesting it is some work (some cultures call it “the tyrant with a soul”), rice is worth the time and energy for many of us.
24. Jerusalem artichokes — I know, duh. Sweet and tasty, crisp and nutty, perennials that will take over your house if you let them — what’s not to love? Those who worry that the bad guys are coming to take their food can plant these in their flower beds without fear that most people will recognize them as anything other than something pretty. When first harvested, the carbohydrates are in the form of inulin, so most diabetics can eat pretty freely of these.
25. Kale/collards. They don’t mind heat — 100-degree days don’t faze them once they are mature. They grow all summer, north or south. They don’t mind cold — some strains will overwinter uncovered here in icy upstate NY, while almost all will overwinter covered. They are nutritionally dense and great cooked or raw in the baby stage. In the cold, their starches turn to sugar. Stir fry them with oyster sauce, steam them and toss them in vinaigrette, cook them with bacon dressing — it doesn’t really matter, they are universally delicious.
Want to learn more about becoming self-sufficient? Read Mooo-ving on In: Raising Backyard Chickens and Other Urban Livestock to discover how adding small livestock breeds can increase your home's food security.
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Making Home: Adapting our Homes and Our Lives to Settle in Place, published by New Society Publishers, 2012.