My seed catalogs are starting to come in - I'm always excited to see them, even though I have to put them aside for the winter lull right at the moment. "Next year's garden" is always perfect, a glorious riot of food and beauty that never has weeds or imperfections. I take a great deal of pleasure in my fantasy, just as I do in the real, imperfect garden.
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. But the reality is that for those of us attempting to produce a large portion of our calories, tomatoes and lettuce are not sufficient - we need to get either the most calories or the best possible nutrition out of our kitchen gardens and landscaping. So I've compiled a list of plants that I think are an important addition to many home gardens - both annual and perennial.
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. But it is also one of the easiest grains to grow in the garden - simply let it mature and harvest the seed, and it makes a delicious and highly nutritious salad and 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 seed, 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 on 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, store extremely well (some of my sweets last more than a year), and unutterably delicious. 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 blueberries constitute a "super food." They have more antioxidants than any single food, and are nutritional powerhouses. They do need acidic soil, but there are blueberries for all climates. Definitely worth replacing your shrubs with.
4. Amaranth - I've grown amaranth before, but this year's experimentation with "Golden Giant" and "Orange" was fascinating. In two 5'x4' beds I harvested 11.2 and 13.9 lbs of amaranth seed respectively. The plants are stunningly beautiful - 9' tall, bright honey gold or deep orange, with green variegated leaves. The leaves are also a good vegetable cooked with garlic and sauteed, or cooked southern style. Amaranth is an easy grain crop to harvest and make use of, 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.
5. Chick peas. Unlike most beans, which must be planted after the last frost, chick peas 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 here, or as late as July and still mature a crop. Unlike peas and favas that don't like hot weather, and most dry beans that don't like cold, chick peas seem happy no matter what. If you've only ever eaten store chick peas, you'll be fascinated to experience home grown ones - it is, 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 and stomach and colon cancer. Beets are rich in folate (which prevents birth defects) and in studies have shown enormous capacity to reduce cholesterol and blood pressure, and fight colon and stomach cancer. Beets 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 beets with salt and pepper, or steaming them and pureeing them with apples and ginger. Laurie Colwin used to swear that her recipe for beets with angel hair pasta could convert anyone into a beet lover. 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-three fatty acids. A recent article claimed that we have no choice but to turn to GMO crops to provide essential omega threes 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 has particular value in nothern intensive gardening, which tends to be low in fats. If you grow more than you need, flaxseed is an excellent chicken feed - my poultry adore it.
8. Popcorn. If I could grow only one kind of corn, it would be popcorn, and popcorn 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 popcorn 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 foods diet.
9. Kidney beans. While kidneys have lower protein levels than soy beans, they are very close to soy in total protein, and have the advantage of yielding 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 10 or more) it would probably be a kidney variety.
10. Rhubarb. Why rhubarb? Because it will tolerate almost any growing conditions, including part shade (most vegetables won't), wet soil, and you jumping up and down on it and trying to get it out. Once it is established, rhubarb is tireless. It is also delicious - it does require a fair bit of sweetener (stevia, applejuice 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, and goes on as late as July, happily producing spear after spear of calcium rich, tasty food, right when you are desperate for something, anything but dandilions and lettuce. 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 here.
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, and 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 its 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 in the others.
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 18 months without softening, delicious flavor that improves in storage, and high nutritional value.
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 have the virtue of lasting 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 sprinking 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 30lbs from a 4'x4' square). I did it just to confirm what people have always known - potatoes grow in places on 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 potatoes can tolerate all sorts of bad situations, and come back strong. And potatoes respond better to hand cultivation than any other grain - until the 1960s hand grown, manured potatoes routinely outyielded green revolution varlieties 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 lemonjuice. Since sumac grows essentially over the entire US area that won't support lemons, this is enormously valuable. You can can freeze or can sumac lemonade for seasoning and drinking all year round. Poison sumac has white or greenish white berries, so they are 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 Tennesee study shows.
17. Parsnips. If you don't live in the northeast, or do biointensive 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 (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 onions, that simply stay in the ground and are pulled and replanted are so enormously valuable - good tasting, put them where you want them, 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.
Anyway, I hope this helps you as you sort through your seed catalogs! Happy dreaming!