Casaubon's Book

25 Plants You Should Consider Growing

Note: This is a rerun from ye olde blogge. As the book deadline approaches, expect to see some of my previous opi making appearances here. Since I’ve got more than 1000 of them, it shouldn’t be too boring, I hope. I hope this one will help some of you in garden planning this year.

There are a million gardening books out there to tell you how to grow perfect tomatoes and lettuces. And that’s important, especially after the blight disaster last year – 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 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 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 have more antioxidants than most other foods and unlike other good for you crops, will be eaten by the bucketfull by kids. They do need acidic soil, but there are blueberries for all climates. Definitely worth replacing your shrubs with blueberries if you can.

4. Amaranth – I’ve grown amaranth before, but my first year growing “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. My chickens love it too.

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 and good for you in a host of other ways. 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, whereas a recipe for beets with tahini has converted many of my friends. Really, try them again! My big discovery last year was the Intermediate Yellow Mangel, which produces 20 lb beets that are sweet, tender and delicious. They were developed as a livestock feed, but we fought the goats for them ;-).

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. 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 once established, 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. 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, right when you are desperate for something, anything but dandilions 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 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. 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. 25lb monsters are not unusual – and they store well and tolerate you hacking off chunks for a while without 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 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.

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 (ie, you are unlikely to kill yourself harvesting it, tastes great, and is 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, it has an astounding range and and various varities tolerate quite a number of soils. The nuts are delicious, it is 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. 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 when dry burn extremely well and hot in your woodstove.

23. Rice. In India, nearly half of all rice comes from the gardens of those who farm less than 5 acres – often from home plots of much less than that. This is true over much of Asia – the staple food of their population is often grown in what we’d consider garden sized plots – and the aggregate feeds a population. While the far northermost growers may struggle with this, rice is one of the few staple grains totally amenable to home scale cultivation, and if you can grow rice, you might want to consider it. It is a nearly univeral staple – studies have found that rice allergy essentially does not exist. While growing and harvesting rice on a home scale 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 who 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 that most diabetics can eat pretty freely of these.

25. Kale/Collards. They don’t mind heat – 100 degree days don’t phase 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, 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 vinagrette, cook them with bacon dressing – it doesn’t really matter, they are universally good.

Sharon

Comments

  1. #1 NoAstronomer
    February 5, 2010

    You had me at Sweet Potatoes. I love them. The soil conditions you describe perfectly match mine here in central New Jersey.

  2. #2 Dunc
    February 5, 2010

    If you don’t like beets, you probably haven’t had them served properly. Personally, my favourite is just to grate them raw. And if you don’t like parsnips, I’m afraid there’s just no hope for you!

    Sweet potatoes are probably the next one on this list for me to try, although up here in Scotland, it’s going to take some careful research…

  3. #3 Toaster
    February 5, 2010

    Recently invented a wonderful turnip appetizer recipe. Boil the turnips until slightly soft, scoop out the center with a vegetable peel and stuff with a thick cinnamon glaze to your preference. Roll in beat eggs, roll in bread crumbs, and fry in hot oil until golden brown. Serve with a cold chili-tumeric-lime sauce. The pungency of the cinnamon offsets the sweetness of the turnip and accentuates the tumeric and lime in the sauce.

  4. #4 khan
    February 5, 2010

    Beet greens are also delicious (taste like chard).

    Mother used to plant potatoes on top of an under straw. She could reach in and pull out a few baby potatoes without disturbing the plant.

  5. #5 Rob
    February 5, 2010

    Sharon,

    Can you point me to a good supplier of heirloom potatoes?

    We’re cultivating a garden in West Virginia this year, and want to plant potatoes, corn, and perhaps onions.

  6. #6 Rob
    February 5, 2010

    Dunc,

    Cold boiled beets, sliced, served with a balsamic vinaigrette (olive oil, vinegar, pepper, garlic, mustard, salt, and some herbs if you want). Yum yum.

  7. #7 Zach Frey
    February 5, 2010

    Re: rice — I would love information on how to find seed for any northern-adapted varieties. My internet-fu has been insufficient for this.

    If the answer is “get the new Gene Logsdon book”, I’m OK with that. :)

    Thanks,
    Zach

  8. #8 Adrie
    February 5, 2010

    First, love your books and your blog -thank you!! Secondly, I’ve been dying to grow chickpeas -where do you get your seed (or do you just plant some from the store?)
    We actually run a grain CSA in New England, and I would love to do this as one of our crops, as well as at home.

  9. #9 Sue in pacNW
    February 5, 2010

    amaranth…cook leaves “southern style”..what?

  10. #10 Rob
    February 5, 2010

    “Southern Style”

    Greens boiled with salt and fatback, usually collard greens, which have to be cooked halfway to hell to make them tender.

    Eaten on New Years Day to ensure prosperity (green leaves signify paper money).

  11. #11 Emily
    February 5, 2010

    Is there a way to, um, “de-gas” Jerusalem Artichokes?

  12. #12 Natalie
    February 5, 2010

    Oh sure, now I have to double the size of my garden, again, in order to grow all these great plants!

    We are growing popcorn this year, though, and I’ve heard it can be difficult getting it to the correct dryness to pop well. Any hints?

  13. #13 D. C. Sessions
    February 5, 2010

    Peppers. Vastly more vitamin C than almost anything (although potatoes are good too.) Then again, I’m a Southwestern native and last year’s peppers are bearing again after taking a bit of a beating over December.

    Tomatillos. Reliably reported to thrive from Mexico to Minnesota, frost will kill them but not much else. Mine haven’t borne much fruit the last couple of years (we suspect lack of pollination) but before then we were getting bushels of them out of two smallish bushes (and they’ll climb, too, given a chance.) Little suckers taste like tart apples if you’ve never tried them.

  14. #14 PLC
    February 5, 2010

    Make it 26 and consider adding hemp if it is legal where you live. It is:

    FOOD-nut butter,milk,flour,sprouts
    DIETARY SUPPLEMENT—Very high Omega-3′s!
    FIBER
    MEDICINE
    PAPER
    FABRIC
    CORDAGE
    BUILDING MATERIAL
    WEED/SOIL CONTROL
    ANIMAL BEDDING

  15. #15 Eric
    February 5, 2010

    I’d like to add some large trees – chestnuts from Badgersett and black walnuts.

  16. #16 D. C. Sessions
    February 5, 2010

    I’d like to add some large trees – chestnuts from Badgersett and black walnuts.

    Well, if you’re adding trees …

    Mesquite. Fast-growing, low water use, nitrogen fixers, edible seed pods (be careful with feeding them to ruminants, they’re seriously high protein), good deciduous shade, and excellent fuel.

    Also, the wood is utterly lovely although it’s hard to get large straight pieces.

  17. #17 MaryD
    February 5, 2010

    Baked rhubarb is to die for.

    Layer stalks on a baking tray and lightly sprinkle with brown sugar. Bake in a moderate oven till all collapsed – maybe 1/2 an hour

    YUM

  18. #18 Claire
    February 5, 2010

    Best way I know to de-gas J-chokes is to just keep eating them as often as possible. I think what happens is the microbe population in your gut gradually mutates to microbes that can digest inulin without making gas. After a few years of eating J-chokes, I no longer get any gas (and I used to be very gassy after eating them). It does seem to take awhile, though. Persist and one day you’ll be gas-free too.

    Logsdon’s book doesn’t offer much useful in rice processing for homesteads – too bad, I’d grow it otherwise.

    So far what works for me in drying popcorn is to leave it to dry out slowly for a few months before removing it from the cobs. I don’t have mice so I spread it on screens to dry (there’s still some cobs in the basement as I write). If you can braid ears together, you could hang them on hooks from the ceiling and avoid mice that way, at least I’ve seen photos of such braided, hanging cobs. Presumably the pulled-back husks are what is braided in this case, but I can’t really tell from the photos I’ve seen.

    Sweet potatoes are great – *unless* you get 12″ of rain and November-like temps in October when you are supposed to be harvesting them. In that case, they rot in the ground to nothingness. It was doubly disappointing because I got my slips off potatoes I’d saved from the previous year’s crop and was congratulating myself for increased self sufficiency – obviously too soon.

  19. #19 Anna
    February 5, 2010

    I love this list because nearly every plant on it is either one I already grow or one that I’ve already bought seed/starts to try out this year!!

    My only complaint is rice. I live in Virginia (with all that snow you want — you can have it), and all of the research I’ve done makes it sound like I wouldn’t have luck to grow rice here. Rice needs months of temeperatures where the minimum is above 70 — we barely have days of that, even in the height of summer. I think rice is only suitable to the deep South and California.

    Instead, we’re going to experiment with quinoa and hulless oats (along with the already mentioned buckwheat and amaranth.)

  20. #20 Tsu Dho Nimh
    February 5, 2010

    If you are recommending plants, please specify where you are growing them. Your list is full of things that die real fast.

    Buckwheat? Fagopyrin in the plant can cause photosensitivity, much like St. John’s Wort … there’s a reason why it’s not a staple food of any culture (except vegan juicers). Well known to veterinary medicine, only a matter of time before it’s common among your blog readers.

    Collards and Kale are “heat tolerant”? They “bolt” (go to seed and turn bitter) by May in Phoenix.

  21. #21 Flowers
    February 5, 2010

    Thanks for sharing the information on 25 plants. You seems to be quite resourceful and your blog is informative and helpful. Keep on posting.

  22. #22 Debbie
    February 6, 2010

    Can anyone point me to a source for potato onions?

  23. #23 Forrest Landscaping
    February 6, 2010

    The figure represents a 25 percent increase over the amount of money spent on vegetable gardens in 2006. Forrest Landscaping

  24. #24 Evey
    February 6, 2010

    Are potato onions the same as walking onions? I am going to try saving heirloom onion seed for the first time this year.

  25. #25 Jim
    February 7, 2010

    You can find potato onions at Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (they also carry perennial leeks, too – which I’m planning on trying this year). Link: http://www.southernexposure.com

    And no, potato onions are not walking onions – they’re two different types of onions. Walking onions produce bulblets on the tops of the plants while potato onions divide and produce more onions in the ground. They’re pretty cool to grow but I’ve not had luck establishing potato onions as a permanent crop here in southern Minnesota… I’ll keep trying, though.

  26. #26 octopod
    February 7, 2010

    While Tsu Dho Nimh is totally right about photosensitivity, I feel like I ought to point out that this is true only of the leaves of buckwheat. There’s no fagopyrin in the seeds.

    Also, this is all for upstate NY. Works for my new place in Michigan but not for where I used to live in Southern California, and sure-as-hell is not directly applicable to Phoenix.

  27. #27 Gene
    February 7, 2010

    Great list. But rice! The only thing I’d add is a big plot of dill to attract the swallowtail butterflies. :)

  28. #28 Sharon Astyk
    February 8, 2010

    Actually, buckwheat leaves are quite a common addition to salad mixes among growers who have to keep ‘em coming all summer long. Looking it up, the photosensitivity issue seems to come up if you are eating a lot of it – not if you are throwing some leaves in with other greens periodically.

    And yes, I’m in upstate NY. Collards and Kale are heat tolerant – they just aren’t cacti ;-) – I bet your raab and spinach don’t make it to anything like May.

    Sharon

  29. #29 D. C. Sessions
    February 8, 2010

    I bet your raab and spinach don’t make it to anything like May.

    May? I’ll be impressed if they make it to March. I guess we’ll just have to eat them. On the other hand, it looks like the eggplant and peppers all survived the winter, along with quite a few of the tomatoes. The tomatoes and peppers are actually bearing, if sorta slowly. Once it warms up just a bit more the peppers should be back like thunder. Time to get read to smoke some more reds (my current research project [1].)

    Mid-May is the average date for for the first day over 100F — but the record is in March. Today is fairly cool for February (low to mid 60F range) but it looks like warming later in the week.

    [1] Home-grown red peppers smoked with home-grown mesquite trimmings. Intensely smoky, fairly hot, complex. I’ve been giving samples away to co-workers and they’re all begging for more.

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.