What to Grow in Your Garden*

It’s customary when writing these sorts of gardening advice blogs to include your top favorite/most recommended things to grow, so here’s a dozen I’ve chosen after a bit of thought. Some are categories rather than specific things, and I’m definitely not above cheating at making my own list.

My criteria is primarily focused on subsistence gardening, so for most of them the point is to be actually be able to significantly feed people from what you produce. And as the asterisk in the title suggests, not everything is necessarily coming out of the garden.

#12 Walking onions (Allium prolliferum)

Sometimes called tree onion or Egyptian onion, these are a perennial onion that isn’t too different from the onions most of us are accustomed to. The main difference is that they set a number of bulbils, or small bulbs, at the top of the stalk rather than flowers, and since those bulbils can start growing greens themselves and even new bulbils on those greens, they can make for some interesting, Tim Burton-esque plants with lots of gnarly twisting onions on top of onions. The “walking” part of the name comes from the fact that once the bulbils get too heavy for the stem (usually after it dies back in the fall), the bulbils come into contact with soil a short distance away and start setting roots.

I’ve grown these for over a decade now, all coming from a few bulbils from two separate sources: some from an in-law and some stolen from an abandoned garden at a facility I worked at. The latter had become partially overgrown with the walking onions as a result of its lack of attention.

They are easy to grow in that “it’s pretty hard to kill this without actual violence” way. The bulbs will last a long time out of the ground since they might have to hang out in open air for some time, and as such store well and are forgiving of fairly poor soils. The greens are usable as scallions until they start growing the bulbils, at which point they become too hard. The bulbils themselves are the size of boiler onions or smaller when on the stem, and maybe grow to the size of a large shallot if they’ve grown in the ground for a while. In taste they remind me of somewhere between shallots and red onions.

#11 Herbs & spices

My herb spiral isn’t the most aesthetically perfect one, but it grows herbs so that’s good enough I guess.

Aside from adding flavor to foods, which often becomes important for homegrown vegetables, and the great number of medicinal plants that can keep us healthy, a lot of herbaceous plants can add extra help to your garden in the form of pest deterrence and soil fertility. As I mentioned elsewhere, comfrey and nettle in particular are useful for providing easy composting materials and collect a lot of nutrients. Marigolds are a classic for deterring nematodes, radishes may help deter some flying pests, mints are reportedly foul smelling to rodents, yarrow supposedly make some plants taste better, etc. There’s a lot of information, some of it conjecture and anecdotes, to guide us towards using herbs and flowers for companion planting purposes. I don’t claim to have totally figured this out, but surrounding my garden with a lot of walking onions and fragrant flowering herbs seems to help some. And my food tastes better. If at all possible, incorporate as many perennial and self seeding herbs as possible, so you don’t need to keep planting.

#10 Kale, Cabbage, and Collards (Brassica oleracea varieties)

Kale, cabbage, and collards are all easy greens to grow that are fairly substantial in terms of filling up a meal. They’re more substantial than a lot of greens. In addition, they tend to be harvestable to some degree through colder months, perhaps except maybe the most bitter parts of winter. And most of all, they’re fairly prolific with halfway decent soil.

I’m not gonna pretend they’re my favorite vegetables, but maybe that’s partially because for a while I grew a LOT of kale.

I look forward to trying perennial varieties of leafy brassicas, but I can’t yet say I have experience with them.

#9 Turnips (Brassica rapa), Beets ( Beta vulgaris), and Radishes (Raphanus sativus): fast growing root vegetables.

Three types of beets that I grow.

In term of straight up survival crops, at least one of these should always be part of the plan. None of them are super high calorie, but they all grow in a month or two and take up little space. Turnips and radishes in particular are really easy, and I’ve never had an issue with them. They’re both brassicas and are fairly hardy. Beets I had some trouble with early on when I got more seriously into gardening, but as I’ve built good soil and learned to amend and mulch and such I’ve had fewer issues. And even when the plants didn’t form good roots, the leaves were still good.

#8 Mushrooms!

Growing specific fungi isn’t generally something that gardening guides mention, but it’s a hugely overlooked opportunity to make better use of space in your gardens, as well as produce a protein rich food source. Mushrooms also provide nutrients often lacking in typical Western diets. I’d put it higher on the list if it weren’t for the fact that a lot of people don’t eat mushrooms.

Two types of mushrooms are an ideal companion crop to grow along with your garden vegetables: wine caps (Stropharia rugosoannulata) and oyster mushrooms (multiple Pleurotus species, but mostly Pleurotus ostreatus). The mycelium of both are aggressive decomposers of coarse and woody organic matter. If you’re utilizing deep mulch layers as I described above, it only makes sense to innoculate that mulch with one of these fungi.  They will accelerate the breakdown of the mulch into the soil and add organic matter, hold moisture, and will even consume potentially harmful nematodes. The only downside is that they will also consume some of the nitrogen in the mulch as part of the decomposition process, but if you’ve got healthy soil it generally won’t be noticeable.

Some types like Pleurotus are also easy to grow in buckets or other small containers with small holes drilled in them. A substrate of sawdust, straw, or other coarse organic matter that’s been at least partially sterilized is packed in layers in the container with mushroom spawn layered in between. Pleurotus species will easily fruit thought the holes.

Wine caps in particular are known to companion well with maize, so it’s a great idea to innoculate any beds or mounds you intend to plant with the Three Sisters. Which brings us to…

#7, #6, and #5: The Three Sisters: maize (Zea mays), beans (Phaseolus vulgaris), and winter squash (Curcubita sp.)

These plants have been grown in combination in various ways for at least a thousand years in North America, and they continue to be a resilient, productive, and essential set of crops. Grown separately all three are worthy of mention in their own right, but grown close together and even in the same space they maximize the output, support each other, and even create a complete protein.

Maize is a heavy feeding crop and in particular needs a fair bit of nitrogen, as well as regular watering. As close to full sun as possible is required for all three of the Sisters, but none moreso than maize. In terms of fertilizing it, the old school way lot of people hear about is to put a fish head or whole fish into the mound before planting maize, but I like fish emulsion or fish based pellets intended for feed. My experience with the fish parts has been good…when the skunks don’t dig up the bed to get to them.  Properly fertilized, though, maize can be a huge source of calories in a garden, providing either sweet corn to be eaten fresh or a hard grain corn to be used as animal feed and bread. I recommend the hard varieties for subsistance gardening. Because maize is wind pollinated, planting one or two rows won’t really work. Instead, they should be planted in blocks, so that when the pollen from the tassels up top start falling and blowing nearby, the silks that come out of the cobs have a better chance of catching some since they’ll have other plants close by in most or all directions.

Of the three of these, maize is the most difficult to grow because of the fertilizing and water needs, and the fact that poor conditions during a relatively small window of time can absolutely ruin the pollination of the ears, and thus ruin the crop. Too much extreme heat during the pollination stage will render the pollen sterile. For this reason, I don’t particularly recommend growing maize if it’s outside of the Three Sisters guild.

Beans are probably the most important of these three plants on their own if only for their prolific production and high protein content, and I definitely recommend planting more than just the ones in your Three Sisters bed(s). Beans are a nitrogen fixing plant, which means that they form relationships with microbes to fix nitrogen from the air and put it into the soil; typically this requires some innoculation of the soil to make sure those microbes are present, but that should only need to be done once.  This feature is one of the big reasons this guild works so well and depletes the soil less than just maize grown on its own.

I like to do one or two types of pole beans along with the maize, but then also a bunch of different bush and pole bean types around the garden.  Pole beans are typical for the plant guild, as the climbing vines of the beans attach to the tall stalks of the maize and give some support against strong winds. Of course, if you find space that bush varieties can fit in, feel free to fill the space with them. Plant only one pole bean per maize stalk, otherwise they could get overgrown and weighed down. When planting pole beans on a trellis, you can pack them pretty tight as long as the soil is fertile and has a reasonable amount of organic matter.

Winter squash is a great crop in its own right, producing often large fruits that store well for months if done right, and thus allows some fresh produce well into winter. The large leaves shade the ground and thus reduce irrigation needs, and since they’re kinda prickly they tend to deter pests trying to eat your grains and legumes. I’ve had pretty good luck planting a few pumpkin vines on each end of long beds planted with the Three Sisters, and trained them to wrap around and cover the ground of those beds.

To plant these three together, the usual way is to plant the maize first, then the pole beans when the maize is six inches or so, and then the squash a bit after that. I prefer to plant the maize and squash at the same time, and then two or three weeks later place a pole bean with each maize stalk. This planting is usually done well into the growing season, since the ground needs to be pretty a bit warm for the maize to germinate. For me in zone 6 that’s usually May or June.

#4 Potatoes (Solanum tuberosum)

Potatoes are one of the most eaten vegetables in the world and definitely have earned their place in any survival or subsistence garden. Harvested and stored properly, these root vegetables from South America can keep for months or even a year or more. They’re very calorically dense and have a little bit of protein (enough to mention, anyway). The best part, though, is that they’re pretty easy to grow. In almost every circumstance, you can count on getting more potato out of the ground than you put in. With some decent fertility in the soil and semi-regular watering, potatoes are likely to be a major source of food for a home grower that dedicates some space to them.

An important aspect of growing potatoes to understand is that varieties are characterized as early season, mid season, and late season varieties. This effects both harvest time and growing habits.

Growing potatoes can be as easy as placing the sprouting tubers underneath the thick mulch layer, just in contact with the soil. This is what Ruth Stout did to plenty of success. A lot of my potatoes are grown basically this way. If you’ve got space, I recommend doing exactly this to get a lot of output for little work. Then it’s as simple as putting them there a bit before the last frost, and harvesting them when the vines die back. If you’re more space limited, you may want to grow potatoes in bags, bales, or towers.

Potatoes can tolerate some shade.

#3 Sunchokes, aka Jerusalem Artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus)

Native to North America, the sunchoke/sunroot/jerusalem artichoke is a perennial plant in the same family as sunflowers, but rather than put a lot of energy into making big flower heads with a lot of seeds like the sunflowers most of us are familiar with, this member of the genus is known for and reproduces primarily by producing starchy tubers. This is what we’re after for food. Even easier to grow than the potato is and often just as productive, sunchokes generally just need to be planted once and then subsequently harvested each year. It’s pretty typical for a patch to grow back after harvest, even if you don’t purposefully replant a few of them. It’s probably a good idea to fertilize occasionally, but if we’re doing the deep mulching I recommended earlier this shouldn’t be a problem.

Sunchoke tubers look a bit like ginger but are more like a cross between a potato and a water chestnut. In terms of calories, protein, and fiber they’re pretty comparable to potatoes. I rank these are higher importance than potatoes almost entirely because of the complete ease of growing them, because otherwise I definitely prefer eating potatoes. Maybe I just need to practice cooking the sunchokes.

The one thing to keep in mind is that sunchokes can give people a lot of gas, particularly if you’re not accustomed to them. As I mentioned in my post about them, they’ve absolutely earned the nickname “fartichoke”. Harvesting them after some freezing weather seems to reduce the gas causing inulin in the tubers, and cooking them on low heat for a long time (like in a slow cooker) seems to break them down into more digestible and tasty sugars.

Sunchokes require full sun.

#2 Eggs

Okay these last two are kind of cheating but I also think you should make central to your food production if given the choice.

Eggs from backyard laying hens, or even a bigger flock than what might be considered a simple backyard one, are a fantastic source of protein and fat from a small scale system that otherwise might have few quality sources of these nutrients. These are the macronutrients most often missing from people’s gardens, and you can’t consistently rely on getting them if you’re hunting, trapping, fishing, and foraging. So while I certainly suggest doing any of those things to supplement if you can, having a regular source of eggs is a level of security that rivals the rest of the garden.

I’ve already discussed most of the reasons to include chickens into an integrated food production system above, but it bares repeating that chickens can be fed largely on kitchen scraps and weeds from the garden, as well as insect larva cultivated from a variety of uneaten animal parts using a maggot bucket. For a big part of the last summer I kept our hens well fed like this, putting guts and other uneaten parts from woodchucks trapped in the garden itself and small fish I’d caught.

#1 Acorns (Quercus sp.) or other large tree nuts

This one is cheating because obviously if you don’t already have these growing, planting them now will do you no good for a LONG time. But seeing as how oaks are a widespread genus of trees (as are hickory, walnut, and other large trees that produce edible nuts) it makes sense to build forest gardens incorporating existing trees and maybe even centering them. A lot of permaculture resources make a big deal about accelerating succession and using faster growing nurse trees to help apex canopy trees to grow, but if you’ve already got some of those why not just tend to the area and clear space for cooperative understory species?

Oaks are one of my favorites because the acorns, once processed, can stand in for a lot of staple grains. Oaks are prolific during their masting years, and generally produce a reasonable amount during others. Given these facts, it’s not surprising that they’ve been used as a staple by a number of cultures for thousands of years. I’ve gone over the process of making acorns edible in another post, so I won’t reproduce it here.

So obviously my particular recommendations of what to grow is influenced by the region I live in and the space(s) I grow in. Some of them will be good ideas for most or all of you, and others less so. Like I still think you should include laying hens if you can, but if you don’t get freezing winters then maybe breeds that are cold tolerant are less necessary. Likewise, if you are in a warmer habitat you can include other root vegetables like sweet potatoes and maybe stuff like oca.

If you’re limited on space, it’s especially important to plan for caloric density and protein content when you’re deciding how to use your precious space. It’s still pretty important even if you have a lot of space, since we’re working on the assumption that we’ll have limited outside sources of food; you’re not going to get a balanced diet by planting three acres of kale and onions.

It’s a safe move to plan at least a quarter of your garden each to the Three Sisters and root crops like potatoes and sunchokes. If you’re extremely limited on space, make them most or even all of the garden. These crops that will keep you fed and with adequate protein are a priority when we’re trying to grow for subsistence.

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