I’ve been giving a lot of thought to growing our own groceries and which items give the best return flavour wise, money wise and environmentally. Here are my top five picks.
1 – Herbs
Herbs take the number one spot hands down. If I could only grow one thing, a herb would be my first choice. No other category of plants give such a huge return on such little space. You can even successfully grow herbs in a few pots parked on a windowsill.
Unlike the cabbage epiphany in the last post, where the cost of one plant at a nursery was almost equivalent to one cabbage head at the grocery store, you can buy a pot of herbs for the same price as just a few wilted leaves in a plastic grocery store clamshell. That same herb will provide you with dozens of clippings, easily saving you all kinds of money. More if you really look after it and harvest often. The great thing about herbs is the more you clip them the more they grow and the more you get. It’s a beautiful thing.
You can dry herbs to refill those tiny expensive herb jars you buy in the spice aisle. It’s dead easy and will taste far superior. You can also replace your favourite herb teas with your own home grown ones. I am currently growing a Holy Basil Ocimum tenuiflorum to make my own Tulsi Tea. The packet of seeds cost me $3.19 while the cost of a single box of Tulsi Tea at the grocery store sets me back $7.99. You can even make your own unique custom blends of teas by drying and combining different herbs.
On top of all that, are the medicines and beauty products you can make from your herbs. Herb products make fabulous gifts, saving even more money, not to mention post consumer waste.
Factor all that in and a tiny herb garden can save you hundreds of dollars. Plus most herbs have the soul of a weed and are ridiculously easy to grow.
If only all garden math worked out so well!
2 – Greens
If you buy those big plastic packs of organic baby greens you will love growing your own. No more guilt when you reach for the forgotten pack of greens only to find a slimy mass of leaves inside. All that packaging, shipping and money for nothing. Or maybe I’m the only one guilty of that.
If you grow your own greens you negate the need for any of those things. No packaging, no shipping, no refrigeration and very little cost. You can buy seed packs of Mesclun Mixes which are simply an assortment of leafy greens, or custom blend your own mix. If you gently tear off or cut the leaf and leave the roots undisturbed, most will grow back several times. A patch as small as four feet square can provide a small family with a season’s worth of greens.
If you add another four by four patch and fill it with Swiss Chard, spinach and kale you can freeze these heavier leafed greens over the summer to toss in stews, soups and smoothies all winter long. If you don’t have room in your vegetable garden tuck some yellow, red, orange or pink Swiss Chard in your flower beds along with some purple kale. They will add a pop of decorative colour to both your borders and your plate.
3 – Berries
Strawberries, raspberries, saskatoons, haskaps, currants, and gooseberries are some of the berries that grow well here in the north. As mentioned in the last post if you freeze berries over the summer they will provide you with a flavourful alternative to buying expensive (and too often flavourless) fresh berries in plastic clamshells over the winter.
Spread the berries out on a cookie sheet, set in the freezer until frozen and then transfer to a large reuseable freezer container. This prevents the berries from freezing together into one big unusable clump and allows you to easily scoop out as much or as little as needed.
4 – Shelling Peas
If you are going to go to all the effort of growing your own groceries, it makes sense to grow things that no amount of money can buy. Rare heirlooms can fall into that category and so do shelling peas fresh in the pod. You might luck out and find some at a Farmer’s Market but you won’t find any at most grocery stores.
The reason being that once picked you only have a day or so (provided you pop them into a bag and put them in the fridge right after picking) before the pods go limp. Shelling Peas are meant to picked, shelled and processed for the freezer all in the same day.*
However, most never make it to the freezer, and that’s what makes them a must for the garden. Frozen peas can be easily bought (though home grown tastes so much better).
Shelled raw peas, on the other hand, are a seasonal treat best enjoyed while standing out in the garden, picking, shelling and popping those delectable green orbs directly into your mouth one after another. Sadly it’s an experience not everyone gets to have.
*Hint – I used to blanch my peas before freezing, until I learned they can be treated just like berries. Spread them on a cookie sheet, freeze and scoop out as needed. Easy peasy.
5 – Potatoes
Potatoes rarely make the list of space/cost/production vegetables but I say Pffft. If you are looking to be self sufficient in something you could do a whole lot worse than potatoes. In fact, here in the north, for pure caloric return, you can’t do much better.
If the Zombie Apocalypse hits it would be hard to subsist on a few containers of frozen berries, peas and kale. However, if you have a few bushels of potatoes tucked away in your cold room, root cellar, crawl space or even boxed up in a cool garage, your chances of making it through to spring suddenly look a whole lot brighter. Hungry Zombies notwithstanding.
Another reason I like to grow most of own potatoes is that I once read that commercial potato growers always keep a patch of spuds in a small garden behind the barn for their own family because they don’t want to subject them to the necessary evil of all the chemicals used to successfully harvest a massive crop. I’m not sure if that’s true, but I do know that potatoes routinely make the Dirty Dozen list of our most chemically compromised produce, along with berries and greens!
Plus I really love potatoes and they are so versatile they usually show up in our meals several times a week. If you are going to be eating something often, it makes sense to lighten the chemical load if you can. And there is nothing like the taste of new potatoes. My mouth is watering just at the thought of those scrumptious tiny tubers.
Which brings me to my Number One Rule in choosing your Top Five things to grow in your garden…choose things you love to eat! Sounds like a no brainer but it is surprising how much effort I have put into growing produce I don’t even like.
If you’re looking at this top five list and thinking, “How could you have left out______(fill in the blank)” then whatever is in your blank should definitely go into your garden, along with onions, garlic and radishes.
Notice how I just tossed those three in there out of the blue?
I think of radishes, onions and garlic as the salt you might sprinkle over your meal. Even if your plate is full, there is always room for a sprinkling of salt. Same thing with radishes, onions and garlic.
Radishes reach maturity in as few as 27 days meaning you are already gleaning a harvest while other vegetables in the same bed are just starting to get their act together. Lots of people sow them with carrots, which are notoriously slow in germinating. The quick popping radishes mark the rows and break ground for the carrots that follow and are already harvested by the time carrots need room.
Onions and garlic can be tucked into all the corners and crevices of both your flower and vegetable gardens, and even into pots. Tall and slender, they take up little room and as an added bonus, confuse and repel pests with their no nonsense scents, making for a healthier more productive garden.
To the above five (or eight if you include the all-over sprinkling of radishes, onions and garlic) I will also be growing cabbage (as mentioned in the last post) as well as carrots, beets, tomatoes, zucchini, spaghetti squash, peppers, cucumber, snow peas and, finally and unexpectedly, two peppermint celery plants that leaped into my cart along with the cabbage starts. Peppermint celery! Who says no to a name like that? Obviously, not me.
I think a person should plant at least one edible a year they have never grown before. It keeps things interesting and who knows? It may become next year’s top five favourite. You’ll never know unless you try it.
Right now it is cold and rainy outside, and we are all thinking the S word even if we’re not saying it. However, starting tomorrow, it looks like we will be heading back towards 20 celsius and sunny skies.
But today I feel like I am stuck in the starting pose for an Olympic sprint, just waiting for the starting gun…or sun.
Ready, set, grow!