Top Five Produce Picks for Growing Your Own Groceries

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.

Try not to include the stems and twigs! This is not a good example of “clean berries”

 

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!

 

Eco Villages for the Peaceful Prepper?

Whenever my husband and I start talking retirement and have some downtime we tend to spend it looking at real estate sites. We sit in the living room, each armed with our iPad and we take turns passing them back and forth as we come across a place we like. It’s sort of like House Hunters Digital Style. Or something like that.

Today my husband passed me his iPad with information on an eco village. You buy your own house on common property and are encouraged to have a small garden beside it, as well as a share in the work/harvest of another two acre garden designated to feed the community. There is a common house where everyone can hang out together. Two meals are shared there per week.

“You want us to join a cult?”

“It’s not a cult. It’s an intentional community.”

“Um…so you want us to join a cult?”

“Just read what it says.”

I read.

There were provisions for all kinds of sustainability with an eye to making the footprint of each person as small as possible. I was impressed. Very impressed.  A quick read of the profiles of the current shareholders showed lots of young, ridiculously healthy looking couples with small children. They were the kind that look like they go mountain biking before breakfast, white water rafting in the afternoons and then do some leisurely rock climbing up a mountain face or three before bed.

Folded in there, however, were a couple of happy looking “elders”.

There was even a mention of elders in their vision statement. The elders would provide wisdom, insight and balance to the community.

I am sorry to admit that my initial reaction-right after getting all judgey and dismissing them as a cult-was to snort and roll my eyes.

I have no idea why, but I envisioned a bunch of romantic homesteading wannabes drunk on the idea of saving the planet, who would bolt at their first encounter with quack grass. I think I might have control issues. Or judgmental issues. Or just…issues. I have issues.

I saw myself trying to maintain two acres of vegetables single-handed, while the rest of the community sat around a campfire sipping expensive wine and singing songs. Every once in a while someone would shout out towards the field, “How’s the potato hilling going Shannon?”

“And you’d be playing the flute,” I told Darcy indignantly.

“I like playing the flute.”

“Exactly.”

“And you love gardening, so what’s the problem?”

After I got down off Thunder (my high horse-he’s a palomino btw) and took off my Little-Red-Hen-Who-Does-All-The-Work big ole Attitude Apron, I started to get intrigued.

I read a bit further and discovered many in the community were seasoned gardeners (duh) who were very capable and not the least bit scared of quack grass. I got the impression they might do a little snorting and eye rolling of their own at my paltry efforts to help out in the community patch. Only they wouldn’t because they are much more evolved and not at all judgey. Unlike some people.

I admit I kind of liked the elder persona. I imagined the young people coming to me for advice, though that would be a very bad idea as I have no clue what sort of advice I could impart. Still, it would be nice to be asked.

And then there were the children.

I have two, but they are 27 and 30 and neither plan on having children of their own. So no grandchildren in my immediate future, anyhow. But this community, it would have children built right into it. And I would be like a surrogate grandma. I could see myself guiding along chubby little fingers as they plucked slippery bean seed from a bag and planted them in a row. I imagined sharing the children’s excitement when the beans first popped their heads up through the soil, their little seed caps on their heads. The beans, not the children.

Kids picking vegetables on organic farm

At night I could snuggle a small child on my lap as we sat around the community fire, watching their parents play music or dance. Or I could read them story books. Neither rock climbing or white water rafting are very kid-friendly activities. They would need me to babysit from time to time.

But not too much.

And the clincher? There was no mention of making plans for popping off potato people’s heads.

That’s a thing.

I’ve read about it.

Maybe I should explain.

Because I love the idea of self-sufficiency I often find myself linking up to sites that promote prepping for when TSHTF (the shit hits the fan). TSHTF refers to anything that leaves the economy in ruins and people roaming the streets looking for potatoes. Preppers are ready for this. Not all, but some. They not only have their BOB (Bug Out Bag) packed with water filtration paraphernalia and matches, they are armed to the teeth. Even the ones who are already on the land and growing gardens etc. brag about stock piling an arsenal that would make a mafia king (or whatever they are called) weep with envy.

Come for their potatoes, they proudly post, and they will be more than pleased to pop off your head.

This bothers me and not just because I am fond of potatoes. And my head.

My grandparents claimed a homestead in the same area I live today, back in 1930. It was the Great Depression and they had a wagon, a team of horses, a toddler (my aunt) and a baby (my Dad), a lamp, some clothes, a few tools and a couple of boxes of household supplies.

Things were tough.

The shit had hit the fan.

Their first reaction was not to pop off people’s heads while they searched for potatoes. It was to help each other.

They got through a decade of mind numbing poverty by coming together with their neighbours (neighbour with a U because this was Canada) and sharing what little they had. They built a rough shelter out of spruce logs and lived on moose meat, Saskatoon berries and turnips. And onions. Lots and lots of onions. So many onions that when my father hit his twenties he put down his fork and flat out refused to eat another so long as he should live. Even now, at 85 and in the late stages of vascular dementia, if asked if he wants some onions, he will grimace and shake his head. But-and this is important-at least he has a head to shake.

During the Depression there were barn building work bees, threshing teams and when a community needed a school or a hall, they all got together and built one. It was about as intentional of a community as you could hope to find. Instead of every man for himself it was a community effort.

It could be argued that back then you could get land for free-or at least for cheap-and that gave you a chance to at least feed your family when TSHTF. And we weren’t nearly so populated. Or dependant on grocery stores. Or lacking in survival skills.

Maybe preppers have a point.

I just don’t want to be the kind of person who can shoot another human over potatoes. I would rather die.

Or so I say now.

With a belly full of mango black bean salsa. It would be more fitting if it were potatoes, but that’s not what I had for supper.

Maybe I would turn into Rambo Old Lady Prepper Person. People would fear me. They would throw their potatoes at me just to save their poor heads when they saw me coming with guns hanging from every limb.

No one knows for sure what they will do when TSHTF.

Utopia, Dystopia, the past, the future…wherever we go we all live in a community of some sort.

Maybe when we retire we will live in another.

In the meantime there is the present. And the present is pretty darn good.

I think tomorrow we will have potatoes for supper…

Raw potatoes, dill, garlic and butter on a wooden board