I don’t love gardening. I know some people find it therapeutic, or at least relaxing. They enjoy kneeling in the dirt and coaxing plants out of it. I don’t. I’m in it for the food, and I expect my garden to deliver.
As the novel coronavirus pandemic sends lots of people out to their yard to see what they can grow, a lot of first-timers are making the same mistake: They’re listening to experts. Experts can make things grow that you can’t, because they are experts. What you need is a terrible gardener to tell you what anybody can grow.
I’m here for you.
I’m the perfect person to tell you what someone with no experience can pull off. The key to successful gardening is projects that have high success rates and cost less than their store-bought versions.
Here are eight of them:
Have you seen what raspberries cost? It’s $3.99 for a teeny flat of a fruit that grows like a weed. Why they are not planted in everybody’s yard is inexplicable. Blackberries, too, although I am not their biggest fan. (They are my husband’s favorite fruit, which mystifies me.) There are also blueberries and strawberries, and a whole second string of less popular players: gooseberries, boysenberries, huckleberries, et al. I’m going to throw beach plums in here, because sandy soil that won’t grow much else, with which I have extensive experience, will suit beach plums just fine. And you will have jelly.
The big problem is keeping the varmints from eating your harvest. One year, we threw a net over a big highbush blueberry plant, and a bird got caught inside — with nothing to eat but blueberries.
You gotta love a vegetable that comes up of its own accord, year after year. Plant once, eat forever. The problem is that the “perennial vegetables” category is small.
The king, of course, is asparagus. Most of the time, it goes for $3 a pound, give or take. If you plant it this year, you will recoup your investment hundreds of times over.
In parts of the country with mild winters, you can also grow artichokes, probably the second-best perennial. And if artichoke makes you think of Jerusalem artichokes, don’t even bother. They are unrelated to artichokes and not from Jerusalem. Their real name is “sunchoke,” and they only have a fancy-pants name because some PR person wanted to convince you that they are delicious when, in reality, they are a key member of the the Jicama/Water-chestnut/Sunchoke Axis of Insipidity. We fed ours to our pigs, and even they didn’t like them very much.
Plant rhubarb instead. Not because it’ll save you money, but because it comes up early and reliably, has attractive giant leaves and goes well with your strawberries.
Not only are herbs expensive, they never come in the quantities you want. Your recipe calls for a handful of parsley, but it only comes in bushels. Or your pesto requires a bushel of basil and it comes by the thimbleful, each priced at $2.99.
An herb garden, where you can go out and snip just the amount you need, will save you money and also reduce your herb waste. Make sure you hit the perennials: Sage, thyme, tarragon, mint and oregano all come up year after year (although my tarragon is fussy and doesn’t seem to like the conditions at my house).
Also, if you cook anything, ever, and you don’t have a rosemary bush, you’re out of your mind. Nobody should ever buy rosemary.
This one’s a little off the beaten path, but it’s worth it.
I’m not gonna lie: You have to cut down a tree — or otherwise get access to some hardwood logs. But stick with me here. Shiitake mushrooms can run $12 a pound, but if you invest $45 in mycelium-infused plugs (I get mine from Fungi Perfecti), and do a bit of work, you’ll have recurring mushroom flushes for the next five years or so. Maybe longer.
All you have to do is drill shallow holes in the logs and hammer one plug into each hole. Seal it with wax, and you’re done. You probably have to wait at least a year for the first flush (it takes a while for the mycelium — that white fibrous material that mushrooms sprout out of — to colonize the logs). But after that, they’ll appear regularly, particularly after a rain. (You can even force a flush by soaking the logs.) The mushrooms are big and beefy, and when you make soup, you will thank me.
If you want mushrooms but don’t have power tools or a tree to cut down, you can buy complete kits to grow them on a smaller scale (from suppliers like Field & Forest). They won’t be a win price-wise, but the fascination factor is pretty high.
Leeks and garlic
The effort involved is minuscule. Drop a bunch of seeds (in the case of leeks) or garlic cloves in the ground and wait. They’re not fast growers; garlic is an over-winter crop where I live, and leeks take all season. But they make up for it by requiring no effort at all. Bonus: The pungent flavors that we like so much are off-putting to insects, so you’re unlikely to have pest problems.
In season, the good ones can go for $5 a pound. If you grow any standard-issue garden veg (or veg-like fruit, in this case), this is the one. Eggplant, collard greens and broccoli don’t usually get to the $5 per pound level, and it’s a good bet that the ones you grow aren’t any better than the ones in the supermarket (don’t @ me). But your tomatoes will be delicious, so that’s where you should put your energy. Try those little sungolds or other candy-flavored cherry tomatoes, but plant some big ones, too. Your BLT will never be the same.
Money doesn’t actually grow on trees, but fruits and nuts do, and that’s almost as good.
If you like figs and live in a place where a fig tree would survive, you must plant one. You can almost never get fresh figs otherwise (they’re extremely perishable), and when you can, they cost a small fortune. I live in a place where a fig tree can almost survive, and we’ve been keeping one going for a decade now. Some years, it dies back to the roots, but at its peak, we get easily a hundred figs.
If you’re in colder climes, try an Asian pear tree. In many places, pests don’t seem to have cottoned on to the deliciousness of Asian pears, so they’re not nearly as vulnerable to insects as apples or pears.
If you can grow pecans or hazelnuts, it’s one of the biggest winners in the garden. A mature pecan tree can produce 40 pounds of pecans. Every year, probably for your lifetime. We won’t talk about the rarefied world of citrus, mangoes and avocados because so few of us live in places where they grow, but, wherever you are, there’s a fruit-bearing tree for you.
Foraging is the ultimate DIY way to get food. Plants, out in the wild, free for the taking. But if you’re new to it, you should know the hard truth: While many wild plants are edible, few are delicious. Oh, sure, the foragerati will tell you that, really, there’s nothing better than a purslane salad. But when you try it, you will find out that purslane tastes like grass clippings. (Don’t get my editor here started on fiddlehead ferns.)
There are, however, a few real wins. The first ones out in the spring are ramps and wild onions. It’s not that wild onions are vastly superior to ordinary onions, but they come up just as the weather gets nice, and they’re everywhere.
Raspberries and blackberries grow in large swaths of the country, in unruly patches that are the bane of landscapers. Unlike so many other wild foods, these are often as good as the store-bought version. Send the kids out for them, and they’ll come back with seven berries, full stomachs and indelible stains.
The absolute best foraging finds, though, are the mushrooms. I get why people shy away from them — the upside is a tasty side dish and the downside is an excruciating death. But a handful are easy to ID and are better than anything you can buy: chanterelles, black trumpets, chicken-of-the-woods, hen-of-the-woods (different from chicken-of-the-woods, go figure) and a variety of boletes, which have pores instead of gills. Do not take any tall, skinny mushrooms with gills unless your mycological skills are ninja-level.
Do try this at home
Before you knew me as a mild-mannered food columnist, my husband, Kevin, and I spent a decade DIY-ing food of every kind. Gardens, sure, but also chickens, turkeys and pigs. We fish, we hunt, we forage. We’ve experimented with hydroponics, we’ve grown mushrooms, we’ve made our own sea salt. We know the heartbreak that is beekeeping.
We didn’t do it for ideological reasons; Kevin and I are staunch advocates of interdependence. We did it because it was interesting. And it has shifted our perception. We never forget that food has to come from somewhere. Someone has to plant the plants, tend them, harvest them. Meat doesn’t happen unless an animal lives and dies. All foods have a cost, all foods make an impact, and our experience has made us very aware of, and careful about, our foods’ provenance.
I am persuaded that some of the problems in our food system — on both the production and consumption sides — stem from the fact that eaters are far removed from their food’s source. This virus has disrupted the food system that got us there, and maybe something as simple as planting a seed in a pot can be the first tiny step to rebuilding that system differently.