I’m convinced that the best way to get more effective at growing your own food is to make it as easy and simple as possible to eat something – anything – directly from your garden on a daily basis.
Here are 5 categories of low-maintenance food plants (or plant parts) you might have been overlooking, along with strategies for using them to build more food sovereignty into your life.
Boiled eggs and toasted home-made sourdough bread are usually on the breakfast menu for Alain and I; adding a quick stir-fry of tender, just-picked greens from the garden makes for a more nutritious meal and ensures that I’m in the garden, however briefly, each day. The benefits are multiple and far-reaching.
In the three sections of this article, I’ll share
what “one meal per day from the garden” looks like for us,
a long list of abundant, low-maintenance, easy-to-grow plants you could use in this way, with links to further info and a section on how I use them, and
why this strategy may, over time, help you transform your gardening, your grocery shopping, your health, your budget, and your impact on our one and only Earth.
What “garden greens for breakfast” looks like for us
In this morning’s basket, approximately clockwise from the top left, you can see okinawah spinach, feathery yarrow tips1, chokos (the small tender ones got chopped up for breakfast and we saved the large ones for dinner), a few sweet potato tips, tender young green beans, two celery stem taro stalks, and choko tips (hiding under the beans). (The same plants are all laid out on the table in the top picture.)
On another morning (below) we had surinam spinach, sweet leaf shoots (yum, also sometimes called “tropical asparagus”), and a few pumpkin vine tips.
A long list of garden breakfast candidates
So those were some examples from two recent mornings at our house. Below, in no particular order, is a list of all the garden breakfast possibilities I can think of.
(Of course, this doesn’t have to just be for breakfast. That’s just the meal for which this works best in our household.)
Growing tips of any edible plant; ones that spring to mind are pumpkin vines, zucchini/squashes, sweet potato (the tips and leaves of sweet potato vines are very nutritious), choko vines, and climbing bean or pea vines. My favourite is sweet leaf (Sauropus androgynus) which I mentioned in “7 Easy Substitutes for When Lettuce Won’t Grow.”
Edible flowers. Hand pollinate your female pumpkin and squash flowers, then eat the male flower. Also consider nasturtiums, day lilies, and marigolds. And there are lots more ideas in this video, this article, and in this one.
Tropical “spinaches” (many of which will grow in subtropical areas or indoors). Surinam spinach, okinawah spinach, kangkong, brazilian spinach, and malabar spinach (visit the links to find the scientific names) are all nutritious, low maintenance, perennial staples in our garden. I also just learned about a new one that I haven’t seen yet: Longevity spinach (Gynura procumbens)
Tender young things, picked early. Green beans, winged beans (Psophocarpus tetragonolobus)2, chokos, squashes, loofahs3, and anything else you can think of that’s edible and can be picked early and tender. So long as your soil is fertile and growing conditions are right, the more of these you pick the more your plants will produce.
Weeds. Not even fertile soil is necessary for this category. You will not find deeper, wilder, more real nutrition anywhere than in weeds like dandelion greens, nettle tips, plantain leaves and seeds, chickweed (don’t cook the chickweed, just stir it in right before serving). There are lots more. Look up the nutritional benefits of edible weeds, if you haven’t already :)
How I prepare our garden breakfasts
This is about making a meal that you’ll want to make every day because it’s so easy, quick, and delicious. So the key word when you’re out with your basket, gathering, is tender.
If it will take more than a few minutes to soften in a pan of hot oil, you should still put it in your basket (I’ll say why in the next section), but when you get to the kitchen put it aside for a different meal.
Back to the tender things. Chop them roughly and in the order you’ll be cooking them. Dense things like green beans or baby chokos first; deeply nutritious but tougher, more bitter greens like dandelion greens, nettle tips, yarrow tips, and sweet potato tips next; then your quick-cooking tropical spinaches, and finally the delicate things like flowers or chickweed that you will stir in right before serving.
Heat a pan (cast iron or stainless steel, not non-stick; they’re lined with very toxic materials) and healthy cooking fat of your choice.
Non-factory-farmed lard, grass-fed tallow, coconut oil, ghee or butter, or olive oil are all good choices. (When I use olive oil, I heat the pan without the oil in it then pour in the oil and add the veggies simultaneously so as not to overheat the oil. The other fats I listed can all handle a lot more heat without losing their nutritional properties.)
At all costs, avoid hydrogenated vegetable oils!! (Healthy fats and oils is too big a topic for here, but if you haven’t done your research on it yet please make a note to do it soon.)
Add your ingredients to your pan, stir-frying as you go, till all is done to your liking. I suggest you stand right there; if you get distracted, your beautiful, crunchy, textured breakfast will over cook and go soggy.
Top with an egg, dress with a dash of apple cider vinegar to add some tang and to augment your digestive juices (herbal vinegars are even better), and enjoy.
What else is up with this strategy (beyond a yummy breakfast)?
A daily habit of visiting your garden with your harvest basket on your arm and the needs of a specific meal in mind may, over time, transform your gardening, your grocery shopping, your health, your budget, and your impact on our one and only Earth.
Here are some of the (very obvious, but it doesn’t hurt to be reminded) things that lead me to make this claim.
Contact with nature builds and supports our mental, emotional, and physical health (and for many of us, it’s one of the things most lacking in our modern lives). Whether your garden is a collection of pots in a courtyard or an acreage, getting out into it daily will do you good.
Variety and nutrition. Only a few of the plants I mentioned in the list above are found in supermarkets. As well as the health benefits of getting outside and communing with plants daily, there’s the variety of nutrition available in your harvest basket. You won’t find this kind of nourishment in pills or on supermarket shelves.
One meal won’t make a difference, but a consistent habit of eating one meal per day, or a few meals per week, directly from your garden can help you build deep, abiding health over time.
Frequent harvesting = more growth, as well as tidier gardens. Home or community-scaled gardening works best with plantings that are designed for frequent harvesting rather than long growing periods and short, intense harvest windows. All of the plants I listed above will produce more, the more you harvest from them. And most of them, climate permitting, will grow and produce all year round. In some cases year after year.
“The best fertilizer is the gardener’s shadow.” This proverb (or something like it) was shared with me by a reader recently, and it’s totally true. If you can find ways to be drawn into your garden habitually, effortlessly, and frequently, your garden (and you and your family) will thrive.
Instead of being overwhelmed by neglected areas that need chunks of time and herculean efforts to get them back on track, as you go about your daily rounds you’ll notice what needs attention and address it bit by bit. At first, you just find yourself weeding here, pruning there, jobs that don’t require more than spare two minutes and a pair of secateurs in your back pocket. “Chop and drop” pruning is also mulching.
Then as you get in the swing of it, you might remember to have a wheelbarrow load of extra mulch or compost nearby for areas that need a top up.
And your awareness and intuition expand as you spend that pleasant relaxing 10 minutes per day picking off tips into your basket; you start realising that this plant would do better over there and that plant would be easier to harvest and tend if you moved it here. If you keep this habit up, your whole garden may transform itself before your eyes as the weeks and months roll by.
Abundance. Supermarket eating conditions us to overlook valuable nutrition sources and to throw away parts of plants that are perfectly edible. When you widen your definition of what’s edible and useful, you might be amazed at how much more abundant your garden appears. Sprawling pumpkin and choko vines become a valuable source of food rather than a pain in the butt. Edible ground covers stop being leggy and messy and become bushier and more beautiful, giving more food the more you take. Weeds become valued allies in your efforts to obtain a wider range of nutrients directly from Nature, right outside your doorstep.
Harvesting for other meals. You can use your daily harvesting round for more than just this quick stir fry meal that you have in mind right now. While I’m passing by the choko vine, for example, I take big chokos for the pigs, medium ones for dinner, and baby ones for my breakfast stir-fry.
This is about slowly but surely shifting your mindset so that you make more and stronger connections between your garden and the rest of your life. You want to retrain your brain so that when you’re in meal planning mode, you think “garden” instead of “supermarket” as your first option. Because this habit has you out in the garden daily (or as many times per week as is possible for you), you’ll know what’s ready in the garden, what’s nearly ready, and things you could do so that more things would be ready, more often.
Food sovereignty. Might our grand-kids wonder what on earth we were thinking when they learn about the destructive monocultures, global supply chains, and supermarkets that we relied upon? Food sovereignty won’t be rebuilt over night, but by a million small initiatives and shifts in our thinking, values, and habits … one harvest basket at a time. Your simple habit of filling your harvest basket daily instead of once in a while will steadily bring more food sovereignty into your own life, and will help speed the collective change along.
Kate writes at ARealGreenLife.com about living a more meaningful, satisfying, sustainable life. She’s creating online workshops to help you ditch the supermarket bathroom aisle, starting with “Natural Oral Care and DIY Toothpaste.”