September 15, 2012

My Top 20 Vegetables for the Home Garden

These are my top 20 vegetables to grow at home and it's based on my locality and climate zone (temperate - mediterranean), as well as my personal tastes and preferences. I also considered such things as productivity, storage options and variety. Other people in different climate zones may have other preferences for their own list and some people may have different tastes or dietary regimes than I do, so this list is not conclusive or exclusive. It's probably important to mention that these are only a part of a productive garden, which should have fruit and nut trees and some berry crops such as strawberries or grapes, or whatever suits your climate. There are a wide range of perennial food plants that can contribute much to a healthy diet and add to productivity by utilising spaces (horizontal, vertical and lateral) that may be seen as unsuitable for vegetable beds. I hope this list might provide some good ideas for anyone thinking about what to grow in their garden that will provide a good crop in a reasonably short time frame.

1. Tomatoes

 Tomatoes are so versatile and so productive that it would be hard to go past them in most garden planning. (Yes, I know they are a fruit but let's just call them a vegetable for now, so they can get onto the list.) Excess fruit can be made into a wide range of sauces, relishes and pickles or they can be bottled or dried, extending the harvest over an entire year and beyond.

2. Potatoes

These are one of my staples. I eat potatoes in almost every meal in one form or another. Potatoes can be stored for many months if they are stored well and in raised beds with straw mulching they can be a very productive crop in a fairly small space. Some people prefer to buy certified seed potatoes for growing but I tend to use potatoes I have grown or buy potatoes from the grocery store and plant the healthy looking, disease free spuds when the eyes start to develop. Having a variety of potatoes is a good idea as this reduces the risk of crop loss from diseases and widens the cooking options as well.

3. Beans

There are so many variety of beans that I could fill the garden with them and still not cover the full list. I tend to grow climbing varieties such as Purple King or Blue Lake, as I have a fence line that get's full sun for most of the day and the beans on a trellis do well there in a small space. The harvest of fresh beans can be extended by blanching and freezing the excess and seeds can be saved by leaving some pods to develop fully and dry on the vine. Scarlet Runner Beans are not suited to my region but are a perennial variety that will do well for a number of years in cooler climates. Then there are Broad Beans, which can be planted in Autumn and harvested in the Winter and then there are the varieties that dry well and can be stored and used at any time, such as Borlotti, Red Kidney, Harricot and so on.

4. Pumpkins and Squash

 Pumpkins and squash are plants that need space and sunlight but the planting hole only needs to be small. For a big crop they require plenty of nutrients and good pollination. Pollination can be increased by collecting pollen from the male flowers in the morning and hand pollinating the female flowers in the afternoon. Most varieties are excellent storers that require no refrigeration. Baked pumpkin is a favourite, as is pumpkin soup. 

5. Spinach

A small patch of spinach will keep producing for many months, or years if you plant one of the perennial varieties. The young leaves can be eaten fresh in a salad and more mature leaves can be gently heated as a hot green vegetable. My favourite method of cooking spinach is to wash the fresh leaves, toss in a collander to remove excess water and then wilt in a warm to hot frypan for a minute or two. Salt, pepper, butter or olive oil can be added to taste, as can a small handful of sesame seeds. This nutrient rich food is a great addition to the diet. As this is a cool-climate plant, it's not really suited for the hot summers we have in my area but planting seeds in Autumn will mean I will be able to harvest spinach leaves through Winter and Spring, right into early Summer.

6. Beetroot

This old fashioned vegetable is making a comeback as people realise the anti-oxidant values of the deep-red roots. The young leaves can be used as a salad green and the mature root vegetable can be grated and eaten raw or cooked in a number of ways such as soups or a steamed vegetable, or even used to make cake. I intend to bottle some of my crop for the larder this year as well.

7. Peas

With so many varieties available, peas are a very versatile and productive crop. Snow Peas can be harvested as young pods and added to a stir-fry, Sugar-snap Peas can be steamed in the pods or traditional varieties such as Greenfeast can be harvested as the pods fill out for the seeds. They are also delicious eaten raw straight off the vine. Peas can be blanched and frozen without much loss of flavour or quality, extending the harvest even further. All I am saying, is give peas a chance.

8. Kale

Kale has fantastic nutritional properties and is a prolific producer. Young leaves can be eaten raw as a salad green and mature leaves can be cooked like cabbage. It has a sweet flavour and doesn't smell as much as cabbage when it's cooking. Harvesting the outer leaves can extend the harvest. This is a Winter crop in my region, which can extend into Spring. In milder regions it can be grown year round. Kale can be frozen to extend the harvest and it is said it gets even sweeter after freezing.

9. Parsley

Parsley is a rich source of vitamin C and is a very versatile herb that can add flavour and colour to many dishes. I like to add it to my salads and it's a vital ingredient in one of my favourite winter dishes - Pea and Ham Soup. The flat leaf Italian Parsley is a very good variety but the traditional curly leaf variety is a much bigger plant, giving a bigger harvest. There is also a perennial variety with a parsnip-like root and curly leaves that still has the same distintive taste. Parsley can be dried for later use but it loses some of it's flavour in the process. Left to mature fully, Parsley will set copious amounts of seed and will even self-seed in the garden bed. It is also very good for growing in pots, which can be placed on a sunny window sill indoors for winter harvest of fresh leaves.

10. Mushrooms

When I was a boy, our family would harvest fresh field mushrooms every year and it wasn't unusual to find mushrooms as large as a small plate. The wild harvest seems to have reduced severely over the years unfortunately and some years it's hard to find any. This year I think I will try growing some mushrooms in a box, inside a small shed. Mushrooms are a great food, full of flavour when mature and very nutritious. The kits seem quite expensive, so I will be trying to keep the cycle going by using my home-made compost and some of the mycellium to generate fresh crops. Wish me luck.

11. Cucumbers

Cucumbers require a bit of space but they can be grown on sloping or arched trellises in smaller areas and the vines will spread and fruit in shade, if the main body of the plant has good light. I quite like growing cucumbers and making pickles and sweet pickled gherkins, as well as eating them in summer salads. All of these uses can be achieved from one variety, taking small curved fruit for gherkins, medium sized straight fruit for dill pickles and using the bigger fruit for salads. Big crops can be achieved fairly easily if you look after the plants and make sure they get everything they need.

12. Capsicums

Capsicums like a long, hot growing season but they also need plenty of water. In some regions capsicums are better suited to greenhouse production than outdoors, or seedlings may need to be started in a cold frame for planting out later. One plant might produce around six to ten fruits if it is looked after well but sometimes only a few decent fruit will develop, so it pays to have number of plants in. This is one of the tougher crops to grow well but the rewards are large and delicious fruit that are nutrient-rich. Green capsicums turn red as they mature. The green fruit is slightly bitter but very crisp and still tasty. The red fruit is much sweeter and can still be crisp if harvested soon after ripening. Red capsicum grilled and peeled is a very tasty addition to a barbecue and they can be sun-dried and stored in olive oil for later use in salads and casseroles. There are number of varieties offering a range of shapes, colours, sizes and flavours. The capsicum family also includes chili peppers.

13. Celery

Celery, carrots and onions are the traditional flavour base for many soups, stews and casseroles. It can also be cut into sticks and eaten as a snack or eaten with dips. Unfortunately, celery doesn't store very well and will only last a week or two in the refrigerator, so staggered plantings is the best way to go in the backyard garden. One way of storing celery long-term is to make a basic soup stock. Cut celery onions and carrots into small cubes, gently heat in a small amount of oil, stirring well and then add water and cook gently for an hour or so, with some salt and pepper. This stock can be stored in sterile jars in the refrigerator for extended periods. (Add some of your favourite herbs as well for extra flavour.)

14. Carrots

Carrots are another of my staple crops. Picked young and fresh they are crisp and sweet and they are rich in vitamin A and beta-carrotene. Carrots come in colours ranging from white through orange to purple. It's said that the purple carrots are the best in terms of nutrient value but the orange ones are pretty good too. Carrots prefer sandy soils but will still grow well in heavier soils if the bed has been well prepared. It pays not to over-feed the growing plant as this can cause forking of the roots. Baby carrots can be harvested as part of a bed thinning strategy and larger carrots can be left in the soil for longer periods. In areas with mild (and dry) winters, carrots can be left in the ground through Winter but may become a bit woody. They will store in the refrigerator for a few weeks, if the tops are cut off. Freezing, or bottling whole baby carrots or carrot slices can extend the harvest further.

15. Onions

Not everyone likes onions. I don't eat a lot of them but they are a big and distinctive flavour that can really lift a recipe or a meal. There are many varieties with many different uses. The large white and red salad onions are much milder in taste than brown onions and spring onions are also quite mild. The brown onions have the best storage life if they are allowed to dry well on an airing rack after harvest but all the mature onion varieties will store for months if needed. Smaller white and brown onions can be pickled and stored for months or years. I like to use different vinegars for pickling as that gives different tastes to the end product. The main thing that can go wrong with growing onions is heavy rain just before harvest, as this can cause problems with rot and fungal diseases.

16. Basil

If you grow tomatoes you should grow basil as well. The flavour combination is wonderful. Basil also adds a distinct taste to a green salad, pasta dishes and pizzas. This herb is pretty easy to grow and will keep growing for many months if kept well watered. There are a range of varieties, including the perennial greek basil which does well in pot culture and has a distinctive aroma that is said to help keep insects away.

17. Garlic

Garlic is one of those flavours that people tend to either love or hate. I don't mind it, in small doses. Garlic can be propagated from seed (slow) or corms (much faster). Each garlic clove should have anywhere between six and a dozen cloves and garlic cloves bought from the grocery store will sprout well and grow good quality cloves. If you don't like the garlic breath that can go with eating garlic, parsley will help to reduce it. Garlic stores well if dried well after harvest and stored in a dark but airy place. Bottling garlic is problematic as it can spoil easily and become quite toxic. Garlic chives can offer a similar but milder taste than garlic cloves if you find the taste too strong.

18. Cauliflower

When I think of cauliflower I think of winter nights and the aroma of cauliflower cheese baking in the oven. This winter vegetable is quite versatile. It can be steamed and served with white sauce or parsley sauce or curried or added to a range of stir-fries. There is always a lot of foliage left over when you grow your own cauliflower but this can be fed to the chickens or worms, or added to the compost heap. There are a number of varieties of cauliflower available in a range of colours, including striking purple varieties. Broccoli is very closely related to cauliflower, so I am going to include it here as another option, depending on your tastes.

19. Cabbage

I like eating cabbage but unfortunately, so do the grubs. If you can keep the grubs off, cabbage growing can be very rewarding. The large heads of traditional western varieties can weigh as much as 2 kilograms (5 pounds). There are a number of different varieties of cabbage, especially chinese varieties including such plants as Bok Choy and Michihili. Cabbage can be cooked as a hot vegetable, used raw in coleslaws and pickled (sauerkraut) for long-term storage. Some chinese varieties such as bok choy can be used in stir-fries as well. There are a number of other recipes, such as cabbage rolls that help make this a good choice for the home garden.

20. Parsnips

I love roasted, caramelised parsnips. That would be enough to get me to grow this root vegetable on it's own. They are also very easy to grow and don't have many pest or disease problems. As with carrots, it's best to harvest the roots before they get too big and woody. Parsnips can also be served mashed but none seem to make it past my oven door.
So that's my personal top 20 vegetables for growing at home, not in any particular order. I like to grow things that I like to eat, so no swedes, and no turnips (although young raw turnips, peeled, are a sweet and delicious snack and the turnip greens are a useful vegetable, I just don't like them cooked.)
Everyone is going to have their own choices of what should be on a list like this and this list isn't everything that I grow in the garden by any means. It is a good basis for a wide range of meals and that's a pretty good place to start when you are deciding what to plant. Good luck with your list.


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