It can be difficult to think beyond the grocery store, or the farmers market, when deciding what kind of food to grow on your homestead. Every recipe we know, every cookbook we have, tend to rely only on the readily available ingredients most of us can access. Yet, the most thrilling part about having your own garden is that you are not limited to the short list of ingredients available to the average shopper.
These more diverse, colorful and flavorful foods tend to have not only more utility in fine cooking, but also more nutrient content. Deeper colors, richer more complex taste profiles, and varied textures are all indicators of the wholesomeness of your food. This is what you really want from your potager – better health and the richness and beauty of an abundantly interesting array of culinary delights.
So the first advice I am going to give you is not to shop for seeds at the seed racks at big box stores. They are fine for a first year garden when you are just trying to learn a few skills and improve your soil .
In the second year, though, seek seeds from seed saving organizations that act as the keepers of our culinary legacies. Heirloom, open-pollinated seeds have been handed down for generations. Those seeds carry not only the genetic information to make a new plant, but also the history of their relationship with gardeners over many generations.
There are lots of great organizations out there offering seeds. Below are a few I use frequently. This list is not exclusive and I will happily add others if you have suggestions you love.
Grow for Love and Pleasure
My next bit of advice is to grow the ingredients that greatly enhance the quality and pleasure of your meals. For example, if you plan to grow potatoes, grow gourmet fingerlings, or purple varieties lower in starch and higher in anthocyanins, or German styles with more complex flavors.
If you adore artichokes, then start them in pots indoors and transplant outside so you can get a crop the first year. If your grandmother grew pickling cucumbers that make you feel like a child at heart, then plant that variety even if they take are not as productive as new hybrids.
Growing what you love, with loving care, is the absolute best way to improve your gardening skills. Once you become an excellent vegetable gardener, it’s quite simple to scale up and grow a production garden for greater self-sufficient. Until you’ve mastered the basics though, focus on plants that make you want to fine tune your skills because they are meaningful to you.
Growing Beyond the Grocery Store
My last bit of advice is to spend a little time understanding the full scope of plants you can grow at home. Because grocery stores only carry what stores and sells well, and farmers markets can only carry the variety their customers will readily buy, trying to build a garden around what you see in those locations is very limiting.
Instead, do some research into all the various kinds of foods you can potentially grow. Read old, pre-grocery tore recipe books for inspiration on how to use less common ingredients. Embrace authentic ethnically varied and obscure culinary cookbooks.
To get you started, here’s a list of the kinds of things you might want to consider growing in your potager. Once you narrow down this list to what you might want to grow in your potager, then you’ll still need to look around for the specific varieties that speak to you and are well-suited to your climate.
Alliums – hard neck garlic with scapes, soft neck garlic for storing, leeks, storing onions, bunching onions, torpedo onions, flat onions, multiplier onions, Egyptian walking onions, shallots, garlic chives, society garlic, and common chives are all great choices for a potager.
- Artichokes – Start indoors and grow as annuals in cold climates. Grow as perennials in USDA Hardiness Zone 7b and above.
- Arugula – Grow the cultivated varieties as annuals and Sylvetta as a perennial.
- Asparagus – Buy crowns or start from seed. Mary Washington is the only heirloom that is commonly found as 2 year crowns. Start some of those, then also start some Precoce D’argenteuil or Conovers Colossal from seed for more variety. Once these get going, they self seed and keep you stocked with new plants when you need them.
- Beans – There are so many kinds of beans it’s amazing. Classic canning beans, filet beans, runners, half-runners, drying, broad, garbanzo, long, turtle, lima, butter, soy, and more. Some even come in bush form so you don’t need to trellis. Try a couple types each year to expand your bean expertise.
- Beets – These also come in a host of colors, shapes, and best uses. There are varieties that are great for fermenting or storage, others best fresh in salads, and some are used to make sugar. Some make tastier tops. Beets only take 60-75 days, so they are a good choice to try several kinds of to find your favorites.
- Broccoli – We’re used to the large headed types that we get at the grocery store. At home you can grow multi-heading varieties that produce one larger head followed by lots of small heads. You can grow rapini broccoli with edible flowers or Romanesco heads that simulate the Fibonacci spiral.
- Brussels sprouts – In warm climates, these are easier to grow in fall than spring. But it’s worth it because you can get much tastier and more colorful varieties than most markets sell.
- Cabbage – There are lost more styles of cabbage than most people realize. There are heading and non-heading types, early maturing, fresh eating, long-storing, multi-colored, conical, savoy-leafed, and more. Once you start growing heirloom cabbage at home, you’ll understand why this is one of the mot versatile foods you can grow.
- Carrots – Purple, yellow, red, short, fat, long, squarish, narrow, baby, and more carrot options exist for the home grower. You can also use the tops in stocks and as garnish.
- Cauliflower – This comes in a variety of colors like purple, yellow, and green. There are even varieties you can grow in warm climates.
- Celery – Stalk celery can be a pain to grow unless you perennialize it in a pot and harvest unblanched stalks as needed. But leaf celery is just as tasty and grows as easily as kale. Celeriac is root celery that grows well in cold climates and makes for a perfect mashed potato substitute or creamed soup base.
- Chard – This is wonderful in just about any garden. There are so many varieties. Bright lights is fun for color. Fordham is great for large leaves, Perpetual spinach chard is my favorite for a cooked spinach substitute in warmer weather.
- Chicory – This family includes gourmet favorites like radicchio, endive, frisee. It also includes root chicory which makes a great coffee substitute.
- Corn – Sweet corn is nice, but nothing beats a homegrown polenta with drying corn. Homegrown popcorn is tons of fun too. There are hundreds of heirloom corn varieties. But, you’ll need to plant enough for cross pollination. Plus, you’ll want to time planting when GMOs in your area won’t interfere.
- Cukes – Want to grow your own cornichons, make cucumber soup, garnish your salads, make food art, ferment pickles, and more? You can do it all with the right kinds of cucumbers. I usually grow two varieties a year for fun. Protect the stem from borers with aluminum foil and use packing tape to remove squash bug eggs and nymphs from your plants.
- Greens – I have a seedbox that I call “greens”. This is where I store an endless variety of leafy vegetables that I cut for a continuous harvest of salad. My collection includes collards, cresses (water, upland, and garden cress), all sorts of lettuce, kale, mustard, mizuna, tatsoi, bok choy, spinach, false spinaches like New Zealand and Malabar, sorrel, oyster plant, Seven Top turnips, purslane, mache, and more. Many of these also work amazingly well for stir-fry dishes and saute’s. (I tend to grow these in smaller quantities than my staple greens like chard, arugula, or cabbage so that’s why I lump them together as greens rather than giving them their own line item.)
- Fattened/modified stems – Many plants that we think of as “roots” are really fattened, modified stems. Potatoes for example are a fattened underground stem that roots grow below. Ginger, galangal, and turmeric are referred to as rhizomes, but these too are just a variation on a fattened stem. Wasabi, kohlrabi, Jerusalem artichokes, bulb fennel, and yams are other examples of fattened stems you can grow in your potager in the right conditions. (Note yams and sweet potatoes are two different plants, and sweet potatoes are a root).
- Legumes – Besides beans, there are also all sorts of other legume family plants to consider. Snow peas, snap peas, shelling peas, pea tendrils, cowpeas, crowder peas, fenugreek, lentils, alfalfa, peanuts, and beneficial flowers like lupines, clover, and sweat pea.
- Melons – Watermelons, cantaloupe, muskmelon, honeydew, are all part of the squash family (see below) but they are on the fruity side of the spectrum and make delicious warm season low calorie treats.
- Nightshades – This family includes so many garden favorites that have similar growing requirements including tomatoes, sweet or spicy peppers for fresh or dried eating, ground cherries, tomatillos, and eggplant.
- Rustic roots – Salsify, turnips, rutabaga, parsnips, parsley root, horseradish, burdock, daikon, radish, Chinese yam, yacon, skirret, dandelion, and sweet potatoes are some lovely rustic roots that are easy to grow in the right climate.
- Other squash family plants – Summer squash, winter squash, luffa, gourds, bitter melon, and pumpkins all fall into this basic plant group along with the cukes and melons already mentioned. These plants take lots of room unless you choose compact varieties or make use of vertical space. But they are highly productive and fun to grow. See the tips under cucumbers for insect prevention.
- Big impact plants – Okra, rhubarb, cardoon, hibiscus (for tea), hops, moringa, hemp (if legal), and mammoth sunflowers for seeds are a few plants that take a fair amount of room, but offer big aesthetic impact and tasty treats in a potager.
- Herbs – The classics like sweet basil, dill, cilantro, parsley, chives, mint, rosemary, thyme, sage, oregano, and lavender are wonderful. But don’t forget epazote, licorice, Mexican marigold, lovage, culantro, methi, marjoram, leaf curry, fennel, hyssop, bay, anise, chervil, rue, French tarragon, lemon verbena, savory, and more.
- Edible flowers – Pineapple sage, roses (flowers and hips), nasturtium, pansy, chrysanthemums, borage (cooked greens are edible too), honeysuckle, hollyhocks, and more.
- Spices – Cumin, coriander, caraway, mustard seed, nigella, poppy, sesame, and anise for seed are some easy to grow spice plants that add stunning flower displays to a garden.
- Seed Crops – Flax for seeds, ancient wheat, amaranth, quinoa, and other grains offer long-standing beauty and may even give you a tiny crop to use to top your salads or add interest to rice preparations.
- Small fruits – Lots of dwarf fruits grow well in pots and can add interesting details and focal points to a potager. Blueberries which require more acidic soil than most vegetables can be grown in pots. Citrus that needs to be overwintered inside can adorn a potager in warm weather in large pots. Espaliered fruits like apples and pears can line paths. Strawberries fit in lots of places. Grapes, blackberries, and raspberries can be trained on fences. Figs, elderberry, goji, and hazelnut can be grown as shrubs and kept compact in size.
- Garden helpers – Plants like marigolds, comfrey, zinnia, and flowering mints just seem to benefit all gardens. Also perennial flowers like echinacea, black-eyed susans, coreopsis, goldenrod, and others are well-loved by wildlife in my garden.
- Cover crops – Whenever your garden is not planted with vegetables or flowers, then you’ll want to use cover crops to protect your soil. The easiest to start with are mustard in early spring, buckwheat in hot weather, and crimson clover in fall to overwinter. Once you get an understanding of those, then move on to winter wheat, Austrian peas, vetch, millet, sundangrass, annual rye, and barley.
I hope this list and the seed resources above will inspire you to think beyond the basics and grow a large variety of diverse and interesting foods and plants in your potager. Happy gardening!