My selection criteria for what to grow in the garden to maximize flavor, variety and save a few bucks in the process
While the motto of the French Republic is "Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité", in my opinion, the motto of the urban gardener should be "Rarity, Availability, Frugality".... the level of fromage in that line was uncalled for. En tout cas...
When I decide what to grow in my postage-stamp sized backyard, I generally pick rare or unique varieties of common fruits and vegetables (Rarity), crops that are typically not available at my local grocery store or farmer's market (Availability), and of course anything that I find unnecessarily expensive to purchase but can grow easily (Frugality).
Rare and unique varieties:
If you live in North America and have been to a grocery store, then you've seen the standard round, red tomatoes. They are ubiquitous, boring and lack texture and flavor. If you're lucky, you might find tomatoes on the vine, or Roma-style tomatoes or cherry tomatoes.
Why do stores only carry certain varieties? Supply and demand. Most people just know tomatoes as the big, red round fruits and have not tried juicy Beafsteaks , or sweet heirloom black cherry tomatoes or plump Oxhearts. But things are changing! Informed consumers are demanding better quality produce, more variety and options beyond the status quo.
I choose to grow my own rather than wait for my grocery store manager to make them available. I personally do not grow any standard, round, red varieties. What's the point when you have thousands of gorgeous varieties to choose from? I like to grow heirloom varieties passed down through the generations (and do my part to keep the variety alive) and also unique hybrids for their disease resistance and desirable traits.
I am growing a wide range of colors, shapes and flavors! New on my list this year (and all started from seed):
- Taxi (Yellow, Round)
- Barry's Crazy Cherry (Yellow, grape shaped)
- Brad's Atomic Grape (Multi-color, grape shaped)
- Edox (Red, Cherry)
- Black Vernisage (Red/Black, small round)
- Black Beauty (Purple/Black, round)
- Juliet (Red, large grape)
- Blush (Orange, large grape)
And of course, old favorites (purchased these seedlings from my favorite garden center):
- Oxheart (Red, heart shaped - I use these for tomato sauce)
- Cherokee Purple (Red/Purple, Round - great for slicing for sandwiches and burgers, also purple Caprese salad! )
- Sungold (Yellow, cherry - My favorite cherry! for now... )
- San Marzano (Red, paste, the best for canning!)
Check out my tomato growing guide here!
When it comes to other crops like peppers, beans, squash, lettuce... I employ a similar strategy and choose rare, cool-looking and unusual varieties. I am particularly excited about Jimmy Nardello peppers, Buena mulata peppers, Lemon Drop pepper, Sugar Rush Peach pepper, Salanova lettuce and Chinese Pink Celery (I can probably go on but for the sake for conciseness, I will stop... I'll dedicate a future post to peppers and go into more detail then).
Availability in store or market:
If you've ever looked at a seed catalogue, then you know that there are many fruits and vegetables that are not even available for you to purchase locally. For example, okra! Any southerner reading this will think what the heck is he talking about?!? But, okra is not easy to come by in my part of the world. I would have to go to a Caribbean or Asian grocery store and might not even find it there. Cardoon is another one. Any Italian reading this will think what the heck is he talking about? I can buy cardoons at the local convenience store! I think you get the drift. Things are definitely changing and availability is becoming less of an issue as people demand variety.
I'm quite excited about a couple of new crops I'm growing this year. First of all, Beni Housi Mizuna. Mizuna has been cultivated in Japan for centuries. It is a nutrient-dense green that can be used in raw preparations and also stir fried. Beni Housi is a purple variety that is both gorgeous to look at and delicious to eat.
Another new vegetable I'm growing this year is puntarelle! It is a variety of chicory and you consume the inner heart of the plant. Very unique and I have yet to see it anywhere here in Toronto, Canada.
Who else is guilty of buying a bunch of parsley from the store, using a handful, and letting the rest rot and turn to mush in their fridge? I'm sure I'm not the only one!
Frugal gardeners know that growing herbs give you the best bang for your buck, hands down! I grow parsley, basil, cilantro, thyme, rosemary, chives, oregano, lemon balm, mint, sage, chervil, and epazote. Some of these herbs are perennials and if grown in ground will come back year after year (e.g.: sage, thyme, oregano, mint). Others cannot withstand frost and are treated like annuals in colder climates (e.g.: basil, rosemary). Some are also self-seeding, meaning that they will flower, go to seed, drop their seeds and then regrow. Parsley and cilantro are notorious self seeders.
I never buy herbs from the grocery store in the summer and fall. Unless of course I'm hosting a party and need a bathtub-sized container of guac to feed the crowd.
Herbs are so versatile and can be grown in the ground, in raised beds, in containers and even indoors under grow lights or on a south facing window ledge. This year, I am growing perennial herbs in terracotta containers outdoors and plan to bring them indoors for the winter to prolong the harvest. Maybe I won't have to buy any herbs this coming winter!