Harvesting an edible yield from our efforts is one of the most rewarding experiences a gardener can have. Exploring the edible uses of a wide range of different species helps us vary our diets, and make sustainable choices to feed ourselves and our families by utilizing plenty of native edibles that grow well where we live. From fruits and nuts, to edible leaves, saps, stems, flowers, pods, seeds, roots and more… nature provides plenty of nutritious and delicious food sources to explore and enjoy.
In permaculture, we often talk about obtaining a yield. There are numerous different yields that we might aim to obtain in our gardens, or on our properties – but edible yields, from edible plants, are of course among the most important.
Why Grow Your Own Food?
Growing your own food is one of the most valuable things you can do to live in a more sustainable way. Even growing a small proportion of your own food can be extremely beneficial – not only for you but also in a broader sense, for your community, for other people and for our planet as a whole.
Personal Benefits to Growing Edible Plants
At a personal level, growing your own food can be a great thing. It can give you access to fresh, healthy and nutrient rich foods, and potentially increase the breadth and nutrient composition of your diet. When you are in charge of growing your food, you know exactly what went into growing it can can be assured that it does not contain anything that could pose a risk to your health.
Growing your own edible plants at home allows you to grow organically, and to select from a far wider variety of foods than you can choose between when shopping at a regular supermarket or grocery store.
Of course, when you grow your own food, you can potentially save money on your household bills, and significantly reduce your financial expenditure on food for yourself and your family.
What is more, through gardening and growing your own food, you can gain a range of skills, boost your confidence and learn to cope with setbacks. All of the lessons learned through gardening and growing your own can make you more resilient as a person, and better equipped to deal with whatever challenges life may bring.
Community Benefits to Growing Edible Plants
Choosing to grow food in a sustainable way can also be a a way for individuals to enrich their communities. Through growing food where you live, you can potentially provide a myriad of benefits to other people living in your area.
By joining networks of other home growers, for example, you might be able to allow a flourishing food community to thrive. You might have excess to share with others where you live, and even where you grow only for your own household's needs, you might still share knowledge, skills, seeds, tools, plants etc. with other home growers.
Of course, when you grow edible plants in the right ways, you can also bring a range of benefits for the wildlife living in your area, who will help you in various ways to obtain your yields while, perhaps, taking a share here and there. With the right approaches to growing your own food – the entire natural community of your area can benefit.
Broader and Global Benefits to Sustainable Food Production
Growing your own food at home allows you to withdraw your support for damaging agricultural systems. This is a great way to cut your personal carbon footprint and make sure that what you eat does not contribute to our climate crisis, or ongoing biodiversity losses.
If you grow food in a sustainable way, you can also boost food security and yet make sure that what you eat does not contribute to ecosystem degradation or destruction. In fact, you can create thriving functional ecosystems of your own, and not only cut carbon emissions but also help fight the climate crisis by sequestering more carbon in your garden.
By growing your own food at home, you can also help to reduce waste of all kinds within the food industry – from energy and water waste to food waste - bypassing waste from agriculture, and potentially cutting food waste from your household too. When growing your own food, you are far less likely to waste any. And by composting in your garden, you can return nutrients to the system and ensure closed-loop systems.
The more we can take a DIY approach to food production, the more we can make sure that we are part of the solution to global issues rather than part of the problem.
Types of Edible Plants
There are of course a wide range of different edible plants that we might grow. First of all, it can be helpful to consider the different lifecycles of different edible plants.
Annual Edible Plants
When most people think about growing their own food at home, their minds will first jump to common annual fruits, vegetables, and herbs that are most commonly grown in gardens.
Annual plants are plants that complete their lifecycle over a single year, (or which are typically grown only over a single growing season where you live).
Biennial Edible Plants
Many commonly grown crops grown as annuals in many climates are actually biennial plants, that complete their lifecycles over a couple of years. These plants will grow in their first year, before flowering and setting seed in the next.
Perennial Edible Plants
There are also perennial plants. Perennial edibles are those plants that live over a number of years, producing food over multiple growing seasons without the need to sow seeds or plant each year anew.
This includes, of course, fruit and nut trees, trees with edible leaves, berry bushes, fruiting canes, and a wide range of perennial vegetables and herbs.
A few perennial vegetables are familiar to most – including strawberries, rhubarb, asparagus and artichokes.
But there are many, many more perennial edible plants to consider with which you may not be quite as familiar. And considering growing a wide range of perennial edibles is almost always a great choice for a permaculture garden.
Edible Plant Yields
When thinking about which edible plants we might grow, it can be useful to think about the different yields that we might obtain from those plants.
Not only are there a huge range of edible plants that you might not have considered, there are also yields from those plants with which most might not be so familiar.
With the most commonly grown edible crops, in an annual vegetable patch or perennial planting scheme, we tend to think of the primary harvests: leaves, stems, roots or tubers, fruits, nuts or seeds... but many different edible yields can be derived from plants and by doing our research into different edible plants, we can take advantage of as many as possible.
We might eat the shoots of young plants when they emerge from the ground.
We might eat the leaves of a plant – either raw or cooked – either when they are young, or throughout the plant's growth.
We might eat the stems of certain plants, inner bark, or pith within them.
Roots & Tubers
We might eat the roots, rhizomes, corms, bulbs, or tubers of certain plants that form below the surface of the soil.
Buds and Flowers
We might eat the immature buds of certain plants or their flowers.
We might find plants with edible nectar, as appealing to us as it is to the bees.
We might also use pollen from certain plants in flour, or for other edible uses. (Cattail pollen, for example).
Fruits & Berries
We can eat the fruits/ berries of a wide range of edible plants, of course, some straight from the plant, some in cooking and preserves.
We can eat the seeds of numerous plants, use them to yield an edible oil, or grind them to make flours.
We can also eat a number of nuts (and seeds commonly called nuts) from a number of trees and shrubs.
Saps, Gums & Resins
We may also derive edible saps, gums and resins from certain trees that can have a range of edible uses.
All of the above is simply to draw your attention to the numerous different edible yields that we can derive from plants, and to open your eyes to some of the less common and less well-known options as well as the yet edible yield categories with which most are no doubt familiar.
Introducing Edible Plants in a Home Garden
If you would like to introduce edible plants into your home garden, then you will not only need to think about individual plants that might grow well where you live. You should also think about where and how you will incorporate different edible plants into your garden, and the different methods and planting schemes that you might employ.
Annual Fruit and Vegetable Production
In a typical kitchen garden, most food producing gardeners will choose to grow a range of annual crops. You might grow annual edible plants in no dig beds, or raised beds, in containers, or in larger areas, in the soil where you live. It is important to understand the growing conditions where you live and to choose methods, growing areas and plants that suit those conditions.
It is exciting, however, to branch out from annual production and consider creating a perennial planting scheme. From perennial herb gardens, incorporating cool permaculture ideas like herb spirals, to fruit tree guilds, to fully fledged food forests, there are many wonderful ways to grow a wide range of perennial edibles on your property.
If you would like to grow edible plants, however, it is important to remember that you do not have to give up the idea of creating an ornamental garden.
Edimental plants are edible plants that are also attractive enough to be considered ornamental plants in a garden – and there are a wide range of these to choose from. A beautiful garden can be extremely productive too – providing abundant edible yields.
Annual vegetable gardens with companion planting, and forest garden type schemes can of course themselves be extremely attractive, if you lay them out in the right way. But you can also integrate food production and ornamental gardening and add edible plants to regular flower beds or borders within your space to get the best of both worlds.
Edible plants can find their way into almost every part of your garden. There are edible plants for almost every environment – from the most arid desert, to the water of a garden pond.
So everyone, no matter where they live, should find it easy to grow at least some of their own food at home.
Remember, even if you have no outside space at all, some edible plants might be grown indoors on a sunny windowsill, or with the aid of grow lights in a range of inside spaces.
Embracing Wild Edibles in Your Area
Whenever you are looking at which edible plants you might grow, it is a great idea to look first at plants that are native to your area.
Exploring the wild, native edibles in your area can help you to move away from typical annual crops that have been bred for cultivation, and find lower-maintenance food options in the natural environment. Wild edibles that thrive near your garden are also (common sense) likely to do well in it, so they could be good options for you to include in your planting schemes.
Many people have been walking past wild edibles for years without any idea of what wonderful food sources they can make. Even many common 'weeds' are extremely useful as edible plants.
Foraging for Wild Edible Plants
If you want to explore the wonderful world of wild edibles, then taking a foraging course in your area is a wonderful idea. But you may even be able to get started with harvesting wild bounties right there in your very own garden.
As long as you can be certain that you have identified a plant correctly, you may well be able to start foraging for wild edible plants by looking at weeds or wild plants that pop up without you planting them in your garden.
In my own garden, I not only harvest crops I have cultivated, I also enjoy foraging for a natural harvest of wild edibles throughout the year. Wild edible plants can be an additional yield that comes entirely 'free' without any expenditure, and hardly any time or effort at all.
As you learn more about edible plants and foraging, exploring woodlands, hedgerows, coastlines, or other natural environments close to home can often allow you to familiarise yourself with the many edible uses of plants that thrive in the area where you live.
Maximizing Yields of Edible Plants in a Garden
Foraging for plants in your area is one way to obtain a higher yield of foods than you might have been able to do through cultivating edible plants in your garden, and can further expand your diet. But there are also other things that you can do to make sure your garden provides edible yields that are as high as possible:
Here are a few basic tips:
- Choose methods and plants suited to your particular garden.
Prepare growing areas correctly and make sure you have elements in place for the long term when it comes to water, fertility and soil health, etc...
Keep soil health front and center – introducing practices to protect and enhance soil ecology.
Incorporate plants and varieties to provide as much biodiversity as possible. Make sure there is plenty of wildlife to aid you in your growing efforts.
Consider using plenty of perennial edibles which can often provide higher yields than annuals and will continue to do so over a number of years.
Save seeds from your heritage annual crops and propagate plants in other ways at home to grow plants better suited to where you live.
Ensure that you understand plant propagation and plant care needs for the specific plants you are growing to avoid any issues during seed germination, early losses, weak growth or plant deaths.
Think holistically, plan to grow companion plants, and create polycultures and functioning ecosystems rather than thinking of individual edible plants in isolation. (Think about how plants can be combined to benefit the system as a whole, without introducing too much competition.)
Think vertically to make the most of your space and maximize food production. (whether that is through vertical gardening in annual production, or creating layers in a perennial planting scheme).
Use small and slow solutions – be realistic – a small garden with a few edible plants that is well cared for can enjoy greater success than a large garden not used to the fullest or not cared for sufficiently.
Make sure your growing areas are in use throughout the whole of the year. Take steps to increase the length of your growing season and make the most of your own time by creating more favorable conditions in your garden, growing undercover, etc..,
Plan effectively to manage your own time and workload when growing edible plants. Zone your property and plan the perfect layout, ensure good access, sow successionally/ plan and plant for staggered harvests, etc...
Consider not only the main yield from a particular crop or edible plant but any secondary edible yields too. And also consider non-edible yields (tangible and intangible) that edible plants might also provide.
Finally, make sure you have the skills required to process, prepare, cook, store and/or preserve all the harvests that you can obtain from your food-filled garden.