Q: What one change would you most like to see in our town?
A: . . . that everyone in St. Helens would keep a garden along with a few trees and then insist that their children tend to the weeding, watering and harvest. It does not matter big or small. It only matters that the youth learn to work and to have responsibility for something.
That would be a good change.
What could be more local than eating from your own backyard?
Unless, of course, it would be eating from your front yard?
Or how about not-technically-your-yard but still right out front?
Or your side yard – as a compromise between front and back, and still more local than even the closest farmer’s market?
I used to think a garden, to be a garden, had to look like this . . .
But it could look like this . . .
Either size garden will grow beautiful beans.
And it’s amazing how much harvest you can get from a small garden plot.
And not just how much harvest. It’s not after all square footage that matters. It’s not even really the pounds of produce or the number of bushel baskets.
It’s the value of the harvest.
Say that I’m underwhelmed with the nutrients my family’s not going to get from fresh corn on the cob and so – though I love a good ear of sweet corn — say I’m less than eager to give that much time and place in my life and yard to grow it.
I may feel just fine about buying sweet corn once or twice from Sauvie Island or a local farm stand or even the nearest grocery store and being fully satisfied that I’ve tasted summer. And all for less than the price of a bad movie.
But other crops are going to give me more bang for my buck. If I want to freeze some berries for a little bite of brightness in the bleak midwinter, a berry patch is going to give me back far more of my money’s worth.
In fact, according to Steve Solomon’s Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades, berries and herbs and lettuce greens may be far more thrifty and profitable for you to plant if your space is at a premium.
On a relative scale of Most-Valuable garden vegetables “per square foot of garden per the amount of time that area will be growing the crop,” Solomon rates herbs, carrots and lettuce greens the highest.
Top 10 Most Valuable Veggies to grow
- Fresh herbs (basil, oregano, thyme, sage, rosemary, parsley, etc.)
- Loose-leaf lettuce
- Most other leafy salad greens
- Spinach (for salad)
- Swiss chard
And for all that high value, herbs and lettuce have got to be some of the easiest plants to grow.
Have you ever checked out the price of fresh mint in one of those little plastic clamshells?
This year I bought a 4″ spearmint and the same size peppermint and stuck them in pots on my front porch.
And on this northern side of the house they stay green even when we forget to water them.
And now I have fresh mint whenever I want to put some in my pesto. Or chop some up for my vanilla yogurt dabbed on fresh fruit. Or to sprinkle over watermelon. Or to make this fantastic sauce (adapted from Fast Vegetarian Feasts by Martha Rose Shulman).
Fresh Tomato-Mint Sauce
2 lbs tomatoes, peeled and seeded
1 small clove garlic
1/4 cup fresh mint
1/4 cup red wine (or balsamic) vinegar
2 Tablespoons olive oil
Salt & pepper to taste.
Chop everything up fine. Or blend together. Or mash in mortar and pestle. Then drizzle in the oil and add salt & pepper until you absolutely have to have another taste just to make sure it really is that delicious.
Serve chilled. Or room temperature. Or heated through over a medium-heat in a medium saucepan.
This sauce is — let us not be coy — utterly divine over cod or halibut. Or Spanish omelettes (aka fritatta aka tortillas españolas). Or even ordinary boiled potatoes.
And my pretty little mint plants (shown here at the front door with swooningly fragrant heliotrope and a new patch of parsley) will live from year to year, will even give me a few small leaves through the winter if it doesn’t freeze too hard, will come back strong come spring for never a penny more — except for maybe some fresh potting soil sometime.
Is this a good thing?
This is a very good thing.
Am I so pleased with myself?
Well, why else would I be bragging?
Like my respondent above, I too would love to see a food-garden in every yard in town. But I do get that there are years where the full-furrow garden plot is just more than a person can bear to contemplate.
My dears, I’ve been there too recently myself.
When the best I could do was to stick a fuzzy purple sage and a pretty lemon-edged thyme, a handsome and self-sufficient rosemary and some pretty purple basil along the front path – at least they were handy for quick snips to go into soups or salads or baked into bread.
And for the least I could do, that wasn’t too bad.
But I realized this year I could save a significant amount of my grocery bill if I went beyond herbs. If in addition to that cheerful sweet-scented lemon-flavored marigold I picked up at Ace Hardware (Tagetes lucida, aka ‘Lemon Gem’ and very edible) — if in addition to the parsley by the front step, in addition to a little patch of cilantro amid the flowers, a few quick-growing radish wherever there was an open spot — if I also tucked some gorgeous lettuce up under the northern eaves of the house. If I also tossed down some seed for some tasty arugula and salad spinach in that swathe that never really dries out, that only gets a little sun first thing in the morning and late in the afternoon.
Let me tell you — I’ve already recouped the price of the seed packet (still more than half full) several times over. And I’m still picking satisfying salads almost every day from my first sowing.
Do you know how much money our family isn’t spending on Spring Greens this year?
And my salads are more beautiful (and tasty) (and ultra-fresh) than ever.
My dears, if I can do it, I don’t think there’s anybody who can’t.
(Even if I still don’t have the walkways in.)
Not that saving money is the only reason for growing a garden. Steve Solomon lists among the least bang-for-your-buckworthy veggies most of the usual garden lineup (in decreasing order of value per square foot per day taking up that precious space in your yard):
cabbage, Brussels sprouts, bulb onions, winter squash, sweet corn, watermelon, pumpkin.
But I know someone who uses both pumpkins and corn as an ornamental planting along her driveway.
And myself, I don’t mind making room for long-growing cabbage when not only is it wonderful in autumn soup, but makes such an exquisite ornamental.
So should you put a vegetable garden in your backyard?
That’s hardly for me to say. After all, you might want it in the front.
And you certainly don’t have to wait until next spring to get started.
In Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades, Steve Solomon says August is a great month in our neck of the woods for planting
endive and spinach, overwintering cauliflower, loose-leaf lettuce and overwintering bulb onions.
According to Farmer Don at Kruger Farms, now is also the time to plant
overwintering broccoli, broccoli raab, kale, winter beets, and late spinach.
Even in September you can still put in hardy salad greens that will keep fresh food on your table all through winter:
like endive and corn salad. Not to mention garlic and shallots for next year.
“Great garden, isn’t it?” calls a lady from a neighboring yard when I stop on my morning ride to take pictures of someone else’s plot.
“I love it,” I call back.
“You know I’ve heard some people are even planting gardens in their front yards. To make their yard more neighborly.”
And I love that, too.