(Photo by Christopher Nyerges)

Don’t Know What You Want to Grow?

Select The Best Plants To Include In Your Home Garden

Editor’s Note: Be sure to read the second part of this two-part article about selecting the best plants for your home garden.

During a seminar, one of the students asked, “What are the ‘best’ plants for planting in my own yard or garden? Can you tell me the top six plants I should grow?”

These seem like simple enough questions, but it’s really more akin to asking a life-long knifesmith, “What’s the best knife?”

How can you really answer that question? Although I did (eventually) answer it, we had a lengthy discussion first.

What Are the Best Plants?

In order to answer this question, we first have to define what we want to get from the plants we decide to work with:

  • Which plants are the most nutritious?
  • Which plants are the most productive with the least amount of work?
  • Which plants are easiest to grow (in your area), almost taking care of themselves?
  • Which plants provide more than food, offering multiple uses such as fiber, medicine, soap or even fragrance?

There aren’t many plants that fulfill all these requirements. Most people begin by selecting the best food plants, meaning the crops that they enjoy and will grow in their area.

In general, I suggest you first make a list of everything you’d love to grow for food in your ideal garden. Then, whittle down that list, eliminating the plants that simply won’t grow in your area (such as bananas in Pennsylvania, for example). Ideally, keep as many plants native to your area as possible, because they’re already acclimated to your environment.

After you’ve narrowed your options, make your final planting decisions based on what’s most important to you. Remember that the list you make might look nothing like my suggestions because of our unique personal preferences and the limitations of our areas. This should, at least, give you some idea of how to think about the “best” plants to grow in your space.

New Zealand spinach is a perennial spinach. A patch growing in good soil will produce greens for decades. (Photo by Christopher Nyerges)

To help get you started, these are the top six plant choices of gardeners from various parts of the country:

Christopher Nyerges (Southern California)

  • Apple tree
  • New Zealand spinach
  • Onions
  • Potatoes
  • Prickly pear cactus
  • Tree collards

Jay Hartman (Brier, Washington)

  • Beans
  • Fig
  • Olive tree
  • Tomatillos
  • Tomatoes
  • Tree collards

The Urban Nature Girl (Pasadena, California)

  • Beets
  • New Zealand spinach
  • Onions, green
  • Potatoes and sweet potatoes
  • Tree collards (perennial tree variety). These can be propagated by stem for food all year.
  • Winter squash, such as butternut

(Note: Urban Nature Girl chooses potatoes, sweet potatoes and squash because there’s a longer season to harvest, and they can be stored through the winter.)

Potatoes originally come from South America, and today, many varieties and colors are available around the world. (Photo by Christopher Nyerges)

Botanist Gina Richmond (San Bernardino Mountains, California)

  • Apple
  • Avocado
  • Blueberries
  • Mulberries (Oscar mulberry)
  • Pumpkin (for seeds)
  • Yams

Master Gardener Yvonne Savio (Southern California)

  • Fig
  • Kale, chard and beets
  • Jujube
  • Lettuce
  • Persimmon
  • Tomato

Before we delve into some options, note that, with few exceptions, we aren’t including “wild plants”; just some of the most common plants you might select for your yard. I’m also not including any plants that might be called “exotic” or “specialized” (such as moringa, longevity spinach or bamboo), because they’ll be addressed at a later date.

Most Nutritious Plants

What plants are the most nutritious? Although most plants you grow organically in your own yard will be far more nutritious than anything from the supermarket, here are some plants that really stand out:

Amaranth is easy to grow. It has a history of use going back hundreds of years. (Photo by Christopher Nyerges)

Amaranth (and its relatives, lamb’s quarter and quinoa): The seeds and leaves of all these are rich in vitamins and minerals and have long been used in the “new” and “old” worlds.

Avocados are very nutritious, although they won’t tolerate frost. (Photo by Christopher Nyerges)

Avocado: Although it can’t tolerate freezing, the avocado is a high-calorie fruit with high amounts of potassium and vitamin A. This is a fruit you could almost live on if you had nothing else.

Beans: Beans are packed with protein, are easy to grow and can be stored for a long time. They’ve long been an essential staple of civilization.

Beets: Beets are a hardy crop used in traditional northern European dishes. They’re very easy to grow, and both the meaty root and nutritious greens are very good when cooked.

Cabbage: This is the “superstar” of the fermentation world, with varieties used for sauerkraut or kimchi.

Carob: This is a desert-dwelling tree that’ll live and produce for more than 50 years. The pods are naturally sweet, three times richer in calcium than milk and rich in protein (the B vitamins). When you purchase this tree at the nursery, be sure you purchase a female tree (the male doesn’t produce fruit).

These nice carrots and kale are favorites at many local farmer’s markets. (Photo by Christopher Nyerges)

Carrots: This popular vegetable is known for its beta-carotene content and versatility in cooking. Carrots also stand well in early winter, so they can be sown in late summer/early fall and survive intact in cold conditions to be retrieved as needed. They can replace potatoes in most recipes.

Chard: Chard and beets are related. Chard was developed just for its tops and is both easy to grow and very nutritious.

Citrus: Although citrus fruits are good sources of vitamin C, they’re even better sources of vitamin A and potassium. They’re also often used medicinally (lemons and grapefruit, for instance).

Collards (both the annuals and perennial tree collards): Collards are known to be a good source of folate and vitamin K. In addition, the annual and perennial varieties are both easy to grow.

Kale: Some find the leaves tough; nevertheless, they’re an incredible source of vitamin A and a good source of vitamin C, potassium, phosphorus and calcium. Kale is very popular today in diverse recipes.

Potatoes: This starchy staple is an excellent source of minerals and vitamin C, as well as healthy carbohydrates.

Prickly Pear Cactus: Eating the pads (“nopales”) and fruits has known positive health benefits due to the high vitamin and mineral content (as documented in Ran Knishisky’s Prickly Pear Cactus Medicine: Treatments for Diabetes, Cholesterol, and the Immune System).

Rose Hips: If you grow roses, you’re already raising the hips (the fruits), which are one of the richest sources of vitamin C.

Tomatoes: Tomatoes are an excellent source of lycopene, and they offer a variety of culinary uses.

As with apples, potatoes, onions and many other fruits and vegetables, cherry tomatoes come in a variety of colors. (Photo by Christopher Nyerges)

Most Productive With the Least Amount of Work

In some cases, there’s virtually no work required for plants in this grouping. That’s especially nice when the harvest is plentiful as well.

Apricots: Apricot trees are easy to grow from seed and, during some years, they bear so many fruits that the branches break from the weight.

Figs: Some fig trees are very productive. In fact, some owners of these trees consider it a nuisance that they produce so many fruits. So, when the fruits begin to mature, get ready to dry some, make jams and even freeze some.

Hot/Sweet Peppers: Peppers respond well to good soil. While they need somewhat regular watering, they’re reliable producers with minimal care.

Jerusalem Artichokes: Native to the eastern United States, these are sunflowers that produce prolific volumes of sweet underground roots. Just plant them in loamy soil and wait a few months.

New Zealand Spinach: This is a perennial ground-covering spinach. I’m surprised more people don’t grow it, because it’s so productive and with hardly any work (assuming your soil conditions are good).

Persimmon: Persimmons are reliable producers with few insect or disease pests. They require moderate watering. Many varieties are astringent, but “Fuyu” varieties can be eaten immediately once they’re ripe. When dried, persimmons make an excellent snack or sugar source.

Potatoes: You plant potatoes and then you harvest them! Each “eye” of the potato can produce many potatoes.

Raspberries/Blackberries (in maritime climates or where irrigation is available): These close relatives are strong producers that spread dramatically once established. Both types elevate their fruit. Raspberries require minimal staking.

Winter gourds have long been popular the world over. They store well and provide a substantial source of food for minimal work. (Photo by Christopher Nyerges)

Squash (nearly all of them): Plant, water—and stand back!

Strawberries (in maritime climates): While always labor intensive, strawberries are good producers. They can grow in a variety of climates and are readily spread by runners (which typically results in double the number of plants each year).

A relative of the tomato, the tomatillo (or “husk tomato”) is even easier to grow than the tomato. It’s a hardy garden plant. (Photo by Christopher Nyerges)

Tomatillos: These are hardy nightshade family vegetables that typically re-sprout from their own seeds. They have only modest water needs.

Tomatoes: There are many tomato varieties, but cherry tomatoes seem to be the most productive. And, because the individual fruits are lightweight, the branches don’t need to be tied up to a trellis.

Tree Collards: If staked and given sufficient water, these perennials produce an incredible volume of nutritious greens.

Great Choices for the Long Term

These are some plants that are easiest to grow in your area when you plan to make them a part of your long-term food sourcing plan. Many almost take care of themselves:

Apples: Apples can grow in nearly every environment of North America, although in some areas, you must choose specific varieties that do best in your area.

Asparagus: Asparagus is planted once and its roots will continue to produce edible shoots for several decades.

Citrus: Once established, citrus trees are reliable producers with minimal watering. However, they’re not frost-hardy, and they require pest control for scale and mealybugs.

Figs are easy to grow, and produce tasty fruits. (Photo by Christopher Nyerges)

Figs: The fact that figs often go feral and survive in the wild should tell you that these are very easy to grow. In addition, they’re often prolific. You can eat the ripe figs, dry them or make jam with them.

Grapes: When properly tended, grape vines produce fruit year after year. The leaves can also be eaten in Mediterranean dishes, and the vines can be used in basketry.

Mint: Mint will grow in many climates. It simply needs adequate water and, in some cases, it must be contained or it’ll become invasive.

Olives come to us from Europe, and they can tolerate drought. They’re easy to grow and produce edible olives and top-quality oil. (Photo by Christopher Nyerges)

Olives: Olives are one of the “superstars” of desert environments because of their extreme heat and drought tolerance and low maintenance requirements. They provide their fruits, oil and high-quality wood for carving kitchen implements.

Onions (and the onion family): If you only eat the onion greens, these plants are perennials, producing greens indefinitely.

Potatoes: I grow potatoes because I can just take the old sprouted potatoes, quickly bury them in good soil and forget about them. In other words: I grow potatoes because they’re easy! Yes, occasionally, mine get eaten by burrowing animals, but this doesn’t happen very often, because I plant potatoes in raised beds.

Prickly pear cactus is easy to grow in most parts of the United States. The tender portion of the pads is edible—raw or cooked—and is very nutritious. The pads also have medicinal properties. (Photo by Christopher Nyerges)

Prickly Pear Cactus: Incredibly nutritious, the green pads on this cactus are excellent vegetables. In addition, the fruits are an excellent source of vitamins and minerals. They’re also a good, healthy dessert option. If prickly pear cactus can grow in your area, it’ll require next to no care.

Raspberries/Blackberries (in maritime climates): These require moisture to grow well, but they have few insect pests and are reliable producers. Because of their thorns, they’re great border plants that require minimal care, except for occasional pruning.

Strawberries (in maritime climates): Strawberries can provide heavy production with sufficient moisture, although they’re labor intensive and can become invasive. In much of North America, where strawberries were once grown (and then abandoned), they grow wild and continue to produce small, but tasty, fruits.

Plants With Added Benefits

Which plants provide more than food or, other than food, provide multiple uses, such as fiber, medicine, soap or even fragrance?

Aloe: Aloe is one of the ideal medicines for skin issues and some internal ailments. It’s easy to grow, but it doesn’t do well if it freezes.

Apple: Besides apples, the wood of this tree is useful for crafts and carving projects and is good for cooking.

Bamboo: Although there’s food provided by young bamboo sprouts, bamboo is mostly a utilitarian plant worldwide. The hollow, flexible stalks are used for making structures, scaffolding, cups and cooking vessels, tools, chopsticks and other items.

Citrus Trees: The flowers are excellent if you also raise bees.

Grains: Some species, such as wheat, millet and even corn, produce both grain and very useful straw. Grains such as winter rye are also very effective as a green manure. They’re part of the foundation of civilization and are easier to grow in the average backyard than you might think.

Mint: The Mentha species is known to be prolific, spreading rapidly and growing like a weed. It’s good for culinary, as well as medicinal, uses.

New Zealand Flax: Commonly used as an “ornamental,” this plant produces long, fibrous leaves that are ideal for any craft project requiring “fiber,” such as baskets, sandals, ropes, hats, nets and other useful items. The leaves are literally unbreakable!

Prickly Pear Cactus: This cactus produces several foods. In addition, the cochineal bug that often lives on it produces a nontoxic, food-grade red dye.

Common in the wild and in gardens, rose bushes produce fruits (rose hips) that are one of the highest sources of vitamin C. (Photo by Christopher Nyerges)

Rose: The straight shoots of the wild rose were one of the more desirable arrow shaft materials used by Native Americans throughout North America.

Yucca (certain species): Although yucca does grow wild all throughout the U.S. West and Southwest, it’s easily cultivated. Besides a few seasonal foods, it can also provide strong fiber for cordage and soap from some of the leaves.

Deciding What’s Best for You

As we look over our lists, and as you try to determine the best for your area and personal preferences, see if any of the plants turn up on more than one list. Any plants that appear on more than one list are probably the most ideal for you to plant in your self-sufficiency garden.

When you work your way through the decision-making process, remember that you might also be able to extend growing and harvesting seasons and accommodate plants that wouldn’t normally thrive in your area if you take the added step of building a greenhouse. (You can find my article describing how to build a home greenhouse on the American Survival Guide website.)


Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the January, 2021 print issue of American Survival Guide.