Heirloom vegetables are the hottest thing in gardening right now. Passed down from generation to generation, heirlooms have proven themselves in both production and quality in their native regions. With good reason, these old favorites are enjoying their time in the spotlight once again, and they are becoming widespread as more and more people want to know where their food is coming from. I grow as many heirlooms as possible in my own gardens every year and many are a favorite staple in our garden. Every year, we grow the big red ripper cowpeas in our summer garden, and every year, we can count on huge harvests from these heat and drought-loving plants. They clamber over everything producing thousands of long pods full of dark red peas, oblivious to pests, weeds, heat or drought. They are a fail-proof crop for us.
Big Red Ripper Cowpeas
As the trend continues toward revisiting the “old ways” in gardening and agriculture, I’m often excited at the various projects I see taking place across the world in terms of providing communities with good healthy food created by Mother Nature as opposed to a group of scientists. One area that I think needs to be revisited, however, is native food. Yes, people forage for mushrooms and wild berries, but what I’m talking about is the act of consciously cultivating those plants that are native to the area that our ancestors enjoyed. Studies have already shown that the diversity of foods has decreased at an alarming rate with the introduction of monocrop agriculture. No, we can’t control the crops that farmers choose to grow, but we can control the crops we choose to grow ourselves.
Many people who come into my garden shop lament failed crops, poor harvests, pest problems, disease problems, weather issues, the list goes on. I always give them the best advice I can, suggest modifications to their growing practices where warranted, and commiserate with them. I mean, as gardeners, we’ve ALL had failed crops. Some years are just better than others. When embarking on this fulfilling, and often frustrating, hobby, we embrace the idea that failure is not only an option, but is, in fact, a strong possibility. I mean, every single mortgage lifter tomato we planted this year was struck with blight. We didn’t get a single tomato. Our tomatillos, however, exploded and we got thousands of those. Okay, so instead of tomato sauce, we made salsa verde. This winter, we’ll eat more enchiladas and less pasta. It’s all good. The point is, in gardening, we are trying to tame Mother Nature and she doesn’t always cooperate. There is a way around that, though.
Native plants are plants that have evolved in a particular area, naturalizing, adapting to every aspect of that climate. These are tough plants that are fail-proof. I live on the Texas Gulf Coast where the gumbo we have for soil consists of hard clay and rocks. We enjoy floods all spring and drought all summer. Our humidity levels soar as high as our temperatures. We have nothing but super weeds because we experience no freezing temperatures to kill them off, and the only things more unpleasant than the fire ants are the mosquitoes. Many garden plants refuse to grow here without a lot of pampering and hard work. I’m more than willing to put forth that effort, but it is also nice to grow some natives just because they’re easy. Loquats and dewberries have naturalized here and require no maintenance. They faithfully produce fruit every year and keep us stocked with jellies, jams, preserves and pies. Best of all, once established, these natives require nothing from us – no extra watering, no soil amendments, no pruning. They just happily grow and produce. We have both planted in our yard.
Dandelions have naturalized all over the world. Anyone with a lawn knows just how tough these cheerful little yellow flowers are. Dandelions are such amazing plants. The entire plant is edible. The young greens are good tossed in salads. The roots are roasted and used as a coffee substitute. The flowers make a good addition to salads, yes, but they also make a sunny yellow jelly. Many use them for making wine. Instead of cursing them, use them! Give them a little corner of your yard and they’ll faithfully grow for years. Sunflowers are another native flower that has naturalized all over the country. Again, the flower petals make a sweet floral jelly or can be tossed in a salad. Of course, if you can beat the birds to them, the seeds are also edible.
Sunflower jelly has a sweet floral taste.
If you want crops that don’t require irrigation, then there are many native succulents and cacti that are quite edible. Prickly pear (Opuntia spp.) has become a popular flavoring for many things, including candies, sodas and cocktails. The fruit can also be used to make preserves and pastries. However, the pads can also be eaten as a vegetable. They are broken off, stripped of their spines and chopped. They have a taste somewhat reminiscent of green beans. Banana yucca (Yucca baccata) produces an edible fruit that was enjoyed by many western Native American tribes. Malabar spinach is a vining plant with succulent-like leaves that thrives in the heat. It produces plenty of greens when others have bolted. Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) is another little succulent that produces leaves with a slightly lemony taste. It can be substituted for spinach in most recipes, and can also be sprinkled in salads to brighten them up.
We all grow our favorite varieties of peppers in the garden. Whether sweet or hot, peppers are some of the most popular garden crops. One plant that I gave a special place in my yard is the chile pequin. Here in my area, it is a perennial woody shrub. It isn’t particularly beautiful or bushy like the hybrids we grow, but it is definitely worth the effort. The bird’s eye pepper, or pequin, is believed to be the wild ancestor of all those chiles for sale at your local garden center. It produces tiny little red peppers that pack a punch. While they aren’t big, they do make a spicy addition to any dish that needs a little heat and with them, a little goes a long way. Again, this is a wild native plant that requires little to no maintenance in my area.
While this short list is just a simple beginning, I recommend looking at the edible plants that are native to your area. The benefits are well worth the small amount of effort to locate these easy to grow plants. They require less work and less water, while adding plenty of local flavor to your cooking. They are resistant to the pests in your area, well-suited to your climate, and will produce happily with little interference on your part. Besides, how can you go wrong with dedicating a small area of your garden to crops that require no maintenance?