4 Veggies that Won’t Feed Your Family (And 4 That Will)
By: Sierra Laverty, Assistant Horticulture Director | 04/30/2020
My social media feed has been full of folks showing their newly planted broccoli and lettuce, and carrot seedlings emerging from the soil.
There’s a wave of new gardeners that are growing their own food for the very first time. They buy starts (AKA transplants) from a nursery or big box store, do the hard work of mixing compost into their beds, and then finally give their new plants a home in the soil. These green gardeners are hoping to feed themselves and their family, and supplement trips to the grocery store. But what happens when those plants fail? Do they just have a black thumb? Perhaps their garden is cursed?
I hear hundreds of reasons why plants fail. It makes me think of what it must have been like hundreds of years ago, before we understood modern diseases, and cholera was mistaken for a “witches curse”. Your sweet potato plant died? It must have been eaten by worms. There were too many rolly pollies. It just had bad dirt.
What if it was just the wrong plant in the first place?
1. Cauliflower and Brussels Sprouts
If you drive down Highway 101 to Santa Cruz in California, you’ll pass miles and miles of Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and artichokes. Their long growing seasons and cool ocean mist are perfect for these crops. They grow big, full, and are incredibly productive. In Southwest Idaho (a literal desert), they look the opposite. Our summers arrive hot and early. Spring and fall are relatively short seasons (compared to temperate coastal California). Our summer heat causes cauliflower heads (AKA curds) to fall apart into distinct rice-like fragments, rather than retain their crisp and blocky shape that they’re known for. Brussels sprouts end up looking more like deformed broccoli as they rocket past their “bud” stage, and flower (AKA bolt). The one method I’ve been successful with at our 1.5 acre Resilience Garden has been overwintering cauliflower, covering them with insulative fabric (AKA row cover). Forget about Brussels sprouts, though. Plants like broccoli and cauliflower are “one-and-down” crops. Others can be harvested again and again, providing more stable food options.
Alternative option: Kale and collard greens
This is another plant that thrives in coastal California conditions. You can certainly produce a few nice looking heads in Idaho, but to get the kind of yield that actually makes a difference in your kitchen you’d want to live in Mendocino County. Our winters will usually kill off an artichoke plant, which is a perennial in its native habitat. As they expand their root systems over years, they have more fuel to produce flowers (the fleshy bracts of which we consume). Artichoke plants truly belong in the front yard, in your flower beds. Their flowers are a stunning and vibrant purple, and provide an excellent source of nectar for bumblebees.
Alternative option: The wonderful alien-looking plant, kohlrabi.
3. Ground cherries
Within the small brown husk of a ground, cherry can lie either a golden, sweet gem, or a green tart surprise. They produce hundreds of these mystery gifts, which if left on the ground will produce their own hundreds of fruit next season. Basically, ground cherries are prolific, endless, and you’ll always have them around if you choose to plant one. You might think that this qualifies them as a great plant to feed your family! If you have children that delight in the unwrapping process for days on end, you could be right. Most of us aren’t so lucky and are stuck with a production factory set to overdrive that creates unreliable results. They sprawl and take up space in the garden. Ground cherries are a great way to keep kids entertained, but aren’t the kind of plant that puts real food on the table.
Alternative option: ‘Sun Gold’ cherry tomato.
I know a few of you read this title and thought, “We can grow kiwi here! I’m ordering one now!” Hold up. There’s a reason that kiwi is on this list. We have a male and female hardy kiwi pair in our Resilience Garden, and they are at least 7 years old. Kiwi will start to produce leaves and flowers in April, which coincides with our late spring frosty nights (there’s a reason you don’t plant tomatoes until the snow is melted off Shaffer’s butte, right?). Those frosts kill tender kiwi flowers, which means no fruit! Fuzzy kiwi (the kind you can buy in the grocery store) won’t survive our winters or produce fruit at all in Idaho’s outdoor conditions. You can cover hardy kiwi in the hopes of sheltering their flowers from our cold nights. If your goal is to produce a handful of small kiwis as a novelty item for an Instagram photo, that’s great! Otherwise, kiwi plants can take up growing space that could be used for fruitful climbing squash or pole beans.
Alternative option: A small plum or pear tree.
You can read about our top choices for plants to feed your family in our upcoming Weed It & Reap article in the Idaho Press Tribune this Sunday!