By Jesse Eastman
Humans have a long history of eating plants, and we’ve grown quite adept at cultivating certain plants that we find particularly desirable, whether because they’re easy to grow, nutritious, or just plain tasty. Being the opinionated creatures that we are, it would be nearly impossible to talk about the world’s top 5 favorite edible plants without lumping an awful lot of people into some pretty broad groups. Instead, I’ve put together a list of my personal favorites, those plants that I’ve come to love not only because I like to eat them but because I can grow them, and grow them well. You may like some of them, you may loathe some of them, but hey, it’s my opinion, and it’s not for everyone!
#5 – Carrots
Carrots are great for a number of reasons. They are easy to grow – all you need is good deep soil and lots of sun and they will generally thrive. There are many varieties that grow quickly, so you can sow successive crops for harvests from early summer until fall (longer if you have cold frames!) They store well, lasting nearly a month in the fridge or several months in a proper root cellar. They are versatile to cook with – eat them raw, plain or with peanut butter. Steam them, saute them, boil them, puree them, bake them in a cake, juice them, the list goes on. They are commonly known as these long orange things, but in fact come in many different shapes and colors, from stubby little spheres that resemble orange radishes to long slender deep purple spears. Best of all, they are great to share with friends. Even your dog will enjoy snacking on a garden fresh carrot with you!
#4 – Potatoes
Potatoes have many of the same perks as carrots – they’re easy to grow, they’re versatile, and they store very well. On top of that, there are some truly unique and bizarre varieties to choose from. From the small fingerling to the giant Russet, from the white-fleshed red-skinned Red Norland to the Purple Majesty potato whose skin and flesh are an identical deep purple color. Potatoes also have a certain air of excitement about them that carrots lack. With a carrot, you can be sure that each plume of green foliage is representative of a single carrot. One seed, one root. With potatoes, however, digging into the soil to see what you’ve grow is like unwrapping a great big gift-wrapped box, only to find a multitude of smaller gifts inside. As you sift through the soil, you get to experience a new little burst of joy each time your fingers discover one more tuber.
#3 – Tomatillos
Tomatillos, when grown in pairs (or more) are wildly prolific producers. A single plant will grow to a height and width of three to four feet. They produce very reliably with a second plant present for pollination, and even a pair of plants will provide a mountain of fruit. The fruit itself is something of a wonder. A papery husk develops, and for a long time it will seem like it will never fill in. Don’t give up, though, and you will be rewarded with a fruit that is crisp, slightly tart, and very refreshing. Tomatillos are most well known for salsa verde, but they can be so much more. I enjoy slicing them into a salad, they can be pickled, you can even find great recipes for tomatillos margaritas. My personal favorite, however, is sliced thin in a juicy pork belly sandwich. The acidity of freshness of the tomatillos balances the intense richness of the succulent slice of pork, and the resulting explosion of flavor in my mouth is pure bliss.
There is no plant that makes me feel like a more successful and productive gardener than a tomato. The plants themselves are barely contained dynamos of plant growth. I’ve had Sungold tomato plants that have reached the top of my five foot tall tomato cages and trailed all the way back down to the ground before first frost put a stop to their vigor. Each variety has it’s own unique characteristics, and the best ones exploit those characteristics in magnificent fashion. A thriving cherry tomato like Sungold will produce hundreds of small gems of juicy goodness. A good old reliable slicing tomato like Champion will produce enough 6 oz. to 8 oz. fruit that you will never need to forgo sliced tomatoes on your burgers or sandwiches. Choose the right paste tomato (I prefer Fiaschetto di Manduria) will set pounds and pounds of fruit all at once, so that your time spent sweating in a hot humid kitchen canning jars and jars of sauce will not be wasted. The gargantuan beefsteak varieties might not produce a great quantity of fruit, but those that it does produce will be record setters. I once grew a Mortgage Lifter tomato that weighed in at 1 lb. 11 oz. As the great Guy Clark once said, “There’s only two things that money can’t buy, and that’s true love and home grown tomatoes.”
#1 – Apples
Let it be known from the start that I have a heavy bias in favor of apples. My grandparents moved to western Colorado in the early 1960s and started an apple orchard. I spent many fond seasons seeing the orchards in all different stages of dress and undress, from the bare winter twigs to the fruit-laden limbs of late summer and fall. There are so many varieties of apples to choose from, it seems there must be one for every taste and mood. The trees themselves are beautiful. Their broad branches invite tree climbers young and old to explore the modest heights of their canopies. Their glossy gray bark curls at the edges, giving the trees a sense of craggy and ancient history. Apple trees can live an astonishingly long time – on average a well-cared for tree will last around 100 years, but they have been known to live for as long as 200 years. I find a certain joy in knowing that a tree that I can plant and enjoy can give food and beauty to not just my children, but their children, and their children, and their children.
Originally published on July 5th, 2017.