The best low-maintenance edibles: food growing for the time crunched
Andrea Bellamy |

potatoes growing in a raised bed

Potatoes: it doesn’t get much easier.

I don’t have hours a week to spend in the garden. I wish I could say that I do daily rounds of all my garden spaces, carrying a big wicker basket and leisurely harvesting things that need picking, casually plucking the occasional weed, and generally doing a lot of flower smelling.

But I don’t. More often than not, I’m running to the salad garden to quickly harvest a side for that night’s dinner, or stopping at the community garden on my way home from work to provide a cursory watering. Too often I am surprised by big changes in my garden — beans that needed staking three days ago, or tomatoes that would have been perfect yesterday.

Something tells me I’m not the only time-crunched gardener out there. But what can we downtime-deprived green thumbs do? Well, we can start by planting low-maintenance edibles.

“Low-maintenance” is a term often bandied about in gardening magazines and in the landscaping biz. Whether or not a garden can be low maintenance is a debate for another day, but right now, let’s look at what makes a low(er) maintenance edible.

In my mind, there are two different ways you can look at plants to assess their maintenance factor.

1. There are plants – often perennials – that involve an initial time investment (preparing the site, staking, pruning) and then, aside from a bit of annual preventative maintenance, require little in the way of care.

2. There are edibles that are just generally pretty care free. That resist pests and diseases, don’t need staking or spraying or coddling, hold well in the garden (i.e. don’t need frequent picking to avoid over-maturity), or self-seed, reducing the need for yearly replanting.

Here are my picks for the best of both:

Arugula and other cool-season leafy greens. Like lettuce, arugula and other cool-season salad greens often bolt (set seed) when the weather changes. Take advantage of this natural tendency by allowing them to self-sow. They’ll reappear next year with no help from you. Others include corn salad (mache), kale, radicchio, purple orach, and parcel. (Note: this “technique” works better in an unstructured or natural garden. Those seeds aren’t gonna fall into neat little rows.)

Brassica flowers

Let arugula and other self-seeders flower and sow seeds—so you don’t have to.

Asparagus. Definitely in the “initial time investment” category, asparagus takes three years before it gets to a point where you can harvest it. Like other perennials, it requires some up-front attention in the form of proper soil preparation, yearly mulching, and fall frond-removal, but is otherwise pretty easy going.

Beets and chard. If you seed these closely-related edibles in the appropriate (cool) season, you won’t have to contend with bolting—pretty much the main challenge with these guys. Provide the rich, moist, well-drained soil they like and they’ll produce plump roots and glossy greens until you get around to harvesting.

Blueberries. Blueberries are easy, requiring minimal annual maintenance. All they really ask is that you provide very acidic soil. If you live on the West Coast like me, acidic soil is the norm. In other locales, you might have to work a bit harder to maintain acidity, but that kind of makes them not so low maintenance, doesn’t it?

Fruit trees. Yes, fruit trees. (With one big caveat: fruit trees that are appropriate to your climate. So if you live in zone three, no fig trees for you, unless you want to haul them indoors for the winter, and gardeners in Southern California and the Deep South will want to avoid trees – such as apples – that require a winter chill period.) Of course, fruit trees do require some up-front prep: dig a good hole and provide staking, if necessary. Most also do better with some light annual pruning, thinning of fruit, and preventative spraying with a horticultural oil – though that’s all optional.

Herbs. There’s a reason herbs make every “easiest edible” list (mine included). Starting some herbs from seed can be challenging, but if you buy transplants, herbs such as rosemary, sage, thyme, mint, oregano, parsley, dill, and chives are the most carefree of edibles. In general, they prefer average soil, and many are drought tolerant once established. And because of the pungent quality of their leaves, most pests avoid them. Awesome!

Garlic. Plant bulbs in late fall, harvest the next summer. And in between? Nothing. Though you could could harvest the scapes if you felt up to it.

garlic

‘Red Russian’ garlic

Potatoes. Aside from some initial prep (potatoes like loose, fertile soil with lots of organic matter, which you’ll want to provide), potatoes are just about the easiest annual edible. Plant the seed potatoes, mound up soil as the plants emerge (once a week or less) and … wait. Steal the odd baby potato here and there after the plants begin to flower, or just wait until the foliage begins to die back and harvest the lot.

Raspberries and blackberries. These cane fruits need a bit of planning at the outset; you’ll need to invest time in setting up wires or other support system. And when the fruit ripens, it’s best to pick at least every three days for maximum tastiness (I have a hard time thinking of picking ripe berries as a chore, but if you can’t spare the time, I’m sure you won’t have trouble finding a friend willing to help out). Finally, in fall, you’ll have to cut down canes that produced fruit that year, a task that, depending on the size of your berry patch, can take anywhere from minutes to less than an hour.

Rhubarb. It’s hard to think of a more undemanding edible than rhubarb. Once established, this very cold-hardy, long-lived perennial happily withstands neglect. Truly, this is one tough plant.

Rhubarb

If rhubarb can take salt and sea spray, it can handle whatever you’ve got to throw at it.

Scallions, shallots, and onions. Like garlic, another member of the allium family, these onions are in the set-and-forget category. They don’t need amazing soil, nor do they have to be hovered over in order to thrive. They do, however, repel many pest insects, making them great additions to any veggie garden.

I struggled to stop the list here. There are many edibles that are fairly low maintenance once transplanted outside (peppers, for example) but I didn’t include those because starting seeds indoors is definitely not for the time-crunched. Also bear in mind that ALL edibles need regular watering. Make that easy on yourself by using drip irrigation (set it on a timer for the ultimate in low-maintenance watering). What do you think? Is my list complete? What have I missed?



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