I’m a pretty casual gardener (to say the least) and really appreciate plants that produce food without requiring anything from me (this probably comes from my being a wild food forager and being used to getting something for nothing). A lot of plants will produce something edible occasionally, or only require a little attention, or produce foods that are okay and I have lots of them in my garden. However the plants that I really prize are those that are able to produce tasty food (or other things) reliably, year after year, without me having to do anything at all. There are actually lots of these and it makes sense to make them the foundation of your garden. They can greatly enhance its productivity, while leaving you free to work on less accommodating plants.
It’s not enough that a plant is useful and grows itself without your help, it also has to produce something that you will actually eat (ideally it should be easy to use too). Filling your garden with useful plants that you never actually use makes it less productive, because they take up space that could be used for more useful things. Another mistake is growing more of a plant than you need; a 60 foot long hedge of Rosemary may be attractive, low maintenance and (theoretically) useful, but you will never use even a fraction of it. This is an easy mistake to make when something grows so well, but if it takes up a lot of space that could be growing something else, you aren’t being productive (if you have lots of space this may not matter).
Below is a list of the useful plants that grow and produce reliably in my garden without any attention and that I actually use regularly. The plants that will do well in your garden may differ somewhat, but the following plants are a good place to start experimenting. They are in no particular order, just as I thought of them.
Blackberries, Raspberries and related hybrids such as Loganberry – These are tops for ease of growing, taste and productivity. The only good excuse for not having tons of these is if you already have lots growing wild around about.
Comfrey – Very independent, it will grow almost anywhere in my garden, sun or shade, wet or dry (and very easy to grow from root cuttings). This isn’t considered edible by many people (though I often add a few leaves to green drinks), but I included it here because it is such a valuable fertility plant. It can also be used to feed chickens.
Chestnuts – These wonderful trees takes a while to start producing their sweet nuts in quantity, but they are worth it. Trees can also be coppiced to produce durable fenceposts. If you live within the range of the Chestnut Blight, you have to be careful to use a resistant species.
Walnut – Takes a while to start producing its high protein nuts and you have to find a way to keep squirrels away from them. The wood of large straight trees is very valuable.
Amaranth – This self-sowing annual behaves like the related garden weeds, Pigweed. It produces nutritious edible seed and tasty foliage.
Giant Lambs Quarter – Another effortless self-sowing annual that produces tasty foliage and flower buds.
Tree Kale – This perennial kale rarely flowers and is propagated by stem cuttings. The best strains are as good as any garden kale you are likely to grow, though some are a little tought (though you can remove the tough leaf midribs an djust eat the rest.) This plant has been growing in my garden for years with little attention from me.
Asparagus – Has to be protected from gophers but is very vigorous, productive and able to grow pretty much as a wild plant. Of course it is delicious too.
Potato onions – These are a form of multiplier onion, that produces a cluster of fairly large bulb onions every year. They were once very common in vegetable gardens, but are now far too rare, when they should be planted everywhere.
Kiwi fruits – There is a variety for most climates and they can be incredibly productive of delicious fruit. As vigorous deciduous vines they can be used to cover arbors and trellises, to create screens or shade.
Mallows – These beautiful edible ornamentals have edible foliage. I don’t use them very often, but they are pretty and low input.
Plums – These are arguably (because I have a few) the most dependable and easiest fruit in my garden.
Mints – Great for tea, they have to be kept under control rather than encouraged.
Sage – I planted a few plants about 15 years ago and have been regularly harvesting ever since.
Rhubarb – If you have a fairly cool spot it is easy to grow and very productive. Though it is a cool climate plant it does very well in our fairly warm climate.
Blackcurrant – Not very familiar to American gardeners, but easy to grow, easy to propagate and produces the best preserves of any fruit. Though it prefers a cool climate it has done pretty well here. It is also not familiar to most American pests, so birds usually leave the berries alone.
Gooseberry – Also easy to propagate and grows without any attention. It produces one of the best pie fillings.
Russian Kale – Attractive, tasty, nutritious, easy to grow and incredibly productive (if I time it right it will produce for 8 months in my garden). Russian Kale is the staple winter green in my garden, always there when everything else fails.
New Zealand Flax – This plant is often seen in low maintenance ornamental landscapes around here. It isn’t edible (actually the seeds are), but I grow it because the leaves make great twine for tying up plants.
Aprium – This cross of plum and Apricot tastes very much like the latter, but is easier to grow and more reliably productive in my garden.
Apples – The most reliable fruit for cool climates, just be sure to choose a good tasting cultivar.
Fig – In a suitable climate the Fig is easy to grow, easy to propagate and produces tasty, nutritious fruit.
Lemon – In the right climate lemons are easy to grow and have a long bearing season. Improved Meyer is one of the hardiest.
Chicory – This easily grown perennial produces edible (if somewhat bitter) greens every spring and spectacular blue flowers in summer.
Egyptian Onion – These perennial multiplier onions are a great source of green onions. They are also known as topsetting onions because they produce a cluster of small bulbils instead of flowers. These in turn produce their own green onions and more bulbils. The weight of these bends over the stems and these bulbils then take root and send up clusters of green shoots of their own. It is sometimes called the Walking Onion because of its ability to move around in this way.
Fennel – Drought tolerant and easy to grow, the young leaves, flowers and green seeds are my daughters favorite garden snack.
Stevia – This is a relative newcomer to my garden, but has become a firm favorite. It is quite happily perennial in my garden, in fact every spring I divide each plant into four or five pieces and all usually grow. It is very useful in that it provides a sweetener for herbal teas and other foods.
Mulberry – My Black Beauty cultivar is a very reliable producer of delicious sweet fruit. The biggest drawback is that it requires netting to keep birds off (I didn’t put Cherry in here for this very reason, but I like these more). Also the fully ripe fruit are full of red/purple juice and will make your hands look like you have just butchered something.
Alpine Strawberries – This perennial is easily grown from seed and will actually produce fruit in its first season. It will then continue to fruit for several years, making a packet of Alpine Strawberry seed a true bargain. It requires a little more attention than most of the plants here (it may need watering and weeding occasionally) but the fruit is absolutely delicious and it is a very pretty plant.
Strawberries – In the right climate these can be astonishingly productive and useful and I can’t think of any reason not to grow them.
Stinging Nettle – Yes this is an odd one to include and I do get stung by them intermittently, but it is a super nutritious spring green vegetable. Like Comfrey it is also good for feeding chickens (dried) and as fertilizer.
These are the plants that stand out in my mind, no doubt others will come to me later and I’ll be ashamed that I forgot them. Once I get going the list is almost endless (Bay, Coriander, Shallots and Dandelion already come to mind). I’m curious to hear from you about which plants you have found to be useful, productive, tasty and easy to grow.