The concept of becoming self-sufficient is deeply connected to gardens and the ability to grow ones own food.
While there are many of us who strive daily to become a little more self reliant in every aspect of our lives that we can affect, there are multiples of people who refuse to entertain the idea of becoming self-sufficient in their own lives, even just for something like a garden patch.
It is a strange concept to this writer, but this article isn’t about them at all.
It is about choosing the best plants for your backyard to take the food productivity to new levels.
Our situation here in the wet tropics of north east Australia is like this. We are situated in an urban setting in a smaller town and have 1/4 acre to work with.
Approximately 35-40% would be under roof and pool.
The rest is available for food production.
At this stage it is worth mentioning that trees are more than “just a landscape object” and it is only a human issue when a fruit tree is planted in a front yard when the rest of the neighbors like to have just lawn.
It really is easy to be weird sometimes.
We like weird if it means we can harvest a wheelbarrow of fruit from the same space that lawn occupies in other yards. Weird is cost effective.
It takes careful planning and good plant selection to achieve a self-sufficient level that we want to get to. And this is what this post is about.
Perennial plants for self-sufficient living.
Perennials are the main framework of a well designed self-sufficient garden because of all the beneficial things that a member of this group can give.
The obvious benefit is that they live for years, sometimes just a few, but a great choice will live for decades. It doesn’t matter where you live or the climate involved because the benefits are available to everyone.
The importance of choosing a plant, most often a tree, that will be with you for many years cannot be understated.
The wrong tree can be expensive to remove if you choose to do so, and the cost to leave it where it is could cost far more in the lost opportunities of crops and harvests unknown.
Perennials are our mainstay here in the tropics.
We rely on them for fruit, nuts, and mulch from biennial pruning. These trees give shade to other crops, and create microclimates out of wind and rain.
We have the tallest of them placed away from the main dwelling and they shade large parts of the yard from our hot western afternoon summer sun.
The concept of planting once and then harvesting for many years appeals to us.
With plant or tree selection, it is up you the reader to carefully select robust reliable croppers that can be easily managed… for your climate.
Our primary perennials are a pair of mango trees. We have two different types that supply fruit for many different uses. These perennials have allowed us to store canned mango in many forms on the shelf for up to 6 years safely.
This is a model that we created accidentally 16 years ago when the trees were gifts for mothers day.
Trees are not the only perennials we have here. Besides the fruit and nut trees we have several herbs and spices that are long-lived.
Tulsi basil, garlic chives, Thai chili, false cardamom, pepper, pimento, ginger, turmeric, galangal, and others spread themselves where-ever the conditions suit them. If we can live with the plants location we let it be. If you are considering a ginger variety, we recommend reading this article on 21 edible gingers before you choose. For a curated list of just five completely edible ginger varieties, this article titled “5 types of edible gingers for a self-sufficient backyard” could help you first.
A few of the listed herbs and spices require shade, so they live beneath the mangos.
We just let them be, and when our supplies run low in the store room we harvest a few buckets and process them when required. It is a robust system that is perpetual, and isn’t that the goal of self-sufficiency?
Get to know your plants and learn how to “stack” them as a group.
It is not only productive, the plants are better for it as well. We use the trees as growing zones for vines as well, however these plans can become sore points when the local bird life discover the crop of passionfruit that is clinging to the canopy of the tree they have climbed.
Our local white cockatoos had a feast, didn’t they.
Annual plants for self-sufficient living.
This is where we often have difficulties due to the climate here.
We have a distinct wet season that is hot and humid, not too different to south Florida. We also have a mild winter, but recent years have failed to bring the cooler weather that the plants we want to grow do best in.
This is an issue but is not a game breaker because we have backup plants that fill this position with consistency.
We tend to have a list of reliable hardy plants (article and list here) that we depend upon for the basics.
These are mostly Asian and they love the climate but the plants we would like to grow more of are what we call exotics. You would recognize them as staples in your area most likely.
These include cabbage, tomatoes, potatoes, onions, carrots, strawberries and similar. Sub-tropical to temperate plants really.
In a good season we can get a crop in of these but the window is small and the margin for error is large, so this is not what we rely on. It is listed as “nice to have” but not a must have.
The message here is to sort out a few lists of plants that you can grow. Order them according to reliability and robustness.
Having a base crop of staples is a platform that allows you to experiment with new plants without risking the seasons returns and with the variability in the weather of late.
It is nice to have a great ground game without the fancy stuff to make ends meet at the kitchen table without risking it all on a new idea.
This process also allows you to discover and save selected seeds from the best performers and build a seed bank that will stand you in good stead.
We have a strain of rosella that is several seasons old here. It has different leaves than the more well known variety, but boy, can it give a harvest. This article titled “Growing hibiscus sabdariffa : leaving the seeds to self sow” explains how we deal with this plant.
This is a good example of seeds becoming localized to your soil and climate. They are dependable and robust.
There is a plant that we have that kind of crosses over between the perennials and the annuals and that is the banana.
We have three varieties on site and the plant that fruits dies off, but a couple of suckers are sent up from the tuber base to form the next plant.
Individually it is an annual but it does self-replicate so could be called perennial in behavior I reckon.
Climbing plants for self-sufficient living.
Not withstanding where you live, the climbing plants all share a common trait, they climb things.
If you require shade in a particular area, build a pergola or similar and grow a vine over it. Use the vertical space that is available.
Trees also supply a structure to grow on.
When you look at trees as just structures that live, there is little difference between the tree and the fence, the hog panel and the overhead wire frame. The tree just gives another crop but only if it is wisely chosen and planted.
Here at our home we grow passionfruit over high fence panels and along the chicken pen fence. We grow pumpkin over cages in raised garden beds and occasionally even up citrus trees.
Pepper vine climbs pergola posts and vanilla vine climbs the sides of rainwater tanks.
Use vertical spaces to increase the overall yield from your yard and this helps towards self-sufficiency in the end.
Root crops for self-sufficient living.
We envy the readers who have the ability to have a root store. It must be wonderful to have the ability to grow a good crop and get to store it in a cellar for use later.
Storing root crops can be difficult here in the tropics with the humidity of our wet season and our winters just don’t get cold.
We have several plants in the root crop category here at our home. The primary ones and sweet potato and the Zingiberaceae family members.
We also have arrowroot but far less of this than the others. The benefits of growing these plants is that they grow amongst other plants and don’t require their own dedicated beds.
The sweet potato grows with the rosellas and they are under the drip line of one of the mango trees. We have an article a beginners guide to growing sweet potato here.
We harvest them once a year after we let the chickens into that area to scratch away the mulch and they expose the tubers for us.
We pick the rosellas 3-4 times just after the sweet potato harvest and then leave a few rosella fruit on the plants to dry and set seed for the following year where they come up and it all starts over again.
We are not blowing our own horn here but only showing how simple processes can give another level of self-sufficient living. This article “Do sweet potato vines need mulch?” explains our approach to growing sweet potato in more detail than can be fitted in here.
Why plant seeds when the natural behavior of the plant is to do it for us.
We have a lot of ginger and turmeric in the yard because it is so easy to have around. It loves shade so it grows under almost every tree that we have on site.
We have grown it as a crop on a particular occasion described here in this article titled “Growing lots of ginger“. The turmeric is the same, it’s everywhere.
We have galangal out under one of the mango trees as well but we don’t use this spice as much as we do the ginger and turmeric.
Your climate will have root crops that are dependable and you will know or discover if you can leave them in the ground instead of harvesting them every time.
Here we leave over half of the crop in the ground each year because to lift it all and then replant it is way too much work.
We have enough on our plates to deal with, although we do lose some to grubs and rot but enough survives to set up the next years growth, so it is sustainable.
Herbs for self-sufficient living.
Every climate has a range of herbs that can be relied on all year. We have whittled our plants down to a basic three.
We have several varieties of basil, they either self sow or are perennial. We have mint, and we have Mother of all herbs plant that grows profusely.
We let it roam only to pull it back when it becomes an issue in a bed somewhere.
These plants are absolutely bullet proof. They are the poster children of self-sufficient gardening here in the tropics, because they just don’t stop growing.
Herbs are plants that are often long lived so find what is local to your climatic zone and plant them where they want to grow as they will be with you for a long time.
We have a plant that usually suffers from the humidity and that is rosemary. It is in a dry spot and out of heavy rain so it seems content.
We won’t be surprised if it fails because we are a long way from a Mediterranean climate where it belongs.
Spices for self-sufficient living.
We are fortunate to live in a climate where many spices grow without much input. In a colder climate you might be able to grow some in a hothouse but that is not a reliable practice in our opinion.
This article is about selecting the best plants for a self-sufficient garden while understanding that trying to grow a non-local plant is subject to potential failure.
One of the spices we have on site that is tough enough to stand up to our neglect is the pepper plant.
We have a couple but we need a few more to be able to say we are self-sufficient in that spice.
We have vanilla beans growing in several locations that fall into the vertical growing space and have no real footprint to speak of.
We have a Pimento tree that gives a harvest of leaves when we prune it and it is wonderful; you may know it as the allspice tree.
We have a dedicated article on this spice tree titled “All about the Pimento Allspice tree“.
We have Thai chili that the local birds love to eat and they spread the seeds all over the yard. Every pathway has a chili bush on its edge and we just pick them.
We don’t plant them, they just grow.
Some of the root crops are spices. Ginger, turmeric, and galangal fall into this list. They grow like weeds.
What makes a plant or tree worth growing?
The next section of this article describes this.
6 Plant traits for a self-sufficient garden.
This is our opinion here so take it as you see it. This list is what we look for in a plant or tree that might be useful in our system, and that is what our yard has become.
It is a true system that will continue without our input.
We thank the training within the PDC (permaculture design certificate) we undertook that got us thinking of the yard as a system instead of a bunch of bushes thrown together without a thought.
These are the attributes we want in the plants.
- All plants must return a yield.
- All plants must self replicate.
- The crop should have multiple uses if possible.
- The plant must be reliable and dependable.
- The plant should be able to withstand some neglect.
- The plant must get along with other plants within reason.
1. All plants must return a yield.
Every tree has something useful about it.
It could be fruit, nut, timber, leaves, bark, or sap. If every tree within your yard/system gives a harvest of something then it has earned a place in your yard.
If there is no benefit to you from a self-sufficiency perspective then what is that tree/plant doing in your yard?
It is taking up space where a valuable crop yielding tree or plant could occupy. This is vital in a smaller yard.
We can either have a lovely landscaped property that delivers no benefit other than it being visually appealing…or we can have a visually appealing property that supplies most of our food within the same footprint.
2. Food Plants that self-replicate.
By this I mean it must either set viable seed for the following year or it will readily propagate by cuttings. Sweet potato is a classic example of this as described in “Sweet potato starters (growing sweet potato from cuttings)“.
Ginger and it’s family members have rhizomes that lay mostly beneath the soil surface and grow every year without our input. To get started with ginger, “how to grow your own ginger from store bought ginger roots” is recommended.
These are also self-replicating and it is a way of obtaining a yield without a lot of work and that just makes good sense.
It is a good mind game to imagine what your yard would look like if you were to up and leave it for ten years and then come back to see how it was going.
Would it be full of weeds or would there be food everywhere?
3. Food Plants that have multiple uses.
Plants can have many uses and if so are very valuable partners in your yard.
By many uses we mean that the crop can be used for fermenting, or for canning and preserving.
It could be dried and powdered, or it can have medicinal benefits as well as culinary uses. It might be a support structure for other climbing plants and it might create needed shade for other plants.
The more uses a plant or tree has, the more valuable it becomes.
4. Reliable food plants for your self-sufficient garden.
To achieve resilience in your garden you must have plants that are strong and trouble free.
It can get a little Darwinian at times but to be resilient is to be tough.
Weak plants have no place in a self-sufficient garden and the only way to work out the keepers is to keep the survivors and not waste resources on attempting to keep alive something that wants to die.
Time is short and you will use a bunch of time processing the harvests from the reliable plants. You can ill-afford lost time wet-nursing a plant that just does not suit.
5. What food plants survive neglect?
This list should be long for your yard.
There is a compromise here because the neglect will limit the harvest yield at some point so take this into consideration if you decide to go down this path.
There is a cost/benefit to all things and plants/trees are no exception.
The positive aspect of this is that the time and resources that may have been used in nursing a plant can be re-allocated elsewhere within your yard to the greater benefit of the whole system.
It is this thought process that has changed the way we look at our yard. A great read of this process is a book by Mark Sheppard called “Restoration Agriculture” and it is how we approach our system nowadays.
You could do far worse that get yourself a copy and read it. I bet you read it a few times. This trait is primarily for perennials, because we can tend the softer annuals in the raised garden beds much easier.
6. What trees are allelopathic?
Allelopathy is the behavior of a tree or plant to protect it’s root zone by chemical elements expressed by the roots mostly that limit or harm other plants that attempt to grow to close to the originator.
It can limit productivity in many cases and is not something that you would look for in a yard where you are looking to grow as many things as close to each other as you may desire.
Eucalyptus trees are often allelopathic as is bamboo.
These both have useful attributes in their own way and are worthy of consideration within a larger system or property. It depends on the size of your block and your intentions moving forward.
Eucalypts grow great firewood and can be coppiced for the same in a 4-5 year rotational cropping system.
Bamboo is useful as a wind hedge and for light construction. You can work out if they fit your situation.
They don’t fit ours.
For that kind of tree to gain a place in our yard it must be very very useful, and we don’t know of any that fit the criteria yet so we discard those trees and plants from any conversation.
Space is valuable in a small yard so we cannot afford to have a selfish plant keeping a large area all to itself.
A much larger block is a completely different scenario and we wouldn’t discard the plant/tree in question so quickly in that case.
Do your research and look for allelopathic trees from your zone and plan accordingly.
The traits we look for in a plant or tree can be described like this. There must be a yield from the plant.
The yield should have several uses in the kitchen and/or medicinally.
It must cohabitate with other plants happily.
The plant should live several seasons and leave the next generation behind after it’s demise, and finally the plant or tree must be tough enough to take some level of neglect.
We have described our list within the article above generally as there are plants and trees that could take a part in the conversation but the article is pretty long as it is.
You will get the idea. We hope that this post has given some ideas for you to consider, as it really is a good approach to gardening in general, and in resilient living specifically.
Article by Tim Blanch for TheTropicalHomestead.com. He is a qualified Permaculture designer.