Growing plants with a purpose

Story and Photos by Cindy Shapton

When we moved from our city suburb to the country, I made a decision to be more conscience of plant material choices. No longer feeling the pressure to be just another pretty garden, I could chose plants with a purpose, ones that could move me in the direction of a more sustainable lifestyle.

The plants in this garden all serve a purpose: food and medicine for man and beast (and insects).

What does that look like exactly? I think it’s a little different for everyone and a choice you can make whether you have ¼ acre or hundreds of acres. For me, I don’t want to just weed for the sake of exercise around plants that don’t contribute to my family, my critters, or my garden. I don’t need plants taking up space and making extra work for me unless I can depend on them to do their job.

This ‘Apothecary’ rose gets a spot in my garden because it is tough, has scented, edible and medicinal petals plus it produces nice hips.

Most of us are familiar with a kitchen garden where one grows food to eat, herbs to spice up the meal, and even flowers to set the atmosphere at the dinner table. A homestead garden goes a step or two further to help heal and nourish the gardener and her family along with the livestock, all while maintaining balance in the ongoing battle between good and evil bugs and keeping the pollinators well fed. 

Thank goodness this doesn’t keep me up at night. Really, it is just a matter of learning plant values and using common sense … and of course a little planning never hurts. Lets break it down into smaller bits and I’ll share some of my favorite contenders so you can see exactly what I’m talking about.

Basil (Ocimum basilicum): A sun-loving annual herb that is easy to grow from seed and is a great companion for tomatoes in the kitchen garden. I also plant it in containers on the porch, where we like to dine in the summer

Garlic (Allium sativum): Helps dogs fight fleas, a natural de-wormer for chickens and goats, and a natural antibiotic for us humans. Easy to get a spring and fall harvest using your favorite cloves from the local farmers’ market.

Goats have personality galore, they’re natural weeders and you get milk to boot!

Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica): A wild herb that can be cultivated – wear gloves when harvesting since it irritates skin on contact. Wilted or dried, the “stinging” hairs go away. Add to feed of farm animals for extra nutrition and to induce egg laying.

Catnip (Nepeta cataria): A favorite of cats, this perennial can grow in sun or shade and is drought tolerant. 

Chickweed (Stellaria media): A happy ground cover from fall until late spring in sunny and not so sunny areas. Chickens love this fresh green herb.

Chickweed is a happy ground cover from fall until late spring.

Comfrey (Symphytum spp.): A sun to part shade perennial that can reach 3 feet tall and wide. For yellow yolks and extra protein add some dried leaves to chicken feed.

Peppermint (Mentha x piperita): This perennial is happy in sun or part shade and can become invasive in the garden, so plant accordingly. Dried and added to chicken feed increases egg production.

Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium): A perennial sometimes (if the winter isn’t too harsh), this herb likes a sunny spot and often reseeds. Brew a tea from the leaves to spritz chickens for lice.

A tea spritzer that will kill chicken lice can be made from feverfew.

Artemisia and marigold (Tagetes spp.): Will repel mites – add dried leaves and flowers to nesting box materials.

Bay laurel (Laurus nobilis): A tender perennial worth the effort even if you have to keep it in a pot and move it indoors during freezing weather. I scatter bay leaves in my food cabinets to keep pantry moths away. For ladybug home invasions try placing bay leaves near known entry points. If you like to dehydrate fruits and veggies, put a dried leaf in the bottom of your jar to kill any future larvae hatches.

Mint (Mentha spp.): Place sprigs in areas where mice like to come inside your abode and watch them run back to the great outdoors.

Spicebush (Lindera benzoin): A woodland shrub that produces fragrant yellow blooms in early spring that later form interesting berries. Even the twigs smell spicy when you snap one off. It is an important food source for the spicebush swallowtail butterfly.

Sassafras tree (Sassafras albidum): A beautiful native tree that is a standout in any landscape. Easily identifiable by its deeply grooved gray bark and leaves that have three distinct shapes – football, bird’s foot, and mitten – which turn a beautiful orange in the fall. The green leaves are dried and powdered to make filé, a powder used in gumbo and other Creole dishes.

Vines usually grow fast and cover a multitude of areas that sometimes are better covered like chain link fences or provide shade on a sunny side of a dog kennel or your home perhaps. Here a some of my favorite vines that are not only beautiful but pass the test of adding value to any homestead garden.

Hops (Humulus lupulus): A fast-growing vine to cover a trellis or fence in a sunny spot. In early spring harvest shoots of new growth – steamed they taste similar to asparagus. The cone-shaped flowers can be used to brew beer or made into pillows to calm and promote sleep.

Hops can quickly make a living wall to help cool your home on hot summer days.

Sponge gourd (Luffa aegyptiaca): A cucurbit that is easy to start from seed in a sunny location next to a trellis or fence. Blooms all summer to call in the pollinators but is not affected by the dastardly squash bug and cucumber beetle. The gourds are edible (like squash) when young. Left to mature, they become sponges, great for washing dishes or scrubbing garden dirt off in the shower. 

Malabar spinach (Basella alba): Looking for a green that can take our hot summers? Try this vining spinach that continuously produces large leaves that are wonderful sautéed, added to salads, or used as a wrap. Plant in full sun and it will cover a lot of landscape in a short amount of time.

Malabar spinach is a pretty climber with large tasty leaves that produce all summer until frost so you don’t have to miss your winter greens.

Anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum): If you want to keep your honeybees coming to the garden, anise hyssop is a must. Beekeepers know how important this herb is to production of honey and studies have proven bees make more honey feeding on crops of anise hyssop. It is also a nice cut flower.

Anise hyssop is known as the bee plant – if you plant it they will come.

Prickly pear (Opuntia spp.): Although this native plant puts up a lot of defenses, the leaves (called pads) as well as the fruit are edible. The pads – once peeled, de-barbed (wear leather gloves), and cooked – are tasty and the fruit, called tunas, can be made into colorful syrup or jelly.

Prickly pear is a native that loves our hot climate and is completely edible.

Sheep sorrel (Rumex acetosella): A close relative of French sorrel, this herb grows in our border garden as a ground cover and living mulch. Leaves are edible throughout the season and the lemony flavor is nice in soups, salads, and sandwiches. It is also natural rennet for cheese making.

Sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima): Use as a border plant or container since it is low growing. This plant usually reseeds itself and I transplant seedlings where I need them. I grow this plant for beneficial insects. They seem to love it as much as I do.

Sweet alyssum, Zinnia, and Cosmos invite and house beneficial insects in this kitchen garden.

Borage (Borago officinalis): Direct sow (after soaking large seeds overnight) this herb once and it usually reseeds happily in the garden. A large plant with true blue flowers that are pretty in salads and summer drinks and the bees love them. 

Dill (Anethum graveolens): I can always find a sunny spot for this annual herb. Sow seeds every three weeks for a continual supply of leaves and seeds. Used to season pickles, breads, salad dressings, and more, it is also a host plant for butterflies. 

Always important and purposeful in a homestead garden but there are a few that really stand out.

Beets (Beta vulgaris): These veggies like a sunny spot in the kitchen garden but can take some shade, especially in the late afternoon. This root vegetable is a cool-season crop that can be planted by seed in early spring and again in late summer for a fall bounty. 

Cayenne pepper (Capsicum annuum): Thrives in our summer heat and provides plenty of bounty with just a couple of plants. I dry these by stringing them together in the fall to use them for all kinds of remedies. Dried and powdered to discourage ants in the house and rabbits in the garden. Place a dried pepper in the bottom of jar of dehydrated fruits and vegetables to kill any larvae that might hatch after storage. Add dried to tea in the winter to stop a cold in its tracks. A basic ingredient to fire cider, which we drink daily during the cold months to build immune system, boost metabolism, and reduce aches and pains.

Corn salad (Valerianella locusta): Also called mâche, this is a cool-season green that in the fall I plant and forget. It germinates when it’s ready, and by February and into March I start harvesting leaves for salads and stir-fry. So nice to have a low-maintenance plant and is always a nice surprise in the garden (because I forgot about it).

Okra (Abelmoschus esculentus): A Southern vegetable that is totally underrated! This sun-loving plant member of the hibiscus family is easy to start from seed (soak seeds overnight) after our last frost. This plant is filled with vitamins and nutrients. The flowers are lovely in tea, the leaves are edible, and when the pods get too big for eating? Dry them and save the seeds for next year’s crop.

Okra is a super food that’s easy for Southerners to grow from seed.

Planting a homestead garden, is fun and refreshing and never boring. I hope the next time you are shopping for seeds or plants that you will look at them with a whole new perspective, making choices based on a simple plan where every plant makes a contribution towards a sustainable lifestyle.

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