There are many edible plants that you can grow successfully in Canberra, but here is a list of five stand-out plants that grow here very easily and with relatively little maintenance. We chose these five plants because they also produce a lot of food for relatively little input from you.
Read on to discover why we think these five plants are so awesome!
1. Top fruit tree: Mulberry
Growing fruit trees is great - over the years they produce more and more for you, though often you have to wait several years before you get any worthwhile yield. But the drawback of most fruit trees is that they need a bit of work and protection - when it's not possums, rats, cockatoos and other birds ravaging your crops, then you've got fruit fly and codling moth to worry about. And then there's peach virus and pear and cherry slug...
Or you could just grow a mulberry, which is blessedly tough, produces fruit from a young age and is remarkably resistant to pests. Mulberries are very vigorous trees, and survive neglect. They need some, but not a lot of watering - you can forget about them (I have) and they won't die (at least not for a good while - long enough to notice and give them emergency watering after 3 weeks of a heatwave!).
We do not need to net our mulberry tree - it may be that because we have dogs that birds don't come down too low. It's only about 7 feet high, and produced about 200 mulberries last Spring. We'll see whether it needs netting as it gets bigger - but the trees are so prolific, I reckon we'd be happy to share some of them with the local wildlife anyway!
It's a decidious tree, meaning it provides summer shade but loses its leaves in winter - letting in more light in the cooler months. Dwarf varieties are available, otherwise expect a standard mulberry to grow into a good sized tree of 7-8 metres high over 20 years in Canberra soil. If your soil is deep and good, then it can grow much taller - Canberra clay is known to stunt trees a bit.
But be warned, mulberry juice stains, so do not plant one over your washing line or close to the entrance to your house - you don't want to be turning your sparkling whites into purples, or treading berries all over your lovely cream carpets!
Mulberries come in lots of different varieties - Black English, White, Hick's Fancy, White Shahtoot, Weeping. The tree we have is a black fruited white mulberry (pictured below). These are often mis-labelled in nurseries as black English mulberries, but you can tell it is a white mulberry because it has quite fine and soft leaves (of the type good for silkworms). The true black English mulberry has much coarser leaves and larger fruit (about the size of a boysenberry) - and the flavour can range from divine to shockingly sour. As you can see in the pictures below, our little tree put on so much fruit it forgot to put as much energy into its leaves (it is planted in a very dry area in poor soil - I wonder how much better it could do in a nicer part of the garden!)
2.Top tuber: Jerusalem artichoke
These magnificent perennial relatives of the sunflower form very tall plants if they get given good soil and enough water. They even give you pretty yellow flowers (like weeny sunflowers) at the end of February and into March. But the best bit is the bumper crop of 'artichokes' (sometimes called 'sunchokes') you get when you dig them up!
They produce a large number of knobbly tubers, usually fairly close to the soil surface. I've found that you get pretty high density yields with these, much better than potatoes for the same area of soil. The advantage with these is that they are perennial, and so will come back year after year - even if you think you have harvested all of the tubers from your patch, I can guarantee They Will Be Back. And unlike potatoes, they don't get weak and diseased over time. Leave them to settle in for a year or two and you will have so many you'll be sharing with your friends.
Please be warned, they can take over - it's a resilient, productive and competitive plant that thrives here in Canberra. It is also not a good friend to other crops, especially not tomatoes, which can get very stunted growing near them.
We would therefore strongly advise that you grow Jerusalem artichokes in a container so the plant doesn't get out of hand. That makes harvesting easier as well, and it's easier to keep them watered (they need a reasonable amount of water in hot weather - we grow ours in wicking beds and they thrive).
Start by eating a small amount and work up gradually so your system has time to adjust. Why bother? Well, beyond the fact that they do taste scrumptious, unless you're a FODMAP type of person with low tolerance to certain fibres and sugars, they're actually incredibly good for you. Jerusalem artichokes boost good bacteria in your gut, prevent cancer, reduce fatty organ syndrome, are anti-diabetic and help you lose weight... Need I say more? Want to know more about them - click here.
3. Top herb: perennial rocket (diplotaxis tenuifolia)
There are actually two completely different plants called 'rocket' (or arugula in you live in North America) that are both commonly used in salads. One is annual rocket (eruca sativa), the other is perennial rocket, (diplotaxis tenuifolia). Don't get me wrong, the annual plant is lovely, and has an enjoyable mild flavour, but it goes to seed very quickly, even with a slight amount of warm weather, so is a very short lived.
On the other hand, perennial rocket is a great plant for your garden because, for one thing, it's perennial - so it comes back year after year. It's also the variety that is more commonly served as rocket in salads, it has a strong peppery flavour that goes well with lots of foods.
Perennial rocket is tough as old boots, and will survive you forgetting to water it regularly. It self seeds very vigorously, meaning that you will soon have enough rocket to give it to your entire street. This rocket is seriously peppery, and it does get hotter as the plant gets older and woodier at the end of summer.
The flowers also provide surprisingly good food for bees - we have them buzzing all over the garden. We've noticed that the bees seem to prefer the cheery little rocket flowers to many other flowers in the garden, so I was wary of pruning back the flowering heads and now we have a serious abundance of seeds. Rocket usually dies down in winter in Canberra, but don't worry, it will be back again in early spring, to give your salads that extra zing!
If you'd like to read some recipes for using rocket, read our 'rocket on your pizza' blog entry here.
4. Top vegetable for storage and yield: spaghetti squash
The second advantage of spaghetti squash is that they offer more than one crop. The immature fruits look remarkably like small Lebanese zucchini and can be used just the same way as zucchini. The flavour is almost identical - so spaghetti squash produce two crops - a bit like having a zucchini and a pumpkin in the same plant! While zucchini are known to go nuts and provide a glut (which if not picked on time turn very quickly into marrows), with spaghetti squash any you miss just turn into regular mature squash.
Like pumpkins, spaghetti squash develop hard skins. This means they can be stored without refrigeration for many months, so you definitely don’t have to eat them all at once. It's not as sweet as pumpkin either, so doesn't overwhelm dishes - in fact it is a great alternative to starchy foods like rice, pasta and potatoes in your meal, and we find it surprisingly filling. The vegetable gets its name because, once cooked, the flesh can be separated into strands that look a little like spaghetti.
The easiest way to cook it is to cut a squash in half, remove the seeds and then place each half face down in a pan, and bake them about an hour in an oven (180 degrees C is fine). You can then scrape out the strands to make your own 'spaghetti', or turn the halves face up and stuff them with something tasty like bolognese or chili con carne, top with cheese and put back into the oven until the cheese is bubbling and browned. That's how we usually eat ours because they are so delicious like that (see picture below).
Unless you can provide a structure for it to climb over, it's best for bigger gardens as, the vines wander all over the place (similar to pumpkins).
5. Top high yielding unusual vegetable: tomatillo
If you enjoy growing tomatoes, you might like to grow their less well known cousins, tomatillos (Physalis philadelphica or Physalis ixocarpa). Tomatillos are closely related to cape gooseberries, and like them, also grow in a little husk.
In good soil, regular tomatoes can produce a very impressive yield (we harvested over 70kg of tomatoes in 2019), tomatillos are a little tougher than tomatoes and produce decent yields in poorer soil (i.e. where tomatoes would struggle). We harvested 33kg of tomatillos this year, from about 3 square metres of growing space. The plants can also cope without staking, though a bit of support does help.
Apart from that, growing tomatillos is pretty much the same as for tomatoes. Plant the seeds indoors in August or September and then plant your seedlings out in late October or November when the danger of frosts has passed.
Tomatillos have a flavour quite unlike tomatoes - they are a bit more crisp and acidic, though they can get quite sweet when over ripe. I think of the flavour as like a green tomato with a hint of apple and lemon. In foods, they are the key ingredient in green Mexican salsa (see picture below) and in authentic chile verde. The salsa pairs up especially well with baked spaghetti squash stuffed with chili verde, chili con carne (or my vegetarian alternative, 'chili non carne'!) so much so that this dish has become a fortnightly staple in our house. We also discovered that they are rather good fried up in a bit of butter and garlic, in a 50/50 mix with fresh tomatoes, with a bit of chopped basil on top. Served on toast, this makes a delicious breakfast, with or without eggs!