The core of the Transformative Adventures approach is to create gardens that return super high value for minimal effort and cost, and that starts with good crop selection.
If we want gardens that are easy and high value, we need to start with rock star powerhouse plants!
So, here’s a list of absolute top-performing powerhouse temperate perennials to build a garden around. These are perennial plants (meaning they return year after year without replanting) that are so easy to grow they’re actually hard to kill and may even become “weedy.” But they’re also great ecological performers, improving the health and function of the garden. They’re paragons of climate resilience, surviving easily in a wide range of conditions, wildlife tolerant, flood tolerant, drought tolerant, heat tolerant, cold hardy, often able to grow on depleted soils.
AND they are top performers in terms of yield. Most of these were chosen for their ability to yield high calories in a temperate climate, but some were chosen for their nutrient density, versatility, value, or other health-enhancing qualities.
Sunchoke. For temperate climates: perhaps the king of low-input high-output crops is the sunchoke. I’ve seen it often stated in various sources as likely the most productive crop we can grow. It can grow on depleted soils, withstand clay, sand, dry, wind, animal browse…. This is one stout vegetable.
As a garden performer, it is top-notch. This makes a vigorous fortress plant potentially helping to keep critters and weeds out of a garden. It can be used as a very successful “tillage” crop, planted into light mulch, on many sites it will obliterate the competition and after harvest, will leave a clean, weed-free planting bed for next year. It’s absolutely one of the best “carbon crops” or “mulch makers” we can grow, providing ample biomass for mulch or compost. Plants come up late, so if shoots from missed tubers come up, these can be chop-and-dropped in place to protect annual crops in small garden beds. In North America, it’s a native plant, and also helps with pollinators well into the fall most years. For small gardens, there is a dwarf variety that will not take up so much room and won’t be inclined to take over the entire garden.
And it’s very versatile in the kitchen, too. There are varieties that are crisp and light as sliced water chestnuts for adding to salad. And there are hearty varieties that make a rich-flavored and velvety textured soup. We’ve used it as the base for homemade pasta, gnocchi, breads, pancakes, latkes and sauces.
And it’s a powerhouse for health, too. Raw, it’s a rich source of inulin, and has been found to have powerful effects in regulating metabolism and treating diabetes. Eaten raw in excess, this inulin is hard to digest, giving the vegetable its famous nickname, the “fartichoke.” But long cooking breaks down the inulin, making them easy to digest. Still, they are loaded with fiber, so those unaccustomed to high fiber foods should add them slowly to the diet.
Skirret. It’s no wonder this powerhouse of perennial calories in a delicious versatile form was once THE calorie vegetable of Europe. It’s like a clumping, perennial carrot or parsnip. Wonderful flavor and texture. Eaten raw it’s like a lighter, more tender yet cripsy carrot. Cooked it can be tender-crisp, or pureed into a creamy carrot soup. Leaves and young shoots can be used as a celery-carrot-parsley sort of herb. And Fall side-shoots are an interesting crispy salad vegetable of their own like nothing I’ve ever eaten! Carrot-flavored cabbage?
Ecologically, its beautiful white umbels of flowers are often the busiest flowers in our entire garden for bees, butterflies and beneficial vespids. And it’s another plant that produces massive amounts of foliage for mulch and compost, making it another great “carbon crop” for the garden.
Usually it prefers wet, heavy soil, which means it can fill places that otherwise would be unusuable for vegetables. But it can easily be grown in garden soils, or even sandy ones, and it is drought tolerant and nigh impossible to kill once established. It produces starchy crisp side shoots in Fall that can be replanted, as many as 50 or so on one plant, which means we do not have to set aside roots for replanting!
However, one drawback is that if grown from seed, it may be more likely to produce woody cores in the “carrots” that are like little toothpicks. So, they take some experimentation and selection to get a good specimen.
Sea kale is an amazing, resilient multi-purpose food crop that DOES produce an edible, tender-crisp calorie crop root in addition to several amazing leafy green vegetables. In fact, it produces a HUGE amount of edible root mass! Depending on treatment, it can be eaten as a leafy green like kale, a broccoli that most people wouldn’t know isn’t broccoli, a gourmet blanched vegetable all of its own, a cabbage-like vegetable, and can even be encouraged to produce shoots similar to Brussels sprouts. Even the flowers and young seed pods are edible (like crisp, cabbage-flavored peas!)
And it will be one of the most beautiful and stunning plants in any ornamental garden!
It thrives in a huge range of temperatures, can grow in sand or withstand periods of flooding. No pest or critter has ever touched it in our garden in 7 or 8 years, and even if it did, it would be difficult to kill this robust survivor. The only problem with this as a calorie crop is that the roots are currently just too valuable as plant starts to think of eating many!
Turkish rocket is less wet-tolerant than sea kale, but can indeed survive periods of flooding, and is otherwise hard to kill. It produces one of my absolute favorite vegetables, a rich arugula-flavored broccolini, plus it also has a greens and root that’s edible (though spicy!)
Ecologically, it is another long-flowering high-traffic pollinator plant, and it can act in some conditions as a fortress plant, outcompeting weeds and even grasses under its thick growth of leaves. In other cases, it can grow well even against the competition of grasses.
Dioscorea species, Air potatoes and yams, chinese yam (dioscorea batatas) Another food crop so vigorous it can be weedy, can produce lots of “potatoes” per square foot. I’m not a huge fan of the root crop, though it is an excellent medicinal food for digestion. The medicinal quality is that it is mucilaginous (read: slimy.) You love it or hate it.
The air potatoes, which we have taken to calling “yam berries” on the other hand are addictive. They’ve become a major ingredient in fall stews and brunch dishes, and fry up like crispy little potatoes.
I’ve seen research showing that with vertical growing and harvest of both above ground and below ground tubers, this COULD BE the most productive calorie crop we can grow. A famous permie told me the leaves are edible, too, but I have seen reports they’re poisonous.
Garlic, walking onions, and other perennial alliums might belong at the top of this list. Garlic is highly underutilized, and misunderstood. It’s often grown as an annual for the bulb which is like buying a car just to use the radio. It can be grown as a multi-purpose perennial and when it is, it is hands-down THE most important plant to grow in the home garden. There is no food that is research-proven to be more health enhancing than garlic. And, in addition to the bulb, it produces high quality flavorful greens all year long (even in winter) the scapes (when harvested while tender) are an amazing vegetable, and the the bulbils are amazing and incredibly useful, too.
Ecologically, it can repel pests and can be used to make a pest spray. It can fit into many polyculture easily without reducing yields. And it can thrive in a wide range of circumstances. And I’ve documented several stands persisting and spreading for long periods of time in the wild with no human care.
Virtually all of that can also be said for Egyptian walking onions, which behaves similarly, but has an onion flavor. Also greatly misunderstood, these produce several HIGH QUALITY vegetables on one plant. Top sets can be encouraged to grow quite large and when forming, can be eaten without peeling. Pickled, these make fantastic cocktail onions. They produce green onions almost year long. And if treated right, they can size up to be nice quality storage onions, too, about the size of cippolinis. Once the peel sets on top sets, these can be used to flavor broths and stocks, and the peel gives a nice color to them (this secret is actually how most commercial broths get their rich color.) This is the most used plant in our garden. There are practically only around 2 dozen days a year when Egyptian onions don’t get used in our kitchen, yet I’ve spoken to many gardeners who simply had no idea what to do with these, some thinking they can only be used as scallions, others that only the top sets are usable, and others growing them only for the bulbs….
On top of these two powerhouses, there are perennial leeks, and a whole host of species that can be used as “chives.” We have “chives” flowering in all different colors, all season long. My personal favorite, and the one that often wins our taste tests is allium unifolium
Mints are a much-feared and under-utilized garden powerhouse. The biggest “problem” people have with mints is that they’re so afraid to plant them that they only keep a teensy bowl, and so they never use them!
But mints are incredibly varied, and some are much less aggressive, AND can be used in quantity as a green. Here we have a highly flavorful, nutritious green that grows very aggressively, which is why there are many world cuisines where it is used as the base for salads, teas, and soups. There are mints which are so mild they are actually cultivated as a salad leaf crop. And there are mints that are so strong they’re used as the prime ingredient in various soaps, and fragrances (even the word “cologne” is associated with a mint that was once used as the star in this perfume.) My favorites are the mentha citratas, which have fascinating blends of aromatic and flavor compounds that run the bill from orange, lavender, oregano, musk, peppermint all mixed together in different ratios. There are even perennial mints that taste very similar to basil, easily grown with no pests, while gardeners sometimes struggle to grow enough basil to can some pesto for winter.
Moving from the Mentha genus, we have a whole family of mints that make amazing greens, and potent medicinals, and all of which are easily grown. There’s even a mint which makes a GREAT water-chestnut-like tuber, crosnes (Shown above pickled in seasonal colors, see runners-up!)
All of these are absolute powerhouses of ecological function, too, often being star pollinator and insectary plants, easy ground covers, fortress plants, and universal companion plants. If the goal is a low-work, high output garden, having a solid basis in mints is a good strategy.
The only problem is that these cannot be grown true from seed, and so are difficult to impossible to source within the US, where they are never-the-less nearly always grown from seed anyway. Apparently, nobody cares that they’re not actually selling the plants they claim to be selling. Alas…
Mulberry is another impossible to kill plant that’s multi-purpose, and the first tree on our list. Also, the first fruit. Its a hidden secret that in many online fruit forums and boards of experienced fruit explorers, you’ll find very many knowledgable enthusiasts who consider their favorite fruit to be the mulberry, for its rich, complex flavor. Another secret of the mulberry is that as a relative of the tropical breadfruits, this fruit has been used as a temperate carbohydrate crop by some cultures.
But the gifts of the mulberry don’t stop at the fruit. The leaves of many species are edible in quantity as a salad green (though be careful, some may also be ethnogenic!) And the wood of many species is very useful. We love our contorted mulberry, which we call our “Harry Potter Wand Tree.” Ecologically, mulberries produce an amazing amount of leaf and wood biomass, and they have been used for this purpose in some historic “slashmulch” systems as a mulch-maker plant. As pioneers, they can be grown almost anywhere, surviving harsh conditions and poor soil, and working to transform those soils into rich, composty goodness.
Asian pear. If I could only pick one fruit tree for a yard, across a very large geographical area, that tree would probably be Chojuro asian pear. And in larger gardens, I consider it nearly compulsory. It’s beautiful, tolerates wet feet, is drought resistant, disease resistant, and produces lots of amazing, high quality fruit with no spraying. Done.
Hazelnuts are another amazing multi-purpose plant, which produce a high quality protein crop in abundance with ease, and one of the most useful wood crops, too. They can be grown in many conditions (just be careful to use blight-immune plants where Eastern Filbert Blight is present, especially through much of North America. Note, many sources here still sell non-immune plants, especially catalog nurseries and big box stores.)
They’re also top-notch wildlife plants and garden performers, which can make up the basis of hedgerows and linear forest garden thickets. They’re also a great mulch-maker carbon plant.
Salsify (not technically a perennial, but CAN be and it self sows well.) Delicious root that is a true SURVIVOR. And it has a beautiful flower.
Evening primrose produces a highly valuable fat, edible leaves, edible buds, flowers and pods, and a root vegetable that’s a great calorie crop. Native plant that insects love, too. An interesting side benefit that’s been noted anecdotally by many gardeners I’ve talked to is that it makes a great trap crop for Asian and Japanese beetles, which seem to love this plant more than any other, but seem to do it little harm beyond cosmetic damage.
Crosnes, mintroot. A lovely cork-screw shaped water chestnut on a nice vigorous fortress plant. Not super productive in terms of calories, but very productive in terms of mass per square foot.
Camas. A calorie crop that can be grown easily in many conditions, survives seasonal flooding and drought, and produces with no inputs.
Blackberries. Easy to grow, and the last I looked they were the highest value fruit crop we could grow per square foot! They should be in every home garden.
Quince. Easy to grow, produces fruit with no spraying. These are NOT a carb fruit, but have been used as one in many temperate cultures. In areas where fireblight is a problem, I can only recommend Aromatnaya, the only variety with research showing resistance, and quinces can be a vector for fireblight, even if they don’t show signs themselves. The old saying was that if you’ve got a whole orchard filled with fireblight, you find the quince and cut it down and that solves the problem.