In foraging circles, you often hear of concepts like “hamburger bushes,” because, alas… they do not exist. There are no plants that produce fruits or vegetables that are easy and convenient, and provide a full balanced meal without any kind of processing. You can’t just go out into the woods and pick a hamburger off a tree.
I was chatting about this with a foraging friend of mine on a drive across state, and he had a vegan chocolate chip protein cookie, that was basically a very tasty balanced meal. Even for those of us who are pretty resilient and grow and forage a lot, modern life has many rushed times when fast foods are just plain necessary. “I wish there was something I could grow like this in my garden!”
And while chocolate chip protein cookies and hamburgers don’t grow on trees, this idea of easy and accessible fruits and vegetables is very important for anyone who wants to grow a lot of their own food AND actually have time to eat it! In fact, it has sometimes been called the “holy grail” of agriculture.
For anyone who’s ever tried a standard conventional garden, they’ve probably realized they end up with a glut of vegetables all at once that don’t store well and that require a lot of processing to turn them into meals. Honestly, for most of us, a lot of it ends up going to waste!
So this is especially important for anyone who’s designing an optimized Permaculture or forest garden, which simply must be stacked with lots of hamburger bushes, or at least something close to it, if we’re going to achieve our goal of a low-work/high-yield system.
In a way, it was this search for the holy hamburger bush that brought me to Permaculture. Permaculture co-originator Bill Mollison often said his moment of Permaculture enlightenment happened while doing ecology research in a dense lush forest that produced lots of edible biomass for many creatures, and thinking “we could design agricultural systems that worked like this.”
Imagine a natural ecosystem that just grows all on its own and all we have to do is pick and eat!
But most of us know that if you let most gardens or lawns just go, you WILL get lots of biomass, but most of it will not be edible. So the trick in moving towards Bill Mollison’s vision is to select the right plants.
On one hand, you have very aggressive, easy plants, like spearmint and Japanese Knotweed. Well, if you want to grow a garden of just spearmint or knotweed that will be relatively easy! But you’ll quickly figure out that you can’t make a whole meal, let alone a whole cuisine off of just a few very aggressive plants! Perhaps if you have a market you can exchange these for money, but a single crop failure leaves you with nothing.
So, what we need for that vision are a few key factors in our plant choices:
1. Plants that are aggressive enough and easy enough to grow.
2. Plants that are high in carbs and protein so that they can fuel actual active humans and be filling.
3. Plants that require no or minimal processing to turn into a snack or staple basis for a meal, like potatoes or polenta. Whereas, wheat for example, requires drying, threshing, winnowing, grinding, sifting, rising, and baking to generally be useful to most homesteaders.
4. The ability to get those to grow with minimal intervention in roughly the quantity we can actually use them in (the law of diminishing returns helps us understand that even a hamburger bush could become a labor or pollution problem if it delivers more hamburgers at once than we can realistically use, and 0 hamburgers at other times.
So, a really, really well-designed garden will deliver exactly the right amount of hamburgers to eat, gift and sell, in a variety of flavors over the longest season possible if not every day of the year, with enough garnishes and side dishes to keep things from getting boring.
For me, getting near to that is truly the holy grail of gardening.
While there’s no such thing as a hamburger bush, in my experience, here are a list of crops that get us as close as we can possibly get. But of course each has its benefits and drawbacks. But a garden loaded up with a variety of these will be low labor, high yielding and well on the path towards the holy grail.
These are probably the closest we can get to hamburger bushes in a temperate climate
Quick pick carbs
These are high-calorie crops that can be picked, washed and even eaten raw or added to salads or snack trays with a little dressing.
Crosnes, which aren’t high in carbs but are easy)
Quickest cooked carbs
These are the easiest staple crops that can make a backbone of a meal or cuisine, and require little processing. Many of my summer meals involve sautéing some baby potatoes with butter and herbs, and serving with greens or some vegetables. Such a meal uses 1 pan, 1 plate, and maybe 15 minutes from garden to plate.
potatoes, especially when perennialized or in no-till patches.
“Yam berries” and other air potatoes.
Day lily tubers.
Perennial alliums, especially garlic and walking onions.
Runner up: Sun chokes, easy to grow, but require fermenting or long cook times to reduce the inulin to make them easily digestible in quantity.
Best culinary herbs.
All the herbs.
Let’s face it, herbs can be quickly added to almost any meal, any time of the year for a medicinal and health-enhancing nutritional punch.
Best out-of-hand berries
Some berries require lots of care or processing into jams. These can be eaten in quantity fresh, and require very little care.
Issai kiwi (no other varieties!)
Easy Tree Fruits
For more information, see our Extensive/Intensive fruit tree lists. “Extensive” trees require little care and produce a lot of nice quality fruit. These will be different in different regions, but they may be as close to hamburger bushes as we can get. Here are some of the best throughout the Great Lakes and Eastern Woodland region.
A few edible crab apples
European apples or pears may do very well in certain regions, but generally require a lot of work or perform poorly.
Mulberry (can be eaten as a leaf crop and possibly even turned into a carb-rich flour!)
Fast easy salads
These perennial leafy greens have a long season and are very easy to grow and use in bulk in a salad.
All the sorrels
Mints, especially mild mints that can be used in salads.
Quick pick perennial veggies
Day lily pods
Quick pick annual veggies
While not as valuable as other things on the list because of their increased labor requirements, these are some of the easiest to grow annual vegetables in many climates, that can be eaten in bulk along with some carbohydrate as the basis for a meal.
(Honorable mention: select varieties of tomatoes like wild tomatoes.)
Edible flowers worth eating in quantity
Peach leaved bellflower
Easily stored crops for winter abundance
Winter squash, especially Seminole pumpkins and Hubbard squash in regions where they can be easily grown (these are difficult to grow most places. )
Evergreen crops like walking onions and peach leaves bellflower
Cellar forced easy greens: chicory, dandelions, asparagus.