After years of struggling with my small garden, I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ll never be one of those gardeners who posts enviable photos on Facebook of their overflowing bounty of fresh vegetables, or who complain good naturedly that they have so much zucchini they can’t even give it away. But I do like reaping a few rewards from my hard work over the season, and I purposefully try to choose plants that will prove useful in my garden plot or in one of my many repurposed planters.
Growing plants that are edible, that have medicinal properties, or that can be used for some other benefit can really pay off from an environmental standpoint. Think of the gas you’ll save not having to run to the store to buy fresh herbs for your dinner, as well as the fuel saved from not buying herbs from a store that had to have them shipped in from many miles away. Or consider the chemicals that you’re eliminating from your surroundings if you protect yourself from mosquitos with certain plants. After all, many chemical treatments are modeled after their natural plant predecessors.
This is what’s in my garden this year. What are the most useful plants in your garden?
1. Thyme: To me, the most rewarding plants to grow are herbs. It’s so helpful to be able to snip a few stems to use in cooking, or to make a big batch of pesto when my basil is at its peak. While all herbs are useful, I think thyme is one of the most rewarding because so many recipes can benefit from a teaspoon or two, from a potpie to a pasta sauce. You can purchase a thyme plant for not much more than the plastic clamshells of thyme sprigs you might have bought last time you needed it for a recipe. In Georgia, where I live, it grows well throughout the winter, but if you live in a place where it gets too cold, you can plant thyme in a pot and bring it inside when the weather changes. You can even dry or freeze the leaves to preserve them.
2. Aloe: People have relied on the benefits of the aloe vera plant for centuries, for everything from treating constipation to sunburn. While there’s not a lot of medical evidence that supports the claims of aloe’s medicinal properties, many swear that cutting open an aloe plant and rubbing the gel-like interior on a burn or sunburn can help it heal more quickly. At the very least, it’s a soothing sensation. Aloe vera has also been said to have a host of other benefits, including moisturizing skin, soothing insect bites, and stimulating hair growth. Aloe thrives especially well in containers with good drainage.
3. Lemon Balm: This year, in giving respect to the honeybees and butterflies in my neighborhood, I refrained from spraying my yard for mosquitos. Instead I’ve planted pretty, fragrant lemon balm, which is one of several different plant varieties that are known to naturally repel mosquitos. The balm is planted near my front door, and the first thing I do when I head outside is break off a few leaves, crush them in my hands, and rub the citrusy fragrance on my skin. It smells a whole lot better than chemical bug spray, that’s for sure! There are plenty of other plants that skeeters hate — next year I might incorporate some of the others, like citronella grass, or catnip, into my garden!
4. Lavender: While it’s another plant that is said to repel mosquitos, the reason I grow lavender is simple — it’s one of my favorite scents in the world! It’s also a plant that has other unique benefits. Use it to flavor baked goods, beverages, or cocktails. Dry the buds and fill a sachet or a weighted eye pillow with them — its soothing aroma is calming to many people. Me, I just rub it on my wrists and neck as a fresh-smelling perfume!
5. Tomatoes: If you plant only one vegetable in your garden, a tomato plant would be a good bet. Tomatoes often top the list of the most prolific vegetables, and there’s something so rewarding about plucking a tomato from the vine and slicing it into a sandwich — they always taste better off the vine. Tomatoes are fairly easy to grow, and they will often produce throughout the season.
6. Blueberries: Like tomatoes, blueberries, cared for properly, are one of the most rewarding and useful fruiting plants to grow. They’ll bear fruit from late July to early August, and the fruit is a bit hardier than strawberries. It’s best to plant a couple of bushes, even in different varieties, so you can have a longer harvesting season.
With these six plants in your garden, you’ll get plenty of benefits from all your hard work weeding, composting, and watering!