Take some of the work out of your vegetable garden with perennial plants
Most gardeners love perennials because, unlike annuals, we only have to plant them once and that’s it. Each year the plants come back on their own and in ever-increasing clumps. Very reliable – no fussing with seeds and pampering of seedlings necessary. If only the vegetable garden could be that easy. That is what makes the idea of perennial vegetables so appealing. Plant them once and harvest them for years. Though we are limited by our climate, there are quite a few edibles that will overwinter and thrive here. Some of them you are probably already growing in your garden, like asparagus or rhubarb, while others like daylilies or violets you may not look at as edible plants.
A few weeks ago in her Home Plate column,
Monitor columnist Hillary Nelson introduced us to Good King Henry a spinach-like green related to lamb’s quarters, a weed most gardeners rip out. Both plants are delicious and full of nutrients. Because it is high in oxalic acid, Good King Henry is best eaten cooked, but the new shoots, greens and flower heads are all edible. It grows easily from seed and thrives in part shade.
Sorrel is another green that has both wild and cultivated cousins. French sorrel is a traditional vegetable in Europe – think creamy potato and sorrel soup. Also high in oxalic acid, its leaves add a lemony tang to salads. It grows well in sun or shade. I grow one called “Profusion” that doesn’t flower, so it can be harvested all season long.
There are several alliums that faithfully return year after year, like Welsh onions, which form a large clump of scallions that can be divided and eaten in the spring. Garlic chives are one of my favorites. Their flat leaves and white flowers are great snipped into egg dishes and salads.
Fiddleheads, the first coiled shoots of the ostrich fern are another springtime treat. Sure you can harvest them from the wild, but wouldn’t it be easier if you just grew the ferns yourself? If you are a fern-lover looking for a low maintenance ground cover for a moist shady location with acidic soil, this is the plant for you.
Tomato juice lovers have to grow some lovage, if only to use the hollow stems as straws for their bloody Marys. The young leaves and stems of this tall plant taste just like celery and the seeds and roots are also edible. Lovage grows well in sun or part shade in moist, well-drained soil.
Sea kale is a multi-use brassica. The early shoots are eaten like asparagus. Popular in Europe, they use a special pot to cover the emerging plants to blanch the new shoots making them extra tender and sweet but you can cover them with mulch or anything that excludes light. The gray-blue leaves of young plants can be eaten like kale, and the flowerbuds are like broccoli. Even the starchy roots are edible. Sea kale grows to be about 3 feet tall and wide and has white flowers. It likes rich soil and full sun.
Turkish rocket (Bunias orientalis) is another perennial brassica. The leaves can be eaten early in the spring and are hot and spicy, like mustard greens. The flowerbuds are similar to broccoli raab. Plants will grow in sun or part shade and can spread to be several feet wide.
Jerusalem artichokes (Helianthus tuberosus) are neither artichokes nor from Jerusalem, they are a native North American plant related to the sunflower. Also called sunchokes, they grow to be 6 to 12 feet tall with smaller sunflower-like blossoms. They do best in full sun and are aggressive growers, so give them space. Harvest the tubers after frost or leave them in the ground and dig them as you need them. Mice and voles love them, too, so don’t be surprised if they beat you to them. Crisp and sweet, use them as you would potatoes. They are good mashed, roasted or even raw in salads. Just be aware: They can be quite gas-inducing!
These are just a few of the perennial vegetables suitable for our Zone 5 location. Though most of them may sound foreign and exotic, many are plants that were grown by native people for centuries. If you would like more information, check out the books Perennial Vegetables by Eric Toensmeier or How to Grow Perennial Vegetables by Martin Crawford.