For many gardeners, the word perennial probably brings to mind a flowering plant that dies back in winter, then returns every year, like the blessed spring. Shasta daisies, sweet woodruff, lily of the valley, that sort of thing. Who would think of vegetables?
Yet, quite a collection of veggies fit the description, too. And if you want to cut your work load in the garden, while saving money and producing fresh food, planting edible perennials is the obvious way to go. Not the only way, mind you. Few gardeners would want to forgo the familiar favorites of the veggie patch – tomatoes, lettuce, beans, peas, etc., all of them annuals.
But planting perennials as well will reduce the time spent in spring putting seed in the ground and transplanting seedlings. It will pare down the chore of pulling up plants at the end of summer, all of which decreases a gardener’s work load and leaves more time to swing in the always-beckoning hammock.
Equally important, many perennial veggies require little care, once in the ground. They’re often not fussy about soil or light. Full sun or part shade will do. Nothing to sniff at, that. And many of them can be harvested in early spring, fall and winter, times of the year when annual veggies tend to be few and far between.
Some of these plants you may never have heard of, crosnes (a.k.a. Chinese artichoke) and Good King Henry, for example. Some of them I’d never encountered – in print, let alone on a plate – until I started to look into the subject. Some grace the plates of people in other parts of the world. So, growing them here looks to be something of an exotic adventure, to my mind. And I like adventures.
Asparagus is an absolutely delicious example of a perennial vegetable that you don’t have to Google to find out what it looks like. In the supermarket it costs a bundle. In the home garden, it’s one of the first veggies ready to eat in spring and costs nothing. Asparagus, however, is not for the impatient gardener because it takes several years to get comfy and start producing. That foible did not stop a 90-year-old I know from planting plenty of asparagus in his raised beds when in his 80s. He’s been enjoying them for quite a few years!
Now – early spring – is the time to plant what the University of Maryland’s “Master Gardener Handbook” calls one-year crowns. You can begin harvesting the asparagus lightly in years two and three. On the plus side, the plant lives 12 to 15 years or longer. Just think of all that extra hammock time!
Asparagus freezes well and spears come up every day from the crowns. You can even organize your asparagus to produce in fall as well as spring. Harvest only half the spears that appear in spring. Let the others sprout and grow into feathery ferns. In late July, cut back the ferns on the plants you didn’t harvest earlier. Their crowns will send up new spears that can be cut and eaten until late in the season. Remember which side of the asparagus patch was harvested when, and keep to the same schedule through the years, or the plants could grow weak from too much cutting.
Asparagus prefers well-drained soil, but it’s not essential, as one can tell from the wild asparagus which grows in many drainage ditches in our county.
Leeks are sometimes called “poor man’s asparagus” in France, but they’re biennials (lasting for two seasons) so cannot appear in this list. However, wild leeks, commonly called ramps, are perennials.
Indigenous to North America and popular in southern U.S. cuisine, ramps have been over-harvested in many wild places. In Canada, the province of Quebec has declared them a protected species and, in the U.S.A., the states of Maine, Rhode Island and Tennessee have classified the wild leek a plant of “special concern.” You could view growing it at home, rather than foraging for it, as making an environmentally correct gardening statement.
Ramps, whose botanical name is allium tricoccum, grow in cool, shady parts of deciduous forests and favor damp, rich soil full of organic matter, with a pH of 4.9 to 5.5. In the wild, they emerge in late March or early April, before leaves have appeared on the trees high above them.
As with cultivated leeks, all parts of the vegetable, including the bulb, are edible. Ramp seed can be ordered online and probably from catalogs. If you live in a forest-like setting or want to create one, why not give ramps a try? Why not try growing them in containers placed in a cool shady area, too?
Remaining in the onion family, bunching and tree onions (a.k.a. top-setting onions, Egyptian onions) are also perennials. Both resemble the spring onions sold in stores; but tree onions, which incidentally do not grow on trees, produce bulblets at the end of their leaves rather than in the soil. These veggies grow nicely in containers, according to what I’ve read.
Some “Cut And Come Again” Leaf Veggies
Moving to leaf vegetables, Good King Henry, which I’d never heard of until writing this column, is a European spinach-like veggie. One can eat its shoots, leaves and flower buds in spring. It likes moist, well-drained soil and full sun or part shade.
Sorrel, which you may not have encountered either, is another spinach-like perennial whose leaves have a sour, lemony flavor. A few sorrel leaves can perk up a salad. Sauteed, it makes an excellent side dish with fish. In my experience, it’s especially good in omelettes and soups, the latter particularly when accompanied by potatoes and onions. (And maybe the former, too. A culinary adventure in the waiting....)
This veggie will grow in average soil, in sun or shade, and can be harvested from early spring through late fall. Think of that! Well over half the year. If you remove the flower heads before they develop, the leaves will remain tender and flavorful. Eventually, sorrel forms clumps that should be divided every four years.
Sea kale, another “cut and come again” leaf veggie, is what’s known as a seacoast perennial. Also named scurvy grass, it grows wild along the sandy shores of the North Sea, Atlantic and Mediterranean. The ancient Romans carried barrels of preserved sea kale with them when they went on long exotic adventures, I mean sea voyages.
Cover the plant in spring (you can also mound a foot of soil over it) to whiten its shoots and presumably keep them tender. The shoots, which you can harvest when they’re four to six inches long, taste like asparagus. The nut-flavored young leaves and flowers can also be eaten.
If left to grow, sea kale will reach three feet tall and make a nice ornamental, with blue-grey leaves and white flowers. The plant grows quickest from root cuttings (seed takes three years to produce a crop) and it needs soil in which you have dug in manure or another moisture-holding humus down to a depth of two feet.
Now to the amazing artichokes. Two of the following perennials grow to great heights, produce eye-catching flowers and can be used as ornamentals and windbreaks, as well as for food.
The globe artichoke, native to the Mediterranean, southern Europe and central Asia, reaches six to 12 feet in height and has flowers that resemble giant thistles. But it’s the flower bud that one eats, specifically the bottom of each green petal and the marvelously tasty hearts. So, if your appetite is big enough, you may never see the flowers. This is the choke found in our supermarkets and grown, in the U.S., along the California coast.
The plant is also a heavy feeder. Who wouldn’t be at that size? It needs compost or manure dug deeply into the soil before planting and a heavy mulch of well-rotted manure spread over it every year when you cut it back. Add more organic fertilizer when it begins to grow in spring.
Globe artichokes need moisture, but not standing water, which can cause fungus to grow on them and diseases. In winter, after cutting them back, protect the plants with a basket covering, then a thick mulch of manure.
A Gift From Native
Jerusalem artichokes are an altogether different kettle of fish. You eat the tubers, not the buds. The plant that produces them is the indigenous American sunflower Helianthus tuberosus, once cultivated by native Americans. The plant has nothing to do with Jerusalem or artichokes, despite its name, which is believed to have been acquired by mistake, due to a corruption of its name in Italian “girasoli articocco,” meaning sunflower artichoke. And did anyone go to jail for this crime? Probably not.
Interestingly, European explorers took samples of the plant back to the old continent, where they became all the rage and even today are more popular there than here. Jerusalem artichokes are packed with vitamins and particularly valuable in the diet of diabetics. But that’s a long story and would take too much space to explain just now.
The plants grow four to eight feet tall and produce yellow flowers three to four inches in diameter. They propagate not by seed, but by spreading their roots which, in turn, form tubers that send up new plants. Beware: Jerusalem artichokes are aggressive growers, bordering on invasive. They like rich, sandy loam, not heavy soil. Whole tubers or pieces can be planted now or in the fall.
A little-known perennial that also forms edible tubers is crosnes or Chinese artichoke. (I haven’t looked into whether it really hails from China, so don’t ask.) A relative of mint, crosnes forms a thick, foot-high ground cover. It likes full sun or part shade and well-drained soil.
The plant, also called Mintroot, produces small white tubers that taste sweet and crisp in salads, according to what I’ve read. Considering the aggressiveness of mint, you might considering trying this one in a large container or two before letting it loose in your garden. Then, again, perhaps it in fact has no relation to mint – fodder for another column.
More perennial veggies exist, but I’ve not mentioned them due to lack of space. The plants described above should give you plenty to chew on. In the meantime, happy gardening!
Editor’s Note: Laetitia Sands is a master gardener in Dorchester County.