It can be difficult, can’t it, to know in retrospect what first sparked one’s interest in something. I think though, that for me and perennial vegetables, it was reading “The Minimalist Garden”, an article written by Patrick Whitefield in Permaculture Magazine in 1995.
I am someone who almost never sits down for any length of time on my weekly visits to my allotment. I intend to but after a few swigs of coffee and a sandwich I am off again. There is just so much to do.
So I aspire to the minimalist garden which looks after itself and it has become clear that what I need to grow are perennial vegetables. Once the perennial vegetable garden is planted up and well mulched there is no digging, raking and sowing to do and very little weeding and feeding either – for years!
In permaculture terms this is high energy output for low energy input. More importantly than me having time to “stand and stare”, this is surely the sort of thing we need if we are going to grow lots of food on this busy urban island as close as possible to where we’re going to eat it – without using fossil fuels.
Nature becomes bountiful in the perennial vegetable garden. People who have fruit bushes and trees know about this fantastic bounty – harvesting redcurrants can be an almost magical experience especially if you planted the bush, forgot about it and then chanced upon it again dripping with jewels! And happy discoveries like this are there to be made too if you walk through a forest garden where food-producing plants of all sizes and types, are arranged to mimic the self-sustaining, layered nature of a natural open woodland.
Whilst I’d love to have a forest garden if our allotment regulations allowed it, perennial vegetables are a good place for anyone to start. You can grow them at the edge of the vegetable patch, in containers in the yard, in place of some of the ornamentals in the flower garden, in window boxes and, as many are shade-tolerant, even indoors.
Surprisingly, it was on a forest garden course that someone said to me that the problem with perennial vegetables is that there aren’t any! Luckily I knew of quite a few by then and am discovering more all the time, from two books in particular – ‘Creating a Forest Garden’ by Martin Crawford and ‘Food for a Future’ by Ken Fern and also from a range of fascinating internet blogs and knowledgeable gardeners on Twitter. Most gardeners know a few, usually asparagus, globe artichokes and rhubarb.
Patrick in his article had mentioned three perennial vegetables in his minimalist garden: perennial kale, sea beet and ramsons. I started to hunt for perennial kale online and just found other people who were looking for it too, as well as for other perennial vegetables. It seemed the nearest source was the French nursery Plantes-et-Jardins and it was then that I began to think of growing perennial vegetable plants for sale. I ordered a kale from Plantes-et-Jardins and propagated from it easily following advice from other helpful gardeners, and also began last autumn to hunt for seed for a range of about 40 perennial vegetables.
Perennial kale ‘Daubenton’
I have begun to grow some of the plants and sell them by mail order (at present by word of mouth whilst I work on a website). I am calling my little business The Backyard Larder with the vision that busy people could have vegetables growing ‘in store’ in their backyards and gardens.
But what could you actually grow in your backyard larder? And more importantly, what will you actually cook and eat? A perennial vegetable salad poses no problem – just now I could pick watercress, sorrel, chives, salad burnet, pink purslane, dandelion, chicory, scorzonera, kale and lemon balm and these are a fraction of the range of perennials which are pleasant to eat raw. (Perennial plants often have more bitter flavours than annuals though – so young leaves from a lime tree or self-sown annuals like lambs lettuce and winter purslane can be added for mildness.)
Could you make a meal just from the pickings from the perennial vegetable garden? I experimented with this question recently. I gathered, from the perennial vegetables I’ve managed to grow so far (and which were at the right stage for harvesting), ingredients for a vegetable stew and also collected some perennial herbs for flavouring. I’m no great shakes at cooking but I fried tree onion leaf and base, welsh onion and garlic scapes in sunflower oil and then cooked up Jerusalem artichokes, scorzonera roots and chicory roots and added in rhubarb, perennial kale, good king henry, scorzonera leaves, sorrel leaves, thyme, marjoram and sage.
Mixed results! Encouraging on the onion front, I’d be quite happy to forego annual onion and garlic cultivation and rely on tree onions, welsh onions and a perennial garlic patch for my supplies (I’d have to grow a lot though). No problem for leafy greens either – kale and good king henry are very tasty and again there are plenty more candidates, with Caucasian spinach, Chinese broccoli and Turkish rocket being particularly recommended. Rhubarb was lovely in the stew, perhaps a bit like celery and a celery-like flavour could also be supplied by adding lovage or Japanese parsley.
The root vegetables were disappointing though; something sweet-tasting was needed to counteract the mild smoky flavours of the scorzonera and artichokes and the chicory root (put in because I had little else in the way of roots) was very bitter. I had a tiny taste of some skirret roots from a plant I was transplanting – they had a definite parsnip flavour and would have been a nice addition if I’d had more. I’m also looking forward to trying my Chinese artichoke tubers when they are ready. But I’d like to find something like a perennial carrot and don’t know of one yet!
There is also a group of perennial vegetables grown for their succulent young shoots (like asparagus but requiring less initial work) which includes hosta, Solomon seal and false spikenard amongst others which would definitely add to the variety of textures and flavours. Globe artichoke hearts would have given my stew some welcome succulent chunks. As it was, it was something you could survive but not thrive on – but did make a decent soup when I decided to liquidise the lot!
If like me you are hunting for perennial vegetable plants, I have the following available at present:
Perennial Kale (Brassica oleracea var. Daubenton) £7.00
Babington Leek (Allium ampeloprasum var babingtonii) £5.00
Tree Onion (Allium cepa proliferum) £5.00
Chinese Broccoli (Brassica alboglabra) £5.00 for 3 plants
Nine Star Perennial Broccoli (Brassica oleracea botrytis asparagoides) £5.00 for 3 plants
Buckler-leaved Sorrel (Rumex scutatus) £4.00
Giant Chives (Allium schoenoprasum sibiricum) £4.00
Pink Purslane (Claytonia sibirica) £4.00.
and in case they are things you’re looking for:
Red Welsh Onion (Allium fistulosum) £4.00 (just a few)
Musk Mallow (Malva moschata) £4.00 (plants still small but will probably transplant successfully)
Salad Burnet (Sanguisorba minor) Usually £4.00 but plants are a little pot-bound and hungry – reduced to £3.00
Important – Email firstname.lastname@example.org to check for availability and new plants.
(Prices include post and packing and are for within the UK.; 50p reduction on total price for each additional item)
Payment by Paypal to email@example.com, or ask for details for paying by cheque.