Apart from my asparagus bed, which is four years old and just about producing a crop, the only other perennial vegetable on my plot is a new bed of Jerusalem artichokes. Chives, sage, lavender, rosemary, marjoram, thyme and lovage as herbs return year after year and I pick a small bunch most weeks throughout the year. And the raspberries, black currants, rhubarb and gooseberries are permanent fixtures to look forward to each summer. Now with Martin Crawford’s book http://www.greenbooks.co.uk/how-to-grow-perennial-vegetables I am planning to add some more substantial crops that will return each year and hopefully to discover new and unusual ways to cook with them. Several vegetables in this excellent book can be grown at home in mixed borders or in pots and there is a chapter on planting up forest gardens with the vegetables that tolerate wilder areas in partial shade.
The Day Lily and in particular Hemerocallis fulva ‘Flore Pleno’ is the main variety grown in China for cooking. It can be picked early in the morning when the flowers are in bud and these have the flavour of French beans when lightly steamed. Or wait until the end of the day when the flowers are fully open and shred them raw to add to salads. The flowers can also be cooked in the same way as courgette flowers and dipped in a parmesan batter and deep-fried. This plant makes a fine border or pot plant in light sun or shade and can be planted in bulk along paths in semi-wild areas.
Perpetual Spinach also known as leaf beet and Swiss chard are sometimes treated as biennials but if prevented from flowering and Crawford says you simply ‘pinch the flowering stems out’ then they remain perennial for years. That had never occurred to med I simply moan when my plants have started flowering thinking that’s the end of the crop. Both are easy plants to grow from seed sown directly in the ground at this time of year and thinned to 30cms. And Rainbow chard, with its bright yellow and red stems and leaves, can be grown in the same way and will look particularly good in the flower border.
Globe artichokes Cynara scolymus Green Globe or Purple Romanesco make stunning garden plants in a sunny mixed herbaceous border growing to 80cms high and as wide. In rich soil each plant can produce up to three or four large globes. The plants can be divided up every 3-4 years by detaching the small off sets that form at the base of the plant. Steamed for 20-30 minutes before the fleshy petals are pulled apart and dipped into a French dressing has to be one of the best meals in summer.
Sorrel is strictly a herb but has many culinary uses and as a perennial returns year after year. It can be sown from seed in July till mid-August directly in the ground and thinned to 30cms spacing. It prefers sun or light shade and Crawford recommends a Broad Leaved Sorrel ‘Large de Belleville’ that is readily available and is particularly good for winter use.
Dandelions are, as we know when trying to dig them out, a perennial weed with deep tap roots. And whilst I would not choose to maintain a bed of them and maybe I won’t cook the roots I am prepared to try using their other bits in the kitchen. Apparently the leaves are widely eaten in mainland Europe, often with bacon in France, and the flowers can be added to salads and pancakes.
In his introduction Crawford points out that tilling the soil year after year, which is necessary for most seed grown annual vegetables, is one of the worst offenders in agriculture. The growing systems used for perennial plants disturb the environment much less than annual tillage. He also says that foods from perennial plants almost always contain more nutrients than those from short-lived plants. Many that he mentions in the book grow wild in forests and hedgerows and once these have been identified offer fabulous opportunities for weekend foraging trips.
This weeks cut flowers are Allium christophii which were lying flat in the garden after a heavy downpour so were revived indoors.