Born to be wild
by Jefferson Munroe
My friends and colleagues: the days of slavery to the rototiller, indentured servitude to the broadfork and Sisyphean double-digging have come to an end. No need to hammer your swords into plowshares—keep those edges sharp enough to harvest your bountiful vegetables (although a full sword might be overkill for greens harvesting). No-till, no-kill vegetable production awaits you once you adopt a few new plants in your garden.
Those of us who forage now and again (and really, who hasn’t nibbled on a wild strawberry or some roadside dandelions?) know the sheer joy and lightness of accepting nature’s bounty. A basket of greens here, a cupful of seed pods there, and the world is your larder. The central problem with foraging is the scouting required—you may miss your favorite picks if you’re not careful about timing. But growing perennial veggies hits the sweet spot between gardening and foraging— they require the familiar bed preparation for their initial establishment and a bit of early-season weeding and mulching, but once in the ground they ask little of you and produce, well, perennially.
Foraged vegetables can be an acquired taste (lookin’ at you plantain!) and sometimes need further processing (acorns, anyone?), whereas the flavors of perennials are generally less intense, and mostly ready to eat.
In the world of gardening there’s a period in the early spring where few annuals are at a harvestable stage. Perennial veggies can help to fi ll that void. Jonathan Bates, owner of Food Forest Farm and Horticulture Nursery in Holyoke, Mass., was kind enough to lead me through some of the highlights of perennial vegetables. “Many perennial vegetables give you multiple- season harvests, with both spring and fall flushes of edibles,” said Jonathan. “Additionally,” he said, they “allow the gardener to fi ll shaded niches in the garden with useful plants.”
Rhubarb and asparagus are the most familiar perennial vegetables, and as delicious as they are, asparagus takes years to properly establish itself and rhubarb functions as more of a seasoning than a vegetable.
Some perennial veggies are slightly domesticated forage crops (ramps, perennial leeks), some are used as ornamentals (giant Solomon’s seal) and others are extremely vigorous (sunchokes). With Jonathan’s guidance, I’ve chosen three of the most accessible perennial vegetables for our island’s temperate climate.
GOOD KING HENRY
A traditional European vegetable, Good King Henry (Chenopodium bonus- henricus) is related to quinoa and lamb’s quarter. It sports spinach-like edible leaves, broccoli-like flowerbuds, edible seeds and asparagus-style shoots.
Good King Henry has traditionally been grown for its shoots, and, in highly fertile plantings, has been known to produce them for over three months! This easy-to-grow perennial thrives in rich soils and can reach almost three feet tall.
After the seed has established, Good King Henry needs a bit of extra love during its first season of growth; correspondingly, any volunteer seedlings can be easily removed from your garden. Jonathan finds that the leaves should be treated as cooking spinach when harvested, because the leaves tend to produce a burning sensation when eaten raw.
While shoot harvests are possible from poorer-soil plantings, higher fertility corresponds with less bitterness in leaf production. (Additionally, while the flower buds are edible, the leaves are less palatable while flowering but return to form once the plant goes to seed.) Harvest and cook the shoots as you would asparagus, preferably with a bit of hollandaise.
Sea kale (Crambe maritima) can be found growing wild along the European seacoasts where it’s been harvested for centuries. The semi-wild version available in the United States is already delectable, with broccoli rabe-type flower buds and collard-like greens. At maturity, sea kale can reach three feet across, and, unlike many perennials, prefers a monoculture.
Weeding for this plant is minimal: its large, flat leaves tend to lay prostrate across the ground, effectively blocking light and moisture from potential weed seeds.
Sea kale loves seaweed mulch; one application in the early spring should comprise all the work required for the season. It is best to leave the greens on the plants until fall, when they would be killed by frost anyway, as this will allow the plant to store up the requisite energy to make it through the winter.
If you want to spread your successful sea kale plants to other parts of your garden, root cuttings taken in the spring do quite well. Traditionally, the flower buds were bleached by covering with large pots, but this tends to kill the plant—better to harvest the flower buds green, at 6 to 12 inches, and then sauté up a batch with some garlic and fennel sausage.
Unlike annual arugula, which grows in low, green carpets, Sylvetta Arugula (Diplotaxis tenuifolia), a perennial, resembles a lavender bush with tender young greens sprouting from the tips of its branches. This perennial arugula has a sharper flavor raw than annuals; the larger leaves are also tasty when cooked. The plant’s leaves can be harvested all season long.
Our island sits on the edge of Sylvetta’s planting zone, but placing it in a protected part of the garden or covering the plant’s base with heavy mulch should ensure overwintering. If you live in an apartment, or want to keep arugula close at hand, you can pot up a few seedlings and keep them on a kitchen window. Sylvetta’s ability to withstand drier conditions makes this plant more forgiving of your watering foibles.
After several years, plants can expand to cover four feet across and will self-seed with vigor. If you’d rather not have arugula springing up all over your garden, you can plant seedlings in partial shade and poorer soils. Slow to bolt, Sylvetta’s yellow blossoms appear in late August and will make a tasty addition to your salads with a slightly milder but still peppery flavor. Jonathan Bates recommends using the leaves in a spring pesto.