Laura Mathews is a garden writer and photographer. She writes about and photographs what she knows: gardens. Visit her website at punkrockgardens.com.
 

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Perennial Vegetables
by Laura Mathews - posted 02/18/13  

These permanent additions to your edible garden can flavorfully stretch your dollar and lengthen the harvest. Here are a few to consider.

Now that it is February, we move from seed catalog season to seed starting season. While planning our spring gardens, why not ponder a permanent addition to the garden? Consider adding perennial edibles vegetables that inexpensively produce novel and delectable foods year after year while expanding the harvest season in the garden.

Probably the best known of the edible perennial is asparagus (Asparagus officinalis). Certainly, this elegant veggie is worthy of a place in any garden. Heralding spring, the sweet stalks are harvested before much else is happening in the garden. It’s an easy to grow, sturdy plant that provides a high-value crop. A bit of patience needs to be exercised with asparagus. The first few years, the shoots that you see should not be harvested. It takes up to three years for asparagus to establish, but it persists up to 20 years. Hardy in Zones 3 to 8.

While asparagus is well known, several lesser-known edible perennials are finding favor in backyards. Here is a brief introduction to Jerusalem artichoke, fiddleheads from the ostrich fern, lovage and Egyptian walking onion. Several of these replace kitchen staples and can be harvested earlier and later than other vegetables.


Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus)

Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus) — sometimes called sun choke — is an energetic plant that is also ornamental. Part of the Helianthus family, it is an attractive native sunflower that grows to be 5 to 6 feet tall. The tuber, which is potato-like with sweet and nutty undertones, is the edible part. Native Americans relied on the Jerusalem artichoke as a main food source. If you want to try this plant, give it a lot of room and don’t expect it to move back out of your garden without force. It grows nearly anywhere.

For crisp tasty greens, try lovage (Levisticum officinale). It is actually a perennial herb with leaves that taste like celery. Like asparagus, it will be one of the first things harvestable in the garden. The whole plant is edible, but I’ve been warned that the root flavor takes a bit of getting used to. Leaves can be used raw or cooked. Growing up to 6 feet tall, try it at the back of a perennial border. Hardy in Zones 4 to 8.


Ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) "fiddleheads"

A good choice for a mixed edible and ornamental border is the ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris). For a few short weeks in spring, the new growth of the fern is edible. Dubbed “fiddleheads” because the tightly coiled spring growth resembles a violin neck, the emerging foliage tastes similar to asparagus with a bit more crunch. Many ferns have a similar shape as they unfurl, but stick to growing ostrich ferns if you want to grow ferns for this delicacy. They are considered the best bet and are completely safe. Not all foodies like them. It’s said they are bitter compared to asparagus. Steam or sauté the fiddleheads. Ostrich fern is a pretty — and tasty — addition to the shade garden. Easy to grow, and native to much of the Northeast, it is hardy to Zone 2.

As hinted to by their botanical name, Allium proliferum, Egyptian walking onion is another energetic edible. Emerging in spring, the onion develops bulblets at the tip of the foliage. As the bulblets grow, the weight causes the plant to bend to the ground effectively replanting itself. The plants will literally walk across your garden over time. It does take a year for the plant to establish. Bulblets generally aren’t produced until year two. Plant these in the fall. The entire plant is edible and once established, they provide more onions than you can ever use. The greens can be used like scallions. Hardy in Zones 3 to 9.

Adding these edible perennial plants to your garden will increase not only the amount of food you can harvest, but will also lengthen the amount of time you can harvest. Asparagus, lovage and greens from Egyptian walking onion will be available and useable early in the spring and Jerusalem artichoke is best dug after a light autumn frost.

If increasing the percentage of your diet that you grow yourself is a goal, these perennial vegetables will significantly reduce your dependence on outside sources for staple foods. 

Photos courtesy of Laura Mathews.

 

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COMMENTS

Lark (Wisconsin) - 03/04/2013

Maybe you can help me. I have Ostrich and Cinnamon Ferns growing together. I would like to try cooking the Fiddleheads of the Ostrich Fern. How can I tell the difference between the two ferns in early Spring?

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