It is morning and warm shafts of light pierce the kitchen windows. The cat lounges where they fall, birds are out in song and snowdrops nod approvingly. Your soul lifts as you realize that finally the first days of spring are upon us.
While drinking your morning brew your head fills with images of all the wonderful crops you will bring to fruition this year – Titanic tatties, monstrous melons and enormous onions. You head down to the vegetable patch to make a start.
Once outside your eagerness takes a hit as you bring your fork down onto soil and hit only bell metal. Jack Frost has decided to stick around for a while. You gaze up from the fork to survey your growing land. Performing a complex feat of mental arithmetic based upon soil compaction, personal strength, implement size and square footage you quickly deduce that this year’s prep is going to be a hard slog. You groan audibly.
Nosing over the fence you see your neighbour has entered their garden. You wait to hear their groans as they too realize they have dolomite for earth. But instead they are wandering around sticking their head to the ground. ‘What are you doing?’ you ask, ‘Seeing if any perennials are coming’ they reply, ‘I have quite a lot of them in’, ‘it really cuts down on the prep and gives me something to enjoy early on’.
You wonder how these perennials might help you cut down on your gardening year’s early workload.
What are perennials and why should you be growing them?
Perennials are plants that live for more than two years. So because you only need to plant them once they can indeed cut down on your workload during the planting season. Many of them are also low maintenance, beautiful and interesting. The best bit is that they are some of the garden’s tastiest additions.
Perennials are also amongst the first plants in a vegetable garden to bear produce in springtime. It is pleasurable to visit a garden stocked with perennials in the early days of spring to see how they are doing and find that you are being rewarded year after year for one lot of work!
We can group edible perennials into three broad categories of vegetables, fruits and everything else.
Let’s look in detail at two of the UK’s favourite perennial vegetables – Rhubarb and Asparagus:
The English garden classic for rhubarb trifle, chutney and of course rhubarb and custard. It is an impressive plant. In the ground, its roots lead to a small crown which protrudes from the soil. Each year during the growing season the crown shoots out stems which turn pink and grow huge leaves. Those pink stems are our rhubarb sticks and when they are ready we chop them from the plant to eat.
Although you can grow rhubarb from seed, it will suit the beginner to simply buy ready grown crowns. Crowns can be found quite easily and will crop in the first season. You can put them in a pot if you’d like but due to the size of the plant it is better to give them a patch of earth.
Most rhubarb varieties will need to be planted in either spring or autumn. Find a good patch of moist (not waterlogged) ground and dig a hole about a foot and a half deep. Add some manure but leave plenty of space for the roots. Place the crown in the hole, then fill and water in. Try to have the crown sitting just at soil level, do not put too much soil on top or it may rot.
Nipping off flowers in springtime creates tastier stems. In summer, the plant should be amply watered at the base. When autumn arrives, cut down the old stems to let the plant replenish itself throughout winter. Every five years or so to keep the plants virile you should dig up the crown and split it into quarters before replanting each separately.
Don’t harvest plants the first year, let them establish. Thereafter, begin harvesting between April and June by grabbing stems at the base and twisting from the crown. Only harvest about half the stems or you may weaken the plant. Finish by August and let your rhubarb rest. Rhubarb will produce so much that you may end up freezing much of it.
The aristocrat’s artichoke, asparagus spears taste luscious with cheese sauce or dipped into yolky egg as substitute soldiers. If you have had asparagus from the supermarket and found it woody, then all the more reason to grow your own and experience the real thing!
Like rhubarb, asparagus shoots its green spears from a crown called a corm. Growing the plant will mean at least 3 years before you can harvest, but you can buy seasoned corms if you can’t wait that long.
You will need to build a special asparagus bed. Find a light spot with warm, well-drained ground. Weed the ground and dig a foot-wide trench to a depth of about 25cm (10”). The trench should be quite long because asparagus plants require at least 45cm (18”) between them. Fill the trench with a few centimetres of manure then add most of the excavated soil back to form a ridge along the centre. Place the asparagus crowns with their roots dangling down the sides of the ridge and fill in with the remaining soil. Water well.
Feed plants a little fertilizer in spring. In summer, weed the beds carefully and keep watered. When autumn arrives, cut back any unused stems and cover the crowns with mulch to guard against frost.
Do not harvest in the first year. In the second year you may harvest a little, and in year three you can harvest it all.
Asparagus has a short harvest season. Spears begin shooting in early springtime and should be at least 13cm (5”) tall before cutting. The youngest and freshest spears taste nicest, so you should only cut them when you are ready to eat. Carefully cut spears with a sharp knife at the base. Stop harvesting at the end of May and let the plants grow their leaves.
Some other perennial vegetables of interest include less-commonly thought of stem and flower foods like:
A brassica and the main ingredient of the biting sauce we enjoy with beef. The plant will grow rapidly in most conditions but can be invasive to the point that gardeners will plant it in cold spots to stop the spread. Choose your bed carefully because you will struggle to move it once established.
The globe artichoke is a member of the thistle family and looks at home among flowers. The heart of its flower head is the tastiest part of the plant. Artichokes are easy to grow from seed in many different kinds of soil and will make edible buds from July onwards.
Two of Britain’s best-loved perennial fruits are the humble blackberry and the sickly strawberry which we will now look at in detail:
The blackberry or ‘bramble’ is a climbing shrub that grows rampantly across the British Isles and is easily recognized by schoolchildren for both its edibility and lethality – pity on anyone who falls into a brambly hedge! Thankfully the plant’s fruit is not as sharp as its thorns and it makes delicious deep-flavoured jams and crumbles.
Getting a bramble into your garden is more about trans-planting than planting. First go and find one, armed with secateurs and thick gloves. The best time is springtime, you will find them wound into boundaries around bridleways, parks and school fields. When you have found one (make sure you KNOW it is a bramble) you can take a cutting. Don’t worry, you won’t harm the plant and no one is likely to care, so long as you aren’t doing commando manoeuvres onto private land. Look for a new offshoot of the blackberry plant that is between 15-20cm (6-8”) in length. Follow the shoot to its base and take a cutting from about 5cm (2”) below the soil. Carry your new blackberry-baby home with pride.
Plant the cutting in a pot with compost and water it in. Put the pot in a warm spot outside and water once a week if dry. You should know if it has taken root after about two months by wiggling the stem. Come October you can plant it in the ground. The spot you choose should be quite large, offer some support for the plant (a fence) and be away from weak plants it may drown. The following year your blackberry should have begun to establish and will begin fruiting the year after that.
Brambles are strong plants with the ability to spread. You can water or feed them if you’d like but they are wild and low-maintenance. The main thing you will have to worry about is cutting back their pesky, thorny canes. In springtime cut the tips of new canes so they produce more fruit. Canes will only produce fruit if they are two years old and won’t fruit again, so in summer cut off at the ground any canes that have produced fruit that year.
True British blackberries come between August and November along with our apples. You will know the fruit is coming when the canes blossom up and produce green berries. Wait until the berries turn dark purple and pick from the vine every few days until the bush is exhausted. Mind the thorns!
Strawberries come from a squat plant that likes to ramble. They spread quickly, producing more each year of one of the garden’s tastiest and most recognizable fruits.
Strawberries can be grown from seed but like blackberries it is easier to simply transplant them. Each year mother plants will produce runners – baby plants that grow into new plants. If you know someone with strawberry plants you can ask them to give you some runners, or buy them. Dig over a designated strawberry patch that has good drainage, is shielded from wind and will get plenty of light, or use a large pot. Plant the runners in rows in late-spring and water in. Their yield will get better with each subsequent year and the patch should thicken up with new plants.
Snip off the flower buds in the first year to make a stronger root. When the plants begin to produce runners use them to replace weak and old plants, or to make your patch larger. If you like, you can allow strawberries to ramble all over your garden.
Strawberries fruit from summer until autumn. When flowers appear put straw or some other material underneath the leaves to keep the forthcoming fruit off the ground. Birds will attack them, let them eat a few but if they begin to take too many you should net the plants.
Some other perennial bushes and vines that bear edible fruit are:
This squat, prickly bush will put out scores of sour berries year upon year if placed in sufficiently dry ground. Gooseberries come in green or red and make a very nice crumble. They need little care except annual pruning and an occasional mulch.
Make your own Ribena! The blackcurrant bush is easy to grow and will hand out sweet berries from midsummer onwards. You can buy young plants from garden centres but they do take some years to reach a decent yield.
Grapes are no longer for France and further south only. Changing climates mean that the vines now do pretty well in Britain. They will perform best if you live in the southern England but will grow and yield fruit even in the north.
Grape vines have the reputation of being difficult to manage. They do indeed take many years of complicated care to produce optimum fruit for winemaking, but don’t let that put you off! Your grapes may not make the finest claret, but with little attention they should still be good enough to eat.
Other Edible Perennials
Other edible perennials of interest to the kitchen gardener include perennials that are grown as annuals like garlic, onions and kale. But there are also herbs, that bring wonderful flavours to our meals, and some other garden regulars we normally consider weeds:
Grass-like shoots with a mild onion flavour that add zing to baked potatoes or cheese on toast. Very easy to grow from seed.
A hardy herb that is the perfect complement to lamb. Easy to grow from seed or by transplanting.
The ultimate addition to spaghetti bolognaise. Can be grown from seed but likes warm ground, making some varieties quite difficult to get started in the UK. Once established it does very well.
Great with chicken or pork. Rosemary sprigs come from a six foot shrub that is virtually maintenance-free and produces a wonderful scent in the garden.
A compliment to rosemary and sage and a very versatile herb. Thyme will grow in the ground or containers but can suffer in cold spells.
Excellent with chicken (it’s what gives stuffing its flavour). Sage is easy to grow and will also bring beneficial insects to the garden.
Don’t be too keen to remove these border loving stingers. The youngest leaves make a refreshing soup that will make your mouth tingle.
You are probably growing these already and not by choice. Although an invasive weed, dandelion is also completely edible. You can use the flowers on salads and the roots to make dandelion and burdock.
Its green, pointy leaves are great on salads or fried up in omelettes. You can find the plants in woodland in early springtime and if you plant them in your garden they will come back early each year with lovely white flowers. Wild garlic dislikes captivity and if you try to pull one up to replant it will die. But you can fool the plant by digging well around it and lifting it together with its soil, then replanting the whole lot in a shady spot. If you go looking for these make sure you can identify them correctly as they do look similar to some poisonous species – if in any doubt buy seeds instead.
With so many perennials to choose from and all the benefits they bring you should start planning and planting your perennial additions right away. If you do it right, then next year you won’t have to!