We all have busy schedules that make our free time even more precious, so our vegetables must work just as hard for us: more harvests for less effort! This is where perennial vegetables can really save the day.
Leafy greens on hand all year round, a garlicky treat in spring, gourmet delicacies to amaze your friends, or even homegrown ‘coffee’: whatever your culinary needs, there’s an edible perennial that can satisfy your appetite.
Ostrich Fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris)
Hardy to Zone 2
Everyone loves trying something a tad different. But how about this for shaking up the menu: a fern! Not just any any old fern, it’s an ostrich fern, so-called because its leaves are supposed to resemble ostrich feathers. Hmm… I’m not so sure. But what we can be sure of is the gastronomic delights that await us in early spring when the coiled-up leaves, known as fiddleheads, are harvested. They make great eating, with a taste somewhere between asparagus and green beans – yum!
Like most ferns, ostrich ferns love a cool, damp, and shady spot. Plant three together to create a nice clump. Improve the soil first with some compost and perhaps a little bonemeal to encourage good root growth to help them establish.
Mulch them once planted, for instance with wood chippings, compost, or even just some raked up leaves, to help mimic the woodland environment they enjoy. Let plants grow on for a few years to really bulk out, then harvest the fiddleheads in spring, being sure to only harvest the tightly-curled tops of the fern fronds while they’re still young. Enjoy them sauteed, perhaps with a little butter and garlic, or griddled. You can also freeze them to enjoy later.
Nine Star Perennial Broccoli (Brassica oleracea botrytis aparagoides)
Hardy to Zone 8
I grew a Daubenton’s kale from a cutting last autumn. I’m really pleased with how quickly it’s establishing, and I will look to start picking the leaves next spring. Perennial brassicas like kale are very hardy and forgiving, so I’ve decided to plant another – this time a type of perennial broccoli called nine star broccoli. This beauty yields creamy-white heads that look a lot like cauliflower. They appear in spring, with a main head, or spear, surrounded by numerous smaller spears. Once you’ve harvested the main spear, more will keep coming over several weeks – brilliant!
I couldn’t find any cuttings for this one so had to purchase a ready-to-go plant, delivered through the mail. As a bonus it came with a purple tree collard, another type of perennial kale with gorgeous pink-purple-flushed leaves. You might also find the seeds for sale, and these are sown in much the same way as annual broccoli.
Nine star broccoli is a short-lived perennial, so you will need to replant in three to five years’ time, but you can use cuttings from the original plant to do so.
Horseradish (Armoracia rusticana)
Hardy to Zone 5
And now for something spicy! No, not chili peppers (although they are perennial in warm climates), but horseradish. From little sections of root you can grow a nice big clump of this super-reliable perennial.
(Fun fact: Did you know that the correct name for these bits of roots is in fact ‘thongs’? It made me chuckle that I was literally getting grubby thongs delivered to me through the mail!)
Anyway…most of us know we can harvest the roots to make horseradish sauce, but did you know you can also eat the tender young leaves? They have a much milder flavor and are best steamed, or try them raw in salads.
Horseradish will grow in sun or partial shade. Starting off new clumps is really very easy because horseradish grows fast and is very reliable. It produces chunky, dock-like leaves, and it can get a little gung-ho. This is great news if you want lots and lots to dig up, but perhaps keep it in a container if you’re worried about it spreading, because it can… quickly! If you are using a container, make sure it’s a big one to encourage thicker, meatier roots.
Wild Garlic / Ramsons (Allium ursinum)
Hardy to Zone 4
Wild garlic, or ramsons, will always hold a special place in my heart. They are the first plant I foraged – to make a wild pesto made together with hazelnuts and a local extra-virgin, cold-pressed oil. The leaves have a powerful garlic taste, so a little goes a long way.
Every part of wild garlic is edible – from the bulbs to the pretty white flowers, though sticking to harvesting the leaves is more common. They need a shady position and soil that remains moist for most of the year, so they would grow well around your ostrich ferns. Ideally wild garlic bulbs should be planted in early spring, but late summer or early fall is fine too. To mimic the environment of the woodland floor where they typically grow, mulch with leaves (or just let the leaves accumulate around them) to gradually rot down into the soil and keep it fertile and moisture retentive.
Avoid harvesting them in their first year, so they can get some muscle behind them first. When harvesting, pick the leaves at any time up until they start flowering. Don’t be too greedy – leave the younger leaves alone so the plant has enough resources to continue growing.
Good King Henry (Blitum bonus-henricus)
Hardy to Zone 5
Good King Henry is a soft, leafy perennial also known as ‘Lincolnshire spinach’, presumably because it’s such as good spinach alternative. But I reckon it’s even better than spinach. Its lovely leaves are borne over a much longer period of time, and because it’s got a nice deep taproot, they come earlier in the spring as well. And, to cap it all, its seeds can be harvested and used like quinoa, or perhaps sprinkled onto bread like poppy seeds. Two crops for the effort of one, and it’ll come year after year – brilliant!
Good King Henry needs the royal treatment, because it can be a touch tricky to germinate. For best results, sow the seeds into a gritty potting mix in autumn. The seeds need a period of cold weather to help break their dormancy. When they finally sprout in spring transplant them carefully, so as not to disturb the roots, into a sunny or part-shaded position.
Harvest the young leaves from mid-spring to autumn. They’ll need soaking before cooking to prevent a bitter taste.
Once the plants die back for the winter, mulch around them to protect the roots. This way you can grow Good King Henry in really rather exceptionally cold areas – even down as low as a positively fresh zone 3.
Sorrel (Rumex acetosa)
Hardy to Zone 5
Sorrel is another superb leafy perennial, this time best sown in spring. The plants have deep roots, drawing up minerals into their leaves, which makes them a great source of nutrients. You can choose from a range of sorrels such as buckler-leaved, red-veined, or French. The leaves have a lemony tang that lends itself beautifully with salads and soups.
Chicory (Cichorium intybus)
Hardy to Zone 3
There are a number of different types of chicory you can grow, the most familiar type probably being radicchio. Chicory is a very versatile plant. As well offering tasty leaves for us gardeners, it makes a fantastic, drought-resistant forage for cattle. It has pretty little blue flowers, and you can tell from its leaves that it’s related to the common dandelion (both are in the aster family of plants). The bitter leaves are edible, but as with Good King Henry they’re best soaked before cooking.
Chicory produces long taproots, which we can harvest in autumn or winter to dry, roast, then grind to make a wonderfully satisfying caffeine-free coffee substitute. Simply scrub the roots clean, cut them into thin rounds, then dehydrate them. Once they’re dry, roast them at 35ºF (175ºC) until the roots have taken on a golden brown color. You should be able to smell a coffee-like aroma too. Remove from the oven and let the roots cool off before grinding them into a powder. Just add hot water for a refreshing brew!