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Green to be eaten fresh in salads or cooked in soups, stews, casseroles and other dishes — kale is a staple that happens to be a biennial. Lynette L. Walther
This past winter was moderate enough that most of my kale survived. Kale is a biennial, meaning that for its first growing season, it produces only foliage. Then, for its second summer it flowers, produces seed and then dies.
Even so, I will get plenty of kale leaves this summer to add to salads and soups. Plus, I’ll have seeds to sow again next spring. Same thing with the parsley.
Kale and parsley are just two of those crops I like to call “long haul.” You know those that survive the winter to grow again the second summer.
Other biennials we like to grow include carrots — though most everyone harvests them for their tender roots the first season — and other biennials include beets, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, celery, chard, collards, kohlrabi, leek, onion, parsnip, rutabaga, salsify and turnip.
Most of the things we grow in the vegetable garden are annuals like tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, green beans, basil, etc. Annuals are short-lived, growing in one season from seed, producing foliage, “fruit” and then seeds. After that annuals die.
But the third category of garden plants is perennials. Many folks are familiar with the term as it applies to ornamentals or flowering plants such as peonies, daylilies, daisies, beebalm and so on. However there are few perennial vegetables and fruits that deserve our attention. These are food-bearing plants that grow season after season each summer.
This category of plants gets planted once, maintained and harvested, and then its members go on year after year to produce even more. With perennial vegetables and fruits the annual ritual of preparing, seeding and growing a garden is a bit less work. However perennial food plants do require some work, maintenance and feeding to keep producing.
Here are a few edible choices in the perennial category that are hardy here:
A perennial vegetable that will reliably come year after year and is hardy to Zone 4. Start with crowns planted in well drained slightly alkaline soil. Locate next to where tomatoes are planted. Tomatoes are mutually beneficial companions for asparagus.
American native Helianthus tuberosus has edible tubers that taste similar to artichokes. Tubers are starch-free and rich in the dietary fiber inulin known for its cholesterol lowering and chemo-protective ability.
Grow in rich soil in full sun and they will produce large quantities of tubers every year.
Rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum) is one of the first perennials to harvest in the spring, and is in truth a vegetable. Grow in well-drained soil amended with rich manure. Clumps can grow to three or four feet across, and sufficient spacing is essential. Harvest leaves from second year onwards.
A top dressing of compost or well-rotted manure in the fall and mulch of hay will set up the rhubarb bed for the coming year.
Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is considered a spice, herb and vegetable all in one. The seeds of fennel are sweet and spicy, similar to anise seeds. All parts of fennel are used. The feathery foliage looks like dill. It can be used as an herb to flavor dishes. The stalks can be cut off to use like celery. Bulbous leaf bases are used as a vegetable, either raw or sautéed or stir fried.
For best flavor, grow in poor soil. Grow it from seeds as a perennial in USDA zones 5-10.
Horseradish is a root vegetable known for its pungent taste and odor. It has been used worldwide for thousands of years, typically as a condiment but also for medicinal purposes. Horseradish will be ready for harvest 140 to 160 days after planting in full sun. Tolerates many growing conditions, but requires good drainage.
The roots’ greatest growth occurs in late summer and early fall, so delay harvesting horseradish until late October or November.
Similar in taste and appearance to celery, lovage leaves are used in soups, stocks, flavored vinegars, pickles, stews and salads. The anise, celery flavor of the lovage works really well in a variety of dishes and it can be eaten raw or cooked.
Lovage is in the carrot family and plants can grow to six feet tall. Grow from seed or roots, in full sun and well-drained sandy, loamy soil. Hardy to Zone 4.
Strawberries should be mulched and thinned yearly to prevent overcrowding. Choose seasonal varieties for heavy yield or everbearing ones for staggered production. Plant starter plants in rich, slightly acidic soil in full sun. Woodland strawberry (Fragaria vesca) can be grown in partial shade.
A crop cover may be necessary to keep birds and other animals from stealing or damaging berries.
Raspberries are available as summer bearers and everbearing varieties that continue to produce fruit from spring to fall. Varieties include purple raspberries, red raspberries and the albino versions, known as golden raspberries. Various cultivars do well in USDA Zones 3 to 10.
Plant rooted cuttings in spring, at least six to eight feet apart. Plants will put up an increasing number of long canes every year, and everbearing varieties are pruned in the late summer to remove brown canes. Rich soil, regular feeding and irrigation produce the best crops.
Blueberries are North American natives, and are well suited to this growing zone. Once established, a blueberry plant can provide berries for several decades. Many cultivars are self-sterile and require more than one plant to ensure fruit production. Choose among lowbush Vaccinium angustifolium and highbush Vaccinium corymbosum and hybrid varieties.
Blueberries should be planted in soils with pH 5, be evenly moist and well drained. Occasional pruning keeps the bushes healthy. As with strawberries, it can help to use a crop cover to prevent birds from harvesting your crop.
Planting perennial vegetables or berries requires a bit of planning, because they will occupy one spot forever. Select varieties suitable to this zone. They can be grown alongside annual vegetables, even in established ornamental beds as long as you maintain organic practices because they will produce food for you and your family to consume.
Once established, perennial vegetables and berries require very little work except topdressing and occasional weeding and pruning. They will be there for the long haul.
Lynette L. Walther is the GardenComm Gold medal winner for writing and a five-time recipient of the GardenComm Silver Medal of Achievement, the National Garden Bureau’s Exemplary Journalism Award. She is a member of GardenComm and the National Garden Bureau. Her gardens are in Camden.
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