In the temperate climates, where winters put a stop to growth for months, there is a space in food production called the hunger gap. Fall often brings abundance that can be stored. A variety of crops can actually be grown into this cool season until December, when hard freezes set in. It’s actually late winter and early spring where this gap shows up, when all the stored food runs out. It’s here where we will begin our look at permanent harvest with the primacy of perennial vegetables.
Most perennial vegetables are somewhat of mythical beasts to the average gardener. Asparagus is a perennial, although not especially substantial. Rhubarb (does anyone eat that anymore?) is also perennial.
Perennials address a number of problems in normal agriculture. Half of agriculture can be summed up in the need to reestablish a crop every year. Many perennial vegetables propagate themselves, producing more every year by your simply leaving them in the ground. The other two quarters are harvest and keeping adult crops happy. Many of the best perennial vegetables are weeds that grow in quite inhospitable conditions. They only thrive all the more if given fertile sites. So much effort is put into the art of encouraging a plant to grow. Why shouldn’t we just find the plants that grow themselves. Then we can take our preference of tearing down and removing what we like just to keep the population of weeds in check. Perennial vegetables seem to be the perfect match for how we dream of managing natural resources.
It must be noted that perennial vegetables can be hard to get, and hard to grow initially. This varies between conditions and choice of vegetable though. In general I am covering the easier to grow examples here.
There are many simple choices. And remember, if you have success, you seldom have to go through the labor of propagation again. Increasing the size of your patch through divisions is of course an exception. But even then, it’s much easier at this point.
Chickweed (Stellaria media)
Chickweed is the best replacement for lettuce I have ever found. This does not apply in terms of sandwiches, where you want a broad leaf. Chickweed is far superior to lettuce in that it grows in fall and early spring, despite cold. In fact it may sit under a layer of snow in the morning and open its flowers in the evening.Chickweed likes very fertile soils. It often shows up in gardens and compost piles. In the wild, it is found near grapevines, or under trees where animals congregate. Chickweed is low growing, usually creeping as a carpet across the ground. It can be fiddly to pick as result. The quickest way to harvest these is to follow one of the trailing little branches back to the source. Wrap your hand around the now apparent base, and lift. The many branches will slip out of the general knot making a tidy bundle you can cut about an inch above the roots. It pays in this case to mulch a large area in late summer (See my post on Group and conquer for more info on how I do this) where the chickweed can pop up without competition. Clean chickweed thoroughly, and keep an eye out for pieces of dried grass or twigs which can tag along in its spaghetti-mass of green. Cooking chickweed isn’t out of the question. I certainly don’t like it that way. It gets rather slimy. Finely chopped, it can be added to soups where you want a sort of thickening agent.
Onions (Allium species)
Julia Childs said it all when she mused “It is hard to imagine a civilization without onions.” I use them all the time.Nature would seem to agree. She has provided us with hundreds and hundreds of species of alliums, with perennial species you can pick year round, and biennial species, such as the round root onions we are used to, and many others in so many shapes, forms, and subtle differences of flavor. Egyptian walking onions and welsh, or Chinese evergreen onions, are the basic staples. These and the various forms of perennial leeks and garlic (garlic really is a perennial) should be allowed to form clumps in perennial borders of the permanently harvestable garden. To get the best from these, it is best to divide the clumps once in a while, and space these out in the well mulched garden. They grow larger this way. One drawback of these perennial alliums is they make hard stocks that hold up flowers in the later part of the year. These are similar to onion woodchips when chopped fine. Egyptian walking onions are especially nice in this respect. They produce small bulbils in late summer you can harvest, eat (they are like pearl onions), or store away to plant throughout the year. Keeping these little bulbils on hand allows you to plant them in spring rather than fall when the bulbils would normally hit the ground. Without the winter cold to establish themselves, the Egyptian walking onions will grow tender and green their whole first summer, right through the time their parents are getting hard. The welsh, or evergreen onions, grow seed rather than bulbils. The seed can be saved back and spread around all through the year. The young seedlings started in spring don’t harden up in in late summer. To harvest, simply snap off the green onion near the soil, or pull it up roots and all. Snapping or slicing leaves the root to regrow a new tender shoot. Pull off any papery brown or in any way undesirable layers by peeling them off towards the base. Pinch off any brown tips on the upper end of the onion. My grandmother has the habit of keeping a glass of water filled with cleaned green onions and garlic in the middle of her table, always ready for throwing into the next dish.
Dandelions (Taraxacum species)
When it comes to perennial vegetables, abundance is often a prerequisite of utility. It follows that dandelion is a forcefully assertive ingredient. Dandelions are a world to themselves if you ever really delve in to their subtle nature. They vary between plants. There are actually many species -a red leaved species, a variegated one. Many dandelions have been selected for more luscious, broad leaves. You may benefit from seeding these superior species in your permanently harvestable garden. Until they develop their bitter flavor in the heat and sun of late spring, dandelions really are quite delicious. While they are good wild harvested, the best place to grow delicious dandelions is in an unheated greenhouse. In this case, dandelions have a much longer window of harvest because of the heat on warm days that get them growing, but generally cool temps that keeps them from getting bitter.I try my best to avoid pulling any dandelions in my greenhouse. As is, I keep them all shaved of their leaves for the first few months of the year, and really wish I had more. Some foragers find they can soak the bitterness out of dandelions by placing the harvested leaves in salt water. This is because the sesquiterpenes that cause the bitterness are soluble in water. Try this if you like and see if it suits you. I find dandelions prepared this way become stringy and bland. Best to just harvest them when they present themselves as non-bitter treats.Of course an overturned bucket covering the dandelions does make a tender little treat of blanched dandelions almost irrespective of season. Also, growing dandelions in a cool, shady place can extend the harvest later into the warm season.Dandelions are quite simple to prepare. A few leaves added to a salad, or a lot sautéed drizzled with vinaigrette is usually best. The stems, so long as they aren’t bitter, can be prepared the same way as dandelion noodles. The roots? I know some like these roasted and infused in water as a coffee substitute. I don’t drink coffee to begin with, and never have had much desire to. Leave the roots to make more leaves I say. I tried once to make a dandelion leaf and root lacto ferment. That was horrendously, disasterously disgusting. The stench must have somehow soaked into the glass of the jar, because I couldn’t even scrub it off.
Nettles (Urtica dioica)
I have several very healthy patches of nettle I planted in rich soil. For instance, around the bottom of the rabbit hutch, or smack in my vegetable garden. They really are worth the good soil, as nettles have a wonderful flavor, and produce bounteously. Get a non-stinging variety if possible. It just makes it easier to harvest. I don’t usually wear gloves, so often find myself gathering nettles without anything to protect my hands. The sting can be annoying, as it lasts all day. Usually I would just take of my shirt and use that to gather nettles. But that’s me. On the other hand, I have talked with some gardeners that say they quite enjoy rolling the leaves up and eating them raw. I think they must have at least a less sting variety. Don’t boil nettles. Just don’t. If boiled they turn to mush, and almost always showcase their rough texture. If the young shoots reach over 4 inches, they become far too stringy and rough for harvest. You can get a nice flush of tender shoots even later in the year by cutting the whole clump down. Just be sure to get back to the patch to harvest the new shoots before they mature.
Knotweed (Polygonatum or Follopia japonica)
Despite being such a feared brute of a weed, I know a few gardeners who have tried to grow it and failed. Granted, they didn’t have ideal climates, but this weed seems to want to be just that: a weed. Live free or die. If you have this plant, or know of a patch, keep an eye out for it because it has a short harvest span of a week if temperatures are warm. Anything over 12 inches, or started to branch, has undesirable texture. The texture, when it is good, is very good. It’s very smooth. To harvest, just snap or slice the shoots at the base. Usually it’s better to cut about an inch above soil level to avoid grittiness. I find the leaves on these shoots are quite palatable, and can be left on, or taken off, as a matter of preference. The flavor is sour. It’s essentially a rhubarb with a nicer texture in my opinion. It can be frozen in Ziploc bags for use later in the season if you find you really like them.I prefer to slice them lengthwise.
Burdock (Arctium lappa)
Such a beautiful plant, with its broad leaves and globulous flowers in July on such large, airy branches. I consider this a garden plant. It’s really just too much of a bother to go pry it out of the hard soils it usually grow in. I went through the work of seeding, transplanting and establishing it once, and now have it all through my garden. Because I really do enjoy eating the roots, this is more a blessing than bane. The parents drop the seed just on time in late fall to grow tender young roots by spring. Once these young, late summer sown plants are pushing up leaves to show you where they are, just stick a shovel in the ground next to them. Pull the plant with one hand, while prying the soil with the other, and the root will come easily. These roots are best peeled. Because the skin is thin, it can be removed with a nail brush or by scraping a knife over the skin. The skinned roots can brown if exposed to air. Place them in water with a little vinegar if this is undesirable. If not, the short duration between peeling and cooking shouldn’t present a problem to flavor.
Lovage (Levisticum officionalis)
Many would describe lovage as an oversized celery. This is a detriment. It is really an enormously oversized, pungent flavored parsley. The difference here is very important. There is an intense bitter perfume at the core of this plant’s flavor profile. Despite its abundance in the garden, since it grows several feet tall, it should be used sparingly in the kitchen. If you have a lot of the young shoots, they have a more mild flavor. Anything under a foot tall I would call young. Chopped and sautéed, it goes well in soups. The rule should be flavoring though, not substance. It’s just too potent. The seeds have a wonderful flavor which is more like celery. Even young, green seeds are quite tasty chopped and sprinkled in tuna fish or places you want a strong celery flavor.
Hosta (Hosta Species)
I love it when someone figures out hosta are edible. They always rave about how great it tastes. It really does have a fine flavor in my opinion. It’s quite rich, with smooth texture. The three-inch sprouts that have not yet unfurled their leaves, to newly unfurled leaves are best. After this, they become stringy unless they have been blanched with an overturned bucket. To harvest, slice or snap these shoots off at the base. You can prolong the harvest as long as you like into the summer if you keep the plant picked. It wears the plant out to shear the shoots of more than once though. You could single out plants for this rigorous harvest if you find they propagate themselves for you. If you don’t have ample plants like this, is best to leave this as a spring delicacy.
Asparagus (Asparagus officionalis)
One of the few perennial vegetables you can buy in the supermarkets. Asparagus can grow wild in hedgerows. These are usually ancient plants that have worked hard to establish themselves though. If you want a nice ‘wild’ patch, you’ll need to reduce weed competition by mulching, and preferably establish a nitrogen fixing ground cover compatible with the asparagus, such as vetch, or birdsfoot trefoil, once the asparagus is established. Asparagus can have its season extended by cutting back the shoots later in the season so it will sprout again. This does weaken the plant. Don’t do this to the same patch every year. To harvest, snap or slice the shoots just above the ground.
Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum biflorum)
Somewhat of an absurd delicacy considering how hard it is to get your hands on this plant. I got a large sum through an online trade, and waited a couple years for them to establish. My patch has spring beauty (Claytonia virginica) and ramps (Allium tricoccum) covering the ground under these gracefully arching beauties. The patch is on the north side of a building, with woods to the east; so deep shade.The flavor is quite nice. The leaves at the end of the stem have a bitter flavor. I really don’t mind this, so usually leave them on. They are in season at the same time as hosta shoots. So I usually pair the two. To harvest SS shoots, snap or slice them off just above the ground.
Good King Henry (Chenopodium bonus-henricus)
The better broccoli as I call it. The leaves, and reportedly the roots, are edible. I don’t bother with either accept the leaves once in a while thrown in with other cooking greens. The tall towers of buds are quite tasty. They taste like broccoli, with a slightly more bitter note, and less of the sulfur taste so many brassicas have. Snap these buds off about three inches above the base, and steam or sauté until tender. Chop small, and throw them cooked into scrambled eggs or sauté with perennial alliums as a side.
Salsify (Tragopogon porrifolius)
Technically a biennial. It shows up the next year like a perennial, and seeds itself readily around the garden, so belongs in the perennials category. This plant has always been grown for its root. I find the root far too small to be messed with. The leaves are nice in salads. Note that they can get tough in the later season. Taste what you have before harvesting. The buds that show up in the later season are very wonderful sauted, with rich flavor.
Scorzonera (Scorzonera hispanica)
A very well behaved, attractive plant grown for its root. I have heard from a friend in the UK that she can dig up scorzonera cut off the majority of the taproot, and replant the top to keep harvesting leaves, and eventually another crop of roots. I think her mild climate may make this easier for her than for me, as my experiments with this have not ended well. I just leave the roots alone, and enjoy the first flush of leaves. These have a very mild flavor and texture I really like. They hold up well when cooked with other greens, but are tender enough for salad. Unfortunately they get very thick and tough later in the season. The best crop off these is the young flower buds. Harvest with a few inches of stem to sauté with other shoots and leaves, or with pasta.
Turkish Rocket (Bunias orientalis)
I first posted about this on the blog years ago calling it “the other better broccoli.” The leaves are not pleasant unless blanched. The flavor is just too strong. It’s not overly bitter, not overly sulfuric, but something in between that announces itself with brazen boldness. It’s the buds I like. True to their name, these rocket up practically overnight, so keep an eye out for them. Once they are up, snap them off with three to four inches of stem. The delicate leaves on the these tender stems are notably more mild than the basal leaves. No need to remove them in my opinion. I like them sautéed. They have a rich, almost egg like meaty taste. They go well with vinegar and fats. Bacon bits and vinaigrette complement them well.
Sorrel (Rumex acetosa)
This is actually a very classic vegetable. Julia Child’s in her famous work The Art of French Cooking, has a recipe for sorrel soup from France. The old herbals such as Culpepper extol this as a wonderful “pot herb” to be added to other cooking greens. I dislike it as a cooked green. It turns brown and has a not so nice (mushy) texture. In soup this isn’t so much if a problem. Still, be sure you don’t over cook it.It is high in oxalic acid, which gives it a sour flavor. It gives nice flavor to salads when a few chopped leaves are added. You can get too much oxalic acid. Cooking is supposed to slightly reduce the oxalic acid content. So if you have a glut, try the soup. The plant is a very happy grower that sticks around for years once established.Hablitzia tamnoides I have a hard time writing about this one. You see, I have been personally trying to grow this plant for years without success. The closest I have come has been giving a seedling to someone else and watching it flourish in their yard. Mine have all died. So I haven’t actually tasted this plant yet. But how could I not mention it? I just keep hearing rave reviews about how it tastes so good, and can be harvested so many times early in the season. It is a vine, with smaller arrow shaped leaves, sith a sheen like spinach. This makes a lot of biomass you can pick from. The young shoots are the edible part. If you get it to grow, send me some.
Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum)
Not a perennial vegetable, but a self seeder that likes cool and cold weather, so fills the hunger gap of the year. In an I heated greenhouse or cold frame, this plant hardly makes it into late spring before bolting to flower and seed. It comes up very reliably in gardens if it is allowed to seed. Consider planting it in fall for spring harvest. This is a loved, hated plant. I know many people who won’t touch it with a ten foot pole, while others, like myself, enjoy it as the base of a salad. I’m only speaking to the love side of the cilantro equation then. Haters skip to the next ingredient.This plant loves sour flavors. Lemon juice compliments it very well. Many will be familiar with it in salsa. If the plant bolts, know that you can strip the branches for the delicate foliage. The stems are quite tough and should be avoided.
Violets (Viola Species)
The purple blue flowers of violets are as much a treat for the eye as the tongue. They hold the sweet nectar bees are after. The softness of petals adds variety among the firm crunch of stems and leaves salads at this time of year feature. The leaves can be thrown into a sauté of other greens at this time of year, and even salads. As they are low to the ground, wash them well. The possibility of grit is smaller when the violets grow under many layers of shrubs and trees, and have a layer of mulch over the soil.
Rose Sprouts (Rosa multiflora)
One of the less pleasing invasive species is the multiflora rose. It’s everywhere here. One of the main tactics it uses to grow in deep shade few other plants can stand is to get its leaves out early. Around here, it is one of the first plants to leaf. These young leaves have a pleasant flavor, and are quite tender. They make a small, but pleasant addition to salads that gives a refined, complex flavor. It’s not quite like eating the petals, but close.
Mint (Mentha Species)
Mint is such a pernicious plant that picking the tender shoots in spring is no sweat for it. It comes back without a problem. The tender shoots are perfect for mincing fine for sprinkling over salads, or any other dish that would appreciate a fresh flush of flavor. There are many mints. Nothing should be assumed when working with them, as they vary widely in flavor. Chocolate mint I like more for drinks. Ginger mint does indeed have sort of a ginger spice, though not the sweetness of ginger. Simply placing such potent mints in water will give a light flavoring I like to call herbal dews. I’ve never enjoyed the hassle of boiling water for warm infusions anyway.
Dandelion Nettle Saute over Cracked Eggs
The key ingredient here is the soy sauce. The really deep umami richness just wraps up the even potential bitterness of dandlion and throws it to the wind. You can’t taste it in the final dish. Alternatives would be similarly salty, rich flavors, such as adding bullion, thick, flavorsome broth, and the like.
I believe presentation can make an enormous difference in flavor experience. The eggs in this recipe being cracked rather than sliced is one such instance. The thickness of the chunks with the crumbling bits of yolk that get out makes a far superior effect in the mouth. Serve with a light vinaigrette
5 eggs boiled and peeled
Handful of greens (usually dandelion greens, sometimes adding nettles, or shoots of turkish rocket) well washed. The handful usually weighs about a quarter pound if you want to be specific.
Green alliums peeled and sliced lengthwise
Oil for cooking
Soy sauce or other rich umami flavor (see notes)
Sauté greens in oil on hi to medium heat, reducing heat to low as soon once you greens hit the pan. Add sliced alliums. Allow these to wilt in the juices from the greens while you add soy sauce and black pepper, or any other flavorings desired.
Place eggs on platter or plate, and crack in half. To do this simply mash the middle of the egg lengthwise with a fork. The result is some fine smashed egg pieces, and two or three large peices with ragged edges. Spoon the greens over eggs. Dress with vinaigrette, and serve.
Savory Thai Knotweed
The first time I tried knotweed, I somehow figured it was a regular, savory vegetable. I sautéed it, and served it next to scrambled eggs. It was gross. It was slimy. It was sour. I threw it out.
In essence, knotweed is very similar in flavor to rhubarb, to which it is actually closely related (knotweed genus -Polygonatum). I might say knotweed has a more smooth texture though.
Back to the drawing board, I figured the spicy-savory-sweet juxtaposition of Thai food would tempt this sourpuss in the realm of the savory. Substantial, tantalizingly flavorful, this recipe easily turns the unruly weed into a toothsome treat. Enjoy.
8-10 ~7 inch stalks Japanese knotweed
2tsp. Fish sauce
Powdered cayenne to your liking (1/8 tsp)
black lava salt, or whatever salt you may have on hand
2tsp ginger -powdered or sliced fresh
Slice knotweed lengthwise and sauté in heated oil until tender.
Add spices. Serve with roasted venison, beef or goat thinly sliced. Garnish with a handful of thinly shredded perennial allium.
Spring Burdock Root Soup
In very few cases does boiling water bring out the finer qualities of vegetables. My basic method for soup is to slice and sauté or brown pretty much all the ingredients, then add broth. Once the two are combined, I correct flavor and serve.
Young burdock roots in early spring are wonderful. They are tender, and really quite mild. Feel free to add any vegetable you like. The burdock blends well.
Approximately 1 lb burdock roots grated of their skin, cut in a julienne, placed in water (see harvest notes)
Oil of choice for sauté
4-5 cups Beef or vegetable stock
5 Green onions or any equivalent amount of perennial allium sliced in a thick julienne
Sauté burdock until tender. Add spices and green allium. Allow allium to wilt before adding stock.
Fascinating! I enjoyed this so much that I may comment on it in stages. Just throwing out thoughts in no particular order:
Your attention to textural detail is wonderful, as shown in your description of the cracked eggs. I can vaguely remember somebody long ago talking about smashed eggs; you set the shelled hardcooked egg on a cutting board, and use a smooth-bottomed drinking glass to smash it. Same principle you’re using, and as I recall it was done to give a better texture to eggs vinaigrette.
If you’re a cilantro lover, you would probably enjoy the tender green seeds of any plants that escape you in earlier stages. The flavor is exactly halfway between cilantro leaves and ripe coriander seed. I love them on Arabic meat dishes, and they are great scattered across anything that has a tahini-based sauce.
Your use of the sour knotweed shoots in a Thai dish sounds like genius. Unfortunately I will probably never know, because I have never seen this plant anywhere in the Southwest. I once irresponsibly tried to grow it, and it took one look at its new surroundings and died. This is just not its quadrant of the country.
And sorry, but Hablitzia tamnoides doesn’t exist. At least, that’s how I account for eight years of failure to get hold of it. I have failed with seed, completely and dishearteningly. I have written to authors who write about it begging for a source, and I have spent years lurking on a Facebook group devoted to this plant, where periodically somebody hints that they will be selling plants in the US, but it never quite happens. H. tamnoides is my white whale, or maybe it would be more accurate to call it my unicorn, since I have never had even a distant glimpse.
I’ll be back!
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Still savoring this post and looking forward to the book to follow.
I agree with you about the usefulness of chickweed as a nutritious salad green. Astoundingly, I had to buy seed in order to have it, but finally I have it reproducing in my garden beds as a sort of living mulch. I like to clip off the outer inch or two for salads, to avoid having long pieces of stem in my salad bowl. And I certainly agree about the texture when cooked. More and more as I get older, I have developed an intense distaste for what my husband calls “the mucoid food group.“ If it’s slimy, I can no longer tolerate it. I no longer grow or eat any kind of mallow for this reason. I am thinking about trying the traditional New Orleans Good Friday dish gumbo z’herbes, which relies on a mucoid green or two simmered with the others for thickening, to see if I still like it.
I’m considering whether this mucilage can be reduced, or turned to some benefit. Not many ideas so far, but working towards it. I love your husband’s name for these plants. Thanks for your thoughts, as always. >