Skirret update

Comments very welcome!

Here's a photograph I took today of my rather untidy skirret (Sium sisarum) bed.

Skirret bed
Skirret bed

It's a bit hard to see the skirret plants but they are in there - between the frame on the left and the leafy scorzonera on the right, nestled amongst some weeds and the silverweed plants I grew as groundcover - a few of them holding their dried umbellifer stalks aloft.

I dug them up today to compare their root size with the harvest from last year.

This year's skirret roots
This year's skirret roots

Last year's skirret roots
Last year's skirret roots

I'm pleased with the results. I don't think any are fatter than the 15mm wide root I measured last year but there were more fat, long roots and overall they were somewhat straighter. I didn't manage to dig up the whole length of the roots - they tended to break off at a spade's depth!

Broken skirret root - 25cm long.
Broken root - 25cm long.

The improvement is probably a result both of selecting the clumps of the thickest roots to divide and replant last autumn and of making the soil lighter, richer and moister with the addition of sand and a mulch of garden compost. (They are  noticeably less 'hairy' too - I'm not sure but I'm thinking this is because the plants didn't have to produce such a mass of fine lateral roots this year as a response to low soil moisture). I replanted divisions from the most promising clumps again and as I don't think the silverweed ground cover has been to their detriment, I popped some silverweed transplants down the centre of the bed too. (I did the 'harvesting and replanting the fattest' routine with the silverweed too - would be great if this most adorable of rampant weeds became another rewarding perennial vegetable!)

Replanted skirret bed
Replanted skirret bed

I brought the remaining roots home to cook - not sure what we're going to do with them yet - maybe sweet skirret mash this time! (Here is my post on skirret from last year for more information on this 'being-rediscovered' vegetable.)


Wild Cabbage Update

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Last October I blogged about the five wild cabbage plants I had grown. I wasn't sure how perennial the plants would prove to be and wrote that I would just have to wait and see what they did. So here is an update to show you what they've done so far.

The plants grew bigger and gave us lots of leaves to eat last winter and produced broccoli-like shoots that we ate early last spring.

All five plants went on to flower in late spring with yellow flowers. When the first flush of flowers appeared I nipped them off individually as I'd read that the plants are less likely to die if they aren't allowed to go to seed (sorry for the lack of a 'before' picture but you can probably just see a few yellow flowers that I missed!) More appeared and I cut those off too. Yet more appeared and I started going over the plants with the garden shears!

I let one plant go to seed hoping to observe what difference this would make.

It appeared to have died but then it started to shoot from the main stem. Unfortunately these shoots have lately begun to die, possibly due to summer drought. I'd rather not have the work of trimming the flowers off the plants, and it would be better for the insects if I didn't, so it will be interesting to see whether this plant recovers in the damper weather.

Gradually the plants ceased their attempts to flower but were left looking rather ragged.

Some were more ragged than others.

I decided to cut this one right back to see if that would encourage it to sprout fresh shoots.

I'm pretty sure I've killed it!

The three remaining plants began to pick up in late summer.

One is still looking a bit patchy.

The other two look pretty leafy.

So it looks like we will be feeding on wild cabbage leaves and flower shoots for another winter and spring - and then I'll see what the plants do after that!


Portuguese Kale

Comments very welcome!

A couple of years back a friend gave me some seed labelled Portuguese cabbage.

Portuguese cabbage seed packet

I grew some seedlings and planted one out at the allotment alongside some other heritage brassicas such as Sutherland kale, Madeley kale and Delaway cabbage. At first I grouped it with these others in my mind also; broadly similar leafy brassicas which nonetheless offer up interesting individual characteristics in leaf form and colour, flavour, heat and cold tolerance, disease and pest resistance.

Meanwhile I was trying to lay my hand on some cuttings of tree collards from the United States, having heard that they are 'true' perennials, like Daubenton kale, in that they rarely flower and keep growing for several years. (Many brassicas will keep growing after their second year flowering, especially if you remove the flowers as they appear. But I have found that this can be a lot of work - they are often really keen to flower, managing to replenish their flowers just a few days after the last lot have been removed - and that during this enthusiastic flowering phase they produce fewer and smaller leaves.) I couldn't find anyone who would send tree collard cuttings to England but in searching the web I found a comment that Portuguese kale/cabbage was the European equivalent of the tree collard.

I inspected the one Portuguese kale I'd grown with renewed interest. It was impressive! It was growing fast and had very frilly, large, thick, grey-green leaves of mild flavour with prominent white midribs and veins, growing from the top of a two foot stem. It looked very distinctive - and very distinguished - amongst the heritage kales.

Portuguese kale
Portuguese kale

It is not easy to say for certain but comparing this kale to photographs on the internet it looks similar to those described as 'couve galega'. Frillier than some, admittedly, but I understand couve galega to be the name for a landrace plant, a genetically diverse variety of a domesticated species that is adapted to local conditions. So frilly and non-frilly may be all in the mix, or frilly types may come from a particular part of Portugal.

Older Portuguese kale leaf
Older Portuguese kale leaf
Younger leaves of Portuguese kale
Younger leaves

As for flowering, well it obviously does, or I would not have been given seed, but this plant didn't flower this year, its second year, when most of the other kales were flowering their heads off (including the walking stick kale, also known as Jersey kale). Another one that didn't flower very much however, was one that came to me as seed, via the Heritage Seed Library, labelled as 'tall kale'. It shares some characteristics with the Portuguese cabbage having large leaves with white midribs and veins and a similar height. But it is more tree-like than the Portuguese kale with heads of leaves arising from separate branches.

Tall kale
'Tall' kale
Tall kale leaves
'Tall' kale leaves

At present at least, the leaves of the Portuguese kale all arise from about the same place at the top of the stout stem. As the plant grows from the crown it drops its lower leaves and so the bare portion of the stem gets longer.

Portuguese kale about to lose a lower leaf
Portuguese kale about to lose a lower leaf

I don't yet know how hardy this kale is. It survived last winter with ease but it was a mild winter. Some sources I've read suggest that it is not only very cold-hardy but more likely to be perennial in cold climates, whilst others suggest the opposite on both counts. Luckily it is easily propagated from cuttings (scroll halfway down this forum page to find some great photos of the kale growing in Portugal and how to propagate it). It occurs to me that even if it isn't reliably hardy in the UK, taking cuttings like this is a very easy way to have a perpetual supply of kale.

Portuguese kale is used to make a delicious soup, beloved of many Portuguese people, called caldo verde and described very lovingly in this delightful blog post by Joy Albright-Souzaby. I based my attempt on the recipe given there but, as we are vegetarians, I used vegetable stock and, instead of Portuguese linguiça (smoked pork sausage), a vegetarian 'sausage' made from lentils flavoured with lots of smoked paprika and garlic.

Chopped potatoes
Chopped onion and garlic cloves
Refer to the recipe in the link above for exact instructions (to make about six portions I think) but basically I boiled the potatoes in the stock until they were almost tender and then added the sautéed onion and garlic with the (ideally!) very finely shredded cabbage and more water. The soup was seasoned and simmered for about half an hour.

Caldo verde
I made the vegetarian 'sausage' by mixing cooked lentils with sautéed onion and garlic, breadcrumbs, egg, olive oil, smoked paprika, salt and pepper and forming patties with the mixture, coating them in flour and baking them at 180°C for about thirty minutes, turning them over halfway through the baking time. In the recipe the linguiça is cooked alongside the onions and garlic for a while and simmered with the soup but I thought the lentil patties might disintegrate in the soup and so added them to it just after it was put in the bowls.

Lentil patties
Smoked paprika and lentil patties

The soup is often served with freshly grated Parmesan cheese to sprinkle over - I meant to serve some grated cheddar instead for the sake of economy but then forgot about serving cheese altogether.

Caldo verde, bread and wine

The recipe said to eat the soup with crusty bread and glasses of red wine - so we did!
It was good.


A perennial vegetable garden plan.

Comments very welcome!

The desk is scattered with colouring crayons - I've just finished making a perennial vegetable plan for a small garden (about 20 x 40 feet or 6 x 12 metres).

I've made the plan with busy people in mind. I'm hoping it will be a useful illustration of how simple it could be to plant up the borders of a small garden with easy-to-grow perennial vegetables - and fruits and herbs too. (In case I have any readers new to perennial vegetables, I'm talking about vegetables that don't need replanting every year. So they are much less work than traditional annual vegetables and give you delicious food, often even in winter, in return for a bit of weeding and mulching. Making them perfect edible plants for busy lifestyles.)

No great garden design here - just a straightforward plan which retains a lawn for playing and relaxing, puts all the food plants conveniently around the edges and still has an abundance of beautiful flowers and foliage. I've assumed a neutral soil with reasonably good drainage (there is a small bed of very gravelly soil in the lower right corner and the blueberry is in a pot of lime-free compost.) Of course many different choices of plants could have been made and the plan is far from perfect in terms of balancing foliage textures, colour, seasonal interest etc. but it should work as a starting point. Whilst this garden won't supply all the householder's fruit and vegetables quite a lot of food could be harvested here from what might otherwise have been unused land. (Some of the plants on the plan are purely ornamental - foxglove is definitely not an edible - see the list of edibles below along with their Latin names. I've also made a mistake in my labelling - please switch around Mahonia with ostrich fern. And I put a chair on the paved area where I now want to draw a water butt!)

I've been looking up some statistics and if I've got it right about 56% of the fruit and vegetables eaten in the UK are grown here. Most of these come from 148000 hectares of land under commercial fruit and vegetable production but a rising percentage is grown in gardens and on allotments - currently about 5%.

Which of course is great news! Growing fresh produce at home has so much going for it in terms of healthiness and sustainability : cutting down food miles, reducing the use of carbon fuels for machinery and giving us access to low-cost organic food. We actually have 565000 hectares of garden land in this country so we could do a lot more of it. But not everyone wants to spend much of their precious free time gardening even if they like the idea of home-grown veg in theory - I'm sure that's one reason you can still see so many gardens laid down to just grass or hard surfaces. But less time-consuming perennial vegetable gardening is starting to catch on - perhaps it will become rare to be bare!

Edible plants on the plan

Apple - Malus domestica
Morello cherry - Prunus cerasus
Mahonia (Oregon grape) - Mahonia aquifolium
Ostrich fern - Matteuccia struthiopteris
Lemon balm - Melissa officinalis
Apple mint - Mentha suaveolens
Hosta (plantain lilies) - Hosta genus - look for recommended species for eating
Alpine strawberry - Fragaria vesca
Caucasian spinach - Hablitzia tamnoides
Solomon's seal - Polygonatum x hybridum
Mountain sorrel - Oxyria digyna
Sweet violet - Viola odorata
Primrose - Primula vulgaris
Wild rocket - Diplotaxis tenuifolia
Oregano - Origanum vulgare
Bay - Laurus nobilis
Nettles - Urtica dioica
Good King Henry - Chenopodium bonus-henricus
Musk mallow - Malva moschata
Tree onion - Allium x proliferum
Redcurrant - Ribes rubrum
Fuchsia - Fuchsia species - look for recommended species for edible berries
Blueberry - Vaccinium genus, Cyanococcus section
Blue Danube potato - blight-resistant var. with blue flowers and purple tubers
Oca - Oxalis tuberosa
Potato bean (hopniss, American groundnut) - Apios americana
Scorzonera - Scorzonera hispanica
Skirret - Sium sisarum
Mallow 'Mystic Merlin' - cultivar of Malva sylvestris
Portuguese kale (couve galega) - Brassica oleracea acephala
Daylilies - Hemerocallis genus - look for recommended species for eating
Rosemary - Rosemarinus officinalis
Globe artichoke - Cynara cardunculus var. scolymus
Sea kale - Crambe maritima
Peach - Prunus persica
Babington leek - Allium babingtonii
Lavender - Lavendula angustifolia
Variegated Daubenton kale - Brassica oleracea ramosa 'Daubenton Panache'
Strawberry - Fragaria x ananassa
Grape - Vitis vinifera
Thyme - Thymus vulgaris
Buckler-leaved sorrel - Rumex scutatus
Garden sorrel - Rumex acetosa (non-flowering form best for the position on plan)
Buck's horn plantain - Plantago coronopus
Chives - Allium schoenoprasum
Ice plant - Sedum spectabilis
Saltbush - Atriplex halimus


Scorzonera Smoothie


I wrote a post last November about cooking scorzonera roots but up until now I haven't done much with its leaves apart from enjoying a few young ones in salads or thrown into a stew. Last month I tidied up the scorzonera plants which were flopping over the path by cutting down most their flower stems (leaving the flowers on just one plant for seed collection later).

Scorzonera flower and buds
Scorzonera hispanica

Some, but not all, of the plants subsequently threw up fresh new leaves from the base and I harvested a big bunch of them today.

Fresh scorzonera leaves
Fresh scorzonera leaves

I washed some of the leaves and removed any tougher stem portions and steamed them. They took about ten minutes to get sufficiently soft but retain a bit of bite. I found the youngest, tenderest leaves pleasant to eat steamed. They have a fresh, almost sweet taste and the leaf midrib is succulent (I could have left a bit more of the stems on really). A few of the leaves I had picked were a bit tougher though and had little to commend them - so it's worth being quite choosy! What I forgot to do was pluck some of the new flower buds that had formed on the plants since I trimmed them as they are also said to be good steamed.

The rest of the leaves went into a smoothie! As I'm a smoothie newbie I plucked what looked like a fairly standard green smoothie recipe from the internet and adapted it to use the scorzonera.

Scorzonera smoothie ingredients
Scorzonera smoothie ingredients

50g scorzonera leaves
1 banana
½ a cored and chopped apple
125g green grapes
200g plain yoghurt

Everything went into the blender together and was blended until smooth.

Scorzonera smoothie in a glass
Scorzonera smoothie

It tasted fine - but of yoghurt and banana not scorzonera! So useful then if you tried steamed scorzonera but thought it was horrible!

There are few recipes to be found for scorzonera leaves but there is an 18th century soup recipe for salsify greens on the Celtnet site which I might try with scorzonera oneday. (If you try it before I do please leave a comment and tell me what it was like).


Summer in the Perennial Vegetable Garden (2)

Comments very welcome!

Here are the summer photos of the perennial vegetables I showed in April. They were a bit harder to photograph than in spring being less compact and tidy now but hopefully the photos reveal how the garden grows.

The cardoon dwarfs everything else on the plot now, even the fruit trees - it must be at least nine feet high. Since April the wild cabbage has flowered profusely. I've been constantly removing its flowers and it has just about stopped flowering now and is beginning to produce larger leaves again. You'll see the alliums have mostly died back and some are sprouting anew, perhaps a bit earlier in this dry weather than in other years (I was pleased to harvest some topsets from the tree onions). The patience dock is still small as it has been repeatedly feasted upon by some unknown creature but has protection around it now (when not having its photo taken). The mallow is just sick, however. It's replacement, Mystic Merlin, one of the Malva sylvestris cultivars, is already growing nearby. 

Cardoon (not - see below!)
Scorzonera (foreground)
Solomon's Seal (hiding)
Tree onion
Welsh onion
Potato onion
Everlasting onion
Elephant garlic
Common mallow
Globe artichoke
Wild cabbage
Patience dock
Salad burnet
Dwarf golden hop
Wild rocket
Buck's horn plantain

Postscript 7/8/14: Alan Carter from Of Plums and Pignuts visited my plot today and commented that my 'cardoons' looked quite different to his which were much more like globe artichokes. After further enquiries I've discovered that even wild cardoons don't usually grow to nine feet, at least not in the UK. I think what I have there is a cotton or Scotch thistle Onopordum acanthium. Although it is a 'cardoon substitute' with edible flowers, leaves and stem, it is extremely thorny and I'd need fully body armour to harvest it. Or to fell it at the base, come to that - which is the new plan before it self-seeds everywhere!