26/03/2015

Perennial Pizza

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I went foraging on the allotment today! Inspired by Carl Legge's nettle pizza in his great book, "The Permaculture Kitchen" ("How to cook no faff, seasonal & sustainable food"), I had a pizza made with perennial greens and herbs in mind. Lots to choose from! I picked a few of each.


Starting from the top left above are wild garlic, scorzonera, Babington leek, day lily, Welsh onion, nettle, variegated Daubenton kale, thyme, sea beet, Portuguese kale, rosemary, bladder campion, salad burnet, Siberian purslane, Caucasian spinach and garden sorrel.

The pizza was easy to put together. I just needed to wash and chop the leaves, season them, toss them in oil and pile them on the pizza dough round on a bed of cubed cheese. But you can follow Carl's instructions here for the all important details.

pile of collected perennial vegetable greens

chopped, seasoned perennial vegetable greens piled on pizza dough

piece of perennial vegetable pizza

Perennial pizza. Absolutely!

24/03/2015

Marching on.....

Comments very welcome!

It's March again and the two year anniversary for this blog - so it's time for another review of my perennial vegetable garden experiment. I'm a bit of a mad March hare at the moment - on a definite high about the arrival of spring and my gardening plans for this year!

Leaping hare

Last year I was busy moving plants from one of my two allotments to the other one as part of my aim to devote one plot to perennial vegetables and fruits. I had decided to grow one vegetable in each of the twelve beds (or one in each half-bed) and choose a ground-cover (preferable an edible one) to grow beneath the plants to prevent weed growth.

Elephant garlic growing amongst wild strawberries
Elephant garlic amongst wild strawberries

This year I want to move towards vegetable 'polycultures'. I've been getting just one harvest from most beds at a certain period each year - perennial vegetables can be as seasonal as annual ones - it's just that they stay around to deliver again at the same time in following years. My original one food crop + a low-growing ground-cover strategy evolved out of a desire to keep things neat and avoid cross letters from the town council - but I'm glad to say it is a few years now since one of those has arrived! So I'm planning to group vegetables which will live happily together in one bed (e.g. one won't deprive the other of light or nutrients) and complement each other in terms of their harvest periods. I'm still working on this, but for starters I think sorrel and sea beet might fit in well with Babington leeks and a selection of low-growing alliums could grow beneath the tall stems of some of the perennial kales.

Gaps between tall kales suitable for low alliums
Space here for some of the shorter alliums

Consolidating the beds in this way will also free up a bit of space for a new venture. I'm excited to be getting involved in two selective breeding projects this year along with other edible plant enthusiasts. These are aimed at coming up with a skirret with fatter roots and an oca that will form tubers earlier in the year (to get involved visit The Free Skirreteers on Facebook and The Guild of Oca Breeders webpage). I'll need some space for growing on oca and skirret seedlings so they can be assessed for desirable qualities!

I feel I still need to go for a 'tidy look' on most of the plot. (For those who want a wholesale polyculture approach, Anni Kelsey's book, "Edible Perennial Gardening: Growing Successful Polycultures in Small Spaces" is a good guide.) But there is more of a mix in the herb garden where I also grow some perennial vegetables.

Herb garden
A mix of perennial vegetables and herbs

I had some difficulties with this area last year, with some usually vigorous plants such as patience dock, lovage and horse radish refusing to do much growing. So I've been busy this spring taking out the plants, digging it all over, incorporating compost and replanting.

To the right of this area is another herb garden of the same size which surrounds a pond. The pond is an unfinished project which has always slipped out of my control up until now. Couch grass and creeping buttercups grew around its perimeter and invaded the carpet which I had put on top of the pondliner in order to protect it. The carpet has now been pulled out (and the weeds with it) and the surrounding beds are getting the same digging and replanting treatment as the first herb garden area. I plan to grow both edible and wild-life friendly plants in the pond. I'm also creating a small wetland area.

Mini-wetland by the pond
Creating a mini-wetland by the pond

It's the rectangular area at the back of the photo above. I've dug out a patch of soil to a depth of 35cm, lined it with some punctured compost bags and replaced the soil mixed with some sand and gravel.  Amongst the plants I'm going to try in here will be Chinese artichokes (Stachys affinis) which produced almost no tubers in the dry summer we had here last year, alongside the related marsh woundwort (Stachys palustris).

I still need to find a way of protecting tall kales from pigeons in the winter. After their attacks in early winter I replaced the fine summer netting which had kept out the butterflies - but the winter winds played havoc with it. I'm playing with the idea of rooting willow wands and attaching wide gauge bird netting to them to make a walk-in cage affair - something I can go inside to harvest easily and which the wind can whistle through without encountering much resistance. Perennial kales have a good ability to recover from pigeon attacks though. Here is a variegated Daubenton, which was heavily nibbled in early winter, showing a flush of spring leaves.

Variegated Daubenton kale
Variegated Daubenton kale

Whilst the Asturian cabbage, the massive 'Tall' kale, the Portuguese kale (my favourite perennial brassica last year) and the Jersey kale have also all survived the winter, the wild cabbages haven't fared so well. I began with five plants which all came through their first winter but two died after flowering the following spring. Of the three remaining plants two have now died and I am just left with one, luckily a bluey-green one that I particularly liked.

Wild cabbag
The one surviving wild cabbage

Brassicas are generally easy to root from cuttings and I'm beginning to realise that this is sometimes a better way to keep special types going from year to year if they prove to be unreliable as perennials.

Finally I ought to report on the Bath asparagus which featured in my first blog post in 2013 and which didn't flower that year. No it didn't flower last year either.....This year perhaps?.....

22/02/2015

Loving Good King Henry

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A recent discussion on the Plant Breeding for Permaculture facebook group had me rallying to the support of Good King Henry.

Good King Henry - Chenopodium bonus-henricus
Good King Henry (Chenopodium bonus-henricus)

The general consensus seemed to be that it would be a really great perennial vegetable if only it tasted better! Now I love Good King Henry and I have to admit I found myself feeling a little defensive on its behalf .... I think I may be over-emotionally involved with a vegetable! I like both the flavour of its leaves and its young flower shoots lightly steamed. I agree it is bitter - but no more bitter than kale I would say.

In the course of my love affair with Good King Henry I've researched it extensively. On the whole I would say it gets more bad reviews than good ones. Although bitterness is the usual complaint I've also seen it described as insipid, tasteless and bland! Good reviews generally have the leaves as preferred to spinach and the young shoots as being equal to asparagus. I haven't begun to untangle what is at variance here, whether it is just individual taste, or whether the flavour varies across plants, or maybe seasons, soils, moisture/light conditions or cooking methods.

Poached egg with Good King Henry shoots
Poached egg with Good King Henry shoots

But I was smitten before ever I tasted Good King Henry - or saw it! From the start I was intrigued, like others are, by the quaint name with its hint at a close relationship between man and plant. And I went on to discover that it is a pot-herb that has probably been in continuous use in Britain from Medieval times or earlier (pollen from Good King Henry has been found at Neolithic/Bronze Age and Roman sites - but as a common weed of disturbed ground it is hard to say for sure to what degree it formed part of the occupants' diets). The tradition of its use mostly died out during the last century, but is still within living memory especially in Lincolnshire. Here's my collection of echoes of that tradition in snippets I’ve found on the net and in Lincolnshire Life magazine:
"I want to tell you about mercury – Lincolnshire spinach – or in some parts of the country Good King Henry. Mercury is pronounced marcury in Lincolnshire and used to be very common in gardens. My family have always grown and eaten it and I have quite a large bed in my garden; being perennial it needs little attention and no matter the weather it comes up. This year particularly after all the rain in the summer vegetables will be late and mercury will fill the gap when we’ve finished the brocolli, kale, etc., until the peas, beans, etc. are ready. We eat it like spinach – boiled – and then I like it hot or cold – also I love the flowerheads and sometimes strip the leaves off and eat as ‘poor man’s asparagus’. My grandmother used to tell me because it was so deep rooted it was full of iron and minerals. For many years I’ve thought it was probably responsible for my good resistance to colds and infection. I do enjoy it and eat a lot – more than the rest of the family." Washingborough, Lincolnshire, March 1994.
From plantlore.com website
"The couple grow a spinach-like vegetable known as mercury, it is also known as Good King Henry, Lincolnshire spinach and poor man’s asparagus. Mr Sizer said it was once popular but you would not find in the shops now. “It’s like spinach and is full of iron,” he said. “Years and years ago when I was a young boy we used to have it at my granddads."
From Good Year at Allotments, Horncastle News 13th August 2009’
"i haven’t seen or tasted markery or marquery since i was a small boy. no one i have asked has heard of it except for one man who said it is a weed and takes a lot of getting rid of and he had only just succeded. mother treated it like a leaf vegetable and ate it often. grandfather had a large clump which he harvested year-round. it looked like a dock plant gone crazy. the very dark green leaves looked like black string when boiled and (to me) it tasted bitter but livened up cabbage no end. 
i would like to taste it again. i suspect markery is a local name for probably a more well known plant. please help." Verne, Lincolnshire
From Growsonyou.com website 9th April 2011
"It is a perennial in which the top dies down every autumn. It can be forced some years. It is one of the first cut and come again crops of the year which we still use." Brian Hornsey, Stamford
From Lincolnshire Life Nov. 2002
"My father, Dick Needham, of Grimoldby, near Louth, had a good-sized bed. I remember it had quite a bitter taste but ours was always well flavoured as mother used to boil it in the water that she had boiled a joint of bacon or ham in." MD, Scunthorpe
From Lincolnshire Life. Nov. 2002
"In the late 1910s and 1920s, when my father kept two pigs in the sty at the bottom of our garden in Millfield Terrace, Sleaford, Markery, as my mother called it, was one of the ingredients she collected in the zinc family bathtub for use as stuffing for the chines.
In the Second World War, our local greengrocer, Mr Hix, grew a fairly large area of the plant. It was cut just before the stems reached budding stage, made up into bundles, and sold as Lincolnshire spinach." Les Gostick, Sleaford

From Lincolnshire Life Nov. 2002
"The daffodil that used to come up in the midst of Mrs Leiver’s wild plot has come up again this year in spite of all the soldiers digging and traffic. It has 3 or 4 lovely blooms. “Fair daffodil, that comes before the swallow dares, And takes the winds of March with beauty.” Only it is April this year, all things are late. Father weeded the markery bed and it is beginning to grow. Sp cabb coming along too." Saturday April 11 8.30 pm 1942
From May Hill's WW11 Diaries
"I have been growing and eating mercury for the last eighty-six years and cannot understand why it isn't grown more often. It is the only vegetable I know that is completely pest free." Stanley Scarman, Theddlethorpe
From Lincolnshire Life Nov. 2002
I've also been pleased to find out that Good King Henry is still loved in mountainous regions of mainland Europe. A study on the use of wild plants in the Alps in Switzerland found that Good King Henry was amongst the four plants
mentioned most often in interviews with villagers (the other three being dandelion, nettle and elder). I found a recipe for potato dumplings stuffed with Good King Henry from a ski lodge in Switzerland, and, from the Apennines, one for olapri (Good King Henry) tartlets and one for pasta with orapi, smoked pancetta and salted ricotta.

But in case you're not in the Good King Harry fan club you might still take John Claudius Louden's pragmatic view that,
"A perennial spinach, however, whether from the Beta maritima, or Chenopodium Bonus Henricus, is very desirable in every garden, as a resource in case of neglect or accident, and because the plants being in perpetual maturity, and abundantly furnished with proper sap, are, as it were, ever on the alert to take advantage of any circumstances favourable to vegetation."
The Gardener's Magazine, Volume 2 1827
A nicely put case for perennial vegetables Mr Louden!

19/02/2015

The Chicory Challenge

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Cichorium intybus Gaulsheim
Chicory flowers - image courtesy of Manfred Heyde

Chicory is a tough, deep-rooted plant, similar to a dandelion, that can provide somewhat bitter but very flavoursome leaves in winter - and in a lovely range of colours and variegations too.

The challenge with chicory for the perennial vegetable grower is finding the perennial forms. In "Perennial Vegetables" Eric Toensmeier explains that the wild form of chicory may be biennial or perennial and cultivated varieties may be annual, biennial or perennial. Furthermore sometimes only some individuals within a variety may be perennial. Whilst annual and biennial forms will die after flowering, perennial forms will persist and survive the winter if they don't succumb to the cold and wet. The leaves however are unlikely to form a tight head in later years (they are also best picked when the plants are not in flower to avoid extreme bitterness).

Last year I embarked on trying to grow perennial cultivated chicories. It's useful to start with a list of varieties to try. In, "Plants for a Future" Ken Fern lists three, which are included in Martin Crawford's expanded list of eleven in, "How to Grow Perennial Vegetables". Both these writers are growing in the south-west of the UK so more useful to me was Alys Fowler's experiment in the Midlands where she grew a 'great sweep of Italian seeds' to see which ones would perennialise. Rossa di Treviso and Variegata di Castelfranco came out tops and reading this I decided to start by trying the former.

Below are some photos I took yesterday. Here in East Yorkshire (in quite an exposed spot on the edge of the Yorkshire Wolds) some of the Rossa di Treviso plants have come through the winter fine.

Hardy chicory Rossa di Treviso
Hardy chicory Rossa di Treviso

Others less well!

Rossa di Treviso damaged by winter cold and wet
Rossa di Treviso damaged by winter cold and wet

The seed for these plants was sown in late summer and they grew well through the autumn with bigger leaves than in the pictures above. We enjoyed some leaves in mixed salads and braised with walnuts and goats cheese. But they are definitely less bitter after the first frosts - although the plants have smaller leaves to offer because the larger outer leaves tend to die away as winter progresses.

This year I'm planning to give Variegata di Castelfranco and Italiko Rosso
a try. Hopefully plants that get through one winter will survive a few and I can gradually build up a colourful chicory collection.

We had chicory for tea tonight. I adapted this recipe in Eric Toensmeier's book, using what we had available - which was leeks rather than red onions and dried White Emergo runner beans in place of cannelini beans.

White beans ready for cooking
I cooked the soaked beans earlier in the day

Chicory leaves, leeks, thyme, tarragon, red wine
The thyme and tarragon were lovely in this recipe

Chicory, beans and leeks frying
 Just a short while to fry the leeks, beans and chicory.

Chicory and beans in serving bowl
Wine, salt, tarragon and thyme mixed in.

I think I could eat this meal weekly through the winter. Stew finds the bitterness of chicory a bit of a challenge! He said he felt it needed something creamy added, such as feta cheese. So it was a shame really that I'd forgotten to serve it with the grated Parmesan that the recipe called for!

29/01/2015

Winter in the Perennial Vegetable Garden (2)

Comments very welcome!

Here are the winter photos for the second set of perennial vegetable photos I've put on this blog. Spot the vegetables you might get a harvest from in the snow compared to the ones which are definitely not baring any green. (But bear in mind that you'd get a better harvest from more mature or more pampered plants than some of these!)

(Spring, summer and autumn photos. Photos from 2013/4 here.)

Lovage
New cardoon
Scorzonera
Solomon's Seal
Tree onion
Welsh onion
Potato onion
Everlasting onion
Elephant garlic
Garlic
Mallow (Mystic Merlin)
New globe artichoke
Wild cabbage
Patience dock
Salad burnet
Dwarf golden hop
Wild rocket
Buck's horn plantain

26/01/2015

Salad Burnet Pesto

Comments very welcome!

Salad burnet.....
perennial,
salad burnet
tough
salad burnet in the snow
and pretty,
salad burnet in flower
makes.....
ingredients for salad burnet pesto
pretty good.....
salad burnet pesto in blender
pesto!
salad burnet pesto in bowl

I think it's scrumptious - can't wait for my tea! 

N.B. I toasted the sunflower seeds first and also added some fresh tarragon and a little fresh rosemary to the mix.

31/12/2014

Babington Leek Soup

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On Monday I drifted rather limply around the allotment, in a weakened state during a bout of worsened asthma following a virus, wondering what would be easy to harvest for a meal.

Newly emerging Babington leeks
Newly emerging Babington leeks

I decided to pull a bunch of these young Babington leeks to use in a soup. (Now that they are established on the plot the leeks seem to be re-emerging in early winter, not in spring as they did at first).

Babington leek, elephant garlic and air onion bulbs
Babington leek, elephant garlic and air onion bulbs

I also pulled up a small elephant garlic bulb (at centre in the photo) and a clump of Finnish air onions (right in photo). (The air onions are still a bit of a mystery. I got seed for them from an Ebay seller along with a note describing how they develop top-set onions and generally behave like tree onions. So far mine have just developed Welsh onion-like flowerheads followed by seeds. It will be interesting to watch to see what they do in future years).

Babington leek soup during a time of illness seemed a good idea. I surmised that as they emit a strong garlic smell when chopped they must contain alliin, a precursor of the compound allicin which gives garlic its distinctive odour and which is often reported to have potent cold-fighting properties (and several other therapeutic effects). I haven't been able to find any measures of alliin in Babington leek but I did find one study which found that elephant garlic (a close relative of Babington leek but rather less strongly garlic-scented when crushed) contains about a quarter of the alliin content of garlic.

Babington leeks in late spring
Babington leeks in late spring

Alliin is found in intact garlic cells. Nearby but physically separated from the alliin resides the enzyme alliinase. When the cells are damaged by a predator or pathogen (including cooks with garlic crushers or sharp knives) alliin and alliinase combine to form allicin. Alliinase doesn't survive cooking but allicin is more heat-stable so the advice is to crush garlic and then let it sit for ten minutes to allow the allicin to form before preparing your dish.

(I'm not sure of the state of scientific research on garlic and allicin therapy. I must admit I ate a lot of raw crushed garlic before and during this latest cold and subsequent chest infection to no good avail - but I'm not quite ready to give up all trust in garlic yet!)

So I crushed and chopped my alliums (both bulbs, leaves and green shoots) and sautéed them slowly in oil. When they were softened I added a pint and a half of vegetable stock, two bay leaves and some thyme and some chopped scorzonera root to give some thickness, and simmered the soup until the scorzonera was cooked and then removed the bay leaves and blended and seasoned it.

Babington leek soup
Babington leek soup

Well it didn't taste too good. It was bitter. I think I was hoping for something slightly akin to lovely French onion soup or at least to leek and potato soup. So I added a chopped potato and some more water and seasoning and simmered and blended it again. Better, less bitter and good enough for me to wolf down a bowlful, but well, not a great soup. Perhaps I didn't sauté long enough or maybe the inclusion of the leaves was a mistake. It was the first time I had cooked with the bulbs of Babington leeks. I will try them again, perhaps roasted next time, but other suggestions from more sure-footed cooks than I are very welcome!