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
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).
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|
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|
50g scorzonera leaves
½ a cored and chopped apple
125g green grapes
200g plain yoghurt
Everything went into the blender together and was blended until smooth.
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).
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!)|
|Solomon's Seal (hiding)|
|Dwarf golden hop|
|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!
There is not just one but a whole botanical storehouse of sorrels in the world and several of them are useful perennial vegetables.
|Many 'sorrels' in many places|
Sorrel derives from an Old French word surele which has its origins in sur of Germanic origin meaning 'sour'. The sour, lemony flavour of sorrels is attributed to oxalic acid in their leaves (found in many other vegetables including spinach, chard, beets, carrots, leeks, rhubarb and quinoa). But it seems to be more complicated than a simple more oxalic acid equals more sourness relationship. If the sourness in sorrel is caused by oxalic acid why does spinach taste less sour when it has higher levels of oxalic acid? See my note below*.
All the sorrels I know about so far are in the Rumex, Oxyria or Oxalis genera (not counting roselle (Hibiscus sabdariffa) which is sometimes called the sorrel plant after the popular Carribean drink which is made from its red calyces).
Here's a run down of some sorrels for the perennial potager:
My personal favourite is garden sorrel (Rumex acetosa), a robust, prolific grower with good-sized leaves which have a refreshing acid taste. (It is one of about two hundred species in the Rumex genus - most are known as 'docks' but the particularly sharp flavoured ones are usually known as 'sorrels'). There are several cultivated varieties of Rumex acetosa including a non-flowering form which crops well all year.
|Rumex acetosa - garden sorrel|
In previous posts I've used this sorrel in sorrel soup, goat's cheese and sorrel tart and sorrel and potato gratin.
Rumex acetosa is sometimes called French sorrel but so is Rumex scutatus, buckler-leaved sorrel (or 'true French sorrel'!)
|Rumex scutatus - buckler-leaved sorrel|
To me Rumex scutatus has just the same delightful flavour as garden sorrel but is far more of a fiddle to pick - but I've heard it said that chefs regard it as having a superior texture and flavour. It is a lower-growing (to about 30cm), more spreading plant which self-seeds very easily and could be very useful as a ground-cover.
Red-veined sorrel (or bloody dock) Rumex sanguineus is a beautiful plant especially in spring when sunlight shines through its young leaves and illuminates their delicate red-veining.
|Rumex sanguineus - red-veined sorrel|
Very young leaves are pretty in a salad but in my experience (gardening on a neutral clay soil) it is not long before the leaves become coarser and lose their sharp fresh flavour.
(Rumex acetosella is also worth a mention as, like Rumex acetosa, it is another common native of the British Isles. It is known as sheep's sorrel and more popular with foragers than gardeners. It is not one that I grow; I don't know of any garden cultivars and there is a danger that it might create a weed problem as it spreads quite vigorously by runners. But perhaps it could be useful for a difficult patch where little else will grow as I've read that it can cope with dry, acid soil.)
A couple of docks which are also often listed amongst the sorrels are patience dock (Rumex patientia) which grows particularly tall and monk's rhubarb (Rumex alpina). My patience dock isn't big enough to harvest yet and I don't have alpine dock but they are both traditional pot-herbs and said to be worth cultivating as perennial vegetables.
Just two species make up the Oxyria genus: Oxyria digyna (mountain sorrel) and Oxyria sinensis. Mountain sorrel is very hardy, growing as it does in the Arctic and on mountains in the northern hemisphere. Mine grows happily in the shade of the backyard and its thin lemony leaves are very useful for adding to salads.
|Oxyria digyna - mountain sorrel|
But it seems to be quite a variable plant as many photos of it growing in rocky mountainous spots show thicker succulent leaves. Oxyria sinensis looks a bit like it but has handsome frilly leaves. I haven't heard of it being used as a food plant but that might be because it would be difficult to harvest - I think it grows mostly on steep slopes in the Himalayas in China.
There are about eight hundred Oxalis species. Many have 'sorrel' or 'wood-sorrel' as part of their common name. They occur in most regions of the globe but particularly in the tropics.
I have tried to introduce Oxalis acetosella, common wood-sorrel (native to Britain), into our backyard as it will grow in shade but I think it has perished. Here is Oxalis acetosella growing near Darmstadt in Germany.
|Common wood-sorrel [Rudolf Schäfer ]|
I will try again - it is a very fiddly plant to pick but quite adorably dainty with white or pink flowers usually etched with lilac veins.
I don't know much about the other wood-sorrels but Oxalis oregana, redwood sorrel, is recommended by Martin Crawford in 'How to grow Perennial Vegetables'. It is another pretty one:
|Redwood sorrel [Miguel Vieira ]|
It's also worth saying that the leaves of oca, Oxalis tuberosa, usually grown for its tubers, have that same sorrel flavour. (I believe oca was named South American wood-sorrel by European plant hunters when they first encountered it). Always good to know when you can get two crops from one plant!
Finally (and really just for fun) I wondered if this next one might be popular eating when I first heard its common name:
|Candy cane sorrel [peganum ]|
It is called candy cane sorrel! - or Oxalis versicolor. Those leaves are pretty tiny though and I haven't read of anyone eating it - more of a feast for the eyes than the stomach perhaps.
*[I set off up a sidetrack whilst writing this post in order to find answers to several questions about oxalic acid and diet. But I found myself in a maze of contradictory statements and evidence. I now have just more unanswered questions! These are some of them:
Is it a well-founded fact that oxalic acid in vegetables binds with their calcium, magnesium and iron content making these minerals nutritionally useless? Or is there so much more mineral content in oxalate rich vegetables like spinach in the first place than in the average vegetable that there will still be plenty left to be absorbed?
How can oxalic acid be the cause of the reported fatal toxicity of rhubarb leaves when the levels in spinach are almost as high? If oxalic acid isn't the sole or main cause of the toxicity what is? Do the post-mortems of people believed to have died from rhubarb leaf poisoning really support that conclusion?
How good is the evidence that oxalate-rich foods increase the risk of developing calcium oxalate kidney stones at all? Is there good evidence that oxalic acid plays a role in preventing illness?
There is at least a general consensus that you have to eat an excessive amount of oxalate-rich leaves to cause health problems. I just eat and enjoy without worrying. So my appetite is satisfied - but my curiosity isn't!]
I was musing on the lazy gardener's dream one day and found myself musing out loud on Twitter.....
Twitter is such fun - thank you Mr. Welford and littlerobbergirl - and inspirational too - today I did try a gooseberry lasagne!!
Stew's stated position on food is that he won't eat anything that's been in the ground! But when he tells me that he doesn't want pudding in his first course he's often not joking any more. So I set about making our usual vegetable lasagne for tea (fairly standard lasagne; onions, peppers, courgettes, aubergine, chillies and tomatoes layered with lasagne sheets and a white sauce and topped with cheddar cheese) but before I added the tomatoes I set aside a portion of the vegetable mixture for my experiment.
I'm not crazy - or original! Gooseberry sauce is a traditional accompaniment to mackerel, Jane Grigson described cooking gooseberries with veal and you can find gooseberry salsa recipes online (although these are sometimes asking for cape gooseberries which are at least in the same botanical family as tomatoes - unlike the true gooseberry).
Here are my cold-hardy perennial tomatoes!
|Ribes uva-crispa - the gooseberry|
I can't quite bring myself to show you the photo of the uncooked vegetable sauce with the gooseberries because it turned a rather upsetting shade of blancmange pink. But here is the finished result...
Here's the tomato one for comparison...
A taste comparison? Well you won't be surprised to hear that gooseberries don't taste like tomatoes, not even when cooked up in a lasagne - but on its own terms it tasted good to me - a little fruity admittedly (strangely apple came to mind rather than gooseberry!) but none the worse for that - quite good grub! Stew had a taste - to be fair I have to report that he didn't agree.
So I guess the search for a cold-hardy perennial tomato will have to go on. Now I do have a friend who says cooked rosehips are the thing for a 'just-like-tomato' flavour - rosehip lasagne anyone?
I've discovered that wild rocket is a really useful perennial vegetable! Although the 'wild rocket' that is grown for selling in supermarkets is sometimes an especially peppery form of the annual or salad rocket Eruca sativa, the plant I'm interested in here is Diplotaxis tenuifolia, also commonly known as perennial wall rocket.
|Wild rocket (left) Salad rocket (right)|
A comparison of just the leaves of the two plants reveals that perennial wall-rocket has rather finer, more deeply serrated leaves than you usually see on salad rocket and that the leaves are similar but more fiery in taste. If you see the whole plant, especially in its second or later years, you'll be looking at a low-growing spreading clump with slender but quite woody-looking stems. Provided you're happy with its hotness you can use it in all the same ways as salad rocket.
Wild rocket has been a revelation to me. The first time I grew it it didn't come to much - becoming straggly and unproductive rather quickly and rotting off over the winter. But then I saw that a plant I had given a friend had grown into a beautiful dense mound of fresh green leaves and had, she told me, been supplying herself and her daughter with plenty of salad leaves for weeks.
Its name came up again in the course of my efforts to find a better range of plants for a narrow dry shady border at the base of a wall in our backyard. Planted there it suddenly flourished and overwintered with no problem. I trimmed the branches by about two-thirds in the late autumn to stop them flopping over the bricks onto the path and to keep it bushy when they began to sprout again early the following spring.
|Wild rocket in April|
I've been amazed by just how obliging it is. It would be interesting to see how it would get on in a gravel path, in pockets of soil on the top or sides of a wall or in a hanging basket. We pick it a lot for salad leaves and it doesn't get much of a chance to flower - but when flowering has taken place it doesn't seem to have been to the detriment of leaf production.
I made wild rocket pesto tonight to eat with spaghetti. I harvested quite a lot of leaves and left the plant with a messy crew cut but snipped each bunch of leaves above the growing point so that they will replenish themselves quickly.
I wanted 100g of rocket leaves for the recipe I was following - loosely following: I used hazelnuts instead of pine nuts to reduce the cost (and also because I like to use ingredients that I could easily grow myself) and I used hard goat's cheese instead of pecorino because there was none of the latter in the shop! But I could only gather 50g of leaves from my plants and so Caucasian spinach leaves and parsley made up the weight.
|Wild Rocket Pesto|
Wild rocket is fairly expensive to buy in bags from the supermarket but it's very easy to grow your own from seed (I also have a few plants available to buy at present). It doesn't need a fully sunny spot, is happiest in poorer, dryer soil and produces lots of leaves in a small space and for a long time. Other than the shade-tolerant, climbing Caucasian spinach I can't think of a more useful plant for a backyard larder.
I was going to call this post Sustainable Soup. Except for adding some olive oil, honey, salt and pepper, I made it entirely from plants that have been growing happily in the allotment or backyard for several years now without any energy from me save an occasional weed and compost mulch. But I liked the sound of Saturday Soup better.
|Saturday Soup ingredients|
I collected the ingredients last night and spread them on the kitchen table for their photo this morning. Starting from the top-left corner they are: Good King Henry, lovage, allium leaves (potato onion, welsh onion, chives), thyme, sage, pot marjoram and sorrel.
To make the soup I chopped everything in the picture above, discarding the thyme stalks and the Good King Henry stalks (but including the flowers). Then I gently softened the allium leaves in some olive oil, added the Good King Henry, lovage and herbs with two pints of water and simmered it all for about ten minutes (maybe a bit less). The sorrel went in next with some salt and pepper and then I puréed it all with a hand blender and tasted it.
Too bitter! I love Good King Henry cooked just like spinach and haven't before felt the need to rub salt into the leaves or soak them to reduce their bitterness as others do. But this was definitely too bitter. Never mind, this ehow.com page came to the rescue! Following the advice I added some more salt and then some honey and then some more olive oil. Much better - but a little thin. I remembered that musk mallow thickens soup and added a good handful from an exuberant plant that's growing in a shady corner of the backyard. I also added some more garden sorrel and some mountain sorrel (Oxyria digyna) from pots in the garden and puréed it all again. (Usefully for on-hand ingredients from shady town gardens, both the mountain sorrel and the mallow seem to revel in shade and garden sorrel and Good King Henry also seem quite happy in a semi-shaded spot).
|Soup with a sprig of mountain sorrel|
I now had Satisfying, Sustainable, Saturday Soup and have just enjoyed it for lunch. So next time more sorrel and less Good King Henry (or treat the leaves first. I understand one can either soak in salt water for half an hour and discard the water or rub salt into the leaves and rinse after a few minutes). Also on a cold day I might add a starchy perennial component such as skirret (or stored oca). That would make an especially sustaining, satisfying, sustainable, Saturday Soup!