01/05/2013

Perennial Vegetables for the Hungry Gap

Comments very welcome!

We're right in the "hungry gap"; and if my family was relying on the annual vegetables I grew last year we'd be very hungry indeed. I failed miserably with pumpkins last summer through massive and sustained slug attacks, I didn't grow enough carrots to store, we ate almost all the leeks by Christmas, the potatoes and onions ran out a few weeks ago and my purple sprouting broccoli is, well, in a word, pathetic.

But I'm now harvesting some of the perennial vegetables and they are really proving their worth. From their well established root systems they are throwing up a mass of leaves and I can harvest in quantity.

The feathery foliage of salad burnet
The feathery foliage of salad burnet

Perhaps because most of us plan our vegetable gardens around annuals there is a tendency to have, if we have them at all, just a specimen or two of the perennial vegetable oddities tucked into a spare corner amongst the herbs. But in my quest to see if one could just grow perennials and still be satisfied with the vegetable harvest I realised I had to have multiple plants and consequently first one, then four, then eight of my annual beds have been signed over to perennials. I don't necessarily want to only grow perennials but I do want to see just how far one could go with a garden full of long-lasting vegetable bushes.

Here is my half-bed of six sea kale plants (one by each cane, growing amongst creeping jenny).


Bed of sea kale plants

We had some for tea last night. I took a few young shoots from each plant, including some from the plant top left which has been blanched beneath a bucket placed over the plant when the very first sign of life appeared this year.

Blanched sea kale shoots
blanched shoots

Quite a contrast to the rather prettier unblanched version below.

Unblanched sea kale shoots
unblanched

It was our first decent sized dish of sea kale and was very enjoyable. Satisfyingly chunky too, steamed for just five minutes so it was tender but still crunchy. At first I thought I preferred the milder blanched version but then changed my vote to the unblanched (as Stew put it, "it's more challenging but worth the effort"!)

Uncooked sea kale shoots
uncooked sea kale shoots
Cooked sea kale shoots
cooked shoots in butter sauce

I served the kale with a butter sauce - made by chopping some onion (the recipe called for a shallot but I didn't have one) into a tablespoon of water and a tablespoon of white wine vinegar, boiling to reduce it down to half and then beating in 50g of unsalted butter. It was flavoursome but we decided we'd be just as happy with some butter or margarine dobbed on top - the kale has plenty of flavour by itself!

Today we had lemony sorrel soup for lunch made from the non-flowering "Profusion" sorrel plant, a great variety with dark green leaves which gives you leaves all year without going into reproductive mode early in the summer and putting its energy into throwing up tall flower spikes. Sorrel soup is lovely and easy. Chop up a large potato and a large onion and cook them in oil for a few minutes, add a litre of seasoned vegetable stock and simmer until the vegetables are soft, add 300g of sorrel leaves and cook for two more minutes and then liquidise.

Cooking sorrel soup
cooking sorrel soup
Saucepan of sorrel soup
soon made
Empty soup bowls
soon gone

In addition to the sea kale and sorrel we've been eating lots of perennial "Daubenton" kale.

Brassica oleracea var. Daubenton

This is a true perennial kale. It rarely flowers - although actually some of mine did last year. (The ones that did are in very poor state this year - is this because they flowered or just don't like their growing conditions?) The plants we're harvesting weren't looking so good either over winter. I had made a plastic trellis roof for them following a theory that pigeons which are extremely fond of gobbling brassicas don't enjoy feeding where they don't have a clear upward escape route. It worked all through the late autumn but I think that, during the later extended cold spell we had, they were just willing to take greater risks to get their grub. So I then completely closed the plants in with netting and they have recovered wonderfully. A tough plant and a real stalwart of the perennial vegetable garden. (Incidentally, it seems that many kales will provide leaves for several years if their flowering shoots are carefully removed and they are given a good prune from time to time. One variety amongst many worth considering is the very hardy "Hungry Gap" kale!)

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