Every item of food grown in your own garden or allotment has near to zero miles travelled, with no processing or packaging required and with you in charge of how you grow them, avoiding pesticides and tillage if you feel this is important. Growing your own food allows you to garden sustainably.
We are moving into the time of year though known as the hungry gap where pickings from the garden or allotment are slim for most of us.
Some people use clever planning and plant covers to extend the harvest season; others have pickled, fermented and frozen their harvest from earlier in the year. Yet what a lot of us seem to have forgotten is the growing of edible perennials, especially those that can be harvested in late winter and early spring. To me, the perennial edibles are a key to successful, sustainable kitchen gardens.
Tillage, yearly digging, is a relatively new thing when we look at human evolution. Yearly sowing seems to originate from the predictable flooding patterns of rivers. The flooding washed away most plants, leaving nothing much but a fertile, silty soil perfect for sowing grains and vegetables. It meant that large harvests were possible, feeding people that no longer had to find their own food and large empires, such as the Egyptian empire, were built on this annual agriculture.
Extending the Season
Dry stone dykes, often used as Kale yards, are some of the earliest examples in Scotland of enclosures used to grow annual vegetables offering protection from the elements so sowing could be made earlier.
In Scotland, just like in England and beyond, walled gardens were used to extend the seasons and later on, in Victorian times, cold and hot glass houses did an even better job at providing a range of fruit and veg throughout the year.
Yet what was also common through the centuries, was the growing or foraging of perennial vegetables and in the cyclical nature of life, we are now looking again at more ways of growing edible perennials. Permaculture is on the rise as our generation looking for sustainable ways to grow food.
While most green above the ground dies down in late autumn, the roots or bulbs of herbaceous perennials stay put, mobilising water and nutrients, waiting for better weather to revive into new growth in spring. Before you have even started your first seeds in the cold frame, some of these plants are ready for early pickings: nettle soup and ramson pesto are back on the menu.
There are many such vegetables that used to be cultivated throughout Scotland for winter greens, that a lot of us have forgotten.
Rhubarb is the example I use often when talking to clients. Most people, green fingered or not, are familiar with this plant as a winter and early spring delicacy, growing away in a neglected corner of the garden. The crowns are simply left in, year after year, and in spring the stems appear for us to harvest. The more industrious gardener forces growth by putting a bucket or forcing pot over it and surrounding it with fresh manure or straw. The heat will make it grow earlier and the restricted light makes for very tender stems.
A vegetable with a huge food milage when bought in the supermarket is asparagus, often flown in, rather than transported over sea or land, because of their short shelf life. Although grown successfully, for example in Gordon Castle Walled Garden, where they have large beds full of thriving asparagus plants, they are not often grown commercially in Scotland. People shy away from it, as the plant is described as hard to establish in Scottish soil and climate and yet other plants such as Solomon’s seal and Hosta, have lovely spring shoots, similar to asparagus, and love to grow here. Most of us know them only these days as ornamentals.
There can be some resistance to eating plants considered to be ornamental. What we should remember though is that vegetables, just like ornamentals and weeds, are plants. Whether we like the taste or not, can only be found out by eating it – Brussel sprouts might not be labelled as edible by my children!
So we consider Brussel sprouts to be edible and a vegetable, yet looking at the stunning spears with the familiar globes spaced along them, especially those of the purple varieties or hybrids like the Kallette, you can argue that it is also a highly ornamental plant. It is the same with many edible perennials: they are both ornamental and delicious.
When designing a planting plan, especially in a kitchen garden, the wonderful thing about edible perennials is that you can create an ornamental border that is full of edibles with no need to compromise on looks, while offering simple solutions to fill the hungry gap and providing early or year round, green in the garden.
When the useful and the beautiful come together like this so easily, I wonder why we don’t all do it? Maybe 2021 is the year where you will want to be a bit more green and work a bit less hard!
3 More Hungry Gap Perennials
Ramson, Allium ursinum, otherwise known as wild garlic
Both the leaves and flowers are edible. The leaves can be eaten raw and are delicious made into a pesto or added to salads or added to soups toward the end of cooking.
The entire hosta plant is edible and has a taste similar to asparagus although slightly more bitter.
The most delicious part of the plants are the hostons, the curled leaf shoots that emerge in the spring. Simply cut or snap off these curled leaves at ground level soon after they emerge and serve raw in a salad or stir-fried lightly. Larger ones are best boiled briefly and then served as you would broccoli.
You can take the whole first flush of leaves from an established plant without destroying the plant, it should simply produce a second flush of fresh leaves.
Later in the season as larger leaves establish. They can be eaten like a spinach substitute in a lot of recipes. The buds and flowers are delicious fresh or fried in a little butter.
Forced sea kale, Crambe maritima ‘Lillywhite’
Like forced rhubarb, sea kale plants are grown in a dark, heated room in late winter, from January to March, so that early, tender shoots are forced upwards searching for light. These blanched shoots with their nutty flavour, can be harvested and eaten raw or the leaf midribs cooked and eaten like asparagus.
As the name implies, Sea Kale is often found growing near the sea on cliffs, rocks or beaches and is therefore tolerant of salty air.