Vegetables that come back year after year? I can’t think of anything more enticing to a gardener than the reward of delicious food with little effort. As I keep trying to ease my gardening load, I’m captivated with the virtues of perennial vegetables.
I have a good start on some, but I’m going to add more this year. There’s something so appealing about not having to replant every year. I’ll never give up my annual peppers, tomatoes and green beans, but why not add some other less intense plantings?
Although some vegetables function like perennials, reseeding themselves or being first up in spring after having been planted in fall, there are a few true perennial vegetables that are delicious and exceptionally easy to grow. One of the best rewards is that these vegetables are often the earliest in the garden.
One of my favorite aromas in early spring is the combination of moist soil and a freshly pulled spring onion. Also called Egyptian onions or walking onions, they start as small bulbs that send up green scallion-like leaves in early spring, much like any other onion.
The underground bulb becomes tough and woody through the summer, but you can harvest the greens until about midsummer when they become tough. In midsummer the onions send up a flower stalk, and once the flowers bloom, they turn into small bulblets sitting at the top of the plant. If left alone, this flower stalk bends over and “plants” these bulblets.
The small bulblets then send up green scallions in late summer and into fall. They go dormant in winter and begin again the following spring. By bending over to plant the bulblets, the onions spread, thus “walking” to other parts of the garden.
If you’ve never tasted freshly ground horseradish, you are in for a palate teaser. Traditionally it is an accompaniment to robust meats, but try a dollop in a glass of tomato juice or as a side dressing for roasted vegetables.
Horseradish is a beautiful adornment for the garden, although it loves to spread and thrives on neglect. So site it carefully. If you don’t want it to spread, plant the horseradish in a large pot. It will reward you with handsome tropical foliage followed by clouds of airy white flowers. Any time you are ready for a dash of heat and pungency, pull up a crown, break off a piece of root and stick the remaining root back in the ground. You can harvest any time, but the roots do sweeten a bit in the fall after the first frost. Grate the root into vinegar and keep it in the refrigerator for many months.
Sorrel greens have the tangy flavor of lemon and can be used fresh in salads or cooked in soups. You can harvest all season although spring and fall are traditionally the best times. The tang comes from oxalic acid in leaves; and the leaves are packed with vitamin C and minerals.
Once established, the only cultural requirements are to keep it watered during drought and divide the plant every three or four years to keep its vigor. Don’t be tempted to fertilize or the leaves tend to lose their flavor.
There is nothing quite like the ephemeral delicacy on your tongue of roasted asparagus. Dress with a sorrel sauce for the epitome of a fresh spring treat. Asparagus is best planted in early spring. The old adage of planting the crowns a foot deep and then filling in soil as they grow has been replaced with some sound research showing that planting about six inches below ground is all they need. The bed needs to be prepared well by loosening the soil and adding compost since an asparagus bed will be in place for twenty to thirty years. Spread the roots on a small mound of soil and cover.
It’s a labor of love because you should not harvest for the first two years because the crowns need time to establish themselves. It’s hard, but you will be rewarded with beautiful thick spears in their third year. As they come up in that third spring, you can harvest until the new spears become smaller and smaller. Stop when they are about pencil-sized and let them go to leaf. The ferny leaves are quite attractive as a backdrop to other flowers, and they turn a brilliant yellow in fall.
It’s hard to talk about asparagus without mentioning rhubarb, the other perennial vegetable that is so prominent in early spring. Rhubarb buds actually begin appearing at 40 degrees, and the enormous leaves explode into growth at the first hint of warmth. Rhubarb also takes little care, and the stems can be harvested until mid-summer when new emerging stems become considerably smaller.
Rhubarb bread and strawberry rhubarb pie are traditional favorites, but think about stewing it in maple syrup for a topping for yogurt or ice cream. It makes a great chutney or relish, a refreshing drink or a tangy barbecue sauce.
Jerusalem artichokes or sunchokes are a striking addition to the garden. They take a good-sized bed as they grow to about six feet, with golden sunflower blossoms. The chokes are underground tubers that can be harvested in fall and early winter. You’ll never get them all, and the ones that stay in the ground will sprout the following year. So you plant only one time.
Roasted sunchokes taste nutty and earthy and are a wonderful substitute for potatoes, especially for those whose diet requires fewer simple carbs.
Creamy Sorrel Sauce
(adapted from More Recipes from a Kitchen Garden by Renee Shepherd)
This lovely light green sauce can be modified in a lot of interesting ways, adding herbs like basil and dill, changing the carriers from mayonnaise to all yogurt, sour cream, creme fraiche, etc. You will love it on salmon, vegetables, potatoes and especially on freshly roasted asparagus.
1 c. any combination of plain Greek yogurt, mayonnaise, sour cream
1 c. fresh sorrel with stems removed and leaves chopped
1 T. soy sauce or 1 t. salt (soy sauce gives it more flavor but you can pump up the flavor with herbs also)
1 clove garlic, minced
Blend (a blender works best to make a velvety sauce) and serve cold.