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Eat your perennials

Many plants can provide a harvest year after year with little maintenance

By: By Lucy Haines

  |  Posted: Saturday, Apr 19, 2014 06:00 am

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  • POPULAR PERENNIAL – Rhubarb is a popular perennial edible that will provide years of trouble-free harvests if care is taken to start it properly.
    POPULAR PERENNIAL – Rhubarb is a popular perennial edible that will provide years of trouble-free harvests if care is taken to start it properly.
    DERRICK HARRISON/Supplied photo
  • USING THE FORCE – Covering rhubarb and forcing it to grow in the dark results in sweet, tender stalks. It’s an age-old method from Britain, and the way most of the rhubarb sold at farmers’ markets is grown.
    USING THE FORCE – Covering rhubarb and forcing it to grow in the dark results in sweet, tender stalks. It’s an age-old method from Britain, and the way most of the rhubarb sold at farmers’ markets is grown.

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For old school gardeners, or those who grew up on a family farm, perennial edibles are a no-brainer – crops that bear a harvest year after year, without replanting, just make good sense.

Do you have a rhubarb plant in your backyard, one that returns reliably each spring and summer, come rain or shine? Other common perennials that survive our Alberta winters include asparagus, strawberries, raspberries, apples and some herbs. And while these plants are low maintenance, it does take a bit of effort to get them started.

“There’s a new interest in growing your own food – the garden-to-plate movement – and the old-fashioned garden. And the way we cook has changed too, with a greater use of fresh herbs,” said horticulturalist Tam Andersen, who owns Prairie Gardens & Adventure Farm near Bon Accord.

“But it’s a myth to say perennial edibles don’t require any care at all. They’re still a commitment.”

Because they’re permanent, perennial fruit and vegetable plants benefit from careful soil preparation before they’re well established. Once they take off, it’s a matter of maintenance to make sure thistle and quack grass don’t take over, and clipping seeds as plants mature so they don’t continue to re-seed.

Permanent crops can be bought as seeds, transplants or sometimes as dormant roots. Oft asked-for choices like currants, cherries, berries and multiplier onions are joined at the greenhouse by many uncommon offerings. Andersen points to French sorrel, a perennial that’s cultivated as a garden herb or leaf vegetable, with a “most amazing citrus flavour – great to use in lemon dill sauces – it comes quickly, and can be harvested the first season,” she said.

Even the daylily, found in many a flower bed, can fall under the heading of perennial edibles, Andersen added, because the blossoms are quite edible, great in a salad or as a garnish. Just skip the less tasty leaves and bulbs.

“The flowers are lovely stuffed with whole grains, battered and fried – like a zucchini blossom,” she said.

Derrick Harrison of the St. Albert Garden Club is hosting a talk on perennial edibles April 24 at 7 p.m. as part of the St. Albert Public Library’s botanical series.

Many people don’t realize we can grow things like asparagus in our less-than-forgiving climate, Harrison said. But it actually grows anywhere the somewhat dry ground freezes – no mild, wet or humid conditions for this earliest crop of the season.

“If you prepare the soil before you plant, you will have 20-plus years of harvest, with very little work,” Harrison said.

And if you want to talk rhubarb, look no further than this man who grew up in the rhubarb triangle – a nine square mile area of West Yorkshire, England – world famous for producing early, forced rhubarb.

“Every garden should have rhubarb. It’s hardy to our zone 3A and can grow happily in a sunny corner of the garden,” added Harrison, who explained that forcing rhubarb involves creating a dark, warm micro-climate for emerging plants by covering them with buckets or baskets (or inside a shed) – anything to exclude light from the new clumps and encourage the soft, sweet, bright pink stalks to burst through the soil.


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