The Edible Perennial Landscape
Many gardens have a strict divide between the veg patch and the ornamental bit. The food area tends to consist mostly of annual veg, neatly laid out in rows, duplicating the style used on allotments which in turn models itself on a farmer’s field. Then there is the pretty patch, consisting mostly of flowers and ornamental shrubs, which is lovely to look at but has no other function. Edible landscaping starts to blur the lines between these strict divides. Springing from its basis in permaculture, it places a strong emphasis on creating functional and productive landscapes, which are attractive and pleasing to the eye.
Edible landscapes can be many and varied. This can mean growing lots of edible perennials (of which there are thousands) in an arrangement which is bountiful in terms of food production but also beautiful to look at or it can mean combining your conventional annual veg garden into a less rigid format intermingling your veg with other herbaceous perennials, shrubs and trees for example. Or it can simply mean the deliberate creation of a beautiful space when creating a patch of food even if it’s in a 12” container.
I grow all of these types of landscapes and more in my garden and for the last 15 years I have been developing gardens for others which combine plants which I think are both delightful to look at and delightful to eat! I would like to share with you in this first article my explorations into the edible perennial landscape.
I am always looking for interesting edible perennials and am forever extending the range of plants that I grow in my garden and that I can then use in designs for others. One of the distinct advantages of growing an edible perennial garden is that it requires less work than growing conventional annual vegetables – not just because of the obvious reason in that you don’t need to raise your plants from seed every year but also because perennials need far less watering than annual veg, they withstand weed competition far more readily and because you are not preparing a bed for them every year, the labour involved in cultivation is far less. If you then choose a no dig technique the maintenance becomes even less. The other distinct advantage is that some, especially if given sheltered conditions, will over winter, when most annual veg (with the exception of the hardy brassicas) have been laid to rest. Even those perennials that die back over winter will emerge in early spring – providing you with a varied and appetizing crop long before most annual veg are ready.
There is something really uplifting about these emerging spring perennials. Anyone who grows chives knows the feeling – those bright green grass like spears shooting up through the mulch and then the reward of whipping them into some scrambled egg or chopping them on top of cheese. With an edible perennial garden you can have this spring treat over and over again as each different species emerges one after the other. As spring passes into early summer, you start to be able to enjoy an amazing array of flavours, leaf shapes and edible flowers all complementing each other with their distinctiveness. By early summer you can easily have well over 20 species to add to your salad bowl even in a small garden. But the list is as long as a piece of string – there are 100s of genii and 1000s of species when it comes to edible perennials – the only limiting factor is the amount of space you have to grow them.
Here are a few of my most favourite of the more unusual species. This assumes that you probably already have some of the more common herbs, such a lemon balm, thyme, oregano etc which are all wonderful and should be definitely included in your edible perennial landscape.
THE PERENNIAL SALAD BOWL
Sweet Cecily, Myrrhis Odorata, a native of Europe, has delicate fern like leaves which have a subtle aniseed flavour – the fresh bright green fronds shoot up in early spring – they are really delectable then and provide a great addition to the salad bowl at this time of year. The plant develops into an attractive feathery bush about 60cm high and wide. Appealing as it is at this stage the plant still has more to give – in May, creamy white frothy flowers bloom and these are especially delicious, combining the aniseed flavour of the leaves with a honey like sweetness. The flowers then set seed into solid green pods which stand proud of the foliage. These can be used in cooking to imbue an aniseed flavour to soups, relishes and preserves. The green seedpods turn slowly brown and then to black – the black seedpod silhouettes beautifully against the grass green foliage which lasts well into September.
The Perennial Alliums (onion family) are another favourite of mine, for the variety of flavours that can be achieved by growing a range of them – everything from a strong leek flavour, to onion through to garlic – and for the range of flowering forms and colours. Everyone who has a herb garden would probably have chives which is the most well known perennial allium and I greatly appreciate it too but there are lots more! There is the Three Cornered Leek, Allium triquetrum, which emerges in spring and as the name implies has a leeky flavour. This provides another great taste for that spring salad bowl but equally can be used to flavour cooked dishes. In April it produces umbels of 6 – 10 bell shaped white flowers with pale green stripes running vertically down the bell – these also provide a pleasant leeky flavour and look very sweet in the salad bowl. Its early productivity means that this allium has time regenerate from its bulblets and produce another crop in late summer / early autumn.
Another allium worthy of note is the Allium Moly – this gives a display of bright yellow star shaped flowers in May. All parts of the plant can be eaten – leaves, flowers & bulbs – they are great in salads imparting a mild garlic flavour.
Allium Cernuum or the Nodding Onion blossoms in June with flowers that are rose pink and look like a display of droplets hanging frozen in mid air. The leaves can be eaten in spring when they emerge and have a strongly onion like flavour. The flowers have a subtler onion flavour.
There are far too many edible alliums to mention them all here but the other alliums like the Daffodil Garlic, Allium neopoliatnum, Garlic Chives, Allium tuberosum, Drum Stick Allium, Allium sphaerocephalon, Wild Leek, Allium ampelosprasum and Wild Garlic, Allium ursinum are but a few of all the great edible perennial alliums for this type of landscape.
These members of the Brassicaceae will impart a hot, peppery flavour to your salad bowl. There is our native, aptly named Garlic Mustard, Alliaria petiolata or more poetically named Jack-by-the-Hedge and as its first name implies it is both garlicky and mustardy at the same time. In small quantities this adds that extra something to your salad mix. The spring is when it is at its best – the young leaves are fresh and lack the acrid after taste that can develop as the plant matures, although I still continue to harvest the young leaves throughout the season. I like the flowers as well, which have a strange but pleasant combination of sweetness and hotness.
One of the most spectacular mustard flavoured plants I grow, is the Dames Violet or Sweet Rocket, Hesperis matronalis. But at variance with its name perhaps the leaves of this plant are seriously hot. In my garden this plant maintains a rosette of fresh growth throughout winter and it is the rosette where the young leaves are found and these are the best to eat. In spring, a profusion of flowering stems begin to develop. By May I have a large sprawl of a plant, 1 metre by 1 metre, completely covered in small pure white flowers. The white flowers look great scattered over a green salad imbuing it with a more subdued mustard flavour than the leaves. There are other varieties with mauve to purple flowers.
A couple of other mustards worth mentioning, which are not perennials but prolific self seeders, are the Land Cress, Barbarea verna and the Hairy Bitter Cress, Cardamine hirsuta. The latter looks like a miniature version of the former but is less hot and more nutty. I prefer it to the Land Cress, for this reason. It’s a real winner in a mixed salad – the only drawback being that its leaves are a little on the small side - by the way its name is a complete misnomer – it is neither hairy nor bitter. The larger of the two – the Land Cress pops up all over my garden and is a welcome opportunist – its ability to self seed means that there is a continuous and effortless supply of this throughout summer. Indeed, there is a Land Cress which has found itself extremely comfy in my greenhouse and this plant has not only grown to gigantic proportions (for a Land Cress that is) but also over winters providing me with a hotness when things are at their coldest! The Land Cress has a very similar taste to the water cress which it is related to – so if one is hankering after the hot peppery flavour but alas has no running water – then Land Cress is an easily achievable alternative.
Another must have in your perennial salad bowl, is Sorrel. There are lots of different sorrels but the 3 most common ones and the ones which I grow are: Garden or Common Sorrel Rumex acetosa, Sheep’s Sorrel, Rumex Acetosella and Buckler Leaved Sorrel, Rumex Scutatus. Identifying the Sorrels by their common names can be quite confusing as both Buckler Leaved Sorrel and Garden Sorrel are also referred to as both French Sorrel and Garden Sorrel interchangeably. It helps to distinguish them by their physical characteristics – Sheep’s Sorrel, has long, very definite arrow shaped leaves. The lobes (the bits at the end near the stem) are pointy and curve outwards. The Garden or Common Sorrel, also has a long leaves but the lobes point downwards and curve towards the stem. Buckler Leaved Sorrel, has a much smaller leaf, its leaf being nearly as long as it is wide. The leaf curves inwards just before the lobes and then sweeps out into a pair of pointy lobes. The whole plant is smaller than its two relatives growing to approximately 20cm high. All Sorrels have a sharp lemony flavour which really buzzes in your mouth and is great in a mixed salad. The oxalic acid which lends the Sorrel its unique flavour can also have some harmful effects if eaten in excess. Too much oxalic acid can interfere with digestion and can cause problems to those suffering from rheumatism or arthritis.
The Day Lily
The Day Lily, Hemerocallis, is often seen in the ornamental garden for its long lush spear like leaves and its spectacular flowers, which come in an enormous variety of colours, ranging from lemon yellows through to deep reds. It is equally at home in my edible landscape as all parts of the plant including the tuberous roots can be eaten. However, the part I like the best is the flower; the flavour is sweet and delicate and the texture velvety - quite unlike anything else. I grow Hemerocallis fulva ‘Kwanso’ and ‘Eenie Weenie’. ‘Kwanso’ has large tawny orange flowers which look great split up into individual petals in a green salad. ‘Eenie Weenie’ has smaller lemon yellow flowers and can look equally great either split up or as a whole flower in the salad bowl. The flowers start in June and go through to the end of August. The plant is also excellent in January, when the choice for the salad bowl is more limited, with its emerging shoots which are succulent and fresh tasting. There is something very encouraging about the look of these sturdy upright shoots – when most of everything is still sleeping and there is very little to choose from (apart from those wonderful hardy brassicas!) – but if you want a break from cabbage then the fresh taste of the day lily shoot is just what you need to cheer you up in the grey days of January. Autumn, when the plant has finished flowering, is the best time to take advantage of the plants other edible asset, its tuberous roots; these are like a cross between your granny’s perfume and a chestnut and they can be an acquired taste. But I think the trick is to not simply cook them and try to eat a plateful of them but to mix them with other veg. I use them with other root vegetables in a stir fry – here their flavour comes into its own and sits nicely with other veg like carrots, potatoes and parsnips.
The other great thing about having an edible perennial landscape is that weeding becomes a flirtation rather than a chore. My most favourite saying to do with weeds was said by that distinguished 19th century philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson – “What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered”. I am always a bit ambivalent when I come across a new weed thinking – shall I eat it or put it on the compost heap? With weeds in the perennial patch it’s about balance rather than annihilation.
Weeds like Dandelions, Taraxacum officinale, for instance, can sit prettily amongst your lemon balm and marigolds and earn their place by providing succulent leaves high in minerals (especially iron) and vitamins A B1, B2 and C. Chickweed, Stellaria media, is also a welcome weed in the patch with its fresh mild tasting leaves. Although it is an annual you can generally find it growing somewhere all year round. It does get killed off by frost but if you have a sheltered frost free place it will provide leaves throughout winter. I grew it by accident (as you do with weeds) in a pot which I had harvested the salad crop from but hadn’t gotten around to emptying and putting it away. The pot was in a nice sunny spot outside the conservatory door and the chickweed flourished there all winter. All parts of Shepherd’s Purse, Capsella bursa-pastoris, are edible – the leaves, the roots and the seeds. The distinctive seed heads are what give the plant its common name as the flattened heart shape was thought to look like the purse of a shepherd. Coming from the cress family the plant has a mild mustard like flavour. Numerous other useful and edible weeds abound, including the aforementioned, Hairy Bitter Cress and Jack-by-the-hedge, Alexanders is good for its young shoots which are great as a steamed vegetable or in stir fry, nettles whose young leaves can be used in the legendary nettle soup and clover whose leaves have mild pea flavour, to mention a few more.
The whole nature of a garden like this is a shift from a more orderly weed free, tidy garden to a more natural, wild looking garden, where the lines are blurred. Ornamental becomes edible, weeds become food and a food garden becomes a wildlife haven. An edible perennial landscape does not profess to provide you with all of your food needs but it has a significant and valuable contribution to make to our diet and is definitely a more relaxed and nature friendly way of achieving this.
Part of this wild approach to gardening is to value weeds rather than see them as your enemy. This goes beyond their value as food plants but also to their value as green manures, as providers of food for insects, birds and mammals, as protectors of the soil and as dynamic accumulators. Next month I go into detail on how to use weeds creatively in your edible landscapes and specifically how weed management can be incorporated effectively into your edible vegetable landscape.
© Michele Fitzsimmons 2011