I love my garden and my raised beds, but I have to confess that one of my favourite plants is the rhubarb. Not because it’s my favourite food, but because it’s just so easy to grow. As a perennial, it’s just there year after year, with no effort on my part. I don’t have to plant seeds and transplant seedlings, or feed it anything special. It just keeps coming back.
Yes, I am motivated in part by laziness. If there are other plants that can feed me as effortlessly as the rhubarb does, I would like to try them. But there are other reasons to grow perennials, as this inspiring book demonstrates. They require less energy all round than annuals that have to be replanted. You don’t have to till or dig, which is healthier for the soil and keeps CO2 in the ground. They allow you to extend your growing seasons and harvest food all year round. And since perennial plants tends to have deeper and more extensive root systems, the food is often richer in minerals and nutrients too. I was sold on the fact that they’re less effort, but perennials turn out to be a virtuous gardening choice too.
How to grow perennial vegetables is a simple guide to this wonderland of ‘low maintenance, low impact vegetable gardening’. It begins with a guide to growing them, with notes on co-planting, mulches and planting patterns. There are useful lists of plants that fix nitrogen, or that are good in the shade. That’s the first quarter of the book.
The rest of it is an A-Z of perennial vegetables, and it’s an exotic collection indeed. There are hedgerow plants and wild foods like ramsons or rosebay willowherb, common crops from other parts of the world that we don’t traditionally eat here but could, like mashua or oca. There are perennial versions of other vegetables, such as leeks, garlic or cabbage. There are plants that may already grow in your garden that you didn’t know were edible, like iceplant or hostas. There are some proper freaks too, like the water caltrop, which grows tubers that look like horned bats.
Some of these are no-brainers. Caucasian spinach is a climbing perennial spinach that loves shade, and I’ve got an otherwise unproductive spot in the garden that’s been crying out for such a thing. Wall rocket would fill a similar niche in my garden on a tatty old brick wall. Solomon’s seal and serpent garlic just look fabulous – and beautiful plants that you can also eat are just the sort of thing I want to grow.
As usual with such books, it is written with the zeal of an enthusiast and your definition of edible may not be the same as the author’s. I was surprised to read that strawberry leaves can be eaten in salads for example, and promptly put the book down to go and try them. Suffice to say that I’d need to be pretty desperate before I eat strawberry leaves again. My only other complaint is that while there’s no shortage of roots and bulbs and ‘proper’ vegetables, the book is slightly unbalanced towards leaves and spinach-type plants.
Don’t let either of those negatives put you off however. I’d be surprised if any gardener could browse this book without scribbling down a few things to try.