Plant No-Pamper Perennial Crops

Plant perennial crops such as asparagus, rhubard, dandelions, bamboo, jerusalem artichokes, Egyptian onions and day lilies.
By Jan Riemer
March/April 1978
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Washed and bundled asparagus spears, just like you can find at the market, only these came from a homesteader's garden.
PHOTO: TOM EARL
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Thanks to today's escalating food costs, shortages and the growing concern over the multitude of chemical additives now found in supermarket produce, gardening is booming as never before. Perhaps you've joined the "homegrown is better" movement yourself.

But have you graduated yet from a total preoccupation with annual vegetables — carrots, corn, radishes, beans, etc. — that must be planted and laboriously tended every year? If not, it's time you moved on up to some perennial crops such as asparagus, rhubarb, dandelions, bamboo, Jerusalem artichokes, Egyptian onions and other lilies (onions, you know, belong to the lily family) such as the day lily itself.

Growing Asparagus

Asparagus, in the opinion of many people, is the "choicest of the choice" of all the spring vegetables. I'll agree with that. But what I really like about the plant is the fact that — once established — an asparagus bed will just keep on filling your plate with its early spring spears for 20 years or more!

This perennial thrives best when grown in areas where the winters are cold enough to freeze the ground to a depth of at least 5 inches. Roughly, that means anywhere in the continent from upper Georgia north.

Plant asparagus in sandy soil that receives six to eight hours of direct daily sunlight during the summer. A 20-foot-square bed away from trees and shrubs will feed a family of five, and if care is taken to get the patch off to a good start, it'll feed that family for the next two decades.

Of the three methods of planting asparagus — bed, row or trench — the last seems to be preferred by most gardeners. Dig your trench at least 15 inches deep and preferably in the fall for a spring planting. Then line the bottom of the ditch with manure and other natural fertilizers to tease the asparagus roots downward, and cover with 4 to 6 inches of rich garden loam that has been mixed with sand, compost, bone meal and some lime. (Asparagus prefers a slightly acid soil with, say, a pH between 6.4 and 6.8.)

The following spring, after you've given the ditch a good soaking, place 1-year-old asparagus plants or crowns in the trench. Space them 18 inches apart with their roots widely spread and their crowns or buds pointed up. Then firmly and carefully pack 2 inches of sandy soil around the plants without smothering their roots and continue to water for two weeks.

Yes, this will leave an indentation of about 8 inches, the length of the trench, in the soil. But as the season advances, you'll want to cultivate the earth in and around the ditch frequently to remove all weeds. As you do so (and as the asparagus sets grow), gradually fill in the excavation until the trench's surface is leveled off with the surrounding ground.

The chief enemies of asparagus are beetles and rust. Both can be avoided to a degree by cultivating only strains of the plant — such as Martha Washington, Waltham Washington, or New Roberts — that are resistant to such problems.

As time goes on, you'll sometimes notice that seed stalks appear on your asparagus plants during either early or late summer. This is generally because you've planted poor varieties, the temperature is too high or your asparagus bed lacks fertility and/or water. Remove the seed stalks by cutting them off at an angle with a sharp instrument as close to the base of each plant as possible.

And, if you really want your asparagus bed to bear bountifully year after year after year, you'll take the time to bed it down each winter. Some gardeners advise cutting off all the plants' summer growth before spreading 3 inches of mulch over the bed. Others — most notably Ruth Stout — say, "Just leave the stalks where they are. Like everything else, they'll die when their time comes, so let them rest in peace. Besides, they add a certain amount of organic matter to the mulch you spread around the asparagus patch."

There are also two schools of thought about sprinkling a little salt on your asparagus bed before tucking it in for cold weather. Some folks swear that the idea doesn't hurt the asparagus but does help control the weeds that grow around them, and others just swear when the idea is mentioned. Take your choice.

You can also take your choice when spring rolls around: Some gardeners prefer to pull the mulch back from their asparagus plants so the sun can warm the earth around them faster and encourage their early growth. Others — especially those who have seen late frosts ruin their early produce — simply leave the mulch where it is and let each year's new growth of asparagus find its way up through the covering.

And that growth — sooner or later — will come up! Try (if you can resist the temptation) to avoid harvesting any of your succulent asparagus spears until the plants are 3 years old (if you originally put out 1-year-old sets, they'll first be ready to cut the second spring after they went into the ground.) And don't make more than three cuttings the first season. After that, you should enjoy an extremely liberal 6-to 10-week-long (the cooler the season, the longer the plants will bear) harvest each and every spring for 20 or more years.

Gather asparagus spears when they're 4 to 8 inches tall, just before the scales on their tips begin to open. Always harvest in the morning, and to avoid damaging other nearby sprouts, gently pull the shoots from the ground by bending each one across your index finger with your thumb.

Actually, this all sounds much more complicated than it really is. Asparagus is delicious, it's easy to raise and after the mild amount of labor that it takes to establish a bed, it'll put gallons and gallons of food on your table every spring (when you're hungriest for something fresh and green) from now until (if you're a young couple) your first grandchildren are born. Try it and see!

Growing Rhubarb

And try rhubarb (sometimes known as "pieplant") too. Rhubarb — just like asparagus — likes a rich, slightly sandy soil (with a pH of 5.5 to 6.5). If anything, however, it prefers colder winters than asparagus and — as a result — grows well from the upper southern states all the way north to Alaska. MacDonald, Chipman's Canada Red, and Valentine are the popular varieties in most sections, but in California and other warmer states, Cherry and Giant Cherry seem to do better.

Although rhubarb can be propagated from seed, it's a longer and slower process than most gardeners want to fool with. For that reason, new beds of the plant are usually started from root cuttings. (A rhubarb crown is dug up and divided into several pieces, each of which contains one or two good "eyes" or buds.) If your falls are long and cool, plant the cuttings in the autumn. Otherwise, put them into the ground in early spring.

Rhubarb sets are generally planted 3 feet apart in rows spaced 4 feet from each other. Dig a hole measuring about 2-feet-by-2-feet-by-2-feet deep for each cutting, and place a half bushel of manure in the bottom of the excavation. Then fill the pit on up to ground level with a mixture of compost and topsoil. The root is then positioned in the center of the prepared soil and covered with 3 inches of patted-down earth.

Five to 10 good roots of rhubarb will supply enough "fruit" (this is the only vegetable that is truly used as a fruit) for year-round pies, preserves and stews for 10 years if the patch of plants is well fertilized each fall with a cover of plenty of compost, straw and manure. Pull the mulch back or not, as you see fit, in the spring, and water the rhubarb regularly during dry weather. It's a good idea, too, to remove flower stalks as they develop during the growing season.

Rhubarb occasionally suffers from "foot rot," which causes its stalks to rot off at the base and fall over. The best cure for that infrequent ailment is to move the rhubarb patch. It's also attacked once in a while by the rhubarb curculio — a beetle — but the insect can be picked off the plants quite easily. The pest also likes wild dock, and gardeners who clear that plant away from their rhubarb patches seldom are bothered by the beetle.

Wait until the second year to begin harvesting the larger stalks from your rhubarb plants (twist as you pull them from the ground and they'll come up easily). "Larger" means stalks (not measuring the leaf) 10-inches or more in length and 1-inch through at the base. Rhubarb is usually one of the very first plants that you can eat in the spring, and its stalks are tender enough to enjoy for anywhere from four to six weeks. CAUTION: Only the stems of the plants — NOT ITS LEAVES NOR ITS ROOTS — are edible.

A good rhubarb patch will bear for 10 years or more, but most gardeners like to divide and replant their patches every five years or so. At that, few vegetables give so much and ask so little in return.

Dandelions

Why would anyone want to cultivate dandelions when they grow wild so profusely? Because [1] far too many of the lawns and fields that wild dandelions now spring up in have been chemically treated and who wants to eat something like that, and [2] cultivated dandelions — just like cultivated asparagus and cultivated rhubarb — can be tastier, more tender and otherwise more palatable than their volunteer cousins.

Cultivated dandelions will grow almost anyplace that the wild ones will ... which is to say, almost anyplace. All the larger seed companies now seem to sell packets of dandelion seeds, so leaf through a few catalogs and try the varieties that especially appeal to you.

Dandelions prefer a soil pH of 6.0 to 8.0. Work manure, rock phosphate and other natural fertilizers into the earth and then plant your seeds in rows 18 inches apart. Thin the sprouts to stand a foot from each other as they develop and — at least in the more frigid sections of the country — cover them during the winter with 3 or 4 inches of mulch. Repeat annually, and that's about all the care the hardy plants will need ... forever!

Dandelion leaves (greens), crowns and roots may all be eaten in a variety of ways, especially in the spring and fall. Surprisingly enough, dandelion greens from cultivated plants (unlike their wild relatives) are also generally tender and flavorful right through the summer, and the roots of the cultivated varieties can even be dug up and eaten in the winter. Consult any good wild foods cookbook

Growing Bamboo

Although it's a mainstay of Chinese, Philippine and other Asiatic schools of cooking, bamboo is hardly known as a vegetable on this continent. More's the pity. Bamboo — or "cane" as it's sometimes called in our southern states — does very well in almost any section of the country where there's rich, well-drained soil and plenty of water. (If there's any complaint about cane, in fact, it's that the plant sometimes does too well: Once given a start, it's been known to "take over" whole gardens and river bottoms.) The ideal site for a stand of bamboo is a rich loam adjacent to a brook and partially shaded by a canopy of large trees.

About 70 species of cane can be raised on this continent, and almost any issue of any gardening magazine contains ads run by growers who have the plants for sale. Bamboo is best propagated in the spring by dividing starts from its thick, tangled network of roots. Bamboo shoots are also "layered" from the stems. Either method of propagation is better than attempting to start cane from seeds.

When allowed to grow to heights of 25 feet or more, the stalks of the bamboo plant have myriad uses: fishing poles, rafts, furniture, pole vaulting poles, rug rollers, etc. When picked while still young and tender in the spring and summer, however, the shoots of the plant are delicious sauteed in butter, added to salads and prepared in many other ways. See any good Chinese cookbook for more serving suggestions than you'll be able to try in a year.

Jerusalem Artichokes

Despite their misleading name, Jerusalem artichokes are really a member of the sunflower family and are native to North America. They seem to do best across the middle and northern states of the U.S., but their range extends far up Into Canada and south to all but the driest and most southernly states.

Sunchokes (as they're sometimes called) will grow in almost any kind of soil (it's easier to dig their tubers, though, from looser and sandier earth), and once established, must be harvested regularly to keep them from getting out of hand.

Most of the larger nurseries sell the plant's tubers, and you should order the smooth white "French" strain, instead of the smaller, red native variety. And don't go overboard! You'll probably get all the start you need by putting only three or four of the spuds into the ground. Plant them 3 to 4 feet apart and 4 to 6 inches deep in a sunny, well-watered spot any time between mid-October and mid-December.

Jerusalem artichokes are harvested by digging their tubers up after the first frost. Additional spuds may then be dug right on through the winter and well into early spring. Dig 'em as you need 'em because they store better in the ground than in the root cellar. And don't worry about harvesting a lot of the tubers. You only have to overlook and leave a few in the ground to ensure an even bigger crop the following year.

Sunchokes contain no starch (which makes them a prescribed food for diabetics) but are loaded with vitamins and minerals. Enjoy 'em pickled, oven-fried, boiled and mashed, in soups and stews, even cooked and crushed and added to cakes and breads. One way or another, this shmoo-like plant seems to have only one mission in life: to feed you forever and ever once you place a few of its tubers in the ground.

Egyptian Onion

Another perennial that too few gardeners know about is the "Multiplier," "Topper," "Walking," "Winter," or Egyptian onion. Nora Hendrix — of Wilmore, Kentucky — recently asked the editors of this magazine about this onion, and other readers quickly sent Nora 150 packages of the plant's sets and another 150 letters naming sources of multiplier onion starts.

A couple of those sources are Farmer Seed & Nursery, 818 4th Street Northwest, Dept. TMEN, Faribault, Minn. 55021 ... and Nichols Garden Nursery, 1190 Old Salem Road Northeast, Dept. TMEN, Albany, Ore. 97321.

Like all onions, this variety prefers a continuous supply of moisture and generous amounts of rotted manure, compost and bone meal worked into the soil until the whole onion bed is of a fine tilth.

The bulbs, which look like tiny acorns, are planted in the fall 12 inches apart in rows spaced 30 inches from each other. Some of these "mother" bulbs can then be left in the soil where they'll grow larger year after year and produce a crop of new little bulbs on top of 3-foot stalks.

In late summer, after these baby bulbs have "set" and have started showing signs of drying, they can be harvested and dried thoroughly in the sun, then stored in a cool room in a mesh bag.

Southern gardeners are advised to remove the stalks from each mother bulb before winter sets in. Vegetable growers up north, on the other hand, find that the frozen stalks — plucked during the winter and quickly thawed — taste as sweet as baby spring onions when used as scallions.

Once started, you can enjoy a perpetual harvest of this unusual onion. Just lift the parent bulbs every three or four years, separate them, and replant the divisions.

Day Lilies

Although they're cultivated in nearly every section of North America, day lilies are almost entirely grown for the beauty of their blossoms ... and very seldom for their four edible parts: spring shoots, flower buds, blooms and tubers. All are so delicious, however, that it's little wonder the residents of many other countries of the world — especially China and Japan — look upon the day lily as an important food crop.

This hardy member of the lily family can be grown from seed and once started, is perfectly capable of spreading underground until it forms dense clumps along roadsides and across whole abandoned fields. It is, in short, an extremely carefree perennial to raise.

When plucked in the spring and simmered in a little water and butter, the fresh shoots and outer leaves of the plant taste much like asparagus. Later, as buds develop, they can be gathered, dipped in a batter and sauteed. A little later yet, the flowers themselves (which, as the planes name implies, each bloom for a single day sometime during June or July) can be prepared the same way. The buds and blossoms can also be dried and added to fall and winter soups and stews as a flavoring.

And any time of the year — except, of course, when the ground is frozen — the crisp, nutty flavored little tubers of the day lily can be dug, cleaned and eaten raw either alone or in a salad. Or, if you prefer, boil the miniature "potatoes" in salted water till they're tender, and "dig in."

There Are More Perennial Crops!

There are many other perennial plants — horseradish, ground cherry, garlic, sea kale, comfrey, chicory, etc. — that can be added to the garden. Each has its strong points and defenders, and all are easier to cultivate and give a bigger return on a given investment of time, money and energy than the annual plants that most gardeners specialize in.

So come on! For less work and more "bottom line" results than you've probably ever thought possible, plant some no-pamper perennial crops in your garden this year!


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