Organic Gardening the Easy Way, Part 3: Perennials and Volunteers

Reader Contribution by Carole Coates

In Parts I and II of my easy organic gardening series, I wrote about growing vertically and gardening with raised beds. Both of these techniques, while easy once they’re in place, can be time-consuming and even costly in the beginning. Today’s tip, though, is as easy as easy can be from start to finish. 

Grow Perennials

Fill your beds with perennial vegetables. In the yard, perennials are my favorite flowers. Plant ’em once and forget ’em—well, at least for a few years until it’s time to dig and divide. Why, I wondered, aren’t vegetables that easy to grow? It turns out, some of them are.

The two plants most often thought of when the word perennial is mentioned in connection with food are asparagus and rhubarb. And they’re ready to eat just in the nick of time, when winter has dragged on and on and you think you can’t go another minute without the bright taste of fresh, homegrown foods. Give them a good start and they’ll produce for a decade or more.

Our rhubarb patch in early spring

But there are other edible perennials out there, too. Sunchokes (aka Jerusalem artichokes), once thought of as a roadside weed, can now be found in the produce section of high-end grocery stores. Funny how things change. Raw, sunchokes make a nice salad addition. In texture and taste, they remind me of water chestnuts. Cooked, they’re often used as a potato substitute, with a soft texture and nutty flavor.

Horseradish is a frequently forgotten garden perennial. While it will never take center stage on your menu, it’s a strong supporting cast member, adding zing to many foods that do play a starring role.

I think Egyptian walking onions look like other worldly creatures from a Doctor Who episode.

In our climate, we eat them as scallions, but I’ve heard the bulbs grow larger in warmer climates. They’re ready for the table from early spring until late fall—anytime the ground isn’t frozen solid. Can’t beat that. Their topsets can be harvested for eating or replanting, or you can simply leave them and watch as new green shoots sprout from the bulblets and grow even more little bulbs. Eventually, the top heavy stems will fall over and the topsets will take root, thus the “walking” moniker. I have a garden bench that sits just above my walking onions. It’s one of my favorite resting places in the garden. Every time I look at this cool, weird plant, I can’t resist the urge to chuckle. Reason enough to grow them in my opinion.

If you enjoyed sucking on sourgrass as a kid, you might just find sorrel addictive. Even my youngest grandchildren love it. With its lemony tang, it adds zest to salads. It can also be sautéed and eaten like spinach, made into soup, or added to other leafy greens for an extra flavor boost. 

Garlic can be grown as either a perennial or annual, but even as an annual it’s a super easy plant to grow. When it’s harvested in summer, all you need to do is save out some of the largest cloves and plant them in late fall. When you spot those green shoots in early spring, it will feel like this little gardening reward was a perennial, after all.

To plant garlic as a perennial, just leave some stalks when you harvest. You should have even bigger bulbs the  next year.

I’ll admit I haven’t yet tried black salsify (scorzonera), but I will. It’s a root veggie like carrots, is related to dandelions and lettuce, is said to taste a bit like oysters (thus its nickname, oyster plant), and in spite of its black skin, has snowy white flesh like parsnips. Too strange not to grow.

This list is just a start. And which vegetables will grow as perennials often depends on where you live. Do some research to see what might grow year in and year out for you.

A word of caution. Many of these plants are not just easy to grow, they can be downright invasive. Plant them on the outside edges of your garden—or perhaps in some other place altogether. You don’t want to find yourself fighting them. That wouldn’t be easy at all.

Include versatile herbs in your garden. Their aroma alone makes them worth growing. Many have a long history of medicinal and wellness uses, as well as for flavoring your food. Best of all, a number of herbs are perennials, like sage, thyme, oregano, chives, and lavender. Lovage is even substituted for celery in soups and salads. Mint and lemon balm have many uses, but to keep them from becoming invasive pests, you should plant them in containers or well away from other garden or landscaping plants.

Remember the sweet treats. It took a long time for my husband and me to realize we ought to add fruits to our garden. I’m sure glad we did! Strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries are all perennials, as are grapes, figs, honeyberries, hardy kiwi, and currants.

If you have room, why not add them all? Fruit trees are another important addition to your perennial garden. If peach trees won’t survive your winters, try persimmons—and vice-versa. What about pawpaws? Apples, pears, and plums are all favorites around here. So what if it takes a few years to get a harvest? If you wait, it will take even longer.

Go nuts. Like fruit trees, nut trees require time and specific conditions to grow. Macadamia and almond trees won’t tolerate frost, but black walnuts thrive in cold regions. Around here, hickory trees grow like weeds, though we’ve never beaten the squirrels to their harvest. Again, a little research will tell you what will grow where you live.

Give Volunteers a Chance

Think about leaving a few plants in your garden through the winter. Greens like kale and chard may keep growing. Some, like parsnips and cilantro, will reseed and up your production the next year. Beans we missed last summer overwintered and began producing well before our newly planted seeds.

We were graced with an overabundance of Long Pie pumpkins one year. Excess seeds made their way into the compost pile. We didn’t plant pumpkins the following year, but our garden produced more than ever.

Volunteer Long Pie pumpkins surround other winter squash.

The same went for tomatillos and those cute—and prolific—little cucamelons (aka mousemelon or Mexican sour gherkin). Two years later, we’re still finding new plants.This spring, I was pleasantly surprised to find claytonia in the garden to add to our salads. I had last planted it five years ago. What could be easier?

There are a couple of caveats to consider when it comes to volunteers. Every year, no matter how carefully and thoroughly we harvested the year before, we have potato volunteers. Fortunately, we’ve never had a problem with blight (the disease that caused the Irish potato famine), but if we had, we’d have needed to pull up and destroy the new plants to keep the disease from spreading far and wide. The same goes for tomatoes.

Another consideration: re-seeding works best with open-pollinated varieties of veggies. With hybrids, new plants won’t grow true, and the results are iffy.

Conclusion

Admittedly, if you grew only the foods listed in this article, your diet would be pretty sparse–you’d certainly be in no danger of obesity. But as a supplement to other crops, why not add a few extra easy ones. Every little bit helps. As busy gardeners, we’re thankful for every trick that makes gardening easier.

Carole Coates is a gardener and food preservationist, family archivist, essayist, poet, photographer, modern homesteader. You can follow her Mother Earth News blog posts by following this link.You can also find Carole atLiving On the Diagonal, where she blogs about her take on life, including modern homesteading, gardening lore and how-to, food preparation and preservation, as well random thoughts and reflections, personal essays, poetry, and photography.


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