Friday, February 27, 2009
For lazy gardeners such as ourselves nothing beats perennial vegetables. Plant 'em once and you've got food for years. For novice gardeners, perennials are plants that, unlike say broccoli (an "annual"), don't need to be replanted every spring. The best known perennial vegetable in the west is probably asparagus which, given the right conditions, will produce fresh stalks for years. But there are many thousands more perennials little known to North American gardeners that are a lot easier to grow than fussy asparagus.
Unfortunately, there used to be a lack of information about edible perennials until the publication of Eric Toensmeier's excellent book, Perennial Vegetables: From Artichokes to Zuiki Taro, A Gardener's Guide to Over 100 Delicious and Easy to Grow Edibles . We've got a few of the species Toensmeier mentions: artichoke, prickly pear cactus, stinging nettles, crosnes (more on those in another post) and goji berries. Edible Perennials contains growing information for each species offering something for every climate in North America.
Up to now many of these plants were hard to find, but growing interest in edible perennials and the power of the internet has brought many of these species into our backyards. See the Mother Earth News Seed Search Engine on the right side of this page to hunt down some of the more rare items.
Now, time to fertilize those goji berries and ponder the controversial air potato.
From the Ecologist, July/August 2008 (print edition only)
A perennial classic
Hardy, long-lived and self-sufficient, perennial vegetables are a gardener's dream. From rhubarb to the air potato, Clive Dennis finds out more about a gift that keeps on giving
In 2005, David Jacke and Eric Toensmeier burst onto the permaculture scene with the publication of the two-volume bible of temperate forest gardening, Edible Forest Gardens. Not content to rest on his laurels, so to speak, Toensmeier has been keeping himself busy by writing this latest addition to the permaculture canon: the first book ever on the topic of perennial vegetables.
Perennial vegetables enjoy a number of advantages over annuals—for a start, they minimise work by not having to be planted every year, and their longer lifespans allow them to build up bigger root systems, meaning they can mine the subsoil for nutrients and minerals, and require less watering. Aside from rhubarb, asparagus and globe artichoke, however, we are largely unaware of the perennial vegetables potentially available to us. In this well-organised book, more than a hundred perennial vegetables are described, with plant histories, tasting notes, growth habits and preferences, hardiness ratings and potential pests. Though primarily aimed at North American gardeners, most information is highly relevant to Europeans too.
The Andes turn out to be a source of all sorts of interesting crops, such as oca, a relative of our native wood sorrel, whose tubers taste like potatoes with sour cream—essentialy a perennial ready-meal; and canna a plant already familiar to gardeners as an ornamental, bit which also produces good crops of roots in damp marginal soils, It is, however, the improbable 'air potato' that stands out in this book for its pure vegetable insanity. Capable of growing to more than 50ft, air potato is a variety of yam that produces heavy crops of aerial tubers, which hang from the vine-like fruit. Obviously, this plant counts as incontrovertible proof of the existence of a benevolent creator-being.
Also included are plant lists for different climate types, nursery and seed company addresses, as well as sections on plant care, propagation, fencing, mulching and other techniques useful for the establishment of a perennial garden. If you are an adventurous gardener who wishes to grow more food for less work, this is the book to get you started.
May 2, 2007
Part of the allure of perennial gardening is the fact that a gardener can plant something once and enjoy it for several years, a benefit that has rarely been extended to vegetable gardeners. Save for such stalwarts as asparagus and rhubarb, most edible crops can be used only annually. Thanks to Toensmeier, gardeners need no longer be frustrated by such limitations. From air potatoes to water celery, Turkish rocket to Malabar gourd, there are more than 100 new species of edible plants. After addressing such cultural basics as site selection and preparation, Toensmeier explains why each plant is an excellent perennial vegetable crop. Now that such items are making their way onto trendy restaurant menus and health-store shelves, Toensmeier's groundbreaking guide is destined to become the bible for this new class of edible gardening.
June 1, 2007
While there are many books available on growing well-known perennial vegetables like corn and peas, plant specialist Toensmeier's (coauthor, Edible Forest Gardens) work is unique, as the author has grown, cooked, and eaten many of the more than 100 species of vegetables he profiles. In Part 1, he introduces perennial vegetables and discusses their benefits and drawbacks. He also includes design, selection, and general cultural information and addresses propagation techniques. Part 2 is a series of plant profiles arranged alphabetically by plant family. Major vegetables such as asparagus and rhubarb garner a general overview, a description, cultural information, information on pests and diseases, propagation, harvest and storage, usage, and preferred climate (with USDA hardiness zones). Comparatively minor crops rate an overview of a few paragraphs. In Part 3, Toensmeier lists these vegetables by preferred climate, recommended reading, and sources for plants and seeds, as they may be difficult to find. Dozens of color images, growing tips, and recipes round out this thorough, easy-to-understand book. Some of these vegetables may be an acquired taste, and some require careful cooking before eating; recommended for public, academic, and botanical libraries.
—Sue O'Brien, Downers Grove P.L., IL