Surprising plants that winter over
By Rachel Foster
I’ve been reading Perennial Vegetables by Eric Toensmeier (published by Chelsea Green). Did you know scarlet runner beans are perennial? I didn’t, even though I grew up eating runner beans and still consider the flat, rough textured pods more delicious than regular green beans. They are evidently useable as shell beans and dry beans as well. The Willamette Valley climate is probably marginal for overwintering runner beans, but they might survive some of our winters in raised beds. I think I’ll try it, but people who live at the relatively frost-free coast may have more luck.
When Randy and I moved to a new house in September, we were partly escaping an arduously steep and sometimes icy driveway. But we also hope to become less car dependent and a little “greener” in other ways as well: line dry the laundry when practical, generate some solar power, grow a little food and take advantage of a fresh start to plant more natives, both for the benefit of bugs and birds and to cut down on summer watering.
There are other ways I can be a more responsible gardener. Trucking out yard debris and trucking in compost will be phased out to reduce fossil fuel consumption. That requires making room for a generous utility area for debris storage and composting.
Another way I can save on energy and materials is to stick with existing grades and hardscape features. The east side of our yard, where I am planning to plant natives, includes a formal rectangle of level grass bounded on three sides with concrete. I first considered removing some concrete in order to restore a more natural looking grade, but then it occurred to me this flat area is just the right size for a second food garden. It happens to contain our only outdoor water source and a fig tree that bears really good figs; building garden beds in there would justify leaving both in place.
I have a growing fascination with perennial vegetables. The concept may be novel to many people, since most of our food comes from annual crops. Perennial food plants are, however, mainstays of permaculture gardens, where one goal is to grow as much food as possible with a minimum of inputs, work and soil disturbance. And when you stop and think about it, most of us already eat a few perennials. Think asparagus, rhubarb and artichokes. Sunchokes, watercress and walking onions are relatively familiar, too, but the bulk of Toensmeyer’s very long list of perennial veggies lies well beyond the average gardener’s consciousness (Atriplex, anyone? Good King Henry?).
Many of those plants originate in the tropics, so they are frost tender. Among the hardier sort, some are unacceptably invasive and some seem to be too much trouble to prepare. Others are just not that good to eat, or may take a lot of getting used to. After winnowing out the ones with significant negatives, we are left with a respectable list that’s growable west of the Cascades. Personally, I am most interested in sea-kale, a cabbage relative that I picked on the south coast of England as a child; and in Good King Henry, which produces edible shoots early in the year. Climbing Malabar spinach and New Zealand spinach are probably too tender to overwinter in the Valley. No such problem with French sorrel or celery-flavored lovage, though.
Perennial vegetables are a bit more self-sufficient than annual crops because they have larger root systems that go deep in the ground and forage for water and nutrients. And, of course, they entail less annual digging and tilling. Because of that, and because they do need scrupulous weeding, it makes sense to grow them in a seperate garden space from annual vegetables. Perennial herbs like fennel and chives can share the space, along with plants that draw beneficial insects. I’d like to try “forcing” or blanching rhubarb, chicory and sea-kale under black plant pots with a brick on top. Forcing makes shoots a little earlier, more tender and milder tasting. Alas, I don’t own lovely terra cotta forcing pots like those in the picture.
Finding starts or seed of the less familiar perennial vegetables may be a challenge. Sea-kale seems to be available as plants from ForestFarm and as seed from J.L. Hudson. It is also grown as an ornamental for its cloud of little white flowers, so I can try flower seed sources as well. Good King Henry seeds, unless available at local seed swaps, may require an Internet search or even a trip to Europe.
Rachel Foster of Eugene is a writer and garden consultant. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org