Growing Perennial Vegetables to save the Garden Dollars
The National Gardening Association has said a $70 investment can yield more than $650 worth of produce. "Most of this investment is needed to buy seeds and transplants of annual food crops like beans, tomatoes, peppers and squash that cannot be planted until after the frost-free date of May 10," states University of Illinois Horticulture Educator, Kelly Allsup. Some gardeners collect seeds from the previous year, but most wait for the seed catalogs to come in the mail or go to the garden centers to find plants.
However, for gardeners to harvest produce year after year with only an initial investment and some care, they should be growing perennial vegetables like ramps, asparagus, water celery, ostrich fern and rhubarb.
Ramps (Allium cepa aggregatum) are perennial bulbs from the onion family. They can be found growing in the wild on the forest floor before deciduous trees leaf out. They are relatively easy to grow and establish. Leaves are harvested in the spring and are considered a delicacy. Smaller bulbs can be harvested once the leaves dry down, and have a flavor between garlic and onion. The bulbs can be divided every year in the spring months and replanted or eaten. Ramps benefit from additional organic matter added to the planting hole and require well-drained, but moist soil. Weeding is essential.
Asparagus (Asparagus officinalis) is the most popular perennial vegetable for our climate. Anyone who has purchased asparagus from the supermarket knows it does not compare to the taste of a freshly harvested spear. Mature plants can yield for 10 to 15 years and harvest can last for more than a month. Asparagus requires additions of organic matter and a pH of 7 to grow well. In addition to well-drained soil, soil requires supplemental watering throughout the growing season. Weeding is essential to prevent competition from weeds. Most growers start with crowns planted in the spring 6 to 8 inches deep and 14 inches apart and fill in with soil as the shoots grow out of the soil. Do not harvest spears the first year.
Water celery (Oenanthe javanica) makes a great edible ground cover in sun or shade and is fairly easy to grow. The raw leaves are reminiscent of celery and parsley and have a milder taste when cooked. Water celery will thrive in moist soils near water or under your downspouts. Water celery will spread and form dense colonies given the ideal conditions and has been used to filter water. Most gardeners would start with transplants or seed.
Ostrich Fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris), also known as fiddle heads, are harvested for their tender curling shoots in early spring and is ornamental for the remainder of the year. Ostrich ferns grow best in shady locations with moist soils and can spread like a ground cover. Harvesters pick fiddle heads when they are still tightly curled and only a few inches tall. They can be eaten in a variety of ways but must be cooked for at least 10 minutes to make palatable and bring out the fresh crisp and nutty flavor.
Rhubarb (Rheum x cultorum) has long been loved by American cooks mixed with fruits like strawberries and made into pies, but the sour component can be used with meats and in stews. Rhubarb has very large leaves with colorful stalks that thrive in the cool weather of early spring and is best when grown in full sun. A side-dressing of well-rotted manure or fertilizer applications should be added in the summer and fall. Rhubarb stalks can be eaten raw or cooked but the rest of the plant is poisonous so roots and leaves should be removed. The flower stalks should be removed and when eaten taste like sour cauliflower. When growing, cover the crowns with no more than two inches of soil. Once the plants are up and growing, the addition of a 3- to 4-inch layer of straw, compost, or mulching material will help control weeds and conserve soil moisture.
Allsup encourages gardeners to explore and set aside some of their garden budget this year for these perennial vegetables!