Why Not Grow Perennial Salad Leaves This Season? By Daniel Mowinski
Perennial vegetables are making a comeback. I say comeback because if you were to travel a few centuries into the past you would find plants like Good King Henry and Sorrel in every kitchen garden.
Personally, I’ve always wondered why gardeners are so fixated on annuals. Perennials, particularly salad leaves, have so many benefits!
For one, they require less maintenance. There’s no need to start plants from seed every year, harden them off and provide protection from slugs and birds in the early stages.
Secondly, they will provide consistent harvests of leaves and flowers through the growing season.
Finally, they’re cheaper! You don’t need to buy seeds every year and they’re demand far fewer nutrients.
The list of perennial veggies to try is almost endless. For those who are interested, I would highly recommend the book How to Grow Perennial Vegetables by Martin Crawford. It’s the most comprehensive overview of the topic that I’ve yet come across and includes profiles of over a hundred plants.
What about harvesting?
Don’t take more than ⅓ of fully-grown foliage in one season, leaving the bigger leaves where possible. These are like the main solar panels. Keeping them intact will mean that your plants can generate and store energy for the next season.
Depending on the type of plant, you can usually harvest all the young leaves or shoots in spring. Leave the new growth to flourish, taking leaves occasionally but (following the rule above) never more than one ⅓.
The need to feed
The main annual job for edible perennials is feeding. Once they’re established, perennial plants will benefit from the addition of slow-release fertilizer in spring. Alternatively layer a mulch of compost or manure around the base of the plants.
If you want a quick way of getting started, consider some of my favorite perennials…
This herbaceous perennial is widely known and grown. Its fine leaves and purple flowers are both edible. It also acts as a pest deterrent and is good for attracting bees.
Because they spread easily, chives are good candidates for containers. If overwintered inside they will keep their leaves. Otherwise they will die back when the cold weather strikes.
Good King Henry
Good King Henry is one of my all-time favorite plants. I love the leaves, which are spinach-like in taste, and its size means that I get a good harvest every year. It will do well in both sun and shade.
The shoots can be harvested in spring. Pick leaves frugally thereafter.
Yarrow is a fascinating plant, with a folklore nearly as interesting as the flavors of its leaves and flowers, both of which resemble tarragon and licorice. The flowers are lovely when dried and used in tea. Young leaves are best used in salads.
Yarrow is tremendously unfussy – it grows in disparate climates all over the world – and an ideal choice for those shadier spots. Because it can be invasive, particularly when it’s allowed to run to seed (snip off those flowers as soon as they appear), some people prefer to grow it in a pot, for which it’s the ideal size.
There are lots of different types of sorrels. They’re all members of the Rumex genus, which includes docks. My favorite species of sorrel is garden sorrel (R. acetosa). These plants are prone to spreading via sucker roots underground so are, again, a good candidate for containers.
Harvest all of the young leaves in spring, letting the second flush of foliage develop fully, picking as you need to. They have a wonderful lemony flavor which can sometimes be overpowering so only a little is needed for salads.
Once you’ve tasted the spicy scrumptious of rocket it’s difficult to resist the urge to grow it every year. Fortunately, fast-growing wild rocket can provide you with a bountiful harvest. Even the flowers, which I find quite ugly, are edible.
Give it a poor soil. The more stones and rubble the better! When harvesting, treat it as you would a herb – cutting off ⅓ of foliage at any given time. You’ll be amazed at how quickly it regenerates.
Dan lives in London. He writes about his container growing exploits on his blog Urban Turnip