What's a perennial vegetable?

Sunday, September 15, 2002

First written for GroGroup Garden Almanac, the now-defunct publication of that garden center trade group.

Vegetable gardening grows in popularity every year, thanks to a renewed appreciation of its healthy appeal. Since the Victory Gardens of the 1940’s, American backyard vegetable patches have provided food for our bodies and souls. But they also encourage self reliance and a healthy lifestyle.

Meanwhile, some news reports tell of foodborne illnesses caused by improper handling of shipped produce. Yet others exhort consumers to eat more vegetables and fruits for good health.

The solution to this dilemma lies in growing more vegetables at home, including perennial favorites asparagus, rhubarb, horseradish, and artichoke. They make good companions to other long lived fruits like berries and grapes. Set aside a sunny space in your garden, amend the soil well for long term success, and enjoy their annual seasonal bounty. 

Plant artichokes from divisions. Choose either the classic California favorite ‘Green Globe Improved’ or the shorter season ‘Violetto’ where summers are hot. Dig the bed deeply and add four to six inches of compost for a moist, well-drained planting space. Space plants two feet apart and plan to add three inches of organic mulch in the summer and winter to moderate soil temperatures. Shade from other plants, like blueberries, best protects artichokes from sunburn. Planted in full sun with inadequate water, they will also be prone to spider mites and aphids. Harvest flower buds before they open for best flavor.

Asparagus grows well in USDA zones 2-9 with less production where winters are too mild for its dormancy needs. Select male cultivars for higher yields, and use those recommended for your area. Put asparagus on the sunny end of the perennial vegetable bed, avoiding windy sites. Amend your soil to provide good drainage to discourage root problems and add lime to acid soils. Allow at least fifteen seedling plants per person to be fed,  and space them eighteen inches apart. Wait until at least the second year to harvest spears.  
Add a horseradish root to that sunny site, and it will provide plenty of spice for a family of four. Keep it moist, and harvest spring or fall, then replant some of what’s left for next year. Store grated horseradish in vinegar for up to six months.

Grow ‘pie plant’, hardy rhubarb, for its delicious stems. Stewed with sugar, they can be jam, too, or pureed for use all year. Favorite varieties include ‘Valentine’, ‘Canada Red’, and ‘Giant Cherry’ (best for short winters). Plant them in full sun, except where summers are hot, provide light shade. Dig deeply, amend with compost, and plant roots two inches below the soil surface. Harvest a bit after one year; after that, expect three pounds of rhubarb per plant.

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