Sunday, January 17, 2010

Perennial edibles

My asparagus bed is now heading into its fourth season in my garden, occupying the sunny northwest corner of my backyard. Given the size of my overall property, I rarely get enough spears for more than one meal or a few appetizers. Many spears do not even make it into the house, as they are tender enough to snap off and snack on as I garden. For those used to tough grocery store asparagus, I assure you the raw spears are not stringy at all. The best way to describe the taste is green. And there is little more thrilling to me than seeing the first of the fat spears pushing up through the spring earth.

As I lay out my garden plans for the coming season, I am trying to sort my various endeavors into neat categories like fruit, herbs and annual vegetables. Asparagus, as well well as my rhubarb, defy my easy categorization. I settled on the description of "perennial edibles". Joining this category for 2010 is sorrel and horseradish. Now, I was on the fence about whether to include these last two in the "herb" section, as this is where they end up in the seed catalogs. Since this is a blog for my own writing and record-keeping purposes only, I am including them here. I sincerely doubt -ahem- this will create a raging controversy in cyberspace.

Asparagus, however, is so much more than an edible. After the weeks of harvesting the spears, the plants must be allowed to fern out and make energy for the next season. The tall, delicate ferns are gorgeous, enough to recommend them as ornamentals, even if asparagus isn't your favorite vegetable. I have read they make a decent trellis for vining flowers, so this year I am planting sweet peas among them. Other than a thick autumn layer of rich compost and manure, the plants ask little more than to be left alone after the spring season. Be careful! If you cut back the ferns, more spears will grow, sapping the overall health of the plant.

I can't say that I am as enamored of my rhubarb plant. I had three originally, but two didn't survive past the first season. The untimely demise was probably for the best, since it is a space hog in a small garden. Nor am I swimming in good recipes for rhubarb. A few pies and cobblers, maybe a batch of preserves, and I'm done. I have a clipped-out recipe for a rhubarb-lentil stew that I eye every season, but it sounds so horribly nutritious and earnest that I have never worked up the excitement to make it. I do appreciate my one delicious cobbler that I make, and the pale red stems are beautiful. In larger gardens, I have seen rhubarb plants used to gorgeous effect as single specimens, and they seem to tolerate partial shade.

I am planting sorrel this season because, contrary to the rhubarb, I have several recipes that I am dying to try that feature sorrel. I have looked in vain for it in the markets of the Chicagoland area, so it must be planted. I refuse to go another year without tasting sorrel soup or lemon-sorrel mousse. An added benefit of planting sorrel is that it appears in early spring, thus giving culinary variety to a season typically dominated at our home by radishes and chives.

Finally, as I have posted before, I am putting in horseradish. Yes, it can be invasive. Yes, like rhubarb, I suspect it is a space-hog in a small garden. And yes, it has even more limited uses than rhubarb. The above jar has lasted me quite a while. What is compelling me to plant this? I believe it is the spirit of the folks who used to occupy this formerly "Bohemian" neighborhood. It will make easier my hunt for the components of the Seder plate. I may even try to make horseradish cheese, which is just that, cheese with some grated horseradish stirred into the curd. I always bought this from the Pennsylvania Dutch folks at the Union Square Farmers Marker in New York City, and it tastes great with beer. I have read horseradish makes a good companion planting for potatoes. Since I am trying some fingerling potatoes this season, I will plant them close together. My main annoyance is that you can't just buy one or two roots. All the catalogs sell at least five. Who is eating this much horseradish?


  1. I didn't realize that sorrel was a perennial. And sorrel soup is totally delicious - but it seems the sorrel I've been planting is not the same stuff?

  2. JP, is this what you have been growing?

    According to the site, it can be grown as an annual but is hardy as a perennial to zone 3

  3. I feel like you've been somehow reading my mind with your posts lately! Everytime I've had an internal question about a specific plant or general technique, you blog about it!

    Today I was cleaning out my raised beds and trying to decide which should be planted with strawberries and which with asparagus. May I ask how big your asparagus bed is? I've wanted to plant these for over a year, but I've just now made space and I want to make sure it's enough.

  4. Kaitwat, it is a very small area, 3 x 5 feet! I wish I had more space!

  5. I have my choice of a 6x6 or 6x12 bed, but I've never grown either asparagus or strawberries. I had dreams of having enough of both to freeze/preserve. Maybe I need to look into a bigger space?

  6. Hmmm....with that space, I don't think you'll have a lot to put by. I put in 50 strawberry crowns, and we had a good amount, even after pinching back the first flowers. But even if we had grown for the whole season, I doubt we would have had enough to preserve. I would have had to beat back my family from eating all the ripe ones every morning.

    I've read several places that a mature asparagus plant can give a 1/2 pound of spears each season, and my best plants do that, but not all. Many books say 30 plants feeds a family of 4, which I guess would mean at best 15 pounds. But that would take a fairly big space, at least two long 20 foot trenches, or a 15x15 bed.

  7. That's really helpful information. Fortunately, I have plenty of space around the property, it's just a matter of working it.

    On the strawberries, my husband isn't a huge fan (crazy, I know). My son's still too little to know what's going on, so I have better control over the crop. My plan is to start with 36 crowns and try to replant the runners. We'll see how it goes!