UNCLE!

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I have had, until now, a rule that I never apologize for absences. Apologizing for being gone assumes that somebody, somewhere, is waiting breathlessly for your return. I assume no such thing, but at least a couple of you have been good enough to miss me, and so I break my rule and apologize. My only excuse is that Kevin and I have been bubonically busy.

At about the time of my last post, our oyster farm was ramping up for the year. We were preparing the boat for the fishing season, just around the corner. I had been, and continue to be, occupied with writing things that actually pay cash money, and I know you won’t hold it against me that I make that a priority over writing things that don’t actually pay cash money, even though that second category is often way more fun.

And then there was the garden. Those of you who have been following The Gardening Adventures of Kevin and Tamar know that we have, for the last five years, been battling the Carver Coarse Sand that is our soil in the hopes of coaxing food from it. While we haven’t been wholly unsuccessful – we grow excellent tomatoes every year, and have a thriving herb garden – we are constantly losing plants to insects, weather, and a kind of botanical malaise that afflicts plants trying to glean nutrients from rocks.

So, this year, we said “Uncle.” Enough with eggplants and peppers, fennel and beets that, all too often, fail to thrive. We decided to turn the entire lower garden over to perennials. It was Kevin’s idea.

He won me over immediately. You see, I’d read Restoration Agriculture, a book by a farmer named Mark Shepard, who has an integrated farm of perennial plants in south Wisconsin. His farm is anchored by chestnut trees, and he grows berries, apples, and other fruits and nuts in between the trees. He also has animals, which graze the same land, eating grass, weeds, and some of the crop.

I read his book with interest as he described how his permaculture mimicks the original coexistence of plants on the great plains, but didn’t really sit up and take notice until he described his farming technique. A farm like his, Shepard says, thrives on what he calls “the STUN method.” Sheer, Total, Utter Neglect.

Sheer, total, utter neglect! Now there’s a farming philosophy I can get behind! So, when Kevin suggested we turn our lower garden into a small orchard of fruit trees, interspersed with perennial vegetables, I was seduced by the vision of apples and pears, asparagus and rhubarb, and a halcyon old age passing without ever weeding anything! It’s all harvest, all the time.

The idea that a plant comes up, year after year, without your intervention, is pretty astonishing. That it produces something good to eat makes it positively miraculous. Perennials are like perpetual-motion machines for your garden. There’s only one problem: it’s the “good” in “good things to eat.”

When we started planning, it was obvious that there’s a hard line between fruits and vegetables. Just about all fruits are perennial – they grow on trees or vines – and we had lots of options. It didn’t take long, though, for us to realize that apples, peaches, and pears were probably bad choices. Here in the damp, insect-infested Northeast, it’s all but impossible to grow those kinds of fruits with taking heroic pest-control measures. The people who grow those fruits professionally in this part of the country use skillfully designed Integrated Pest Management that requires constant vigilance. “Skill” and “vigilance” aren’t exactly my long suits, so we tried to expand our vision.

Asian pears, we’ve been told, grow better here. Seems like the pests haven’t quite cottoned on to the idea that those funny golden orbs are good to eat. And then there are persimmons and paw-paws, which I had thought were tropical but turn out not to be. And, since he had an excellent eating experience that involved a stinky runny cheese and quince paste, Kevin has had his heart set on a quince tree. We already have raspberries, blackberries, and figs, and we thought a few beach plums could round out our fruit selection.

Unfortunately, we were a little slow to figure all this out, and by the time we realized apples were not the answer, it was too late for a spring planting (except for three beach plums, which appear to be thriving), so we made our list for next year and started looking at those interspersed perennial vegetables.

Vegetables is where the going gets tough. There are exactly three perennial vegetables that have earned wide acceptance based on flavor alone: asparagus, artichokes, and rhubarb. All are delicious, and we grow rhubarb (asparagus and artichokes didn’t quite pan out). But we were looking for some all-purpose vegetables, the kind of thing you can add to a salad or throw in with a stir-fry.

There are many perennial greens billed as ‘edible,’ but I’ve discovered that, when you’re talking about wild plants, plants unadulterated by human intervention, ‘edible’ is a low bar. It means you can eat them, should you be so inclined. It does not mean that they are so delicious that you will be so inclined.

Because of this problem, I have designed a litmus test for advocates of edible weeds. Find yourself an advocate, and ask this one question: Is purslane delicious? If the answer is yes, then you know the expert has drunk the forager’s Kool-Aid and is not to be trusted. The truth, of course, is that purslane tastes like grass clippings.

After poring over lists of perennial candidates, Kevin and I selected a few that seemed promising. We chose sweet cecily, whose anise-flavored leaves can be used as an herb. Anise hyssop has a similar flavor, and is also supposed to be excellent food for bees. We planted a few Jerusalem artichokes, and two kinds of greens – Turkish rocket and Good King Henry.

There’s a reason humans have been mucking with plants since the dawn of agriculture. Wild plants, plants that have to fend for themselves, develop defense mechanisms like hairy leaves and chemical compounds that ward off insects. And, sure enough, our Turkish rocket and Good King Henry are insect-free, where our eggplants, cabbages, and collards were eaten to stumps last year. But hairy leaves and strong-tasting compounds are off-putting to humans as well, and you can infer a lot from the fact that just about every wild green under the sun has, at one time or another, been called “poor man’s spinach.” Good King Henry is also know as “Lincolnshire spinach,” and, although I have never been to Lincolnshire, I’m betting it’s doesn’t often get mistaken for Monaco. You only eat Good King Henry instead of spinach if you don’t have a choice.

Kevin and I do have a choice, and we won’t be planting any more Good King Henry. We’re not giving up on perennials altogether, but from here on in we’ll be more focused on fruit. Our beach plums seem to be thriving, and we’ll get our act together on the paw-paws, persimmons, Asian pears, and quince next spring. Oh, and our oyster distributor, Bob, has a grape arbor with a variety that his great-grandfather brought over from Europe, and he’s promised me a cutting.

This experience has been something of a waste of time, and even of money, but I guess that’s why they call it “experience.” Do something a few times, and you wake up one day and realize you actually know something about it. And here, in a nutshell, is what I know: we should all be grateful to live in a place and at a time when even poor men can eat spinach.

Sometimes, there's just no substitute for an annual.

Kevin’s tomatoes. Sometimes, there’s just no substitute for an annual.

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Comments

  1. Welcome back! Very nice update. Keeping this short, as I expect you will receive many replies. Have you considered horseradish? We’ve been growing it forever (side shoots) from the original root the Ancestors brought over from ‘the Old Country’.

  2. sunchokes are a garden pest. you’re lucky they didn’t take.

  3. Every time I force myself to thin seedlings I think of you.

    Happy to send you some morning glory seeds, the clim, bloom dark purple and thrive in poor soil.

  4. Stephen Andrew says:

    I MISSED YOU TERRIBLY. I am thrilled things are going so well in your work. I own that book but have yet to read it. A problem of mine! I am excited to see this new planting take shape.
    So–do you still have the Saab?

  5. Kristin says:

    ‘forager’s kool-aid’ — that gave me a chuckle this morning. Speaking of foraging, I don’t know if you have sea ‘spinach’ in New England, but it is worth foraging, and I think it’s one of nature’s success stories as far as perennial vegetables go http://www.wildfoodandrecipes.co.uk/2010/04/sea-beet-or-wild-spinach.html

  6. Thanks for the warm welcome! Glad to see you all still sticking around.

    Pam, we planted horseradish a couple years back and — get this — it didn’t take. We are the only people on the planet who can’t grow horseradish.

    Amanda — The sunchokes did take, and we fully expect an infestation. And I don’t even like sunchokes. Just another gardening irony.

    Jacqueline — Seeing as I don’t really like gardening, I restrict my efforts to plants I can eat. Although morning glory vines might just put a patina of respectability on our dogpatch property. I may have to reconsider.

    Stephen — Read the book. It’s really interesting. And if you go perennial, tell me what works for you. (And, yes, we still have the Saab, but it’s limping along at this point.)

    Kristin — I’m going to see if I can’t find some of that. If you’re going to eat wild plants, it makes a lot more sense to let the landscape grow them for you, rather than having to plant and tend them yourself. Thanks for the link.
    T.

  7. Thank you! Love hearing about your gardening, fishing, oyster etc. ;)
    I will say NO MORNING GLORY!! Someone planted it on my property and no matter how many times you rip it out, it comes back.

    Have a great day!

  8. Myrna Bowman says:

    We, too, are glad to see you back! Yes, morning glory is a pain, but good bee3 food although there are other plants that should be as good or better for them without being so invasive! Can totally relate to poor gardening experience, and don’t have the excuse of an incompatible climate. We just don’t have a green thumb that way. We are fruit growers. That works for us but unfortunately requires pesticide application.

  9. I’m glad you’re back, too! Thanks for the tip on the Anise Hyssop. I’ll have to get some to feed the bees. I didn’t have great pollination with my pumpkins and watermelons, so next year I’m going to finally put in a plot of wildflowers in that corner.

    I love perennials. Usually of the flower variety, but anything that comes back by itself – as long as it’s wanted – is fantastic. We have a monster rhubarb that’s thriving with the STUN method. I can’t imagine how much bigger it would be if I actually fertilized it. I could easily harvest over 50 pounds each year and you’d barely notice.

    Speaking of rhubarb, here’s a great slush recipe. Add sugar to taste, though, the amount called for is quite sweet. And use the cooking water for the blending rather than fresh water. Brandy or vodka are also lovely if you don’t have gin on hand. http://allrecipes.com/recipe/rhubarb-slush/

  10. Cat and Myrna, glad to see you taking care of the bees. We have a new hive this year, and so we want everyone to plant flowers for them. Marcia, even morning glory!

    Love the rhubarb slush recipe — although our rhubarb is still just limping along.

  11. i will ship you rhubarb. i can’t kill it.

    seriously,i’ve tried.

  12. What you want is lambs quarters. For years I had it in my garden and was pulling it as a weeds, until I saw it in a seed catalog and said, wait a minute. I didn’t know it was edible. Pull the leaves and cook like spinach, but it’s much milder. It comes back every year from seeds or roots, I don’t care which. The other weed you might be interested in is pigweed. I had this weed in my garden that was full of bug holes, so I pulled it out. The bugs promptly ate my beans instead. I also had this tall weed that, if it was in a bean bed, I didn’t get bean beetles. I took both plants to the plant experts at the Farmers Market. They had to research the plants, but they are both species of pigweed. And I read an article I the Washington Post a few years ago that pigweed leaves are edible. I haven’t eaten any, because I have such a crop of lambs quarters. I always make sure my bean beds have a pigweed plant in them. They also come back each year.

  13. Accidental Mick says:

    Hi Tamar, huge welcome.

    I clocked that you grow Jerusalem artichokes. There is a guy called John Seymour who has written several books on self sufficiency (I know your not aiming at that). In one of those books he wrote about poor, sandy soil (know anything about that?).

    He advocated planting lots of the aforementioned JA and then running pig(s) on them. Apparently, they love JA and have been known to dig deeper than they stand to get at the tubers. The idea is to keep them in small plots using movable fencing or electric fencing until you are pretty sure they have got everything. You are left with a thoroughly plowed and manured plot. You then move them to the next plot.

    Walter might have some thoughts as to whether that is as good an idea as Seymour thinks.

  14. Kathleen says:

    Tamar
    Good King Henry was what passed for spinach BEFORE there was spinach. Spinach is simply nicer, so GKH can be used in the where spinach is a background green, not a star attraction. I believe in Germany, he was BAD King Henry.
    As for Jerusalem artichokes – make sure you put them where you can contain them – they spread – and they take years of get rid of. In 19th century England they put them around the outhouse to help hide it! Try asparagus again. Sweet Cis is a delight – you can dry it, too. And I second the horseradish suggestion.

  15. Welcome back!

  16. Ellen, I’ve always put lamb’s quarters in the purslane camp, but on your advice I will give it another go. We have tons of it!

    Mick — Funny you should mention pigs! That was our thought exactly. We want to take these behemoth plants and get them to grow in the pig pen so next year’s pigs (which we think there will be) will have something to eat.

    Kathleen — Thanks for the bit of history. It’s good to remember the chronology. GKH was what we had to eat before we started messing around with plants.

    Rick — THanks! Good to be back.

  17. Tamar, just had to chime in with my gratitude that you’re back. I too worried about my friend that i’ve never met, but have been too absorbed in my own Worst Year Ever to check on you. Now that I’m (kinda, sorta) getting my head above water, just wanted to say HI and glad to see you. Also, Mulch Boy and I are moving up to the Bahston area (hopefully around Witch City–Salem) this fall (he’s a native) and I will be adjusting from Zone 7a here in DC to… whatever the heck it is up there. Any advice re: books or resources for the soon-to-be new New England gardener?

  18. franinoz says:

    It’s good to “see” you again, Tamar. I’m never sure whether to comment when a blog is silent (needy demanding reader, or is it blogee?) or not to comment ( disloyal, uncaring blogee?) .

  19. PQ — Welcome to my zone! The Cape is officially 7, but some people say 7b. All I know is, it’s very sandy! Boston is actually not quite the same — I’ll be interested to hear how you do! I don’t have a lot of book recommendations, but CL Folnari is local and excellent. She blogs at http://www.gardenlady.com/, and has several books out.

    Fran — Nice to see you, too. Here’s my rule of thumb — comment if you feel like it, and don’t if you don’t. I’m always glad to see you, either way.

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