It’s time to play my favorite springtime game: Annual or Perennial?
Since we started growing food, the distinction has been a continual irritant. Why is it that the things you want to eat, like tomatoes and peppers, grow on persnickety plants that have to be handled just so and then die in October, while plants that yield nothing you want to eat, like tulips and switchgrass, reliably come up of their own accord, season after season?
I know, I know, there’s asparagus and there’s rhubarb, but asparagus and rhubarb will take you only so far, come dinner time. I want perennial tomatoes and peppers. And eggplant and squash. And collard greens.
Which brings me back to my favorite springtime game.
I’ve always thought that collards were an annual, but I’ve got a few specimens in the garden that say otherwise. Last year, they flourished, and we ate collards well into the winter. Eventually, the leaves that were left died back, and I’d thought they’d given up the ghost. But now, after an unseasonably warm winter, they are rising from the dead, and new leaves are sprouting.
A quick Googling is not definitive. Per Wikipedia: “The plant is a biennial where winter frost occurs, and perennial in even colder regions.”
Now what kind of botanical magic is that? Let’s start with the whole idea of a biennial. I know about biennials because of parsley, and I am here to tell you that biennials are the biggest tease in the botanical world. Once it gets past its first year, you know it’s not an annual. And, if it’s not an annual, it must be a perennial. Q.E.D.
But then you suffer a crushing disappointment when it dies in the second year and you find out it’s not an annual, it’s not a perennial, and you’re an idiot because you never even heard of a biennial. I can understand plants that die when the weather gets cold, even if I never develop a real fondness for them. But how does a plant know to die the second time it gets cold?
And then there’s the part about collards being a perennial in “even colder” regions. Cape Cod is “even colder” than lots of places, including places like Manhattan in which a winter frost definitely occurs but you don’t care because your building has central heating and from which only people who are “even stupider” leave to go to places where you have to cut down trees to stay warm.
Wait, weren’t we talking about collard greens?
Last year, the ones in the hoophouse, which we planted the previous November, bolted in about June, presumably because the hoophouse simulates a frost-free climate. The ones in the garden, started in the hoophouse in the spring and planted outside in May, didn’t bolt. They grew very thick stems and big, healthy leaves.
Since they’re still there, still alive, and growing a new crop of leaves, I’m assuming I should leave them there, but I know there’s always a chance that there’s a good reason not to. Do second-year collards taste bitter? Do they house some obscure kind of over-wintering insect?
And, most importantly, is Cape Cod “even colder” enough to turn collards perennial, or will I, come November, be faced with the biennial heartbreak? If I know now it’ll cushion the blow.