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.