All over the place wonderful, dedicated and insightful gardeners are working away developing their own particular specialist niche in our human-gardening-ecosystem. One of these lovely people is Alison Tindale, a lifelong gardener who grows, sells and blogs about some her wonderful collection of perennial vegetables. Here in a guest post she writes about herself, her garden and her passion for perennial vegetables. When you have read it I am sure you will want to check out her blog and her online shop .
I am an organic gardener living in a small town in East Yorkshire. We moved here about fifteen years ago and I immediately started gardening in our small backyard and on a town council allotment about 20 minutes walk away from the house. I set out to create a fairly conventional organic allotment. Somewhere along the way though, I changed track. I came across Patrick Whitefield’s article, “The Minimalist Garden” in the Permaculture Magazine. Patrick described his garden like this:
‘….based on perennial and self-seeding vegetables, including some wild ones, it is a garden which requires very little input, yet it can put a salad or a pot of greens on the table any day of the year’.
A tempting idea! Patrick went on to list three perennial vegetables: sea beet, ramsons and perennial kale. Thus began my perennial vegetable collection and a whole new way of gardening!
I didn’t imagine at the beginning that I would now be devoting almost my whole plot (and my backyard too) to perennial vegetables (with fruit trees and bushes, a pond and wildlife areas alongside). They include:
- a handful that, between them, do indeed ‘put a pot of greens on the table any day of the year’; garden sorrel, sea beet, Caucasian spinach, several perennial brassicas, Good King Henry and sea kale;
- a growing collection of edible alliums which I use in place of ordinary onions and leek, such as potato onions and perennial leeks;
- hardy perennial root vegetables including skirret, scorzonera and silverweed;
- greens that I pick occasionally to ring the changes, like patience dock, bladder campion and Turkish rocket;
- a range of perennial salad bowl suppliers like watercress, wild rocket, garlic cress, pink purslane and ice plant;
- and a group of plants that I’m growing but haven’t tasted yet including favoured vegetables from other cultures like bamboo and sochan (a Rudbeckia species prized by the Cherokee) and edible pond plants such as flowering rush and Lycopus asper.
It has been an exciting journey so far. As time has gone on I have learnt about many, many more plants I want to grow – mostly from people who began on the same journey long before I did and have got to the stage of writing books and blogs about it to encourage others. I do my own research too – I love delving into old gardening journals (lots can be read online these days) to read about ‘forgotten’ vegetables, and using online translators to read foreign websites and find out what people in other countries are growing. Then there is the hunt for the plants and seeds themselves. At first many were really hard to find; I was scouring the vegetable seed catalogues for the word ‘perennial’. But gradually they became easier to come by. Kind people I met on Twitter gave them to me – and once I started writing a blog myself I received emails with offers of plants and seeds and proposals for plant swaps. I seemed to have stumbled into a delightful Secret Society of Gardeners! The list of nurseries stocking these rare plants is increasing too – and they are becoming much less rare!
And the plot has changed in a way which has delighted me. It has become more of a garden. Allotments often have a garden feel, special places for people and nature, especially if they have a tree or two and permanent beds – but permanent plantings enhance this effect. I am moving towards the perennial polycultures that Anni writes about. I’m after fairly simple mixes in each bed of maybe three or four different plants as I still want to get a lot of each vegetable from each patch of ground. In this process each bed becomes more like a flower bed. It can accommodate insect attracting plants alongside the vegetables and that pulls in lots of other wildlife. I loved it when I found a dunnock’s nest in the Daubenton kale. And when mushrooms pop up here and there I imagine that the same sort of fungal networks that transport nutrients around a woodland may be forming beneath the garden.
Another unexpected pleasure has been becoming involved in plant breeding. Amateur plant breeders work on the basis that, if you can’t find the plant you want to grow, you just have to breed it yourself! Well, it will be a long road to the perennial vegetable gardener’s dream of perennial tomatoes, beans, squash and so on, but there are people working on that dream and social media networks where they willingly give a hand up to beginners. And so it has come about that I’m growing a perennial bean called Phaseolus polystachios and hope to help with the task of improving it to useful vegetable status.
I’m so pleased to have found something that I feel is worthwhile work and that I love doing. Perennial vegetable gardening has huge potential in the movement towards more local, carbon-friendly food production. There are thousands of people with backyards and gardens who don’t have time for growing conventional vegetables but who could manage a few easy-care perennial vegetables – if only they knew they existed. Perennial vegetables are ideal for community gardens too (and presumably for commercial growers also when suitable trials have been carried out). I like to think I’m contributing to their growing popularity by writing about my experiences with them and selling them through my online nursery.