Plants Everlasting

Adventures in permaculture, or why you should stick to tastier annuals

Tomatoes are like salmon. They’re both delicious, and they both put all their energy into reproducing. Then they die.

This is true of most edible things you can grow. Producing cucumbers or eggplants or green beans is a nontrivial accomplishment for plants, and once they manage it, they take their curtain call and go the way of all flesh. If you’re trying to grow food year after year, this is irritating. If, like me, you don’t find spiritual uplift in the labor involved in gardening, it’s downright disheartening.

So if you’re like me, you may be attracted by the laborsaving potential of perennials. Just imagine! You plant your garden once, and then every spring, you sit back and wait for the bounty to come rolling in.

Okay, now imagine a diet consisting entirely of fruit and sunchokes, because that is what you’ll be eating. With mint, or maybe chives.

The fruit part is great! Fruits grow on trees and vines and shrubs that are perennial by nature, and they have a vested interest in deliciousness. Animals are supposed to eat them and then poop out the seeds in new territory—the more delicious, the more territory.

To Boldly Grow: Finding Joy, Adventure, and Dinner in Your Own Backyard

Perennial vegetables, though, are nature’s cruel joke. She tantalizes you with the idea of automatic food and then delivers almost nothing good to eat.

Sure, for seven minutes every spring, there’s asparagus. Alas, asparagus doesn’t seem to like the conditions at our house, and we got exactly three spears before our patch gave up the ghost. But if you’re interested in the most food for the least work, you should absolutely plant a bed.

There’s also rhubarb, which isn’t my favorite food, but has earned my affection by being the first plant up in the spring, with foliage that’s already luxuriant when other plants are still pressing the snooze button.

And of course we round out the Big Three of Actually Tasty Perennial Vegetables with artichokes. Unfortunately, in another example of nature’s sense of humor, the labor artichokes save you by being perennial is more than made up for by the labor they require in preparation.

Yet there are many, many plants that are edible. Surely we can find some decent greens.

Perennial vegetables are nature’s cruel joke. She tantalizes you with the idea of automatic food and then delivers almost nothing good to eat.

Oh, we tried. After five years of garden-variety annuals, with enough experience to know what we could grow and what we probably couldn’t, my husband Kevin and I decided we’d restrict our annuals to a few raised beds, where we had the most control over the soil. In the vast, marginally amended expanse of sandy soil that was the rest of our garden, we’d try perennial veg.

But which?

We were looking for some all-purpose greens, the kind of thing you can add to a salad or throw in with a stir-fry.

And now I will invoke the Jake Principle.

It dates back to a time in the mid-nineties when my parents lived in Manhattan, in an apartment with a working fireplace. They didn’t have any outdoor space, and my father liked to grill, so they set up a little hibachi in the fireplace. He turned out a mighty nice halibut steak.

My little brother Jake happened to drop in one day when the halibut was on the grill, and it stopped him cold. He looked at the grill. He looked at my parents—prudent, reasonable people. And then he looked at the grill again. “If that was okay to do,” he asked, “wouldn’t other people do it?”

If your bent is toward experimenting, trying things out for yourself, you will find yourself on this knife edge pretty regularly. Sometimes doing the thing nobody else does makes you a visionary iconoclast; it is only the danger of asphyxiation from carbon monoxide that prevents the hibachi in the fireplace from falling into that category. Usually, though, it just makes you an idiot who won’t learn from other people’s mistakes, and that is the Jake Principle. It applies to perennial greens.

I knew the Jake Principle going in. Surely, if perennial greens were delicious, everyone would grow them. But there were just so many candidates, lists and lists! And so many people pushing permaculture, which is the name they’ve given to agriculture with perennials. We started culling through the lists.

Obviously, you have to eliminate anything these extremely optimistic lists describe as “not for the average palate” or “requires long cooking times.” But you also have to cut anything described as “mild,” because that means it tastes like grass clippings. From what was left, we zeroed in on two that seemed promising: Turkish rocket and Good King Henry.

The highfalutin names should have clued us in. The guy who decided that Chilean sea bass sounded better than Patagonian toothfish must have gotten hold of Turkish rocket, because its other name is warty-cabbage. Good King Henry, like many other borderline-edible greens, is also known as poor man’s spinach, and if there’s one thing that should make you approach a plant with low expectations, that’s it. If it was anywhere close to as good as spinach, it would have its own, more dignified name.

To live to see another year, perennial greens have to defend themselves against all comers, and they tend to have robust defense mechanisms consisting of things like hairy leaves and insecticidal compounds. And sure enough, our Turkish rocket and Good King Henry remained insect-free. Our insects, like right-thinking humans everywhere, believed that milquetoast annuals like basil are much tastier than hairy plants with chemical defenses.

We never got past the first tentative nibbles and did not make a single meal out of either Turkish rocket or Good King Henry. But I have to hand it to them—they still come up every year, right next to the chickweed. I don’t even remember which is which because I can’t be bothered with plants I can’t eat.

Speaking of which.

Just about every list of perennial veg includes what were known as Jerusalem artichokes until the Patagonian toothfish guy got hold of them. I’m not at all sure, though, why sunchoke is better than Jerusalem artichoke. I can understand why you’d want to find an alternative name, seeing as the tuber in question is related neither to Jerusalem nor to artichokes, but that lack of relationship, one would think, would give you an excellent reason to get choke out of the name. On the bright side, no poor men are involved.

I was warned about sunchokes. “They’ll take over,” everyone said, but I see that as a positive. Besides, our sand limits the takeover potential of even the most aggressive plants. We’re the only gardeners ever to have a failed crop of horseradish. Still, just to be on the safe side, we planted only two.

They grew, as promised, like weeds. In the fall, I harvested a bumper crop of a vegetable that tastes like a tantalizing mix of Styrofoam and dirt. There is simply nothing to love about a sunchoke. Our pigs wouldn’t even eat them, at least right away (leave anything in the pigpen long enough and they’ll get around to it).

It is downright ignominious to dig up a plant you put in the ground yourself, but that is what I did.

To live to see another year, perennial greens have to defend themselves against all comers, and they tend to have robust defense mechanisms consisting of things like hairy leaves and insecticidal compounds.

If you travel in gardening circles, you will find people who are very excited about growing perennials. Their enthusiasm is contagious, and it’s hard not to be seduced by the promise of permaculture. But our experience with perennial vegetables turned out to be a waste of time, and even money. I guess that’s why they call it experience.

Because we’ve done it, you don’t have to. Go with asparagus, undoubtedly king of perennials. Plant rhubarb, which will lift your spirits every April. Devote the rest of perennial efforts to where the payoff is: fruit.

If you’re trying to figure out which fruits you can grow in your neck of the woods, a good clue is what grows wild. Here on Cape Cod, there are raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, beach plums, and grapes.

So we planted a fig tree.

We also planted raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, and beach plums. All our berries have limped along, and some years we get a respectable haul. It’s the fig tree, though, that wheedled its way into my heart.

We knew it was a stretch. It’s a brown turkey fig, and I’m still not sure whether it’s named that because the fruit bears a resemblance to a brown turkey or because it’s a brown version of some other fig that comes from Turkey. If you know, please drop me a line.

Fig trees in general are not cold-tolerant, but this particular variety was specifically developed to have some cold hardiness and was supposed to be able to grow in Zone 7.

If you’re a gardener, you already know all about Zone 7, but if you’re an aspiring gardener you might not. To help figure out which plants can grow where, the USDA divides the country into plant hardiness zones, based on expected winter low temperatures. If you want to plant, say, a fig tree, you just check which zones it can grow in.

You can’t take these classifications to the bank. Although you might live, say, in Zone 7, you might also live, to take an example at random, where it is particularly cold and windy because of proximity to a body of water. If so, your fig tree might perhaps be fooled into thinking you are in Zone 6, where it does not thrive.

We knew that going in and assumed we’d need to wrap it—put heavy mulch over the roots and build a straw-stuffed burlap snowsuit around the tree—to get it through the winter. But we really liked the idea of a fig tree, so we took a flyer.

It started as two sticks, each about three feet tall, with a few buds on it. It was nothing like the fig tree of my imagination, laden with figs the size of golf balls and leaves like the ones in those paintings of Adam and Eve after they decided they needed underpants after all. But we watered it regularly, wrapped it in winter, and for a couple years it grew and thrived.

When it was two years old, we harvested our first figs; I think there were three. But then it had a growth spurt, and in its third year it suddenly started to look like a real tree. It was a good seven feet tall, and it set a crop of so many figs I lost count.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about growing food, it’s to not count on a harvest until it’s actually harvested, and we took no chances. When the figs approached ripeness, we put a net around the tree, anchored to a bamboo scaffold, in an effort to keep birds out. We had learned from our previous experience with netting—when we put a net over a high-bush blueberry only to have a bird get caught underneath with nothing to eat but blueberries—and made sure it went all the way to the ground.

All of you gardeners out there should know that covering fruit with a net freezes it in time. From that day on, the figs stubbornly stayed the same size, the same shape, and the same bright shade of green. I was convinced that up in some attic somewhere was the Fig Tree of Dorian Gray, with soft, brown, fully ripe fruit.

Little did I know, they were just giving the insects time to arrive.

Do you have any idea how many insects there are on this planet?

Neither had I, but I looked it up, and it’s ten quintillion. That number is necessarily an estimate, an individual census being, up until my figs ripened, cost-prohibitive. But that fall, entomologists had an unprecedented opportunity to do a proper head count, because the moment my figs turned brown, the world’s entire insect population assembled in one place.

We had of course encountered insects in our other gardening activities, but nothing that prepared me for that onslaught. In fact, I had harbored the hazy notion that a fig tree on Cape Cod would have relatively few pest problems because the local pests had never seen one. They’d take one look at it, scratch their little insect heads, and move on to something more familiar, like the raspberry bushes, the squash vines, or the delicious wooden portions of our home.

But, in a lesson for toddlers everywhere, you don’t get to be ten quintillion strong by being suspicious of a new food. I, having long passed toddler-hood, am wildly in favor of new foods—eating them, but also growing them. If you’re in my camp, I’d suggest venturing into fruit every way it grows, but once you get your asparagus patch going, let the perennial “vegetables” stay where they belong: in the wild.

From TO BOLDLY GROW: Finding Joy, Adventure, and Dinner in Your Own Backyard By Tamar Haspel with permission from GP Putnam, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2022 by Tamar Haspel