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If you like the idea of growing plants you can also bring to the table, but realistically know your limitations, consider perennial edibles, things you plant once and that keep on producing, season after season.

"There is something to be said for finding plants that are continuously productive and that thrive for several if not many years, and that can also give you food continuously without having to replace it. It's a great advantage for people who are looking for ways to save labor," said Doug Gosling, who oversees the garden program at the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center.

Perennial edibles can be grown in the ground or in pots. Of course, we all know that fruit trees and berry bushes are great investments that keep producing dividends every year. But many fledgling gardeners are unaware that there are some vegetables that also are perennial.

Perennial edibles range from arugula and bamboo shoots to rhubarb, kale and radicchio. Other practical plants that do double duty are herbs like rosemary, sage, oregano and thyme.

With the fall planting season in full swing, home gardeners are clearing out their beds in preparation for winter crops. But autumn is also an optimal time to plant perennials. They will use the coming wet winter months to establish strong roots. So along with the ornamental Rudbeckia, sedum and euphorbia, work in some artichokes, asparagus, onions and other plants that you not only can eat in late winter or early spring but that will keep on producing without having to remove and replant year after year.

Sebastopol Master Gardener Ann Chambers is a huge fan of versatile workhorse plants.

"Most of my vegetable garden is filled with perennial vegetables and small fruits, with herbs that also are perennial," said Chambers, who will teach a free workshop in perennial edibles on Sept. 22 at the Sonoma Garden Park in Sonoma. "Artichokes and asparagus are the perfect example, the biggies that are pretty common. But there are a lot of things that will winter over here quite nicely and start up in the spring, like collards and kale."

One collard that is really popular, according to Gosling, is the tree collard.

"Their origin is still shrouded in mystery," he said. "Some thought they originally came from Africa. But it's a brassica similar to true collards, with a similar leaf shape and similar taste and that can live from 10 to 12 years."

A tree collard will spread, putting out one plant and then layering, producing side shoots.

"You can have a nice patch of greens every year just by planting one plant. The tree collard is all leafy matter," Gosling said.

Tree collards are among a big array of perennials, both ornamental and edible, that are available for sale at the Arts and Ecology Center's nursery, which will be opened every Saturday through early November.

The most common and beloved perennial vegetable is the artichoke. They're cost-effective, easy to grow and yet expensive to buy in the grocery store.

Plant them now in full sun in well-drained soil. They like to be kept moist. The first year the plant is just building a root mass so don't eat them or, if you can't resist, snitch just one. The second year you might eat two. By the third year, said Chambers, you might get a month of harvest out of it and by the fourth year you can eat off the plant for five or six weeks. At the end of each harvest just add a little compost and water deeply to keep the root mass healthy. With proper care, that single plant will feed you for many years.

Gosling recommends the common heirloom variety Jersey Night or Precoce d'Argentuil.

Another easy-to-grow mainstay of the perennial edible garden is the artichoke. These gawky stalks look great as ornamentals when they produce their intriguing flowers. Their cousin, the cardoon, is equally easy, drought-tolerant and will come back year after year. And it is tasty too, similar to an artichoke heart, according to Gosling. Make sure to cut the flower off before it produces seed because they can be invasive.

Gosling also recommends growing French sorrel, which dies back in winter but returns year after year and is quite productive.

"It's commonly used in combination with leeks and potatoes in soups," he said. "And it's easy to make an amazing sour sauce for seafood, especially salmon."

WINTER BOUNTY

What: The Occidental Arts & Ecology Center Nursery

When: The nursery will be open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. through Nov. 4, featuring all perennials, many of them edible and some unusual.

Artichokes

Asparagus

Chuffa: Also called ground almond, tiger nut, Zulu nut, or earth chestnut, this perennial sedge has been a significant food crop in Asia Minor and Egypt since ancient times, and ranks among the oldest cultivated plants on the planet. It produces many small, delicious, sweet-tasting nutty tubers, which grow underground in a chain-like fashion.

Cardoon: Mediterranean native whose stems have an artichoke flavor. Can be invasive so grow contained.

Earth Chestnut (Bunium bulbocastaneum): Also called Great Pignut, it's a member of the carrot family. It's tubers are small and rounded and edible raw or cooked. Tastes like sweet chestnuts.

French Sorrel: Native to South-central Europe and Southwest Asia. Produces delicious, acidic lemon-flavored leaves.

Manzano Peppers: Both red and yellow, hot and flavorful. Native to South America.

Rhubarb: A very productive garden perennial with tart and tasty stalks.

Ruegen and Yellow Alpine Strawberries: AKA wild strawberries, it is perennial and ever-bearing.

Tree Collards: Highly productive Brassica with tasty blue-green leaves. Can thrive for 10-12 years.

SONOMA COUNTY MASTER GARDENERS

What: Ann Chambers is leading a workshop on Perennial Vegetables from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the Sonoma Community Center, 276 E. Napa St., Sonoma. 996-5217. mcsonoma@ucdavis.edu or 565-2608.

Some of Ann's Picks for Edible Perennials in Sonoma County:

Arugula; artichoke: globe type and Jerusalem; bamboo shoots; broccoli (will need protection to overwinter in Sonoma County); chard (may be forced to continue and produce for several years by removing all flower heads the minute they appear); kale; radicchio

Perennial herbs/seasonings and tea: Borage; comfrey; garlic; hops; horseradish; lemon balm; onions, especially bunching; oregano; shallots; sweet Cecily; thyme; winter savory; wildcraft vegetables; dandelions; miner's lettuce; purslane

Small fruits: Blackberry; blueberry; currants; gooseberry; pineapple guava; huckleberry; lingonberry; raspberry; rose hips

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at 521-5204 or meg.mcconahey@ pressdemocrat.com.