Suggestions for this year's vegetable garden 

Charlie Metz
Frederick County Master Gardener Program

Modern agriculture depends on the large-scale production, harvest and preserving of plants that are used for the nutritional needs of the population. Thousands of years ago the human population depended on hunting and gathering to provide nourishment. Because there were winters, droughts, heat waves and other unfavorable weather conditions that affected the food availability, the humans had to rely on whatever they could find to get them through these tough times.

Today we don't have to be concerned about finding food during the winter. The miracle of modern agriculture allows us unlimited food for the whole year. But we are still dependent on planting each spring. But what if there were vegetables available that don't need to be replanted each year? Wouldn't they be a good supplement to the garden?

The good news is that there are some plants that can be labeled as "perennial vegetables" A perennial is defined as an herbaceous plant that comes back year after year. They die back during the cold winter and emerge the following spring. So a perennial vegetable is an edible plant that comes back each year. In our temperate climate there are about 40 perennial vegetables and culinary herbs that can be used in our gardens. While perennial vegetables are not meant to replace our existing foods, they make a nice treat in addition to our residential vegetable gardens. I would like to highlight a few of the important ones.

Asparagus is one of my favorite springtime treats. Asparagus grows wild throughout Europe and the Middle East. It was first mentioned by the ancient Greeks. There are male and female asparagus plants, but the males make more of the spears for consumption. Asparagus spears emerge in the early spring and are most tasty when small. It is easy to grow asparagus from roots. Dig a trench about 1 foot wide and about 6 inches deep. Spread out the roots about 18 inches apart and cover with 2 inches of humus rich soil. When the sprouts grow about 4 inches high, top-dress with about 3 more inches of soil. Repeat again so that you have a slight mound. Allow your plants to grow the first year without allowing weeds to grow in between the individual asparagus plants. The following year you can take a limited harvest. Subsequent years will yield larger harvests of succulent spears.

Rhubarb has a history of use as a medicinal plant. A native of Mongolia, the root is a powerful laxative. Dry powdered root was traded throughout Europe and Asia before the French started using this plant for food consumption. By 1830 rhubarb was commonly used as a winter vegetable in London. Only the leaf stalks are edible. The leaves are poisonous and can lead to illness or death. Rhubarb has many applications such as breads, cakes, pies, tarts and sauces. Planting is as easy as division of existing roots in the fall. I have seen plants get large enough to split into a dozen or more plants. Of course, a rich humus soil is preferable.

Horseradish, while not grown by the individual gardener in large quantities, is a perennial vegetable. This 3000 year old plant has been used as an aphrodisiac, a treatment for rheumatism, a headache cure, a bitter herb for Passover Seders and a flavor accompaniment for beef, oysters and ketchup. It has also been used in smelling salts to awaken unconscious people. March is a good month to plant horseradish in the garden.

The Jerusalem artichoke is another perennial vegetable. While not from Jerusalem and not even an artichoke, this edible tuber has many flavorful and healthful benefits. Some doctors prescribe its use as a substitute for potatoes for diabetics.

Since there is a strong interest in perennial vegetables, there are also cabbages, kales, spinaches and herbs being developed to be used as perennial vegetables. You might give some of them consideration for your garden. Remember that since they will be in the ground for many years, it is definitely important that they are given a sunny, well-drained soil full of organic matter. You will find that planting perennial vegetables will be a true garden investment.

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