Posts Tagged ‘semi-permaculture’

Living in Interesting Times: Unexpected Perennial Vegetables


I’ve written a lot about the perennial “weeds” around my place that keep me in greens,  but there are also some veggies that aren’t known as perennials but can be managed that way for good eating with very little work.

Surprisingly, garlic can be managed that way. I plant a lot of garlic because I use huge amounts as green garlic before it ever matures a bulb. In one area I forgot to harvest, and by year three I had a thick clump of fine grassy leaves in the spring that were tender and delicately scented of garlic. Of course you won’t get any bulbs if you manage garlic this way. It’s strictly a leafy herb. In early spring I start cutting bunches of the leaves thinly, like chives,  to float on soups and toss decoratively on top of other dishes. By late spring the leaves are tougher and I use handfuls of them chopped into stir-fries where they will get at least a few minutes of cooking. In midsummer the leaves brown and die back, and new leaves come up in the fall.

I’m also experimenting with managing ordinary leeks in a perennial bed. So far I’ve only been at this for a couple of years, so I don’t know how it will work out in the long run. The first year I planted deeply in the normal way, then when I was ready to harvest the leeks in late summer, I carefully dug away the dirt next to them and cut the edible shaft off, leaving the base and roots in place. Naturally you get a bit of dirt on the cut and have to trim away another 1/4 inch to clean them up for the kitchen. The following spring each base sent up between 2 and 5 “daughters.” I dug some out by the roots to thin the bed, using the thinnings  chopped up in greens dishes. I left some by themselves and some as smaller clumps of two or three.

At this point in late spring all are of useable size, although of course the singletons are larger. I’ll harvest some as described above and leave some in place to throw up a bloomscape. Leek scapes  are one of my favorite garden treats. The tough outer skin needs to be peeled off but the interior is delicious, sweet, crisp, and gently oniony. It’s a wonderful element in Chinese dishes, having both flavor and texture.
I’ll plan to dig out enough by the roots to leave just one base in each planting position, so that (I hope) each will again make good-sized useable leeks the following year.

Keep in mind that your own leeks, harvested young, can often be used up to the tips. Cut the leaves in cross sections about 1/4” wide and use in cooked greens dishes or stew them gently in butter or olive oil with a little salt until tender. They need cooking to get tender even in early spring, and get tougher as the weather warms and are no longer useable except to cook in broth for flavoring. Don’t try cooking the leaves of leeks from the store, which have been in storage and are tough as nails.

When managing anything as a perennial, don’t forget to keep the soil fed. I sprinkle some chicken manure around in fall, then mulch with alfalfa hay, and the soil is black and rich now, a far remove from  the tan adobe clay that I started with.

Living in Interesting Times: Spring Greens

This is a very strange time for everyone. As a healthcare provider, I know how much there is to worry about. I know that not everyone can isolate themselves from exposure, and not everyone has the luxury (and it is a luxury) of the money and space to store some crisis supplies. Not everyone has the luxury of a job right now, by a long shot. If you do, appreciate what you have and help others if you possibly can.

At this as at other tough times, I find myself thinking back to growing up in Louisiana. In hurricane country people were used to regular interruptions of basic services and kept on hand what they needed to get through 2-3 weeks. They helped each other and they followed the hurricane directives. So respect the restrictions we operate under right now and do the best you can not to be part of the problem.

Narrowing this down to the garden, there is nothing as comforting as being able to get some food from your own yard. There’s an egg shortage, but my chickens are laying, supplying us and a few colleagues and neighbors with at least some eggs. Rice and beans and seasonings are in the pantry, and if you always keep herbs in the garden and a few ham hocks in the freezer, you have the means to make things taste good.
This is a great time to learn to use your weeds if you haven’t already. I actually had to buy seeds to have dandelions, but once you have them they are faithful kitchen friends every spring. If you don’t care for bitter greens, mix them with milder greens like nettles, scorzonera, bladder campion, and salsify, all growing lustily in my yard right now and all perfectly delicious when cooked. If you don’t know these unstoppable weeds, learn about them and plant them now or learn where they grow. Then spring will be a time of abundance, regardless of what’s going on in the greater world, and the less need you have for outside groceries, the more there are for someone else. Seal and freeze the extra to eat another time. If you have a patch of Egyptian or other perennial onions, you’ll always have seasoning on hand, and a handful of chopped oil-cured olives adds delicious umami.


Mixed cooked greens in the refrigerator can be eaten in tortillas with cheese, used to top rice with some butter and meat juices, or (most deliciously, in my view) spread on toasted sourdough bread and topped with fluffy grated flakes of good Parmesan.
After that will come the meaty delicious leaves from last year’s chard plants, mulberry sprigs, hops shoots, and who knows what all. This may be the year that I finally try cooking the newest Siberian elm leaves, instead of feeding them all to the animals. I’ll comb my foraging and permaculture books for other things I haven’t tried yet.

The reason to do all this is not that there is no food in stores. There’s lots of food, with strange exceptions currently caused by hoarding more than any actual lack of supply. The reason is to take yourself out of the hoarding mentality and into a frame of mind to nourish yourself well and realize that you will act responsibly and do as well as you can. Life is uncertain and COVID-19 even more so. Everyone is at risk right now, but if we are staying home responsibly when not working and minimizing risk to ourselves and others we’ll feel better. If we feel that we can get things for elderly friends and relatives so that they can isolate more effectively, we’ll feel better. And staying home to garden, tend animals, and forage in the yard feels a lot better than sitting around watching television.

Natural Chaos

A garden bed with edible weeds in glorious (?) array

For a brief period earlier this year I had a lovely young helper in the garden, and he was a sponge for any information about plants and animals and a joy to have around. At one point, as he talked about how much he wanted a “yard farm” of his own, he looked around my yard and said thoughtfully “But mine will always be neat as a pin.” He didn’t say “by contrast,” but the implication was clear, and quite true.

Well, if there is one thing my urban homestead is not, it’s neat as a pin. Nature grows and blooms. Nature also surges, intrudes, overwhelms, dies back, regrows,  creeps, climbs, and insidiously gets Her own way. The gardener plays a part in natural chaos too; all the photos of lovely front yard veggie gardens that you see in magazines are taken before harvest. The gardener cuts the glowing rainbow chard, harvests the multicolored row of lettuces, picks the crimson tomatoes, and plucks the shiny apples, and suddenly things aren’t so camera-ready. Admittedly, many are neater than mine, since many gardeners lack my taste for edible weeds and my belief that nearly any plant has a purpose.  But if you want to get the most that you can get out of gardening, a degree of chaos tolerance may be a useful asset.

My blogging friend Luke of the Mortaltree blog summed this up so superbly that, with his permission, I’m linking to his post on the subject. So please hit this link and read his post “Taste of Chaos,” which really sums up the land-healing experience:

Taste of chaos

Turkish Rocket in garden and kitchen

Last year I finally got around to planting  the perennial vegetable Turkish rocket, Bunius orientalis, and this year I was able to experiment with it in the kitchen. I had read that it was invasive and so I limited myself to five plants that I could watch carefully, meaning that my experiments were on a very small scale. So far, here’s what I found:

As so many have discovered before me,  the leaves are so strongly mustardy that they create quite an unpleasant burn in the back of the throat, and they are not a culinary object as far as I am concerned. Even my goat wouldn’t  eat them.

The bud clusters are used like broccoli rabe.  They can be very delicious, but timing is everything. The proper stage is shown in the photo above, when each stalk has one small bud cluster and the buds themselves are green, not yet showing the edges of bright yellow petals.  At this point, they can be blanched in boiling water for a minute or two, drained well, and then sautéed in olive oil with garlic and chili flakes and have the slight nutty-mustardy quality of good rabe,  with no burn as you swallow. You would need several well-established plants to get enough for a few servings, as far as I can tell, but they would certainly deserve their space.

Here’s a close-up of a stalk in the perfect stage for eating. Snap off the top few inches of stem with the buds and it will cook up beautifully.

This picture shows the next stage in the stalk’s development.  The stem has elongated and the small original cluster has spread into sub clusters. I had hoped that this would be a good stage for harvesting, since you would get more material than at earlier stages, however it was not to be. At this stage, even when  cooked, there is a very unpleasant mustardy burn that continues to build in the back of the throat for a few minutes after swallowing. Not a pleasant experience. Once the subclusters have started to show and some yellow shows on the outermost buds, don’t bother.  It is possible that they could be  cooked longer, cooled, and ground with olive oil, salt, and maybe a little lemon into a sharp mustard-like condiment, but I have not experimented with that and throw it out as a purely theoretical idea, possibly similar to a green horseradish sauce.  Because of the throat burn factor, if you choose to experiment with that idea, try it out privately before you foist it on hapless guests.

Then there is the flowering stage at which it is a bright cheerful yellow and is a fair bee plant, not highly preferred but certainly visited.

This is the stage that I am waiting for, so that I can plant a whole row of it and have a lot more to cook in the future.

For me this perennial vegetable fills a good niche  after the winter broccoli is gone, but before the spring broccoli begins producing. This time of year there are a lot of edible leaves in my garden but not too much else, so some textural variation is very welcome.

Regarding the claims of invasiveness, I am sure that this is true in many areas, but in my desert climate it requires a fair amount of water to grow well, so I doubt that it could grow outside the confines of my fence.

Permaculture Salad, and Notes on the Siberian Elm

Spring on the urban homestead is so beautiful and bountiful that I can hardly believe it, and I spend more time than I care to admit just wandering around dazed with the wonder and joy of it all.  But there is a practical aspect to my trance, because while giving thanks to the cosmos for the life that surrounds me, I am noting what can go in the salad bowl that evening.

The salad shown above is a pretty typical urban homestead salad. It contains a handful of lettuce, some early arugula, and a lot of biennials and perennials that wintered over and got an early start.   Tiny leaves of curly kale that began to leaf out as soon as the weather got warm are good salad material, still sweet from night frosts, although I don’t like older kale in salads.  There is a little chervil because I threw the seeds around in warm spots last fall.

So here’s the species list for tonight:

Lettuce

arugula

chervil

scorzonera

salsify

wild lettuce

sow thistle

dandelion

Siberian elm samaras

Bladder campion

tarragon

mustard (one Southern Giant plant overwintered somehow)

Green perennial onions

A few further notes on the ingredients: in the past I had tried cooking scorzonera greens and thought they were fairly uninteresting, but for some reason I never tried them as salad material until this year. They are very mild in flavor and have a nice slightly substantial and tender texture, and I am using them a lot now.  They make a good base for some more flavorful greens like dandelion and mustard and arugula.  I have written in the past about how much I love the elongating flower stalks when pan grilled in olive oil, so this is a very good dual purpose vegetable. I plan to plant more of it.

In the past I have mostly used Siberian elm samaras as a “hand salad” eaten spontaneously on walks when  they presented themselves.  They are too mild to be of much interest cooked, although I do use them in greens mixtures sometimes, but I have found that I like them in salads in rather substantial amounts, probably a cup of washed samaras in a salad for two.  There is something about the texture that I enjoy, provided you pick them at the right stage, when they are about the size of a dime and the edges are still fresh green and have not yet grown at all papery.  They need a little bit of cleaning, but most of the debris can be floated off once you have broken up the clumps with your fingers, and 15 minutes of preparation is not too much for a vegetable that cost you no effort or money whatsoever in the growing.

Have a  look at what’s available to you in field and forest and in your own yard.  Learn how to make a really good vinaigrette. Use common sense, and don’t eat plants unless you are completely sure that they are edible.

The Semi-Permaculture Kitchen

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Recently I read a cookbook which I am not going to name because I was quite disappointed in it but can’t stand to pan such clearly goodhearted efforts. So I will only say that it is from my favorite publisher and has the word “permaculture” in the title. The recipes are perfectly good vegetable based recipes, similar to those in many, many other good cookbooks on the market. My disappointment is this: it concentrates on the usual annual vegetables that everybody grows, with occasional vague mentions of foraged greens or wild mushrooms, and seems to me to have very little to do with permaculture. So, uh, why call it that?
So today I’m going to indulge myself and make a plea to all potential authors, and talk about what a real permaculture cookbook would offer, with great hope that somebody knows of one or will sit down and write one. I am a semi-permaculturist at best, and even so some very strange produce indeed comes through my kitchen. Some examples: nettles, bladder campion, hops shoots, green garlic, blackberry shoots, cattails, unripe as well as ripe apples and plums, Goumi berries, clove currants, wax currants, linden leaves, mulberry leaves and unripe fruit as well as ripe berries, rau ram, ginger and turmeric leaves, radish pods, chicory leaves and roots, burdock stalks, milkweed, daylilies, hosta shoots, groundnuts (Apios americana, not peanuts,) goji shoots and berries, canna leaves and bulbs, quinces, salsify, and scorzonera as well as the more usual veggies and fruits. Bamboo shoots and the Japanese perennial vegetables Fuki and Udo should be ready to harvest in the next year or two. All these things grow well in semiwild tangles that can be managed with little or no soil disturbance after the initial planting. I would love to read a cookbook about foods like this. I would love to read knowledgable descriptions of their flavor and texture profiles and how they change through the season, how other cultures have used them, and how to make them respected at the modern table. That, to me, would be a real permaculture cookbook. I know that all over the world there are committed permaculturists working with these plants and eating them. I do hope that somebody will put it all in print. I’m hoping for a cookbook as weird and thoroughly wonderful as Baudar’s The New Wildcrafted Cuisine but devoted to the daily surprises, wild and cultivated and in-between, that can be offered by a single piece of land.

While I wait for this book to be brought to my attention, or written, I hope that you will comment with something unusual that you’ve eaten recently and what you thought of it.
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Gather Ye Nitrogen While Ye May: Desert Bird-of-Paradise

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Caesalpinia gilliesii, the Desert Bird-of-Paradise, is a spectacular plant. It is native to South America but is naturalized throughout the Southwest. It would probably grow in other places. It thrives on our alkaline soil, baking desert sun, and low rainfall. It’s gorgeous in bloom and neat-looking when not in bloom. It seeds itself around but is easily eradicated where not wanted. It provides filtered shade to other plants. And it fixes nitrogen. Quite a set of advantages.
I’m making use of it on a dry, hot, unirrigated strip of south-facing land along my driveway where I want to grow goji berries. The goji plants struggled and mostly died at first, but as seed-sown bird-of-paradise takes hold and provides them with some shade and nitrogen, the gojis are getting a new lease on life and have finally put out some berries. I trudge the hose over and give everything a deep soaking about once every 3-4 weeks.
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For years I struggled with Caragena arborescans, which is the darling of the permaculturists but simply will not grow well, or at all, for me. Now I have Caesalpinia instead. No part of it is edible but it helps edibles grow. It has survived 10 degrees Fahrenheit with no problems. In Britian they do have hardiness issues with it, and I think it won’t tolerate wet feet. For dry gardens it works beautifully.
So look around you and see what nitrogen-fixers thrive in your area and grow without pampering. Use them. Don’t fuss with the ones that are determined to die.