Updated: Jan 23, 2021
By Julia Fursova for Neighbours for the Planet.
May 20, 2020
COVID-19 pandemic has certainly laid bare the many vulnerabilities in our existing economic system that relies heavily on the extraction of maximum value from people and the natural environments while giving little in return. The fragility of the global food supply system is one of such vulnerabilities. Yet food shortages and spiked prices are only a start of what may come as part of the climate crisis. COVID-19 pandemic gives us a taste (pun intended) of what happens when we rely too much on wasteful processes of production and consumption. One of the many lessons brought by this pandemic is about the value of local food production. Amidst all the anxiety about climbing food prices and potential food shortages, many people turned to gardening. When the food prices grow, it’s time to grow your own food! A bonus – locally grown produce tastes so much better, and gardening is exceptionally good for our health and for the health of the planet!
Start small, start slow but start something, whether a planter on your patio or a balcony or a small plot on your back/front yard. And for those who decided to start their gardening adventure, I would like to share my experience with growing perennial herbs and vegetables.
One of the best decisions you can make as a gardener, apart from making your own compost, of course, is to plant some perennial herbs and vegetables. You plant them once, and then like good dependable friends they come back every spring. They also grow bigger and bushier every year, provided you take good care of them.
Gardening brings many joys and pleasures but let’s not kid ourselves, it is also a lot of hard work. Backbreaking work, quite literally, if one pushes it too hard. Perennials save you time and effort, you plant them only once. Of course, they cannot fully substitute annual vegetables such as cucumbers, tomatoes, squash, etc. but they are a satisfying addition to a productive garden.
Here I am sharing my list of the easiest perennial herbs and vegetables to grow. Some of them are pretty invasive, meaning the care and maintenance will have to include limiting or containing their growth, if you don’t want them to take over the garden.
I will start with sorrel, because it is a reliable leafy vegetable that is first to come and last to go. It gives a steady supply of sour-tasting green foliage, somewhat like spinach but tangier. About seven years ago I bought two scrawny looking plants for $2 each, and that was the best investment I ever made. Since then they took over the raised bed where I planted them, and I have been generously distributing them among friends and neighbours. What do you make with sorrel? Treat it like spinach, add to salads, soups, pizza, pasta sauce. Make sorrel soup or sauté the chopped leaves with butter into a green puree and use it as a tangy sauce for your grilled fish.
Mint. Who doesn’t enjoy a cup of mint tea? Perhaps only those who enjoy a glass of mojito cocktail? More reason to grow mint then. I grow two kinds – peppermint and orange mint. Orange mint has a fruity, orange-like smell and makes an exquisite tea. Mint is definitely invasive, so be careful about choosing the location. I planted it in my raised beds with perennial flowers (lilies and such) and use it as a groundcover that I regularly harvest to keep it under control. I dry harvested mint and enjoy my herbal teas with a hint of mint all year round. My supply of dried mint leaves lasts approximately from November to March. In May, a new fresh mint starts coming in.
Lemon balm - another member of mint family with a nice lemony aroma. Lemon balm and mint make the most soothing cup of herbal tea. Lemon balm is more modest and won’t invade your garden, it is also less cold tolerant and shows up later in spring. I grow it in my flower beds for its nice decorative light-green foliage.
Chives – a perennial member of the onion family with edible leaves, and the beautiful flowers that the plant produces are edible too! Chives grow best when the temperatures are a bit cooler, so their best crop is in spring and fall. A nice way to preserve chives is to make chives butter by simply mixing softened butter with finely chopped chives, and then freezing it. The freshness of chives in that butter when you use it in the middle of the winter on your warm toast, will remind you of the glorious summer days.
Wild strawberries – an excellent groundcover and a true sign of summer. I inherited the backyard with wild strawberries that someone else planted before me. I simply let them grow and they just spread! They tend to congregate on the sunnier spots but grow even in shade. When in shade, they fruit later but that means we have two batches of wild strawberries. We make no complaints. In late spring they delight us with their white dainty flowers and come early summer the backyard is full of ruby-red tasty jewels. They make a nice addition to almost everything, a chocolate cake, an arugula and goat cheese salad with balsamic vinegar, and simply as a nice summer-time snack on its own. I make a ritual of having a handful of them every morning as I greet my garden. I like to think of the garden greeting me back with its gift of wild strawberries (a credit to Robin Wall Kimmerer for her inspiration and wisdom).
Alpine strawberries – tiny and delicate and ‘oh so full of flavour’ if one is patient enough and let them get fully ripened. This may be a challenge because they are so tempting against their dark green foliage on a hot summer day or a brisk autumn morning. Yep, that’s right, they produce berries from early summer until the first frost. I grow mine in a separate container, so they don’t intermix with wild strawberries.
Rhubarb – since I mentioned strawberries how could I omit the rhubarb? Another satisfying perennial vegetable to grow. Harvesting the ruby red stalks is another sign of summer. Whether made into a rhubarb compote, crumble, pie or a coffee cake, rhubarb is a delight. It was hard to resist harvesting it in its second year after I planted it but, to be honest, I should have waited. My rhubarb plant looks now as it did not have enough time to establish itself. I will be gentle with it this year hoping that next summer it will bring us more of those juicy tangy stalks.
Arugula and kale – although not quite perennial, it is also worth mentioning them as an option of a ‘lower-maintenance’ garden. Both are quite cold resistant and can survive throughout the winter under the cover. There were years when I kept harvesting arugula until Christmas. This year a few plants survived under the heap of dry leaves and quickly bounced back as soon as the snow melted. I am planning to be more intentional and will set up a cold frame for them using polythene sheet for protection this fall.
That’s about it. Enjoy your garden and plant some perennials for an easier start of the gardening season for the years to come! If you have questions or would like to engage in the discussion about gardening with perennials, I started a new thread on the Neighbours for the Planet gardening forum, you can find it here. I look forward to hearing from you!
Julia Fursova with Neighbours for the Planet
Bio: Julia Fursova is a resident of Richmond Hill and a member of Neighbours for the Planet since September 2019. Julia has been participating in climate action since 2012 and has been supporting climate justice movement as a community activist, a practitioner in the non-profit sector and most recently as an academic. Julia is a PhD graduate in Environmental Studies, York University and has been researching community action for health justice, exploring what individual, organizational and institutional practices can support transition to a more sustainable, just, and healthy future for all. Julia writes about human behavior and actions in the context of planetary health with an aim to educate the public on the importance of shifting to regenerative and sustainable ways of being. Gardening, cycling, camping, hiking, wildcrafting and mixed-media art with recyclables are among Julia’s passions.