A typical cycle for growing vegetables might involve buying seeds, cultivating
seedlings at home to beat the chilly North-East climate, planting out, protecting from
pests such as pesky slugs and snails, weeding, harvesting and feeding the soil to
make it ready for the next rotated plants. It’s a lot of work which you can reduce
greatly in some cases with self-seeding and perpetual crops.
Most vegetables will eventually flower and go to seed if left in the ground for long enough, which usually means that it is time to dig them up. Some, if left to themselves will produce offspring from their seeds which, unlike most weeds, you can actually eat. Two of my favourites are chard and miner’s lettuce. I planted chard last autumn. These hardy plants started to grow in the spring and provided a late-spring green vegetable which could be eaten in salad if young or cooked. They went to seed in mid-summer and quickly produced offspring, shown below, which we should be able to eat through much of the autumn and winter. Hopefully, they will produce a new set of baby chard and keep going for several generations. All I need to do is give the old plants time to flower and seed, and to ensure that I don’t mistake the seedlings for weeds. My plants produced so may offspring that I had to thin them out quite harshly.
Miner’s lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata) was cultivated by miners working in Alberta as it could withstand sub-arctic winters and is a rich source of vitamin C. I found it returning of its own accord in late summer and autumn, as shown. The plants shown above will spread out and eventually cover most of the raised bed. This is the second year in which a volunteer crop has appeared from seeds I bought three years ago. They lie dormant in the spring and most of the summer, allowing other crops to be planted in the main growing season.
I must also mention the most enthusiastic volunteer of all, and not entirely a good one, namely potatoes. It’s almost impossible to clear them completely when harvesting, and new plants will grow from any potatoes or even bits of potato which are left in the ground. Growers are encouraged to buy fresh seed potatoes each year, and not to plant old ones as they spread Potato Blight which is definitely a problem on our site. This doesn’t really apply to volunteers growing in the same place as the previous crop. They won’t spread blight and will grow among a rotated crop of non-potatoes, sometimes crowding it out. Moreover, they tend to be too shallow to produce a good crop and are particularly prone to blight. It’s best to dig them up early and enjoy a small amount of early, young potatoes.
Perpetual veggies may suit lazy gardeners particularly well as, once they are established, you need to do almost nothing other than eat and occasionally feed them. They look after themselves, block weeds and become immune to pests. We have been adding a little sorrel from the same plants to our salads for years. The main problem is to stop it from growing, which I do by confining it to a largish container.
Globe artichokes provide a delicious summer delicacy which you can’t easily buy in UK shops. We get 20-30 each year from two large plants, shown below. They die back a bit after fruiting but are already recovering, as can be seen in the picture which was taken in early autumn.
The most enthusiastic perennial vegetable is rhubarb. Yes - it is a veggie in botanical terms, although not a culinary one. I find that people either love or hate rhubarb. But rhubarb-sceptics should kindly note that it is particularly delicious in a pie or crumble when mixed with strawberries. Some people report trouble growing rhubarb, perhaps because of differences in growing conditions. According to the Web, it likes an open sunny site, with moist but free-draining soil. It doesn’t like being waterlogged in the winter or late frosts when it is growing. In my experience, the main problem is to stop rhubarb from spreading. I put four different varieties in a confined small bed about 10 years ago. Theory requires that the plants be pulled up and divided every three years. I have never bothered, and have grown vast amounts every year without any effort whatsoever other than cutting away dead bits and piling on annual manure.
Bizarrely, my rhubarb starts to grow new pink bits in early winter, and is ready to eat by April, way before the usual summer fruits. The picture shown was taken in late November 2023. As can be seen, the rhubarb is starting to sprout! We pick and eat fresh rhubarb until the end of September, as well as freezing some tender sticks early in the season. The huge leaves block out competing weeds which stand no chance of flourishing nearby. The leaves should never be eaten, but are fine as a natural weed and slug barrier under other crops, particularly strawberries. The oxalic acid which makes the leaves poisonous breaks down when the leaves rot and add nutrients to the soil.
My piece de resistance is perpetual kale, a fairly new crop. A commercial grower noticed that some of his kale plants weren’t going to seed and realised that he had discovered a perennial mutant. He started selling plants, and for some time, it was almost impossible to buy them. But it seems to be widely available on-line now, although rather expensive. (However, before reaching for your credit card, see below). I’ve had two perpetual kale plants, shown below, for about two years. They have attractive variegated leaves, and are tasty if well-steamed. Although I have left the netting up, they are probably more than a match for any weed. The main problem is that it’s impossible to eat the leaves as quickly as they grow! Best of all, to propagate new, tender plants, all you need to do is break off a largish cutting, plant it and keep it well-watered for a couple of weeks until it shows signs of growth. My baby kale, shown below, was planted from a cutting about four weeks before the picture was taken.
So, if you want to give it a try, please ask me for a free cutting!