For the veg gardener it’s all about planning and ordering seeds in the darker winter months, mostly the annual crops we grow each year.
But it’s also worth considering including some perennial veg in your garden, if you have the room. Apart from giving some really delicious and high value crops, these are often beautiful ornamental plants and need less intensive maintenance than annual edible crops. In the kitchen garden at RHS Harlow Carr you will find Jerusalem artichokes, globe artichokes and cardoons, asparagus, seakale, good King Henry, and Chinese artichokes. Also a large area for growing rhubarb – classed a vegetable rather than a fruit as the stem is the edible part - you might well not have room for all of these, so go for one or two favourites.
Helianthus tuberosus, Jerusalem artichokes are a great winter veg grown for their roots. They are related to sunflowers, but don’t always flower in this country. Originally from South America, not Jerusalem as the name suggests (a corruption of ‘girasole’, the Italian for sunflower), the plant forms tubers, a bit like potatoes and you can prepare them in the same way. They have a sort of smoky flavour and are wonderful baked. Sadly underrated as a root veg, partly due to a reputation for being difficult to prepare – tubers can be fiddly to peel, though there are smoother shaped varieties available, e.g. Gerard. They are also renowned for causing wind as a result of the body’s inability to break down particular sugars, which is overcome the more you eat!
They are very easy to grow, but good cultivation with lots of organic matter and deep soil will result in better tubers – equidistant planting at around 40cm gives good results. Plants can grow to 3m tall so you need to be aware of shading other crops - we cut stems back by 1/3 in winter to stop windrock damaging the tubers. The plants are very hardy and tubers are best left in the ground until needed, and indeed flavour improves with the colder weather. To keep good stock going, select the best tubers and replant after harvesting.
Another striking perennial veg is the globe artichoke, its spikey silver leaves and purple thistle flower are gorgeous. It grows to around 1m and yields relatively little for the space, but it’s worth having if it is a veg you love. In this case, it is the flower buds that are eaten. They are an incredible seasonal treat. We have been growing a variety called Concerto, which are doing well.
Again, this plant is not difficult to grow if you add organic matter to the soil to retain moisture, as well as mulch to control weeds and prevent the soil drying out. It is a Mediterranean plant, so protection from cold winds is a must, as well as good drainage. Prop is by offshoots, so you can keep renewing your stock.
Seakale (Crambe maritima) has the most beautiful glaucous, blue-grey leaves and stems, as well as white scented flowers in the summer and much-loved by the bees. Seakale plants are grown from root cuttings or ‘thongs’ planted in early spring. Being seaside plants they prefer sandy soil, so you may need to add grit or sand. These very hardy plants will need mulch in spring with well-rotted manure or topdress with low nitrogen fertilizer.
Look after your perennial veg and as well as looking gorgeous, it will reward you with wonderful crops for years! Seed catalogues and websites will be offering plug plants, root cuttings and tubers ready for planting up for spring, but beware, it’s very easy to get carried away...