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Edible perennials that can survive the winter chill

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Opinion: There are some edible perennials that can get into our gardens before we even hit that 10C threshold.

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Brian Minter Raw organic Jerusalem artichoke sunchokes. Raw organic Jerusalem artichoke sunchokes. Photo by Getty Images

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For the people concerned about getting early vegetables on the go, Mother Nature has only given us a subtle reminder that she is the one in charge of the timing of the garden.

The recent cold spell should also make us more aware than ever that all cool-loving vegetables such as onions, peas and radishes are best planted when the daytime temperature is constantly 10 ° C or more. However, there are some edible perennials that can get into our gardens before we even hit that 10C threshold.

A very robust garden staple from the cruciferous family, horseradish has long been used to add flavor to many of our foods. Native to Eastern Europe, Russia, and Finland, the early colonists brought it to America, where they managed to escape these early gardens into the wild and become a somewhat invasive invader.

It’s a little more civilized today.

At this time of year, horseradish is available as a root division. Plant them a foot apart with the thin end down and the top about three inches below the soil line. Now planted, they will ripen by autumn. At this point, the outer roots can be harvested, with the middle root in place for continued production. The fastest growth occurs in late summer. Once established, horseradish can be harvested all year round.

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To use them, rub the roots in white wine vinegar for immediate use, or if bottled and refrigerated, they will keep for weeks. For longer storage, rub and dry the roots to a powder before bottling.

However, it is enjoyed fresh when horseradish is best and spiciest and gives meat such as roast beef and even seafood sauces a special twist.

In connection with sunflowers, the so-called Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus) is probably the least known perennial vegetable. It is native to eastern North America and has no relation whatsoever to the actual artichokes we all know and love. Early North American explorers returned to Europe in the 17th century. The French called her the “Artichaut du Canada”. These very sturdy, gnarled little tubers spread pretty quickly until they are invasive. The tubers about four inches deep send out sunflower-like stems that are six to ten feet tall and produce three-inch flowers.

The tubers can be harvested after approx. 100 days. In terms of preparation, they have many similarities to potatoes, but they should never be over cooked for fear of making them too difficult to eat. Most people cut them finely in salads or use them as a side dish in clear soups. Cooked for about 15 minutes, they become quite tender and are particularly good served with an oil and vinegar dressing. At this stage, they can also be sautéed in butter for a wonderful treat. These tubers are starch free and since their carbohydrates are not converted to sugar, they can be enjoyed by people with diabetes.

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Real artichokes may soon be made from seeds, and they still have time to produce beautiful, edible, flowering seed pods. These tender perennials (zone 8) can be grown in colder climates (up to zone 6), provided they have good winter protection. Once established, they will produce year after year.

The ancient Romans were among the first to enjoy this unique edible thistle. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, the Medici family introduced these gourmet delicacies to the French in Florence.

Both French and Spanish explorers brought them to North America. If you’ve ever traveled through the agricultural areas between San Francisco and Santa Barbara, especially September through May, you’ll see hundreds of acres of artichokes growing. They make quite a spectacular sight.

Most people start with mature plants when the temperature warms up from mid-April to mid-May. Within a growing season, these large, three to four foot plants each produce three to five thistle heads that are ready for harvest in late summer when they’re dense and plump. Boiled or steamed for around 45 minutes, they can be served hot or cold. The leaves, which are peeled off one at a time and dipped in a sauce or melted butter, are then eaten by pulling each leaf through the teeth to extract the delicious, meaty contents. Once all of the leaves have been enjoyed, scrape off the fuzzy center and soak up the heart of the artichoke with any number of herbal sauces.

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When artichoke heads are harvested in our region, cut the stem to about a foot and protect the plant well in winter with a combination of mulch and evergreen twigs. Always place artichoke plants in the sunniest part of the garden from cold winter winds.

Now is the time to plant long-lived rhubarb, the most famous and beloved perennial vegetable. Rhubarb can be bought either as a clump of rhizome or as a starter plant. Started plants will save at least a year if they can be harvested. Rhubarb takes up space because a plant can be about three feet in diameter. Most people plant a single clump, but three plants are usually enough for a larger family.

Some of the best varieties of rhubarb are Canada Red, Victoria, Crimson Cherry, McDonald, and Valentine Red. Younger, thinner stems can easily be cut into small pieces, while older, thick stems may need to be peeled before cooking or steaming. Rhubarb is mainly used in desserts, such as rhubarb pie, which is a classic, or combined with a variety of berries to make great jams, jellies, and fruit compotes.

Asparagus is a highly valued perennial vegetable. Although it takes three years for the seed to be produced, its roots will still produce for at least 15 years. Starting with established one or two year old roots will save you at least a year of growing time. ‘Mary Washington’ is a traditional old favorite. Newer hybrids like ‘Jersey Knight’ produce larger crops of large, attractive green spears with purple bracts and tips. ‘Millennium’ is one of the most productive there has ever been. ‘Sweet Purple’ spears have a 20 percent higher sugar content and are usually eaten raw. ‘Rhapsody’ is a delicious white variety. Once established, the spears must be covered with earth to keep them pure white.

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Asparagus needs a sunny, well-drained location with slightly alkaline soil. Planting includes trenches dug four feet apart, 12 inches wide, and 12 to 18 inches deep. Each trench bottom is filled with a pile of earth mixed with well-composted manure. The top of the hill should be three to four inches below the ground.

The roots are placed on the mound, pointing straight down, 18 inches apart, and evenly spaced on either side. The ditch is filled in so that the tips of the asparagus are hardly covered. Root growth begins almost immediately, although it will take a year for the roots to be well established.

In the second year after planting, harvest some spears for up to six weeks. When the spears are six to eight inches high, cut them at a 45 degree angle about 1 1/2 inches below the floor line – be careful not to damage the crowns.

When spears attack you, let them develop into leaves. Once the spears get very thin, stop cutting. Let the feathers grow all summer. Leave them in colder parts of BC to catch snow for better winter protection. On the lower mainland, cut the feathers in September when seed pods form and cover the roots with four inches of coarse manure.

All of these edible perennials are a real treat in any garden, and when our growing season starts soon, try to find homes for some or all of them to enjoy for years to come.

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Robert Dunfee