Perennial Edibles Discussed at Garden Show Workshop
YORK, Pa. — After experimenting with perennial edible plants for the past three years, Wendy Brister was ready to release her list of best picks during a workshop held at the recent Pennsylvania Garden Show of York (PAGSY) in York, Pa.
Brister serves as the community garden chairperson at the nonprofit organization, The Horn Farm Center for Agricultural Education, in Hellam, Pa. The center has community gardens, seed swaps, farming and gardening workshops, and a program to help aspiring farmers get established.
The annual PAGSY event ran March 1-3 at the York Expo Center in York, Pa., and featured a “Nature’s Symphony” theme. This year’s exhibitors included 11 landscapers and more than 100 vendors. Garden book author, Tovah Martin, gave several seminars and hosted a book signing during the garden show.
First up in Brister’s best edible perennial list was the everbearing strawberry.
“Strawberries have come a long way from pick one season and done,” Brister said. “We now have everbearing strawberries, and I’m also seeing a trend toward woodland berry, which comes in red, yellow and white.”
Strawberries, according to Brister, make “a great groundcover.”
“Use them in place of ivy,” she said. “Plus, you get fruit.”
The berry plants also work well in containers, where they overwinter very well, she said.
Brister is also a fan of rose hips.
“They are great for jams and jellies,” she said.
She recommends the hardy rosa rugosa shrub, which has great foliage and single, pink flowers.
Serviceberries, or Juneberries, offer “great single white flowers in spring and then you get fruit, plus orange fall color,” Brister said. “You can’t go wrong with this. It offers three seasons of interest.”
The sweet, small berries are only in season for two weeks but “make great pies,” she said. “Any way you could use use blueberries, you can use serviceberries.”
Brister also highlighted pawpaws, produced from a tree native to the area. The pawpaw fruit grows to be 3-5 inches long. When it is cut open it has a sweet yellow pulp inside, and “tastes like a banana custard,” according to Brister. The inch-long seeds are pulled out of the fruit and discarded along with the tough skin. Once planted, the tree takes 5-7 years to fruit.
One of the easiest fruits to grow — another native to the East Coast — is the blueberry.
“They like it acid and they like water,” said Brister. “I keep a soaker hose on my blueberries from the time they flower into harvesting — I water daily for half an hour.”
Blueberries can be harvested from mid-May into July.
Brister has also experimented with the hardy kiwi vine, which, with its variegated foliage, “looks great growing up over a trellis” and has the added benefit of yielding small fruit.
Several varieties of figs now survive and fruit in zone six, according to Brister, who recommended that they be placed alongside a building to block the wind.
Rhubarb, an edible perennial, is a “heavy feeder,” she said. They need good compost and manure to get them started, she said. Brister also recommends using crushed eggshells or diatomaceous earth to combat slug problems.
Ostrich ferns are meant to be eaten when they are tight, according to Brister, before their young shoots grow too large and unfurl (the fiddlehead stage).
“Fry them up in butter and serve as a green,” she said.
For use as a seasoning, the red stamens of the fall-blooming crocus yield saffron once they are picked and dried. Saffron is used as a fragrant and colorful additive to dishes from chicken pot pie to paella.
Another perennial plant with multiple uses is lavender.
“We used to think of lavender just as a potpourri plant to keep moths away, but it’s actually great in teas and cookies, even ice creams,” Brister said. “I’ve been making iced tea with this. ... The flowers and leaves are totally edible besides their great color in the garden.”
For flavoring meats, veggies and salads, Brister reaches for bronze fennel. She uses the young leaves for flavoring and the stems for stir-frys, for example. Additionally, she said, “it’s also a great plant for swallowtail butterflies.”
The stems of lovage, a perennial herb and a “nice background plant,” is used almost like celery.
Dandelion greens can be eaten in salads when they are young, plus the flowers are used for wine or a golden-colored jelly. The dry root of dandelion can be “ground for a coffee-like kind of drink,” according to Brister.
The Jerusalem artichoke, a native plant in the sunflower family, grows five to six feet tall and works well as a border screen. However, the roots, small knotty bulbs that look like ginger and spread fairly quickly, can be harvested in the fall, dug up after first frost.
“They are hard to peel,” Brister said. “I just get the dirt off with a vegetable brush and cook it like a potato.”
Another root is the horseradish plant, which yields its strongest flavor if it is harvested in the fall.
“Let them grow in summer and beef up their roots,” she said.
The groundnut is an underground tuber produced on a string-like root and pulled out as a chain in the fall. According to Brister, the groundnut has more protein and nutrients than a potato. The 6-7 foot herbaceous vine will die back to the ground every year and produces a “beautiful burgundy flower,” she said.
Brister said that ginger plants “will grow about three feet tall and will spread with rhizomes underground, but also work great in pots as a container plant, as a tall green accent,” she said. However, ginger is not a winter-hardy plant.