One of my favourite writers of all time, Wendell Berry, defines the value in growing food on a household scale in his essay “The Pleasures of Eating” like this: “If you have a yard or even a porch box in a sunny window, grow something to eat in it…only by growing some food for yourself can you become acquainted with the beautiful energy cycle that revolves from soil to seed to flower to fruit to food to offal to decay, and around again.” I have found great delight in this beautiful energy cycle that Wendell describes in edible perennial garden design, a.k.a. permaculture.
Permaculture is a design strategy characterized by a landscape that is full of edible plants that come back, more or less on their own, every year. Don’t be fooled: edible landscapes can be excessively beautiful. I have been wired to appreciate things that are ‘wild’ or raw- – is that a design preference? A personality trait? Foraging for spring plants in the forest or in my own yard bestows a deep sense of awe and delight. Maybe it is an awe of the Creator? Who could have made up the curls on a kale, the form of a sorrel leaf, and the deep button-leaves of the chocolate mint all at once – and then given them their own colours, textures, flavours, and smells? Each of these plants are a beacon of spring, and together they are so beautiful and so delicious it takes me right out of the February blues.
One thing that is important to note in an edible landscape is that you should expect a yield over time –pick a bit every few days (this is easy, if plants are right outside your front door), letting the plants spread out and continue to grow rather than clear-cutting. This will ensure that your garden looks beautiful, that your plants are able to set deeper roots for next year, and that the bugs and bees have a place to land and the soil be protected. If your edible landscape is close to the sidewalk, why not make up some signs offering passers-by to help themselves, perhaps indicating which plants are edibles? Or perhaps you can make a fresh blend of herbal tea for a friend going through a rough week?
So – what is growing, today, around my house? Well first of all, my yard is very very small – about 50 square feel of growable area, max. I have some plants in pots (like the chives and chocolate mint), some in window boxes (sedum), some along the back fence (hops), and the rest in the tiny front yard (asparagus, swiss chard, yarrow, savory, sage, rhubarb, & lavender). In the ravine behind our house there is some garlic mustard, and just to round things off, I saw today at the community garden that my sorrel, kale, and garlic greens are going gangbuster. Below I will describe the plants, what to pick for springtime foraging (only a little so the plant can grow throughout the growing season!), and some possible benefits/uses. I am sure there are many more plants that could be included on this list, so if you are the foraging type please share your favourites.
asparagus – the king of spring perennials, of course we eat the stalk. We had planted asparagus crowns 4 springs ago, so this year will (hopefully!) be the first year we can have a few good meals from the crop.
garlic mustard – leaves – generally considered invasive, I have tried to keep a small patch of this biennial in the ravine behind our house to harvest the delicious leaves. Garlic mustard pesto is just delicious – worth the work to pick, clean, and prepare.
hops – young leaf/shoots – blanch and add to soups or serve like asparagus. In the fall the male flowers can be harvested for salads, the female flowers to preserve beer, and the long stems to make baskets or hang around your house – I think hops is a beautiful plant.
kale – leaf, not the hard stem – the frilly varieties are especially beautiful in a landscape for contrast and texture, and delicious raw as a salad or baked with a bit of oil to make kale chips.
lavender – Elisha and Alan introduced me to lavender tea for its delicious flavour, curing of stomach ailments and sedative qualities. There are whole books on the medicinal properties of lavender, and Graham and I found a lavender farm in Greensville that is well worth a visit.
mint – leaves - most mints seem to be out of the ground already, and being a very hardy perennial (some say invasive) . My favourite is chocolate mint, usually as an infusion (tea), with medicinal properties to help a stomach ache, cold or flu.
oregano, savory, thyme – the leaves from all these herbs are all looking hardy already this spring
sage – leaf – the sage plants in my front garden always over-winter, and can be harvested now for tea, my favourite stem facial (especially good if you have a cold), and used in the kitchen paired with squash.
sedum – All creeping sedum are edible. Young stems, leaves and the tubers found in the spring and late fall can be added raw to a salad. I grow sedum in my window boxes (since they can over-winter), in the ravine, and on the roof of the community garden shed. I am told they have many nutrients, and they are beautiful – and super low maintenance, needing little water. A true wonder-plant.
sorrel - leaves – sorrel is a lovely early spring edible that has a bitter citrusy flavour that you can’t mistake for anything else (called sour weed in Germany). It’s high in oxalic acid which makes it taste tangy. I like it in soup (where it turns brown, unfortunately), or in pesto. Recipe for sorrel mint pesto: ~2 cups mint leaves, ~1 cup sorrel leaves, ~1 cup chives, ~ ¼ cup olive oil, ~a bit of kosher salt. Put the herbs in the food processor until they are good and chopped. Pour in oil to your liking and salt/pepper to taste. You can also add walnuts/pecans/peanuts or Parmesan cheese, if desired.
swiss chard – leaves – often chard cannot overwinter, but the plant in my front yard made it through the winter and looks delicious. Recipes for chard abound (you can eat the whole leaf and stem raw or steamed). My favourite recipes marry chard with cheese on the bbq.
yarrow - leaves – make into a tea to aid digestion, cleanse, or cure a cold. Can also be used on wounds or for a toothache. Add to salads or soft cheese. One leaf is said to speed up a whole pile of compost! Another wonder-plant.
There are many other edibles that can be designed into your front garden or patio pots. Late spring , summer and fall yield many more edible plants that can grow right outside your door. With very little work you can take much delight in your landscape, bring comfort to a friend, zest to a meal, and connect with the magnificent energy cycle. I would love to hear stories of other edible landscapes, so please do share.
**note, photos were all taken around my tiny yard in Hamilton, ON in late March, 2012
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