Last week, with lingering patches of snow still present in their yard, Winnipeggers Michael Thys and Monika Thiessen began seeing the first signs of fresh new growth in their edible perennials garden. Soon they will be enjoying the peppery taste of horseradish leaves which Thys says are delicious for wrapping fish before putting on the grill. Ostrich fern fiddleheads will soon be ready for harvest, too. Listening to Thys and Thiessen describe how they prepare Ostrich fern fiddleheads, first by removing the outer papery bits and then steaming them until tender before cooking them in the oven with finely chopped onion and bacon, I could almost smell the aroma.
Next on their menu will be chives, mint, thyme, lemony-flavoured lemon balm, lovage, and rhubarb. Once flowers such as daylilies and bee balm (monarda) begin appearing in their garden, Thys and Thiessen will harvest the edible portions and use them to decorate their favourite dishes such as pizza. From spring to fall, a portion of their harvest will be carefully stored and preserved to enjoy in winter. In February, its like eating summer, says Thys.
Edible perennials are more deeply rooted than edibles which are grown as annuals, so they are more drought resistant once they are well-established. Edible perennials are also less work, says Thys, because they dont have to be replanted each spring. The same considerations apply, of course, when deciding to grow edible perennials such as providing the right amount of light, water, and space that they need. Lovage, for example, is a leafy perennial herb that is fast growing and needs plenty of room to grow. Thys grows it in a shady, contained area of his garden. It doesnt grow as tall or as bushy but gives us just the amount we need, he says.
Lovage is an excellent substitute for celery and much easier to grow, says Thys, who uses the stems and leaves to add celery-like flavour in soups and other dishes. Thys and Thiessen practise permaculture in their home landscape and say growing edible perennials is a mainstay of a sustainable ecosystem. Growing diverse edible perennials also opens the door to new and authentic food experiences. Its not just about getting calories, says Thys. By eating a wider diversity of edible plants, he says, we can take advantage of a wider range of beneficial nutrients. Indeed, Thys and Thiessen embrace all sorts of genetically diverse edible perennials including wild sarsaparilla and raspberry leaves which they use for making herbal teas.
They also harvest young basswood leaves in early spring to use in salads as a substitute for other, more traditional greens. Young basswood leaves are amazingly tender in spring and have a lettuce-like flavour, says Thys.