It’s crazy not to cultivate tasty sunchokes—and these other easy-grow perennial vegetables.
GROW YOUR OWN | Anyone who has tended a vegetable garden knows it can be hard work. That said, are there easy-grow edible crops that offer an exceptional return for a minimum amount of labour? That’s the question I put to my good friend and neighbour Mark Johnston, an amazing gardener dedicated to growing as much of his family’s food supply as he can on the large, attractive and highly productive organic farm-style plot he tends in the wilds of West Vancouver.
When I tell Mark I’m looking to profile a few less common crops, he’s quick to oblige with a short list. “First of all, the vegetables should be perennials,” he says. So what are perennial vegetables? “Perennial vegetables are edible plants that can thrive and produce crops for years with minimal effort when they are grown under the right conditions. The ones I’m going to tell about do well in almost any light and don’t need a lot of maintenance, so it’s crazy not to grow them,” he says, rattling off three of his favourites: sunchokes, arugula and sea kale.
Sunchoke, the vegetable formerly know as Jerusalem artichoke (read how the name got mangled in translation here), is related to the sunflower family. It’s an elegant, arching plant with a small, yellow daisy-like flower. Sunchokes have a wonderful nutty flavour described as a cross between water chestnut, sunflower seed and artichoke (sunchokes are pictured here). Sweet and crunchy, sunchoke can be eaten raw or cooked. Like the equally starchy potato, it can be pureed or mashed, too.
Mark says sunchokes have it over potatoes because potatoes can freeze in the ground and rot in storage. Sunchokes never go bad because they stay in the ground to be harvested on an as-needed basis (they are tastiest during winter months).
You can buy a pound of organic sunchokes for $4.99 at Whole Foods, or grab just a few of these knobby tubers and grow your own. “Sunchokes grow in almost any condition. They are not invasive, but they are extremely vigorous,” says Mark. “Plant them and you’ve got them forever.”
Sorry, Raymond, but everybody loves arugula, and how do we know this? Because arugula matches lettuce bin for bin in the bulk-buy produce sections of most grocery stores.
“I think almost all grocery store arugula is the annual kind,” says Mark, who grows the perennial variety. “Perennial arugula is a little stronger, a little more peppery. It is also greener with finer leaves.” Mark says annual arugula may be slightly more tender, but once you get used to the perennial version you are probably going to like it better. A reliable, repeat performer is the best way to describe this plant, which can be grown in full sun (for bigger, fuller plants) or shade. Its distinctive leaves can be harvested from April through October. Mark found his starter plants at Rainforest Nursery in Langley.
Mark’s current favourite perennial vegetable is sea kale, a vigorous plant with succulent leaves that grows wild in the Scottish Highlands. Sea kale is a mother plant, the original from which all cultivated kale is derived. Mark says it is tenderer than cultivated varieties. “Most kale you find in grocery stores is too hard to be eaten raw, but not sea kale. It has a lovely taste and I think people will be surprised by how much they like it.”
The beauty of sea kale is that it can survive in almost any growing conditions, though it will do substantially better in a well-drained location (it’s used to scree, after all). The trouble with sea kale is finding plants to grow. Mark grew his from seeds purchased from Magic Garden Seeds in Germany, and he recently found a few actual plants at Free Spirit Nursery in Langley.—C. Rule