The Scottish Mail on Sunday

Forever food

The fabulously economical veg crops that go on giving year after year

- Martyn Cox

MOST vegetables are annuals, started from seeds sown in spring. Once they’ve germinated, young plants need watering, feeding and lots of close attention to ensure any problems are swiftly nipped in the bud. After many months of tending to their needs, crops will finally come up with the goods and then start to die back.

Phew, what a palaver to produce a one-off harvest. Actually, I’m being a bit facetious, as some veggies are definitely worth the time and effort. However, there’s a group of tasty plants that are easier and longerlast­ing. In fact, all you have to do is plant them once and they’ll deliver their payload, year after year.

Lumped together under the umbrella title of perennial vegetables, these plants are ideal for planting in kitchen gardens, veg patches and allotments, while some are compact enough for large pots or raised beds. A number have attractive foliage or an architectu­ral form, making them perfect for dotting into beds and borders.

The tribe boasts a number of household names among its ranks, such as asparagus, rhubarb and globe artichokes, along with varieties of onion, kale, spinach, leek and broccoli. Some of these are readily available from garden centres or online nurseries, while others require a bit of detective work to track down.

In my opinion, the poster boy of perennial veg is asparagus, a crop loved by gourmets for its tasty, succulent spears. There are scores of fantastic varieties that can be started from bare-root plants known as crowns. My favourites include ‘Gijnlim’, ‘Purple asparagus of Alberga’ and ‘Lucullus’.

Asparagus can remain productive for decades, so get it off to a good start. Dig an 8in-deep by 12in-wide trench, spread garden compost along the bottom and cover with a 2in layer of soil. Make a 4in-high ridge of soil down the centre and place crowns on top, 12in apart, spreading roots out evenly.

Cover crowns with 2in of sifted soil, and water. As stems develop, cover with more soil. Aim to completely fill the trench by autumn. It might be hard, but don’t pick any spears for the first two years.

This will ensure plants establish well and are capable of providing pickings for up to eight weeks in subsequent years.

Globe artichokes are architectu­ral beauties grown for their edible flower buds, which perch on towering stems above clumps of jagged, silvery leaves. This native of the Mediterran­ean likes a warm, sunny position and plenty of space. It will thrive in welldraine­d soil that’s been improved with well-rotted manure.

Closely related cardoon looks similar but is grown for its edible young leaf stalks. These need to be deprived of light in late summer to become sweet and tender. One way of doing this is to tie stalks together before surroundin­g with cardboard. After six weeks, stems can be harvested by cutting off at ground level.

Onions are usually grown from scratch each year but there are several longer-lasting family members. Welsh onions look like a bunch of chives, while potato onions are similar to shallots. Egyptian onions form a cluster of little bulbs on the top of their stems, which will take root if the shoot bends and touches the ground.

Perhaps the prettiest of all perennial vegetables is Kale ‘Daubenton’s Variegated’, a heritage variety from France. It forms a large mound of green and yellow patterned leaves that are highly nutritious and have a mild, nutty flavour. Sadly, it’s not that easy to find and sells out quickly when offered for sale.

Many have pretty foliage and can be dotted around beds

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