Plants for a future: alternative food crops for your garden
Ken Fern, author of Plants for a Future, on the extraordinary variety of alternatives to the conventional, disease-prone food crops to which we have become accustomed
One of the cornerstones of the permaculture philosophy is to establish permanent systems of plantings to provide food and many of our other needs. One of the difficulties of putting this into practice, however, has always been the lack of knowledge about perennial plants to incorporate into the system. Historically, the human race has had a love affair with annual food plants, often investing considerable effort into developing acceptable flavours from what were originally rather less than pleasant tastes. Thus, for example, the ancestor of the mild-flavoured lettuce is a very bitter-tasting and slightly poisonous plant.
Perennial plants, to a very large extent, have been ignored as potential food crops. There are exceptions, of course. Many of our fruits and nuts are produced from trees and shrubs and there are a few perennial vegetables such as asparagus and seakale. Overall, however, it is very much a tale of annual crops.
All this is rather strange because there are far more perennial species than annuals, they can be much more productive, and in general they are a lot easier to grow. They also open the door to a whole new range of taste experiences - whilst there are some whose taste is not an experience to be repeated, there are also many that are so exquisite, once you try them you will wonder why you are not already growing them.
Another plus factor with perennial crops is that they are often much more nutritious than the cultivated annuals we usually eat. As mentioned earlier, most of our conventional crops are a result of many hundreds or even thousands of years of selective breeding. Whilst we have succeeded in getting rid of the bitter flavours and tougher textures of these foods, we have also managed to lose much of their nutritional value. Thus your average supermarket tomato actually contains less vitamins and minerals than the wild tomato fruit from which it has been developed. When you consider that this wild tomato is less than a quarter the size of the cultivated one, you begin to see just how much we have degraded the foods we eat!
Here we are going to look at just a few of these perennial species - alternative foods that you really can eat in quantity and still want more! Not only are these plants very tasty and usually very productive, but they are also far easier to grow than the annual crops we have become so accustomed to.
There really are so many delicious alternative fruits that it is difficult to know where to start. Perhaps it is easiest to look at some of the many choices in the order that they ripen in the year.
Our fruit picking season begins in April with several species of Elaeagnus, this is many weeks before the first traditional fruit crops ripen. These evergreen shrubs will grow in almost any soil and situation, only in wet soils will they express their disapproval by dying. If you want to obtain their fruit then you need to treat them quite harshly - the poorer and drier the soil the better chance you have of obtaining bumper crops of fruit. But don't treat them too harshly until they have had time to get their root systems established, though, or you might very well kill them.
In July it is the turn of several Amelanchier species, or JUNEBERRIES, to supply us with their fruits. About the size of blackcurrants, these fruits are very juicy and have a hint of apple in the flavour. The only problem we have with this fruit is that the birds love it at least as much as we do, and are prepared to eat it when still considerably under ripe. It can, therefore, be necessary to give the crop some protection.
Juneberries are very easily grown plants, they prefer a rich loamy soil in a sunny position or semi-shade, but will thrive in any soil that is not too dry or water-logged. Perhaps the best place to grow them is along a sunny edge of a forest garden.
All members of this genus produce more or less edible fruits, though my experience is that some are not so desirable. Perhaps the nicest is A. alnifolia, a small shrub growing about 2.5 metres tall. It has larger fruits than average and these are deliciously sweet and juicy. A. laevis and A. lamarckii are somewhat larger plants that also have delicious fruits.
Come late summer our thoughts turn to the fruits of Cornus kousa. This very ornamental tree is a commonly grown garden plant, though few have realised its potential as a fruit crop. Tolerant of most soils and conditions except chalky soils, it grows slowly to reach an eventual height of 10 metres and width of 6 metres.
It produces an absolutely delicious fruit about 2cm in diameter in late summer and early autumn. The texture of the fruit is somewhat like a tropical custard apple, its only drawback is the skin which is tough and slightly bitter. The easiest way to eat it is to bite out a small section of the skin and then suck the sweet pulp out. The sub-species C. kousa chinensis is very similar but it grows better and also flowers and fruits more heavily here.
As we move into the autumn, it is time for the HAWTHORNS, or Crataegus species. There are many species in this genus of deciduous shrubs and small trees that produce absolutely delicious fruits and I would highly recommend them as a fruit crop. The plants are very easy to grow, they tolerate most soils and situations including windy sites, drought and occasional water logging. They are highly ornamental when flowering in the spring and also when in fruit. Hawthorns are a perfect example of permaculture. All you have to do is plant the trees and make sure that you have given them a good weed-excluding mulch. You then go away for 2 - 3 years (if your plants are grafted) or 5 - 7 years (if they are seedlings) and then come along every autumn to eat and enjoy the fruits, which are usually produced in great abundance. It really is as simple as that. They make very good specimen trees in lawns and do very well on the sunnier edges of a woodland. They will also succeed in more shady positions, but will not fruit very well there.
The fruit is about the size of a cherry and, unless the description says otherwise, it is sweet and juicy with a mealy texture that often has a hint of apple in its flavour.
There are so many delicious species I have tried that it is very difficult to select just a few of them. However, if I was forced to restrict myself to just a few then I certainly would not want to be without C. arnoldiana which ripens in mid-September; C. missouriensis which ripens a week or two later; C. pensylvanica which has an extended season from mid September to mid October; C. schraderiana which has an exquisite "melt-in-the-mouth" fruit that ripens in mid October; and C. pedicellata whose fruit can store into November.
One of our last crops of the year comes from the AMERICAN PERSIMMON, Diospyros virginiana and the DATE PLUM, D. lotus. These two deciduous trees, which grow up to 10 metres tall and 8 metres wide, produce some of the most delicious fruits I have ever eaten from plants growing in Britain. They are related to the PERSIMMON or SHARON FRUIT that is sometimes seen in greengrocers and their fruits are very similar in shape but much smaller, ranging in size from a cherry to a small crab apple.
It is important that you only eat the fruit when it is absolutely ripe and squidgy soft, before that it will be astringent and have an extremely unpleasant effect on your mouth. Fully ripe, it tastes somewhat like a rich apricot jelly (my wife says that I should just call it ambrosia). Plants do require a good summer in order to ripen their fruit properly so they grow better in the south-east of Britain where the yield is normally very good. The fruit tastes nicer after a frost and ripens over several weeks from October until December. If picked when still firm in November it will often store for two months or more.
Whilst potatoes are a highly productive crop, they are extremely susceptible to all sorts of pests and diseases. Certainly in the area of Cornwall where I garden, it is not possible to grow late maturing varieties without using chemical sprays because of blight. There are, however, many disease-free alternative crops...
One of the North American Indians favourite root crops was the QUAMASH, Camassia quamash. This bulbous plant grows well in Britain and can be naturalised in short grass. It does very well in an orchard where it looks rather like bluebells when it flowers in late spring. The bulb is about 25mm in diameter with a delicious chestnut-like flavour when baked.
Quamash was a staple food of the north American Indians and, in the autumn, many tribes would move their entire village to the quamash fields. Whilst some people harvested the bulbs, others dug a large fire-pit. This pit was lined with boulders and then filled with wood. The wood was set alight and more was added until the boulders were hot enough. The ashes were then removed, the boulders lined with ferns and the bulbs placed on top. More ferns were added to cover the bulbs and then earth was heaped on top to keep the heat in. The pile was left for a couple of days for the bulbs to cook thoroughly, it was then opened up and the Indians started eating and eating and eating... Indeed, they continued eating the bulbs until they could fit no more into their stomachs and then slept it off for a day or two. After this they dried whatever was left and stored it for use in the winter. Whilst not expecting you to try out the Indian way of eating them, I do think you will find them a very acceptable potato substitute.
Perhaps the most productive root crop for Britain is the hardy YAM, Dioscorea batatas. A twining plant, it grows best in a sunny position and a deep well-drained soil, and can be grown up supports in much the same way as runner beans. The edible root can be up to 1 metre long and weigh 2 kilos or more if it is grown in a good deep soil. It is the shape of a club - about as thick as an adult"s finger at its top thickening to the size of their arm at its base. The main problem with this plant is harvesting it, you have to dig deep! Once you get it out, the root has a very nice floury flavour when baked, not as tasty as a sweet potato but better than most yams. We use it in all the ways that potatoes are used, and find it to have a superior flavour. It makes an excellent staple food and, since yams are now becoming a more common food in Britain, it has very good potential as a commercial crop. What is needed is a simple method of harvesting the root.
If you live in an area with mild autumns, then the OCA, Oxalis tuberosa, is a crop you might like to try. It can be grown and used like the potato but, unlike that species, it is almost untroubled by pests or diseases. It has been cultivated in South America for thousands of years and has given very good yields when grown in Britain. The plant is slightly more cold-hardy than the potato, it will tolerate light frosts but top growth is killed by heavy frosts. The tubers will be killed by soil temperatures below about -5°C.
The main problem with growing this plant is that it does not start to form tubers until the shorter days of late summer and autumn and so, if there is an early hard frost, yields are likely to be low. Leave the plants in the ground until the tops have been killed by frosts, since every day in the autumn will mean larger yields. The tubers are somewhat smaller than potatoes but can be 8cm or more long and 3cm wide. They have a waxy skin and are very easy to clean. They store really well with very little attention so long as they are not wet. I left some tubers sitting on the shelf in the kitchen one winter and they were still firm and starting to sprout in April.
When first harvested, the tubers have a pleasant lemony flavour due to the presence of oxalic acid. This substance can lock up certain minerals in the diet and so the fresh tubers should not be eaten in large quantities. However, if they are left in a sunny position for a week or so, the acid breaks down and the tubers become quite sweet. Some cultivars in South America become so sweet that they are eaten raw like a fruit.
Leaves are the most concentrated and nutritious of all the foods we eat. It just seems a shame to me that they tend not to taste that wonderful. However, there are several species that can be described as delicious, though I will restrict myself here to just two of them...
How would you like to eat fresh, sweet-flavoured garden peas in the middle of winter? Well, Campanula versicolor might not be a pea but you would never know that from the taste. The leaves are quite the nicest I have ever eaten, and they can be picked all through the winter as well as for much of the spring and early summer. You cannot pick them in large quantities, unfortunately, since this is detrimental to the plant, but we get round this by growing lots of them! An evergreen perennial plant growing about 1.2 metres tall, it is especially ornamental when it flowers from late summer until late autumn. It requires a sunny position and a well-drained soil and is likely to be fairly short-lived, so make sure you save some of its seed each year.
Malva moschata, the MUSK MALLOW, grows up to 60cm tall and wide. This plant is the main basis of our salads in late spring and early summer, then again in late summer. A very easily grown plant, it succeeds in most soils in sun or light shade. When well sited it usually self-sows quite freely and is more than capable of looking after itself. The leaves have a mild flavour with a mucilaginous texture that is very soothing for disturbed digestions, thus it is medicinal as well as being nutritious and tasty.
Whilst it is difficult to think of flowers as foods that can be eaten in quantity, they are quite nutritious and can provide good quantities of protein, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals. The flavours can vary tremendously from species to species, the two I have chosen here are both deliciously sweet due to the quantities of nectar they contain.
The YELLOW ASPHODEL, Asphodeline lutea, grows about 1 metre tall and forms a slowly spreading clump 1 metre or more wide. It starts its growth-cycle in early autumn, producing fountains of grass-like leaves which grow slowly through the autumn and winter then romp away in the spring. It produces a spike of yellow flowers from May to July and then dies down for a couple of months in late summer, leaving a rather bare space behind it.
The flowers have a delightful sweetness and are an excellent ornamental addition to the salad bowl. They are probably the most popular flower we are growing, even one of the dogs who lives with us goes round eating them. Individual flowers only live for one day, though the plants produce so many that there are always plenty open. We usually go round in the evening picking them, this way we can enjoy them visually during the day and then have a taste treat in the evening. Make sure that you do not pick them until shortly before you use them since they will start to decay within a few hours. My personal favourite amongst the flowers is the day lily, Hemerocallis species. These are very common garden plants, and rightly so, being of very easy cultivation in most soils and situations though they prefer at least some sun. Many species spread freely at the root, though they are easy to control and are unlikely to become a nuisance. Some species are so tough that they can establish themselves in short grass and there are reports of them growing through tarmac.
The large lily-like flowers only live for one or two days but they are freely produced over a period of several weeks. These flowers have a crisp juicy texture and a delicious sweet flavour (especially at the base where the nectar is to be found). They make a very ornamental addition to salads. In the Orient, where several species are cultivated as food crops, the flowers are harvested at the end of the day as they begin to wither. They are then dried and used as a thickener and flavouring in soups and stews.
Any members of the genus can be eaten, though those with yellow or scented flowers usually have an aftertaste that many people do not like. If you would like to grow delicious flowers over a long period then I would suggest the following species: H. dumortieri produces the earliest flowers from the middle of May until late June. This is followed by H. middendorffii esculenta in June and July. Then comes H. fulva, to my mind the most delicious of the genus. In particular I would recommend the double-flowered cultivars "Kwanso" and "Flore Pleno". Finally, H. multiflora will provide you with an abundance of smaller flowers in late summer and early autumn.
I hope you will enjoy growing and eating at least some of these plants. If you require further information on them or many of the other possibilities this can be found in the book 'Plants For A Future', published by Permanent Publications.
Ken Fern is a pioneer specialising in alternative food crops. His years of experience have resulted in a database of over 7,000 species of such plants with 1,500 being grown at the site of the educational charity, Plants For A Future. Ken is also author of the perennial classic Plants For A Future - Edible and Useful Plants for a Healthier World.