Firstly, my apologies for not writing any gardening articles over winter. We were fortunate to be able to enjoy a wonderful trip to Asia and Europe, so we missed all the rain! Being away for so long we had to put our veggie beds into sleep mode, which we did with a layer of fresh compost, topped with a layer of seagrass, then cardboard over that. A great way of both suppressing weeds and feeding the worms to make a beautiful rich soil for spring planting.
On our return we were horrified to see the supermarket fruit and vegetable prices. It really reinforces the need for families to grow as much of their own as possible. Of course, being away for so long, our garden was essentially a case of starting from scratch, as normally we would have food being produced year-round. Well, that would be the expectation, but we arrived home to many different crops producing food for us to eat immediately.
In the vegetable garden, perennial crops are invaluable as low maintenance, year-round food sources.
We were excited to see that our asparagus bed already had spears emerging, there is nothing nicer than freshly harvested asparagus. A clump of perennial spinach (actually a type of beet) provides handy salad greens from the young leaves or steamed greens from the older leaves. Likewise, a clump of perennial celery provides a regular supply of stems and leaves for soups, stews and salads.
From the herb bed, aside from handy herbs such as rosemary, marjoram, thyme, oregano and various mints, there are also clumps of chives and garlic chives; perfect for salads and many other dishes and very easy to grow. The bed next door contains rhubarb to stew for delicious deserts, although to be fair it is better to wait for harvesting until the heat of summer produces thicker, lusher stalks.
Aside from the perennials, there are several vegetables in our garden that happily self-seed all year round without any help from us. In fact, we are normally having to weed these plants out to prevent them taking over and crowding out our other vegetables. Self-seeders include the NZ spinach or kokihi, a native that forms mats of succulent leaves on stems that sprawl over anything. This is best used cooked (fabulous in a lasagna) or steamed, as the fresh leaves contain oxalates which are harmful to health. Another is bok choy, a staple in Asian dishes, but equally at home as a replacement for European cabbage. The bees love the bright yellow flowers, so we always let a few go to seed, ensuring a prolific supply of this useful vegetable.
Perennial vegetables really do give a great return on investment of time and money, they are a valuable standby in lean times and there are many more varieties than listed in this article. They are generally very easy to grow, much less work than annual vegetables and will happily withstand months of neglect. A decent application of fertiliser in spring, some occasional cutting back and regular watering is about all that is needed. Even space challenged gardeners can grow these, as most are quite happy in pots.