Maryland Grows

Perennial Vegetables

My gardening book to-be-read pile keeps getting larger, but one item that jumped to the top of the heap recently (not only because it was a library book and had to be returned on time) was Eric Toensmeier’s Perennial Vegetables. It’s a fascinating look at a category of food plants we often miss while we are putting in our fruit trees and shrubs, and our annually-planted kale and tomatoes (both of which can be short-lived perennials given the right variety and/or climate).

And now I want to grow… well, not all of the plants in the book, since many of them have limiting factors, for example that they can only be grown in climates more tropical than Maryland (including, alas, the pepino melon, but I have transplants that will be sizable by mid-May, so I’ll keep hoping), but more than I’m growing now.

So far I’ve tried:




Sunchoke or Jerusalem artichoke


Walking Onion, of which I have no picture, and while we’re on alliums, my garlic might as well be considered perennial since I never manage to dig it all up so it springs up in every bed it’s been planted in. And I’ve started sea kale this year, and (rather unsuccessfully so far due to interfering squirrels) cow cabbage.

Some other plants I’ve grown are perennial in warmer climates, for example sweet potato, hyacinth bean, and both Malabar and New Zealand “spinach.” In fact, some plants that die here when it gets cold are invasive pests in warm climates; Toensmeier either does not include these or explains carefully and with adequate warnings why he is making an exception. He also makes distinctions between truly invasive plants and those that are aggressive within a garden but don’t spread into the wild if you keep after them (running bamboo is an example). I am tempted by Chinese artichoke, a spreading plant grown for its edible tubers, but then I see its Latin name is Stachys affinis (Stachys byzantina, lamb’s ear, is a soft, furry bane of ornamental gardens, very difficult to get rid of once you have it, and all Stachys are part of the mint family) and it is described as forming large colonies. So only if I have a place I want smothered in ground cover, I guess.

However, I think I will try wintering over some of the scorzonera we are growing in the demo garden this year (shouldn’t speak yet since we only planted seeds Thursday, but I hope it will succeed!). And perhaps find a suitable microclimate to perennialize scarlet runner beans (Toensmeier claims them hardy to zone 7 with lots of mulch). And groundnut would be fun to try, given a large enough trellis (4-8 foot vines).

Here’s one more picture, again from a vacation, this time to Belize, where we saw this pepper growing on a small tree. Peppers are perennial, yes! But not in Maryland, sorry.

(Cardoon and pepper photos: Nick Smith; Jerusalem artichoke: Katherine Lambert; the less good ones are mine.)

The Best Laid Plans of a Gardener

Gardening, if nothing else, is a learning experience. As I noted in an earlier blog, last fall I planted kale in a large container with the intention of over-wintering the seedlings and getting a head start with spring gardening.

I was inordinately proud of the hardy little seedlings that made it through our Snowmageddon winter which I set out in the garden in mid-March. A few other mature kale plants in the garden had also over-wintered. They did the expected thing and began to send up blossom stalks. Unfortunately, so did the seedlings. Perhaps it was those unseasonably hot days we had in early April that confused them. Or maybe kale of whatever size or maturity which survives the winter is programmed to put all its energy, not into new leaves, but into a blossom stalk.

Well, I’ll just pretend that I’m actually growing broccoli raab, and harvest these little suckers before they get any bigger.

Cover crop

When the snow finally cleared, it was great to see the green of the cover crop we had planted in the fall. The mixture of wheat, rye and oats were a welcome hint of Spring. We also discovered some swiss chard had made it through the winter. The rosemary, chives, thyme and mint had also survived.

With a renewed burst of energy, and shovels in hand, we turned the cover crop under. We got an early start on planting seeds for kale, collards, spinach and peas.

The official planting and opening of the garden will be this Saturday. This year, we will be helped by the Apprentice Gardeners from Kinder Farm Park. These young people and their parents meet at their community garden plot every week to learn about vegetable gardening and gardening related topics. They each have a section of garden that they can plant, maintain and harvest. So as you can see, we have some pros this year!

The First Lady will be there Saturday to help and oversee the planting. She will also have some exciting news to announce to the public. So….stay tuned!

Back in Session

The General Assembly has ended for the year but the garden at Government House is just getting started. First on the agenda was solving a problem left over from last year. Sound familiar? Anyway, the problem facing us was that there was a low spot in the garden where water collected and made it incompatible for anything other than a frog.

So how do you solve problems in Annapolis? Correct, you debate the issues. The fact that the water was a problem was undeniable. Those elected to analyze the situation came up with an obvious idea. How about installing bricks, rocks or even a bio-retention log at one end, build it up with soil and level it out? Good suggestions but Government House is an historic property in an historic city. How could one institute such a plan and retain the character of the property?

The solution?

A French drain. The turf was carefully removed from a section of the yard. An inconspicuous drain was installed at the edge of the garden and attached to a pipe. The pipe was placed under the sidewalk and continued to a collection box in the yard that was naturally lower than our problem area. The landscapers skillfully replaced the turf and were able to conceal the fact that any work had been done. Granted, this is probably not the best solution for most homeowners but it has worked perfectly so far in this situation.
Coming next time: How about that cover crop we planted last year?

I’ve planted "Self-Enclosing Trout"

When I finished planting some “cool weather” veggies—chard, beets, carrots, and lettuce—my tee-shirt was soaked. The simple reason was that the temperature last Wednesday was 89° F when I finished planting, and in the sun it felt like 99°.

Cool-weather veggies, of course, refer to those that don’t mind cool, even crisp, nights and often bolt, or go to seed, when the really hot weather arrives. I suspect the seeds of the five veggies I planted today will have short-term memory loss and won’t recall the abnormally warm weather on the day I seeded them in one of our veggie plots.

I planted two 3-foot rows of Ruby Red Swiss Chard, which should supply this household of two nicely through the summer and even into early winter. The chard won’t die back until the November or December temperatures drop into the 20s.

And next to the chard I planted two short rows of Cylindra Beets. After these rows are up and growing, I’ll plant a couple more to get us through the summer. If I remember, I’ll plant even more rows in late summer to supply us through the fall months. Why did I choose Cylindra, rather than my customary Detroit Dark Red? Was I bored with the traditional globes and intrigued by the longer shape? I don’t have the slightest recollection. Let’s call it short-term memory loss.

And I planted a single row, about 4’, of each Simpson’s Curled and Forellenschuss lettuce, and I’ll plant more as the season progresses so we will have a continuing supply. Simpson’s Curled is one of the popular loose-leaf types, but Forellenschuss?

“It’s got my name in the middle of it,” wife Ellen said as she examined the Forellenschuss packet. Sure enough. And I noted later that the name also proclaims, “For Ellen.” Maybe there’s a good motto there: “Forellenschuss—as welcome as a dozen roses.” Why not give it a try? Second thought, that’s not a truly great idea.

Simpson’s Curled is a dependable variety that we will enjoy in May and into June, maybe July. Forellenschuss is one of my “yearly experiments.” It captivated me when I saw it in the Seed Savers Exchange catalog. It’s an Austrian heirloom with medium-green leaves with splotches of maroon. The description on the packet explains the German: “Translates literally as ‘trout, self-enclosing,’ meaning it’s a speckled romaine.” Betcha the person who named it was also a fisherman.

I think I won’t broadcast to friends that I’m raising “Self-Enclosing Trout lettuce, also called Forellenschuss.” Really, now, where does any conversation go after that announcement? Downhill, I guess, straight to the trout stream. Or to puzzled silence.

And the carrot I planted is the traditional Chantenay, a medium length variety. Root veggies, such as carrots, of course, find it tough growing in heavy soils, such as our basic Howard County clay, but I’m hoping the soil I’ve improved over the last dozen years will yield some crunchy, sweet carrots.

I should tie a string around a finger to remind me to keep the bed moist for the next couple of weeks, until the lettuces, then the chard, then the carrots and beets start reaching for the sun.

More baby plants

It occurred to me finally that I might have a lot of seedlings in the house (and a few on the back deck). So I counted them.

287. Two hundred and eighty-seven. I do not, mind you, own a greenhouse. And that doesn’t count the several dozen already transplanted to the demo garden, or the seeds I planted this weekend, which are meant to yield another 60-70 seedlings.

This seed-starting thing gets addictive. Just warning you.

But look! Baby mouse melons!

(Marigolds to the left, cucumbers to the right.) And here’s a young passionflower (Passiflora incarnata, unfortunately the only one to germinate):

Some perennials start easily from seed, others are more challenging, but I love being able to walk around my garden and point out the ornamental perennials I grew from seed myself (and everyone else paid $9.95 for, just saying). Now, perennial vegetables: I think that’s the subject of my next post.

I have a few plants to water first, though…

Potato planting day

Yesterday was potato planting day at the Derwood Demo Garden. You can find lots of information on potatoes under Vegetable Profiles at the Grow It Eat It website, but here are the basics for planting day.

Potato tubers (the part you eat) grow underground above the seed potato you plant, so you want that seed potato planted low. Start by digging a trench; this will make covering the potato plants with soil as they grow easier.

Here’s MG intern Sam Black finishing his trenches:

How deep your trenches are depends on how far apart you can place them. Allow enough space in between for temporary dirt storage and walking space.

Potatoes are then placed about 8 inches apart and covered with a few inches of soil. Here’s MG Barbara Knapp covering her potatoes.

I think those are the Kennebec potatoes (bought as seed potatoes from a source that guarantees them disease-free; don’t plant potatoes from the store as they may harbor disease). We also planted Yukon Gold, Red Pontiac, and a few Blue Adirondack that I had left over from my home planting.

Notice that Barbara is planting whole potatoes (which you can see have started sprouting; this is just fine). You can also cut your potatoes into pieces with about 3 buds or eyes each, and expose them to air for at least 24 hours before planting. This is especially fun when planting blue potatoes, as I discovered:

I’ll show you the progress of our potatoes as they grow. This year we are planning to use row covers to try to hold off the potato beetles and corn borers.

As an extra, here’s a photo from my trip a couple of years ago to Peru (the original home of the potato). These are potatoes left on the ground to freeze-dry (August, so winter, and about 10,000 foot altitude). Potatoes used as a staple food in Peru are often stored dried.

This is a mix of just a few of the more than 5000 varieties that have been raised in Peru.

Another growing note: potatoes can be grown in containers. Large containers work best: the black plastic compost bins with holes that Montgomery County gives out free are excellent. Put seed potatoes on a few inches of good soil at the bottom, cover, and fill in as the plants grow.