Hedgesteading and Perennial Food

I’ve posted before about how different my garden is this year, since I am relying much more on perennials. It’s not that I’m not growing any annual food plants; I am, just not the way I used to. As you can see from the pics, I’m growing a number of them in pots on the driveway, where there’s plenty of sun. I decided to try bush cukes this year, since it is really hard to find organic pickling cukes where I am, and I read about a fellow who harvested 5 lbs of them from a six-inch pot(!). I’ve only ever grown vining cukes before, and these are hybrids to boot, but if they make me lots of cukes, I’m happy. I’ve been growing tomatoes only in pots for the past few years, but the late blight has been so bad that this year I am growing only cherry tomatoes (Black Cherry, the same kind I sell–beautiful and delicious!); cherry tomatoes resist late blight a lot better than beefsteaks or plums. Most of the perennials I grow, though, are witching herbs I will harvest for their seeds or foliage to sell through Alchemy Works, so in that sense, my garden is helping support me, but some are food plants that I hope will support me more directly and more like the hedgestead I envision. I have red, pink, white, and black cucrrants, some gooseberries, Cornelian cherries, blackberries, elderberries, a serviceberry, and black raspberries. But there are problems, and I promised myself that on this blog, I would not try to gussy up my garden or hide growing problems. I want this info to be dependable and real. So here it is.

New blackberry bushes backed by motherwort almost ready for seed harvest

The gooseberries have not been at all successful so far; they have produced exactly one berry since I got them. They are supposed to be a good plant for shade, but it’s clearly too shady (and probably too dry) where they are, so I will move them up front, to full sun and some good moisture from the downspout. The currants have been a bit better, but I have about half of them in large pots. Even so, the 2nd-year Gloire des Sablons, an old variety, made the most beautiful and delicious pink currants that tasted like a combination of ripe plums and grapes. I will definitely be propagating that plant. The black raspberries, which are in an area too shaded and too full of trees for their liking, are finally beginning to produce handfuls of fruit and now have enough canes that I can propagate a bunch this fall to put up front in the sun next year. Altogether, these plants are not making anything like the amount of fruits a person would need for a season, much less a year. Gradually they will produce more and eventually produce enough, especially once the Cornelian cherries and the blackberries get moving. But I thought it would be helpful to remind folks who are contemplating getting berry bushes for their own hedgestead that it can take some time and experimentation before the plants produce, especially if you are dealing with a lot of shade and trees. Clearly, in that situation, fruit trees are out of the question.

Unhappy gooseberry - too dry, too shady, too many tree roots, but notice the violets growing in the left-hand corner

I found out recently about a new dwarf sour cherry that was developed at the University of Saskatchewan. Cherry trees are pretty big, which limits who can grow them, and then you have to protect them from birds if you want any cherries, which means netting them, which is a grand PIA with a big tree. But these dwarf sour cherries are about 5ft/1.5m tall and 3-5ft/90-150cm wide, a very good size for a city lot, nettable, and they don’t need a pollinizer. So I’m going to get a couple of them, although I will have to wait until spring to do that. Sour cherries are the best for making wine, pies, and preserves–and Maraschino cherries, which I’ll be making this weekend. I had no idea how good cherry wine could be until I started making it myself.

Jars of my vin de noix and nocino

Since my bushes are not pumping out masses of fruits, I have been buying them to make stuff (for instance, 5 lbs of green walnuts to make nocino, an Italian liqueur, and vin de noix, an infusion in brandy and wine, from France. These are both turning black and scrumptious as we speak). This past week I took a very long drive up to an organic orchard outside of Rochester where I thought I would be able to get a significant amount of fruit–raspberries, cherries, apricots, blueberries, and more–enough to take care of my wine needs for most of the year. I intended to freeze what I could not process right away and actually bought a couple more crocks so I could have three primary fermentation vessels ready to go at the same time. I drove all the way up there only to find it closed at 1:30 (it was 1:45). Their “store” was actually a small unmanned farm stand that had little of what I needed, and what they did have was pretty expensive. They noted on a sign that the dry weather had affected their crops. Well, okay.

Pots of bush cukes along the driveway, catching the sun, along with wild white and purple petunias, woodland tobacco, and datura seedlings.

I turned back and stopped at Red Jacket Orchard in Geneva, where I usually go and which is not organic but uses IPM. I got sour cherries, apricots, enough currants to make a small amount of jam, and some gooseberries just for a treat, which I promptly ate with cheese and iced tea on the shore of Seneca Lake. The recipe for the apricot wine includes dried apricots as well as fresh. This got me thinking about whether wine could be made entirely from dried fruits. That sure would simplify things a lot. Not only would it open up working with a lot of different fruits, but it would allow me to make the wines whenever I felt like it instead of hurry up and get them made so the fresh fruit wouldn’t go bad. I’d already decided to put off a lot of pickling for the early fall, when it cooled off, since we have been having a lot of heat here, although nothing like other parts of the country. Still, the last thing one wants to do when it’s hot is fire up the canning kettles–or spend a couple hours pitting cherries.

I found many recipes for country wines made from dried fruits, YES! So I began to prowl for good sources. I already knew from looking at dried cherries a while ago that you have to be careful about them adding things like sweeteners or vegetable oil so they don’t clump. I found some plain organic elderberries (which I actually sell as well),  dried wildcrafted hawthorn berries, and dried organic blueberry powder (not sure if a powder will work, but what the hey). I even found a place that has dried currants–real ones, not little grapes. Using dried fruits will simplify my wine- and jam-making enormously.

Black nightshade with overly shaded raspberries behind them

Meanwhile, the Black Toad is really putting on some happy growth in the shade patch this year, coddled as it is with soaker hoses and soybean meal fertilizer. I’m hoping for some wine experimentation with those berries and will try the leaves as a cooked veggie as well. This is an annual plant but reseeds itself very readily, so basically once you plant it, you’ve got it. They don’t call it a weed for nothing. But that is to our advantage if we can use it as a hedgestead food plant.

I've given up trying to grow tomatoes in my shady yard and instead grow them in pots on the driveway. Here they are with wild white petunias. Also on the end, fennel with bush cukes

That leads me to a wonderful book I got recently and which is inspiring me to add more perennials to my hedgestead: How to Grow Perennial Vegetables: Low-Maintenance, Low-Impact Vegetable Gardening by Martin Crawford, who wrote the also wonderful Creating a Forest Garden: Working with Nature to Grow Edible Crops. Forest gardening is the British term for the very proprietary “permaculture,” which some would just love to put a registered trademark symbol next to and which requires people take extremely expensive courses in order to do. Forest gardening, in contrast, is not about making a profit or owning/controlling a concept but about growing things in a sustainable way, stuff to eat for us and for the other animals out there. I’ve been wanting this perennial veg book for a while and actually ordered it from Amazon to begin with, but it took much longer than the stated 2-3 weeks, so I canceled that and ended up getting it used on abebooks (a book source I highly recommend for the book junkies out there). It is gauged to the UK but still has much more useful info, to my mind, than the other perennial veg book, Perennial Vegetables: From Artichokes to Zuiki Taro by Eric Toensmeier. That one focuses on the US, but a lot of the plants are tropicals or need a warm climate, so I did not find it useful. The Crawford book does have a few plants that require a milder climate, more maritime than tropical, but most of the plants are temperate types.

One of the plants that really interested me was bellflower, which has jillions of species. I’ve always liked the flowers but had no idea almost the entire plant is edible, so that’s one I’m going to add to my garden. I also didn’t realize that columbine leaves and flowers are edible. I knew that people liked to suck the nectar out of the flowers but thought the leaves were poisonous. Not so. That is another plant that is almost as prolific at reseeding as Black Toad. I harvested some of the seed from my plants this year and sprinkled it in the parts of the shade bed I’m not using, hoping to get some columbines in there next year just for the sake of the flowers, but now I have more reasons to encourage it. I’m going to try these plants for next year and will add them to the seeds I sell as well: creeping bellflower (that’s it in the picture), red valerian, bladder campion, wolfberry (goji berry), bear garlic, sea samphire, salad burnet, sea kale, Solomon’s seal (I already have a variegated version but don’t want to pick that one), sorrel, bloody dock, Alpine strawberry, and yellow asphodeline. I figure since my perennial herbs and fruits are so much easier to deal with than the annual versions, then perennial veggies should be easier to handle as well. Some of them already grow in my yard of their own free will, like sweet violet and plantain. Because of the book, I tried some sweet violet leaves. They do indeed taste like lettuce, and with the huge numbers of them in my back yard, I will not be running out any time soon. I’ve tried growing lettuce back there to no avail–not enough sun. But I have plenty of sweet violet leaves to supply all my lettuce needs and then some. I find they get especially luxuriant when they creep into pots with other things. I leave them there, because they don’t seem to harm other plants at all. 

7 comments to Hedgesteading and Perennial Food

  • I hear you on the gooseberries. We have one plant and it has done nothing, it’s still alive but it appears to be insanely doormant. I’ve bought a couple more to see how they go, my stepdad is British and loves gooseberries, though I’ve never tried them. I’m hoping to get some currants off my red currant this season but it remains to be seen. Fruit trees are a touchy bunch, I lost one of my peaches and my cherry but the others are flourishing.

    That Forest Garden book sounds fascinating so I think I am definitely going to check it out!

    • Alchemist in Charge

      I’m glad I’m not the only one whose gooseberries are a bust. Re fruit trees, I had a plum tree and a fig tree that both bit the dust, although at least the fig tree gave me some figs for a couple years before dying. I thought about getting another, because fresh figs are about 1.50/ea here, when they are available, but then I thought I should be realistic about what I can grow. I think one problem is the sources I’ve been using. If we are starting off with damaged, diseased, weakened plants, then they are not going to do well in our yards. The place where I got my blackberries and currants this year, Nourse Farms, provided much more vigorous plants than I have gotten elsewhere.

  • faustianbargain

    i got lots of alpine strawberries this season..yellow ones. it’s like perfume.

    • Alchemist in Charge

      I’d really like to try them next. I had regular strawberries, but it is just too dry with too many tree roots where they are for them to prosper. I think the alpines would do okay around the edges of the yard, though.

  • faustianbargain

    alpine strawberries need some shade anyways..so its ok if its under a tree..have you considered recycling old car tires as ‘raised’ garden? i saw it in someone’s garden last year..they were growing all sorts of things in old tires. turns out old tires are expensive to get rid off…and if you line them right and stack them high enough, they can be mini composting units..you can try layering newspapers etc..lasagna gardening, its called?

    anyways..the hottest thing right now here is pallet gardening. strawberries should grow well in them, i’d think.

  • monica

    I have a great recipe for a sour cherry liqueur that my Nagymama, left me. Good Hungarian medicine.

  • Lisa from Iroquois

    Regarding your gooseberries. They like dappled light, not deep shade, not full sun. And they are thirsty. And apparently not crazy about heat. Like so many other places it’s been hot and dry here in Ontario this season, and we only found 3 delicious berries on a normally generous bush. I suspect the late frost that wrecked havoc with all the rest of our fruit trees, but the heat and draught have not helped.

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