Traditionally late winter through to early summer was a time of famine, known as the 'hungry gap', when the last of the overwintering and stored vegetables have been consumed and the first of the new year are still eagerly awaited. In his book How to Grow Winter Vegetables, Charles Dowding refers to this period as 'winter's shadow', and it's an apt name for this dark time in the gardening year.
Apart from a few skinny leeks left over from last year and some salad leaves in the greenhouse, my small vegetable patch is now providing very slim pickings – so it's comforting to know that there are some perennial vegetables which, planted once and requiring very little additional care, will provide a harvest during the desperate months when your garden may be otherwise bare. Here are five to give you food for thought:
High-Yielding Early Vegetables
Rhubarb is an ultra-reliable spring vegetable, cropping heavily for months until stems start to become tough and sour by midsummer. You can also force rhubarb for a still earlier harvest. Rhubarb is one of the easiest edible plants to care for, thriving in almost any situation, on any soil – it will even produce well in partial shade. It does like a high-nitrogen feed once a year, so a mulch of well-rotted manure or poultry manure pellets around (but not covering) the crown in late winter will help boost productivity. Plant new crowns in spring to start harvesting from next year.
Patience is a virtue, so they say, and if you fancy growing asparagus you'll need to be very virtuous indeed. Set out the crowns (which bizarrely resemble the 'facehugger' in the Alien films – to me, at least!) in late winter or early spring, then expect to wait three years from planting before you can take your first modest harvest. It's worth the wait – once happily established, asparagus will crop prolifically for six to eight weeks every year. Full sun and free-draining soil are a must for this plant.
Perennial Vegetables With Luscious Leaves and Stems
Sea kale is another plant that needs time to settle in before you start harvesting. After three years you can blanch the plants under a bucket for tender asparagus-like shoots in late spring, or you can pick the cabbagey green leaves for cooking. Sea kale is native to the UK, and (again, like asparagus) it needs free-draining soil and full sun to simulate the conditions of its native habitat on the seashore. As an extra bonus, bees are attracted to the flowers in summer.
From spring onwards, sorrel will provide lemony-tasting leaves which can be added raw to salads, or cooked in soups or stews. Like many leafy greens sorrel is tolerant of some shade, so it's useful in those parts of the garden that are less sunny at the start of the year. Sorrel is easily started from seed sown in spring, and can be grown either as an annual for tender leaves ideal for salads, or as a low-maintenance perennial.
Scorzonera is usually grown as an annual for its edible roots, but if you leave the roots alone it's actually a hardy perennial. In early spring, cover the plants with several inches of straw or leaves and wait for the young shoots to push through, ready-blanched. Cut them when they're about 10cm (4in) tall and use both shoots and leaves in salads, or cook the leaves in soups and stews. The young flower buds and their flowers stalks are also said to be very tasty, but if you get fed up of it you can always dig up whole plants and eat the roots instead.
Other Edible Plants to Help Fill the Hungry Gap
Don't forget that many perennial herbs are evergreen and can be picked all year – while they won't fill an empty stomach, they will help to liven up your recipes. Rosemary, thyme and sage will all be available, and perhaps oregano, although it often partially dies back in cold winters. If you have forced chives under cover you may be lucky enough to have some oniony leaves still available.
Wild foragers are well catered for too, with lots of spring leaves and flowers such as wild garlic (also known as ramsons or ramps), nettles, dandelions, violets and bittercress, to name a few.
You may not eat heartily at this time of year if you're relying solely on your own garden for all your vegetable needs, but I hope this shows that it is possible to eat fresh from your garden at all times of year. Do you have a favourite edible perennial to help fill the hungry gap? Let us know by leaving a comment below.
By Ann Marie Hendry.