Thursday, November 19, 2009

Perennial Vegetables

This is Part I of a two-part review of the book.
(Read Part II of the review of Eric Toensmeier's Perennial Vegetables.)

Toensmeier, Eric. Perennial Vegetables: From Artichoke to 'Zuiki' Taro, a Gardener's Guide to Over 100 Delicious, Easy-to-Grow Edibles. Chelsea Green Publishing: White River Junction, Vermont, 2007.

If you are a gardener interested in sustainability, the "holy grail" must be a more-or-less stable perennial polyculture. (See Wes Jackson's work with perennial grains at The Land Institute, for a related example.) In other words, you want a garden that mimics nature. The problem is that most of our food gardens are the opposite: we grow lots of annuals, mostly of a very few varieties. That is why, if you are anything like me, you already know what artichokes are--and even the difference between artichokes and Jerusalem artichokes--but you may never have heard of 'Zuiki' Taro or any of the "Over 100 Delicious, Easy-to-Grow Edibles" heralded by Eric Toensmeier's subtitle. His goal is to introduce people who garden for food to 100+ new food crops, all perennials. He wants to ring the changes on perennial vegetables from A to Z! Does he succeed? Yes, in my opinion he does. My only caveat to the readers of this review is that my experience with these plants is very limited. For that reason, and because I have gardened for food avidly now for a decade, I think I am directly in the bulls eye of Mr. Toensmeier's target audience. For far too many of the plants that Toensmeier names I cannot provide an independent evaluation of his recommendations. Most of these plants I have never grown or tasted, or even seen with any recognition! And that is what is so exciting. I cannot wait to devote sections of my garden to this new (to me) kind of vegetable next year. Already I grow lots of perennial fruit, so the addition of perennial vegetables is only natural. The key questions, it appears, will be where to find good varieties of the vegetables Toensmeier names ("Only a small number of nurseries and seed companies offer even the best perennial vegetables!") and whether I agree that they are palatable. (This latter appears to be a point of much debate.)

Part I: Gardening with Perennial Vegetables

Before we take a look at a few examples of the many new varieties that will be on our Zone 5b purchasing list for next spring, let's review part one of the book. I'll call this the "How to Garden" section. It is devoted to general information about gardening, with an eye toward the gardening of perennial vegetables. If you already have experience with perennial ornamental plants, fruits, and nuts, there will not be much new in this section. You already know much that is required to plan the garden, choose the plants, prepare the soil, and plant and care for your new "babies." You know how agonizingly long it can take for your plants to "grow up" (especially if more mature specimens are not readily available for planting), how to watch for and mitigate problems with species that are "aggressive," and all about plant pests and diseases.

Given the relation of perennial vegetable growing to the concept of permaculture, it isn't surprising that a whole chapter of the book is devoted to "Design Ideas" (chapter 2). I must admit to a bit of bias here. I have never quite been able to swallow the whole permaculture ideal, especially as presented by Introduction to Permaculture. It has always seemed a little bit Rube Goldberg to me. Permaculture as a system and movement just seems a bit too complicated and totalizing. The idea that humans can so totally plan and design every aspect of their environment without something going wildly a muck seems to me to smack of the same sort of hubris that afflicts rampant development. Too much talk of "conscious design" and the "harmonious integration" of the elements of a garden make me want to say, "you haven't seen my garden!" And, when I look at such fully detailed plans, "you don't have my limited budget." My garden is a constant flux between chaos and order, with chaos always on the verge of gaining the upper hand. All that having been said, the great thing about this chapter (and the whole book) is that Toensmeier doesn't present a "system" so much as real, good, reliable information. With regard to permaculture, for example, he merely provides a few drawings of exemplary garden layouts and recommends several resources for further study, including Edible Forest Gardens (2 volume set), which he co-authored. He also recommends The Complete Book of Edible Landscaping: Home Landscaping with Food-Bearing Plants and Resource-Saving Techniques, Designing And Maintaining Your Edible Landscape Naturally, and Food Not Lawns: How to Turn Your Yard into a Garden And Your Neighborhood into a Community.

For the purposes of "Selecting Species" (chapter 3), Toensmeier divides the country into "eight basic climate types." The climates are

  • Extreme Cold: High Mountains and Frozen Northlands
  • Cold Temperate: East, Midwest, and Mountain West
  • Cool Maritime: The Pacific Northwest
  • Hot and Humid: The Southeast
  • Arid and Hot: The Southwest
  • Mediterranean and Mild Subtropical: Southern and Coastal California
  • Tropical Lowlands: Hawaii and South Florida
  • The Hawaiian Upland Tropics

Indianapolis at Zone 5b is in the Cold Temperate section of the country. Though Toensmeier discusses growing tropical perennials in some locations as annuals, I plan, because of my particular climate, to ignore the tropical plants and those for the warmer Southeast and review the book with an eye toward its greatest usefulness to me here in the Cold Temperate Midwest. A subsection of this chapter is entitled, "You Might Be Surprised by What You Can Grow." While I trust that Toensmeier knows whereof he speaks, I'll want to verify that before sinking a lot of money into plants that may not be hardy in my zone. For example, Toensmeier lists the groundnut (Apios americana, aka Potato bean) as "extremely cold-hardy..., being hardy to Zone 3." However, the only source I've found for them as of now (12/01/2009) is in the Edible Landscaping catalog. Edible Landscaping lists the plant as recommended for Zones 6-8. At $15 for the quart or $25 for the gallon, I'll think twice before going all out. Maybe a quart first just to see whether I can get them established? My hunch is that the catalog is playing it safe with the USDA Hardiness Zone info and that Toensmeier may be stretching. At any rate, Zone 5b is close enough to Zone 6 for this gardener to gamble, what with global warming and all that jazz.

One potentially controversial aspect of the book should be mentioned. Toensmeier advocates a rethinking of the whole issue of nonnative plants. Following David Theodoropoulos (Invasion Biology: Critique of a Pseudoscience), he suggests that the whole "native" vs. "nonnative" plant issue has been overblown, or that the native plant movement has become too rigid. More to the point, he advocates the use of some non-native perennial vegetables.

Toensmeier offers an extensive section on plant propagation and breeding in chapter 4, "Techniques." Throughout the book he advocates that we backyard gardeners must once again regain this significant part of our gardening heritage to become effective plant breeders and propagators once again. We seem to have lost that art, especially the art of breeding, and with it some of the variety that used to characterize food gardening. More to the point, many of these perennial vegetables are still very hard to come by. Propagating them ourselves, and improving the available varieties, will for a while be our best and sometimes only choice.

[Note: The above title was provided for review by the publisher. No remuneration was received for the review.]

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