Self-seeding veggies

ON THE GARDEN PATH by Carolyn Herriot

Imagine harvesting bunches of nutritious greens you didn’t even plant. You can do this simply by growing kales, chards, spinach, salad greens, mustard greens, parsley and coriander because they are all self-seeding vegetables. Let some of the best plants go to seed and you will have a steady supply of food all year long. Talk about the Garden of Eden! 

Arugula (or rocket salad) provides patches of volunteers in spring and fall. I relish the nutty, slightly peppery flavour of young leaves in sandwiches and salads and lightly sautéed in pasta dishes. As the plant matures, it develops a pungent mustard bite relished by some. The annual variety of arugula is very ornamental, going to seed with white flowers rather than the typical bright yellow flowers of the mustard family.

Mache (or corn salad) produces leafy rosettes of juicy greens with a mild but refreshing taste for winter salads and sandwiches. It sets seed as soon as the weather warms up in spring. Small, round, light brown seeds lie dormant in the soil until the weather cools down in October, ensuring corn-salad greens are available all winter.

Purple orach (or mountain spinach) offers pickings of deep purple leaves, which make colourful accents in the salad bowl, as well as in the garden. Make it even more attractive by pinching out leaf tips, which cause it to bush out and produce more leaves. Tip: grow in part sun/part shade; it won’t bolt to seed as fast and lasts longer.

Perpetual spinach is not true spinach, although it is used in the same way; it is a cross between chard and beet, with finer-textured leaves tender enough to tear into salads. It is also “squeaky sweet,” served as a side dish, lightly steamed. I frequently use it as a base for vegetarian lasagnes. Perpetual spinach will grow year round without going to seed and tastes even sweeter after hard frosts. Tip: cut it back severely if it attempts to go to seed before the year is out.

Silverbeet is a chard I originally encountered on a visit to the UK. It thrives in cooler conditions; it is very winter hardy and produces superior dark green leaves with succulent white midribs so you actually get two vegetables in one. It is always plentiful for steamed greens and can be used as a replacement for cabbage in roll-up recipes. The juicy, white stalks are crunchy and sweet when steamed or stir-fried and hard to distinguish from celery when covered with a sauce.

Five-colour silverbeet is a much more decorative version of chard that seeds around the garden and also looks great in containers. When it goes to seed, you can select the colours you like best and create your own custom-tinted mix. Serving up a platter of these vibrant-looking vegetables always leads to enlivened conversation.

Kale leaves are the most freely available greens volunteering around the garden. I choose ‘Russian Red’ or ‘Green Curled,’ which are tender enough for salads year round. The flower heads can be eaten in lieu of broccoli spears, raw or lightly steamed. This is best done while still in bud, before flowers open.

Radicchio (or chicory) seedlings pop up all over the garden, which is just fine with me because these plants are very appealing. Rossa di Treviso and Palla Rossa become an intense red as they develop into substantial, tasty hearts. These edible ornamentals look good for most of the year and work very well along the edge of borders.

Parcel is a variety of parsley with a pronounced celery flavour. Parcel can be chopped and used as a seasoning in generous handfuls. Toss it freely into omelettes, pasta, casseroles, salads and dressings and you will be helping your family maintain their intake of vitamin C. It has become my herb of choice in the kitchen.

I’m a vegan and am trying to grow a steady supply of organic greens in a Vancouver community garden. What is the easiest, fastest-growing and most reliable green for someone who wants big results from little work?
I would grow kale, chard, spinach, Oriental greens, mustard greens, parsley or parcel and coriander because these greens grow year round and are prolific self-seeders. Choose open-pollinated varieties (not F1 hybrids) to start with and let some flower and go to seed.

Carolyn’s new book The Zero Mile Diet – A Year-round Guide to Growing Great Organic Food (Harbour Publishing) will be released April 2010.