Greening your perennial thumb
Cultivating Community NV offers free workshop on edible perennialswith GRUB Grown’s Sherri Scott
Sherri Scott’s October weekends are packed with activity. On a recent Saturday, for example, she canned tomato paste, salsa, and basil pesto at her home at the GRUB Cooperative on Dayton Road, where she has operated her nursery called GRUB Grown for the last four years.
Scott loves and appreciates the food she has gotten from her rows of annual plants—plants that germinate, set fruit and die in under a year, like tomatoes—but keeping up with them gets tiring. “At this time of the year, I’m feeling so crazy, because the annuals have such a short lifespan that I feel like I’m always trying to catch up with them,” Scott said. “They have a certain fruiting season, and suddenly there’s a bunch of abundance.”
Perrenials—those plants that survive year after year—are much closer to her heart. Scott hopes to share her knowledge of and appreciation for the many edible perennials that grow well in Chico in an upcoming free workshop at GRUB on October 20. The workshop, she said, is “geared toward getting the beginner up to speed, but I’ll be covering some new or big areas for some more seasoned gardeners.”
The goal of Scott’s workshop is to help gardeners learn what grows well in Chico, as well as the “cultural requirements of plants”—in other words, in which environment each plant will thrive. “Basically, [perennials] are going to live for more than a couple of years … if you’re choosing the right plants for the right climate and the right spot,” said Scott, who listed asparagus, artichokes, and fruit trees as some of the more common edible perennials.
Scott rattled off a lengthy list of reasons why gardeners should plant edible perennials alongside their annual favorites: Many of the perennials provide year-long foliage, they sequester carbon and provide erosion control, many are very drought-tolerant, and a greater overall variety of plants in the garden can produce “year-round pollen” for pollinators.
“They’re important to the ecosystem,” Scott said. Many of the taproot perennials, like comfrey and dandelion, “can dive for nutrients, so they can go deeper and pull up nutrients to make them available for other plants, that might be more shallow-rooted plants,” she explained.
Perennials are also great for the lazier gardener. “It can be a timesaver [to plant perennials],” Scott noted, as you don’t need to replant yearly. Plus, “a lot don’t require extra compost or nutritional needs” to thrive.
Participants in Scott’s workshop will learn how to plan and design a garden with perennials, and will get a chance to see the plentiful plantings of perennials all around the GRUB Cooperative—from large, healthy clumps of verbenas, sages and mints, to the fruit orchards. All participants will go home with a rooted cutting of grapes that Scott propagated.
Scott will be presenting information on a number of perennials that thrive here in Chico, including the productive sunchoke, a pretty sunflower-like flower that produces edible roots that taste subtly of artichoke. Scott runs through its many benefits: “It’s blooming right now, and it’s really tall so there’s a lot of leaf litter that gives you a lot of … easily broken-down compost, and in the winter time, when there’s not a lot of other things to eat, that’s when you get to dig them up. And that one, you [might] think, ‘Oh, man! I’ve overharvested it!’ [but] no way,” she laughs—the next year’s crop will come in even thicker.
“One of my favorites is pineapple guava,” Scott said. “It’s not my favorite fruit, but it has so many functions. [It’s] drought-tolerant, evergreen—or ‘ever-gray’—[and] the flowers, they taste like strawberry candy!” Plus, being an edible fruit in the winter “when there aren’t a lot of other fruits to eat” makes it an ideal choice for Chico gardens.
One of Scott’s favorite perennials—alfalfa—isn’t just for livestock. “It’s a nitrogen fixer,” she pointed out. “You can dry out the tops and use them for fertilizer, you can eat it in salads, make it into tea. It’s loaded with nutrients and it’s also high protein for animals … and the flowers [are good] for the bees. So it’s got a lot of stuff going on for it. And it’s just a nice, easy plant.”
Scott hopes to help gardeners get more variety out of their gardens—for the many reasons listed above, but also for their health. “I think that there’s a whole spectrum of nutrients and ‘medicines’ out there,” that are available if we just “get more variety in our diet” by adding perennials to the garden, Scott said. She also sees huge health advantages to “being able to use those herbs and different flavors instead of salt or sugar.” Take spaghetti sauce, for example: “People are used to putting some herbs in their spaghetti sauce, but each of those herbs has a lot of medicine, and so [adding more herbs means] bringing in a fuller spectrum” of nutrients into our daily diets.
“I hear a lot of people tell me that they have a brown thumb, or a black thumb,” said Scott. “Maybe [that is] because they were growing rosemary in shade … or maybe [to them] watering just means a little sprinkling instead of a deep watering—a lot of different factors. If people can be just a little more knowledgeable of the needs [of their plants], I think everybody has a chance to be a green thumb.”