Unusual edibles that love growing in Marin
Many strange fruits and perennial greens are low-fuss, enthusiastic growers that love living in Marin. They may look different, but they produce loads of food.
When gardeners speak of “perennial vegetables,” the plants that often come to mind include asparagus, rhubarb, and artichoke. But don’t stop there! Other rare and/or unusual perennial vegetables may be worth cultivating in your own backyard.
Quick reminder: healthy soil is key to growing most any fruit or vegetable. The secret to healthy soil is really simple: add two to three inches of organic material, such as manure or compost, and then let the decaying organisms in the soil do the work. These lovely, hard-working soil dwellers consume the organic debris you’ve added and leave behind humus, a mixture of gums, starches, and the plant parts that aren’t easily decomposed. Humus is garden gold since it can hold the equivalent of 80 to 90 percent of its weight in water, provides plant nutrients, and allows air to circulate through its light, fluffy structure.
Yacon (Polymnia sonchifolia), also known as Bolivian Sunroot, is a relative of the sunflower and native to the high Andes. Yacon plants should reach 5-feet tall at maturity. The tubers are harvested in autumn. Yacon is a versatile plant, as it can be eaten raw like fruit or stir-fried, roasted, baked, or made into pies and chips. Some cultures wrap their food with the leaves of the yacon plant. It tastes like jicama, only better. Yacon is best grown in full sun and in well-drained, fertile soil.
In recent years, yacon has grown in popularity, both in gardening literature and in nurseries specializing in rare plants. This may be due to the fact that yacon is an up and coming “super food.” Food companies are developing yacon into various products such as yacon syrup, which is a low-calorie sugar substitute, appealing to both diabetics and people on diets.
Malabar spinach: big vine helps create an edible food forest
Malabar spinach is a vine that requires trellising and can reach 8 to 10 feet in length. It is a staple for those interested in creating an edible food forest in their backyards. It is not actually spinach, but it can be substituted in recipes that call for spinach. Malabar spinach is fleshy and mucilaginous and is best consumed cooked and not raw. Under the right conditions -- full sun and fertile, well-drained soil -- it is so prolific that one vine may feed a family of four. Malabar spinach is frost tender and may need to be dug up and brought indoors during the winter.
Longevity spinach: grows in sun or shade
Another spinach like perennial, Gynura procumbens or longevity spinach, hails from tropical Asia and produces greens year-round. It can be eaten raw or cooked. The plant is the focus of extensive pharmacological research for its numerous health benefits. It is not in the spinach family but is related to daisies. This super-productive sprawler does well in sun or shade and is drought-tolerant.
Ground cherry: every fruit has a wrapper
Collard tree: big, delicious leaves
Tree collards can be difficult to find in retail nurseries. They’re typically passed on from gardener to gardener as cuttings. If you don’t have any friends with the goods, consider looking online at specialty permaculture and edible nurseries.
Cool season Asian vegetables
Chinese cabbage (Brassica rapa) is another fine vegetable to grow in fertile soil during our cool season. Chinese cabbage is particularly sensitive to both cold and heat, but on the coast does well in the mild winter. A raised bed works well because the vegetable is less apt to drown in the heavy rains we get periodically. Make sure it gets enough water during our inevitable dry periods.
This is a good time to drop some Asian vegetable seeds in the flower beds near the kitchen. Bush sugar peas, tat soi, mizuna greens, and pak choi are attractive enough to grow in flower beds. They are beautiful, healthful, and provide fresh greens at a time when much of the country’s gardens are covered in ice and snow.
Original text by James Campbell for the Marin IJ plus Solano Master Gardener Betty Homer and San Luis Obispo Master Gardener Mary Giambalvo
Edited for the Leaflet by Jane Scurich