Learning to Garden God’s Way—The Economy of Perennials

At the Understanding God’s Loving Laws Assistance Group, one of the principles we learned about was that of Economy. Apparently, God wants us to create economically (efficiently) with our time, energy and resources (and rewards us for doing so). Economy makes sense; to be economical is respectful to the Creator of all that is, and loving to ourselves as well as others and our environment. If we are wasteful in any of these areas, it is actually a “sin” from God’s perspective and will initiate correction and learning via God’s Laws.

I love the principle of economy; I have always enjoyed finding ways to be more efficient. Perhaps that is because I have a lazy streak and don’t want to spend energy when I don’t have to — even if it is something I love doing. Whatever the cause, I believe my appreciation for efficiency has played a part in my attraction to both Permaculture and more importantly, Divine Truth, which teaches how to develop a relationship with God and thus experience the most efficient way to become truly happy. 

One of the things I enjoy very much is gardening. Watching the amazing variety, complexity, usefulness and beauty of plants that sprout from tiny seeds reminds me Who is really running things here. Yet even with gardening, I don’t want to chain myself to any time, resource, or energy consuming tasks if I can instead create in harmony with God’s Way and have an abundant and beautiful garden with minimal effort. One way I aim towards gardening God’s Way is by utilizing as many perennial plants as I can in my gardening endeavors.

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My house garden July 14, 2018

Jesus and Mary teach that the most efficient way to create anything, including a wonderful garden, is to heal your soul. They explain that each human soul has a huge effect on its environment, which includes other people, animals, plants, and all living things. If we heal our souls by fully feeling and releasing all emotional errors, and at the same time passionately desire and receive God’s love in our souls, we will have a tremendously positive impact on every aspect of life. This of course means that those of us who love plants would create fabulous gardens with almost no effort and no maintenance whatsoever. Our souls are that powerful! At this time, I really have no conception of the immensity of this truth. It sounds good, and I am slowly working towards the goal of “At-one-ment with God,” but I have a long way to go. Therefore, every experience I write about is reflective of the the current condition of my soul. In other words, my garden failures are not the plant’s fault! Some plants, though, are more tolerant of harsh conditions in general so these are likely going to be the plants that do well in my garden.

Here is a summary of the challenges in my high desert garden that any plants that live here have to overcome:

  1. My soul condition. Whatever emotions I am avoiding will be lovingly brought to my awareness by events and circumstances in my life and garden. What emotions come up for me when critters above ground or below attack and decimate baby garden plants? How do I feel about the harsh environment I live in and always having to take measures to mitigate extreme wind, sun, heat, and pests? Also, what emotions do I have about sharing? Am I willing to share God’s abundance with other critters? Or am I bound and determined to plant only for myself and friends?
  1. Highly alkaline soil. I had my soil tested last year, and the pH is about 8.6 — extreme alkalinity. I won’t even try to grow strawberries until I get the soil more balanced.
  1. Imbalanced soil. The native soil (if it even qualifies for the designation of soil), besides being extremely alkaline, is very thin, devoid of organic matter, rocky, and high in clay (clay + rocky = concrete!). So I had to start my soil from scratch, building it up on top of the native soil. The method I am using, a slow decomposition method, combined with humus and biological inoculants from Soil Secrets takes time for the organisms to come to balance. The first year, my plants really struggled. This year the soil is much more balanced but has a way to go before it will have a good balance of all the various organisms. 
  1. Irrigation water with high alkalinity and salt content. Rain water is always the best for plants and soil organisms, but I don’t yet have enough of it to water my garden all year. When the rain tanks are low, I rely on well water which is just as alkaline as the soil, and high in Calcium salts.
  1. Extreme diurnal shifts. We frequently have a 30°F variation between day time and night time temperatures. This is hard on many plants.
  1. Severe winds. Every spring and fall the winds come, which desiccates and batters young plants.
  1. High elevation sun. We have lovely crystal clear skies here most of the time, but at this elevation (5900Ft), the sun can be very intense. Shade of some kind is essential for many plants. 
  1. Very hungry critters of all kinds. It seems that in the desert, all the living things are hanging on to life by a thread, so they are all hungry. I have pack rats, mice, squirrels, rabbits, chipmunks, deer, crickets, birds, sow bugs, squash bugs, soil grubs, and an assortment of bacterial, fungal and viral soil diseases. All these critters deserve nourishment too, but when things are out of balance, they can cause lots of damage.
  1. My limited time. I am the only one here to do what needs to be done. So when it comes to my garden, I want plants that require as little of my time and attention as possible. 

So with all these challenges, hardy perennial plants are a great choice. Perennials, if you are not aware, are plants that grow for more than two years. Most live several years, which means they don’t need to be seeded and babied every year like many of the common annual garden plants do. Perennials include trees, shrubs, berry plants and herbs. In this article, I am focusing on my experiences with the herbaceous perennials with edible leaves. I have a few common “spice” herbs like Sage, Lavender, Rosemary and Oregano in my garden too, but they are used in such small quantities and are so well known that I didn’t feel the need to include them in this article.

In temperate zones (characterized by cold winters and hot summers) like my high altitude desert area, herbaceous perennials that are compatible with this environment will appear to die back in winter, but sprout again in the spring, year after year. It is such a delight to see the first sprouts of herbaceous perennials popping up through the mulch in early spring. How do they do that?! Such testaments to our wonderful Creator.

Perennials can provide a multitude of gifts such as: food (for me or other critters), beauty, habitat, shade, mulch, and soil enhancement. Most people don’t realize the importance that perennials play in long-term soil health. The roots of these plants provide food and habitat for soil organisms during winter when there is otherwise not much life in the garden soil. If it weren’t for perennials, many vital soil organisms would die of starvation. If we take care of the soil organisms year-round, they are better able to maintain healthy, well-balanced soil and a better environment for any other plants to be grown. I plan to incorporate perennial herbs, as well as berry bushes, shrubs and trees into my garden beds for this reason. 

It might seem odd to plant perennials like trees and woody shrubs right in the veggie garden, but they have some great gifts to offer. Honey locust trees and Siberian Pea shrubs provide soil food (they are Nitrogen-fixers), pollinator food, diversity, microclimates, mulch, climbing opportunities for vining plants, cycling of nutrients from deep soils, and shade (multi-functionality is also a principle of God’s Way). But in this article, I am focusing on the herbaceous perennials that I have been experimenting with in the food garden.

I am vegan, and eating a good variety of fresh, raw, organically grown leafy greens are fantastic nutrition (much higher in protein and nutrition than people realize) so I eat a quality salad just about every day. Thus, growing greens are a big priority for me. Here are some perennials greens that I am experimenting with, many of which have really impressed me already. I listed them by the name most commonly used.

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Anise Hyssop (September, 2018)

Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum): I started a few of these from seeds last year, and they germinated well and grew into little anise-flavored mint plants that I occasionally picked to add variety to my salads. The leaves are slightly hairy, and the flavor gets tiresome when eaten regularly, so I don’t use it much now, but in the early spring when they are one of the few fresh greens available, I enjoy their leaves very much. All three plants survived the winter and grew into magnificent healthy 36” specimens that have long-standing violet colored flower spikes that are beloved by bees and other pollinators alike. I will need to transplant them this fall because they are too big for my shade covered salad-greens section, and need to be where pollinators can get to them more easily. With their hairy leaves, I think they will do fine in the full sun rather than under the shade cloth where they have been. Even though I am not eating the leaves much in the summer, I consider this a very successful plant for my garden because the plants are so healthy, and the pollinators love them.

Asparagus (Asparagus officinalis): I had heard that asparagus does well in poor alkaline soils like mine. And sure enough all the plants that have survived the attack of soil grubs (that frequently occurs here before the plants get establish) are doing well. All the plants survived the winter. I didn’t pick many of the shoots since it is their first full year, and just let the feathery leaf stocks do their thing to feed the crowns that supply the shoots we eat. I look forward to an abundant asparagus harvest in the future.

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Betony (September, 2018)

 

Betony (Stachys officinalis): I got this young plant from Richters herbs. They say it is a hardy perennial to zone 4, a good caffeine-free substitute for black tea, has pink flowers in mid‑summer from July to September, and is found in dry grassland, meadows and open woods. Modern herbalists prescribe betony to treat anxiety, gallstones, heartburn, headache, high blood pressure, migraine and neuralgia, and to prevent sweating, but since I am more interested in healing via the soul, the medicinal qualities don’t really interest me. I appreciate that the plant is good for me and love that it could be a nice caffeine-free black tea substitute.

My experience with Betony is that it had a hard time getting established. Its leaves got eaten by some hungry critter (who couldn’t wait for it to get established), and it has been very slow to grow. Sometimes perennials don’t do well the first year but thrive after that. By the second year the supplements of soil biology added at planting time will also have kicked in to help the plant take in nutrients. I hope that is the case for Betony, since it is a tasty, pretty perennial, and I will be delighted to try it as a tea if it gets going.

Chives (Allium schoenoprasum): I grew these hardy plants from seed last year, and they are a delight. Like all my herbaceous perennials, its top growth died down during winter but sprouted in early spring with great vigor. I made the mistake of planting the chives under a low shade cloth, where their early spring flowers are kept hidden from pollinators. I plan to move them in the fall (when such perennials are most amenable to being moved) to areas outside the shade cloth, where their flowers can be enjoyed by the pollinators. I love one or two chive leaves in my daily salad. 

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Costmary (September, 2018)

Costmary (Tanacetum balsamita) (AKA Bible leaf): I bought the young plant from Richters herbs; Hardy Perennial to zone 4; The sweet-scented, mint flavored leaves may be used in salads, sauces, soups, cold drinks, tea, poultice for insect bites, or in herb pillows. A little goes a long way. Tiny yellow or white blooms appear in late summer and develop best in full sunlight where it can reach 2-3 feet tall. It tolerates hot summer, cold winters, and nearly any type of poor, dry soil, including clay and sand. It grows by rhizomes, and is difficult to seed. I have found Costmary to be quite tolerant of the conditions here and has grown well. It does have a nice minty taste, and spreads into a nice ground cover. I haven’t yet seen the flowers, but since it is a late bloomer, I bet the insects will appreciate it.

Erba Stella (AKA Minutina): When one of the descriptions I read about this plant said it is found in ditches on the sides of roads, I guessed it might be compatible with rudimentary conditions and thus pretty hardy. It is related to plantain and has fleshy thin leaves that grow low to the ground. I grew it last year, but none of the plants survived the winter. That is ok, because the leaves were small and thin, the plant not very vigorous, and the flavor uninteresting, I decided it was not worth another attempt.

JpegHablitzia tamnoides, (AKA Caucasian spinach): I love the descriptions I have read about this tasty, climbing, spinach-like plant that keeps coming back year after year in the early spring. Unfortunately, I have had poor luck growing it. Last year, I got two plants to sprout from seed, but both seemed to succumb to something attacking its roots. They died within a few days of being planted in the garden. This year, I tried again starting them from seed. One plant died even before going in the ground, and one last plant seems to be doing ok after a few weeks in the garden (pictured above). I might have planted it too late in the season to get established well enough to survive winter. We will see how it goes. 

Kang Kong (Ipomoea aquatica): This perennial, related to morning glory, is native to the tropics, so in my climate, it will act more like an annual. But this tropical perennial is so easy to propagate that its special needs are still easier than most annual plants. Kang Kong likes to live in wet, warm soil and does quite well in tubs or buckets full of compost and water. The aquatica in its name says it all; it is also known as Water Spinach. It sprouts easily by seeds floated in water or by cuttings poked right into the watery soil. In most locations of the world it is considered an invasive species because it propagates and spreads so easily (so don’t plant it where it can become invasive!). But here in the high desert, those qualities just mean the plant has a good chance of finding a place in my garden.

I started some Kang Kong from seed this past winter to see if it could be an indoor winter salad green for me. The plants started out like gang busters, but soon succumbed to spider mites. This was very unfortunate, because I loved the flavor—mild and pleasant—something highly appreciated in winter. I believe the plants failed because they were stressed by the short days and coldish nights in my sun room—too far removed from their native tropical conditions. I never got around to planting them again this summer, but I suspect they will do very well in saturated bins of rich soil. Perhaps next year.

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Longevity Spinach (September, 2018)

Longevity Spinach (Gynura procumbens): This perennial is from the tropics, and I wouldn’t bother with it (because tropical perennials won’t survive our winters) except that it is a vigorous plant that is easy to root from cuttings and will transplant well into a pot, which I will need to take advantage of to bring it inside for the winter. Plus it is highly nutritious (supposedly has some anti-cancer properties), and tasty (a bit hard to describe, but similar to a slightly medicinal tasting spinach). I purchased this plant on the internet as cuttings which I acquired in the middle of winter. The cuttings rooted easily on the window sill of my house, and it did surprisingly well in the sunny atrium environment over the winter and spring. When spring came and the night time temperatures warmed up and stayed in a comfortable range for a tropical plant, I put them in the garden. Unfortunately, I planted them in one of the worst areas of the garden where various plants have struggled. I thought its vitality could overcome whatever imbalance was present in the soil, but not so. The two plants both struggled to stay alive, but now, after three months in the ground, one pulled through and looks really good. The other is almost a goner. In the fall, before temperatures drop again at night, I will transplant the healthy plant back into a pot and bring it inside my atrium for the winter. It is so nice to have fresh greens in winter, this little effort seems worth it. One day I will have a greenhouse that always stays above freezing, so it could have a permanent home there.

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Lovage (April, 2018)

Lovage (Levisticum officinale): This is a new herb for me. I don’t know if I have ever eaten it in my life. But i liked its name, and it is a perennial, so I gave it a try. And I was in for a very nice surprise.

Lovage loves water; I live in a desert. Go figure. I started it from seed last year, and it limped along like most of my plants and died back during winter as herbaceous perennials do. But this spring it bolted to life with great vigor and beauty. Its leaves taste very much like celery, with a slight overtone of tarragon. I enjoy using this herb in small quantities in a number of dishes (a little goes a long way) and it is a key ingredient in my Sorrel Soup (recipe forthcoming). And apparently the abundant seeds can be used as a spice like fennel or celery seed. I think they would be nice toasted. The plant grew over 6 feet tall (!) and produced an abundance of umbelliferous yellow flowers that were the mainstay for a whole slew of spring pollinators. I didn’t give this plant any special attention and certainly no extra water compared to my other veggie garden plants. It adapted to desert life extremely well—poor and extremely alkaline soil, high winds, hard water, etc. I give this plant 5 stars, and so do the pollinators. I will save the abundant seeds to share with friends in the area. 

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Young Nepitella with champaign bottle watering spike

Nepitella (Calamintha nepeta); (AKA Lesser calamint, mentuccia): Perennial to zone 5, lives 3-4 years; Hardy and tolerant of various growing conditions and soil conditions but prefers well-draining soil. Mint family, attracts bees. Fragrance a mix between mint, oregano, basil and pennyroyal. A Tuscan herb and may be used to flavor anything savory, mushrooms, pizzas, artichokes or pasta dishes, however, it should be used sparingly as it may overpower some dishes. Sautéed zucchini or mushrooms with fresh nepitella, tomatoes, and garlic is popular. Nepitella grows into a small mound to about 30cm high, with soft, shiny green oregano like leaves. The delicate flowers are white, pink or lilac but could equally be described as lavender blue and grow on tall stems up to 12” (30cm) high. Nepitella grows wild in Italy, especially in Tuscany and Umbria, and may even be found growing amidst cobblestone pathways. It has spreading roots and is easily propagated by division or seed dispersal. It is not considered to be invasive, but it can be planted in pots if there is a concern. Nepetella can be subject to powdery mildew on occasion but is generally considered quite pest resistant. Medicinal Uses: In medieval times Nepitella was used for stomach problems and as a digestive aid, as a soothing tea and as a treatment for insomnia. Medicinal quantities of this herb should be avoided by pregnant and breastfeeding women.

My experience with Nepitella: This plant is in its first season, so it is still getting established. It required more water than I expected when I planted it in a pretty dry area, so I have planted a self-watering terra cotta spike next to it (a very handy device), and now it is very happy.  Once it gets established, my hope is that it won’t need the watering spike. I suspect it will do well in the long run. I have not experimented with using it in the kitchen, since it didn’t seem to have any abundance to share, but the plants and its little lavender flowers are nice to look at.

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Perennial Arugula (the scrawny one in the foreground with yellow flower spikes)

Perennial Arugula (Diplotaxis tenuifolia); (AKA Sylvetta): I grew this perennial from seed the first year of my garden and it took quite a hit from aphids that year. By the end of summer, it looked like it had been zapped of its vitality. Sure enough it did not have enough life left to make it through the winter. But I like the idea of it, so I gave it another try. This year, I have no aphids, so it got a good chance to show some of its charm. However, it is a small plant with narrow, sparse leaves, long lanky flower stalks and tiny flowers. If the flowers offered abundant food for pollinators, I might consider finding a prime spot for it and nurture it in the garden, but that is not the case. I rarely ever harvested any leaves for that arugula flavor in my salads because it seemed to need all the leaves it could produce.

I love arugula, but arugula does not like the heat we get in June, so I tried this perennial substitute which apparently is fine with summer heat. I started a few of these plants last year, but they took quite a hit from aphids and none made it through the winter. I decided to give it another try, so I started some again from seed this year, and got one planted in the garden. Although I have almost no aphids this year, it is still not a very robust plant even when planted in some of the best (older) areas of the garden. It is a small plant with narrow, sparse leaves (much smaller than regular arugula), long lanky flower stalks that produce sparce, tiny flowers. It wants to go to flower very quickly, so it would be necessary to keep trimming off the flower stalks if I wanted it to focus on producing leave. If the flowers were more abundant, then I could justify this plant for the pollinators, but even its flowers are few and insignificant. If it comes back next year, fine, but overall, I am not impressed with this one.

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Salad Burnet (spring 2018)

Salad Burnet (Sanguisorba minor): This plant claimed to be highly nutritious, hardy and pleasant tasting. Sure enough it has been a star in my garden. I started seeds last year, and transplanted four of them into the garden. All have done very well. They are one of the first plants to sprout in the early spring, and have leaves that taste like grassy cucumber. I strip the leaves off one or two stalks in my salad each day. The birds have even discovered that the seeds are good to eat, so they are helping me keep these hardy plants from spreading. Four salad burnet plants is plenty. Currently they are planted in prime real estate in the garden—under the shade cloth in the best soil—and I don’t think they need that kind of pampering, so I plan to move one or two of them this fall to see how they do in the direct sun.

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Scuplit bearing seed pods (September, 2018)

Scuplit (Silene inflata or Silene vulgaris) (AKA Sculpit, Stridolo, Bladder Campion): This is a perennial native to Europe and little known outside of Italy. It is used as a salad herb (one claimed it as harvestable year-round, but not sure in what climate) and also cooked in risottos, pastas, vegetable dishes and non-vegan dishes. Younger leaves are more pleasant tasting than older leaves that develop a strong bite, and it is suggested to harvest the spikes of leaves before the plant blooms. I have found this plant very easy to grow (from seed) and very tolerant of poor soil and minimal water—I planted it in one of roughest neighborhoods in the garden. It grew quickly and happily to produce an abundance of small, white flowers that have unique shape and produce an abundance of seeds. The flowers are deep, so only a few specialized pollinators enjoyed them like the native “hummingbird  moth” (a nice name for the large moths that produce the voracious tomato and tobacco horn worms). Even well after flowering (as in this picture), I often toss a few leaves in my salad.

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Sorrel (September, 2018)

Sorrel (Rumex acetosa): This plant, related to spinach, was a total surprise. It is native to the woodlands, where the soils are slightly acid, moist and shaded. My garden is just the opposite. But strangely, the four plants I started from seed took my highly alkaline, poor nutrient soil in stride, and are thriving. These plants did score locations under the shade cloth, but in this case, because they do seem to need the shade, they get to stay there. If you aren’t familiar with sorrel, I highly recommend it. It has a slightly acid, lemony taste (where it gets its acid out of my alkaline soil is a mystery). In salads, I use it sparingly like you would squirts of lemon, but I discovered a recipe for Sorrel Soup (that I modified to be vegan) that I think is fantastic! I will share it as a separate recipe article in the near future.

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Stinging Nettle (caged because it is outside the garden—we’ll see if any critters dare nibble on it)

Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica): A funny thing— I had forgotten nettles are a perennial until doing research for this article!! I planted some of these in my garden because they are so nutritious and I had wild harvested them in the past and loved their flavor. They make a wonder spinach substitute as long as they are cooked well. But have caution: they will sting! Thick gloves are a must (I use heavy-duty “chemical” gloves). Harvest them right into the cooking pot or a metal or glass bowl (something that the stings won’t stick to), using pruners that don’t have soft handles (for the same reason). When it is dinner prep time, add boiling water and cook for at least 10 minutes. I cooked my recent nettle harvest into a really yummy soup recipe that is designed for spinach, another recipe that I will post in the near future. Wikipedia says it is important to harvest nettles before they flower, because once they go into flower mode, they produce gritty particles called cystoliths that can cause urinary tract irritation. When harvested at the pre-flower stage, they can have as much as 25% protein!

Nettles normally like moist, shaded areas, so I planted them in good soil with shade protection and all three of the nettle plants I started from seed this year are doing great. I am so glad they will come back each year!

So that’s a glimpse of my experience so far with these very efficient (economical) herbaceous perennials of the garden. I have a long way to go before I achieve the kind of self-sufficient life-style truly aligned with God’s Way I desire, but any plants that are so easy to care for and so generous in their offerings will certainly have a welcome home here.

I look forward to discovering and sharing more treasures of the plant kingdom—and any other treasures I have the privilege of experiencing of God’s amazing creations—in the future. 

Happy gardening, and I hope you enjoy the change of seasons.

Till next time,

Jennifer