Stacking Functions Garden

Pandemic gardening

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Gardening this year, like everything else, is imbued with a feeling that nothing is the same, and might not be for a very long time. And yet. As I watch my yard come to life this spring, there are certain plants for which I feel so much gratitude. Well, honestly, I feel gratitude for all green things in the spring.

Blood root in full bloom

Bloodroot, one of my favorite wildflowers, is blooming in the Twin Cities area right now.

Here are some plants I was especially excited to see–some are weeds, and some are perennials I planted, but ALL are edible.

In times of uncertainty, growing your own food is taking control of something that you can take at least a measure of control over. I’ve been seeing lots of news articles about people suddenly taking an interest in gardening, and there’s never been a better time. There’s also never been a better time to search out locally-produced dairy and meat.

I also buy nearly all my meat directly from a farm family–Chris and Tamara Johnson of Johnson Family Pastures–and this has also been a source of comfort during this uncertain time. Getting to know the people who raise my food has always been important to me, but now it feels vital. Pasture-based meat is more expensive (and more nutritious) than conventional, but I use it more thoughtfully as a result.

Anyway, back to gardening, since that’s what I am here to write about.

One of the main principles of permaculture is to emphasize perennial edibles over annuals. This can be somewhat challenging in the north. And yet. When I look out on my yard today I see several things to eat–even though the snow only just melted–and having just a few things feels like a bit of added security. That feeling will get stronger when I have cherries, raspberries, and currants to pick.

Here are six edible perennials I’ve got growing right now. Each of these multipurpose plants stacks up several functions in the garden–from feeding my family and me to feeding pollinators.

Garlic mustard

Young garlic mustard plants. Later it gets much taller, with tiny white flowers.

Garlic mustard
One of my big goals is to try and make garlic mustard more popular. I walked along Minnehaha Creek last week and was really sad to see the extent to which it is taking over the natural area along the shore. If more people knew how delicious it is, perhaps they could over-harvest it like they do with ramps. 

Garlic mustard was brought over from Europe by early white settlers, and spread throughout the United States rapidly. It’s a green; you eat it like spinach, raw or lightly steamed. Its name comes from a slightly garlicky taste and aroma. Every year, I carefully remove every bit of garlic mustard from my yard, and yet every year more comes back. Someone nearby must have quite a bit that they allow to go to seed.

Please note: do NOT let garlic mustard go to seed. If you see it, pull it, whether you plan to eat it or not. This stuff is seriously invasive. Now is the very easiest time to find it, as it’s one of the only green things in natural areas.

stinging nettle pesto

Cutting up stinging nettle for steaming. Note the gloves–necessary only until nettles are cooked.

Stinging nettle
I’ve been allowing a little stinging nettle patch in my yard for several years now. I keep a very close eye on it to make sure it doesn’t expand too much, ruthlessly pulling any that appears beyond the bounds of where I’ve decided it can grow.

Why keep stinging nettle around? Two very important reasons. First, it’s a superfood. After a long winter of greens trucked in from California, in the early spring your body is practically begging for something local, fresh, and packed with anti-inflammatory goodness. My favorite two ways to use it are in an herbal tea, or lightly steamed and made into pesto–just use a standard pesto recipe and substitute steamed nettle leaves for the basil. Steaming it removes the sting.

The second reason I like to keep a little patch of nettles is that it’s the host plant for the Red Admiral butterfly–their caterpillars exclusively eat members of the nettle family. Red Admirals are not endangered like monarchs, but I can spare a few square feet of my yard to feed their babies.


French sorrel in a bunny-proof protective basket.

French sorrel
Unlike my edible weeds, I’ve actually had to purchase and plant new French sorrels several times. Without a protective cage, rabbits will eat it to the ground over and over in the spring. I’ve also killed it by planting it in shade–it stays much bigger and healthier in a sunny spot. French sorrel can be used like spinach as well, and its flavor gets more pungent as the season goes. I think of it as a spring food; sorrel soup is a spring tradition around here but it’s also good in egg dishes.

Lovage is new to me so I only have baby pictures so far! I hear it gets quite large…

Here’s a new-to-me plant this year. I read about lovage in permaculture books several years ago, but then became inspired to plant it after reading several of Monty Don’s books last winter. It’s a perennial that gets quite large and must be planted in a sunny spot. Its early spring leaves have a celery-like flavor; the best use for it truly is in soups. The flavor is not as good later in the season, but Monty Don recommends cutting it down severely in the early fall to encourage new tasty, leafy growth.

First chive harvest of 2020.

I first planted a small pot of chives more than 10 years ago, and now have several little clumps of them around the yard. They come back faithfully every year, surviving in all kinds of light conditions. They can spread quickly in a sunny spot, so I purposely keep them in partly-shaded areas. Chives are always my very first harvest of the spring–this year I picked my first on March 28.

Harvesting rhubarb on a VERY cold early May day in 2019.

Who doesn’t love rhubarb? Rhubarb can be a little tricky to grow for two important reasons. First, it MUST have full sun (8-12 hours of direct sunlight per day) or it will die out after a year or two. I nearly killed mine by initially planting it in a spot that kept getting shadier each year. When I realized it was dying, I moved it into a new sunny spot and now, two years later, it’s thriving again. Secondly, it’s hard to resist picking every last beautiful rib of your rhubarb plant, especially in the early years when you’re so excited to finally have rhubarb. If you pick too much, you will kill your plant. My rule of thumb is to never pick more than half the plant at a time.

My tiny lettuce seedlings survived some very cold nights recently in the mini-hoophouse.

Cold season veggies
Halfway through writing this post, I got word that Mother Earth Gardens and other local garden centers are reopening again, after doing a limited website ordering/curbside pickup system for several weeks. I’m sure it will not be the delightful shopping experience we once knew and loved, but it’s necessary.

Please consider buying your plants from a local nursery, rather than a big box store. There are several good reasons to do this. First, big box stores treat their plants with neonicotinoids, which will injure and potentially kill any bee that tries to pollinate your flower. Secondly, these stores are primarily concerned with making a sale, not helping you be a better gardener. Also, does it even need to be said that small businesses need extra help right now? Choose integrity, and choose people who truly care about plants and pollinators–vote with your dollars on this issue.

I like to buy onion “starts” from Mother Earth Gardens. You tease them apart and plant them around 2″ apart from each other, then start thinning them when they reach delicious green onion size.

Garden season is really heating up along with the weather–as of right now in the Twin Cities it’s safe to plant out “cold season” vegetables. These are the ones that won’t be hurt by a light frost, like peas, lettuce, anything related to cabbage, greens, and many annual flowers. Perennial plants can also go in now. I sowed kale, collards, and poppy seeds yesterday, and I’ve got flats of herbs under grow lights in the basement. I’ve also got some pretty tiny lettuce seedlings under my mini-hoophouse.

Planting out kale, collard, and poppy seeds on April 18, 2020.

Time to get growing. Questions about gardening? Ask in the comments below or follow me on Instagram for more frequent updates.

One thought on “Pandemic gardening

  1. What a lovely newsletter! The pictures and descriptions are so beautiful and thoughtful. Your work is inspiring.

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