Growing Salad on Trees and Shrubs

Dill and opal basil from the herb garden

We’re just coming through the very hot, muggy, and buggy season here in FL, when tomatoes, lettuce, and many other cooler loving salad veggies struggle and die.  Since our family’s daily diet consists of at least 50% raw fruits and veggies, and we are working to grow all our own, we’ve wondered how to manage the hottest months every year.

That’s one reason we’ve been excited to learn about a whole new world of yummy vegetables…perennial vegetables.  This year we planted bushes and trees providing a variety of tasty and highly nutritious greens, right through the hot summer.  Our children love these flavorful perennial salad greens so much we rarely use salad dressings anymore.

The landscaping around our house is all edible, medicinal, or otherwise useful. These two moringa trees in the front yard are nearly 100% edible and highly nutritious.

Did you know the world has become so narrow minded about food, that out of over 20,000 species of edible plants, over 90% of what we eat comes from only 20 of them?  On our recent trips to ECHO we learned that 75% of the world’s food is generated from only 12 plant and 5 animal species.  Check the ingredients in grocery store food, and what do you see repeated over and over?

This is what commercializing food has done for us, as more than 90% of crop varieties have disappeared from farmers’ fields.  Of all the interesting foods God created, we’re familiar with only a small percentage.  And most of it is so hybridized, genetically modified, laden with chemicals, and grown in such dead soil that there remain few nutrients and flavors God intended us to enjoy and thrive on.

This sign is posted at ECHO’s global farm in Ft Myers, FL

Honey Bun snacks on cranberry hibiscus, growing in the background

Perennial Vegetables

Of our favorite trees and shrubs in our edible landscaping, the tastiest is cranberry hibiscus (false roselle, hibiscus acetosella), with tangy-flavored burgundy leaves.  It starts easily from seed, growing quickly into an attractive shrub.  The more you harvest for salad, the thicker and faster it grows.  It is useful in fruit drinks, teas, and for natural red coloring.  Kiddos love it!  Much tastier than lettuce, its deep coloring indicates it may also be more nutrient dense.  Purchase seeds from ECHO.

Another is Moringa, used as a super food and for fighting hunger and malnutrition in developing countries.  It is a fast growing, drought resistant, soft wood tree with edible leaves and pods.  The tender nutrient dense leaves contain seven times the vitamin C of oranges, four times the calcium of milk, four times the vitamin A of carrots, three times the potassium of bananas, three times the iron of spinach, and two times the protein of milk.  They taste a bit like horseradish, but mildly enough that it blends easily with other greens or in fruit smoothies.

This moringa tree was planted last fall and we harvest its leaves regularly.

Facts about the awesome moringa tree

We prune our moringa trees regularly to around seven feet (2 meters) tall for easy harvesting.  We kept these tropical trees alive and growing during last winter’s freezes using covers and candles.  There are other ways to grow them in cold climates.  Seeds can be purchased here or from ECHO.

Various products containing moringa available at ECHO

Other perennial vegetables we’ve harvested regularly this summer for our large dinner salads include malabar spinach, okinawan spinach, edible hibiscus leaves (abelmoschus manihot), Thai red roselle leaves (hibiscus sabdariffa), garlic chives (allium schoenoprasum), aloe vera (diced small with spines removed), purslane (stems and buds), sweet potato leaves (varieties vary in flavor and texture), katuk leaves (sauropus androgynus), and opal basil, with a touch of marigold flower petals for added flavor and color.  Most of these leafy vegetables are rich in color and flavor, contrasting with blander lettuces.  After washing, removing stems, and tearing into bite sized pieces, we toss these colorful greens with a touch of apple cider vinegar, sea salt, and homemade cottage cheese (if available).

A basket of greens just harvested: from top left and clockwise you will see purslane, garlic chives, malabar spinach, opal basil, moringa, more malabar spinach, aloe vera, cranberry hibiscus.

Beautiful vining red malabar spinach grows well in the heat and has tender meaty leaves, great in salad

Okinawa spinach: green with purple undersides, not a true spinach but used the same way, propogated only from cuttings.

Harvested greens…edible hibiscus (L), okinawa spinach (R), and katuk (bottom)

These salad ingredients are entirely homestead grown except for the ACV (which we’re working on) and sea salt.  They’re probably the tastiest and most nutritious salads we’ve ever had.  Anticipating cooler weather, (it’s still a real feel of 104°F/40°C during the day) we are preparing to also plant traditional garden vegetables, while our edible perennials continue to grow.

Ten Advantages of Perennial Vegetables

  1. Longer lasting.  While many perennial vegetables may require slightly more work initially to establish than annuals, they produce for two or more years.
  2. Drought resistant.  Once established, perennials can usually withstand dry periods longer than annual vegetables.

    This Thai red roselle provides great-tasting leaves for salad or for flavoring teas. Its blooms will also make awesome herbal tea.

  3. Easier care.  Shrubs and trees require less maintanance than traditional garden vegetables for the amount of food produced.
  4. Continual production.  Perennial vegetables produce all year in mild climates or in a greenhouse.  Although growth slows in colder seasons they continue to produce if lightly pruned (harvested) regularly.
  5. Save your back.  As perennials mature they get taller and thicker, making it easy to harvest many of them without bending or kneeling.

    Malabar spinach does well on a trellis, making it easy to harvest. Notice also the garlic chives.

  6. Beautiful edible landscaping.  Many perennial vegetables are aesthetically pleasing as well as delicious and nutritious.  Plants growing near our house must be edible, medicinal, or otherwise practically functional.  If arranged by texture, height, color, and shape, they make beautiful landscaping.  They smell lovely and attract butterflies and birds.

    Some kinds of purslane taste bitter, but this variety is both beautiful and very edible.

  7. Survival food.  In a collapse or crisis food shortage, perennials are more dependable than annuals, requiring less skill to keep alive.  Seed saving is less necessary to ensure future crops.  Many are propogated by division and considered invasive weeds if left alone.  That is real survival food!
  8. Animal fodder.  Most perennial vegetables can double as nutritious fodder for chickens, goats, cows, horses, and rabbits.  We are growing some of these perennials as hedges for that very purpose.

    Evensong is growing a moringa hedge to feed her rabbits

  9. Politically acceptable.  Most perennial vegetables are not commonly known in our society as being edible.  Easily incorporated into landscaping where traditional gardening is not permitted, who would ever know they are your vegetables?
  10. More Nutritious.  Most perennials are more nutrient dense than the average garden vegetables.

Bonus:  Children love them.  If your children are typical non-veggie lovers, chances are it’s because they are served the pathetic specimens from supermarkets shipped from the other side of the continent.  Most are picked early after being bred for shipping and storing, grown in depleted soils and dependent on chemicals to survive.  The result is little flavor (and nutrition).  Smothering with sugar and corn syrup-laden dressings help make them tolerable.  We must rarely coax our children to eat their greens, especially those we grow, even without dressings.  It probably helps that their taste buds aren’t seared with sugary candies, drinks, and other sweets all day either.  🙂

Aloe vera is a refreshing salad addition if finely diced

Harvesting Routine

Our salad perennials are still very young, most having been planted just this year, so we still supplement here and there with market-bought romaine when needed.  I normally harvest in the morning before the hot sun is beating on them.  They are generally the most crisp and tasty, retaining more nutrients and flavors, if harvested early in the day.  Since harvesting affects the apppearance and beauty of the landscaping, I do it mostly myself, often with a young helper, or the older girls do it if needed.

On leafy plants I take the largest leaves, allowing smaller ones more time to grow.  I cut new 12 – 18” (30-46cm) long leafy branches on thicker plants such as cranberry hibiscus and moringa, which encourages them to grow even thicker.  Unless it’s really cold or dry they usually have new growth to harvest within two to five days.  If I really prune a plant way back, I do it during the waxing phase of the moon (from new moon to full) when growth is much faster than during the waning phase (from full moon to new).

Moringa, cranberry hibiscus, and sweet potato vines (on right) ready for washing and separating leaves from stems.

We bring the cut greens and herbs into the kitchen for a “bath” in plain water.  A younger child drains them in a colander then breaks leaves off the stems.  The stems are fed to Evensong’s rabbits and the leaves bagged and placed in the fridge awaiting dinner preparation.  Tender stems can also be cooked lightly and served as asparagus.  Nothing is wasted.

Washing in the sink…the marigold petals will also be added to the salad

We’re adding lots of bamboo to our landscaping. Young shoots are edible and it has many other practical uses.

I fertilize the perennials periodically with rabbit or barnyard “poo tea”, or eggshell tea.  Mostly I just enjoy watching them grow more greens for us.  Hopefully in a few months we’ll have tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and other annual veggies to add to the salad mix.  And there are more salad perennials I would like to try, including walking Egyptian onions, asparagus, daylily, bamboo, and New Zealand spinach.  I just got Eric Toensmeier’s books “Perennial Vegetables” and “Paradise Lot” which I hope to devour when I get a chance.  Meanwhile, I welcome your suggestions of other salad perennials for our developing landscaping.



How to Get More Done on the Homestead

How to Get More Done on the Homestead

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