Plan for the Hungry Gap With These 5 Easy Perennials

, written by gb flag

Rhubarb growing in the vegetable garden

Traditionally late winter through to early summer was a time of famine, known as the 'hungry gap', when the last of the overwintering and stored vegetables have been consumed and the first of the new year are still eagerly awaited. In his book How to Grow Winter Vegetables, Charles Dowding refers to this period as 'winter's shadow', and it's an apt name for this dark time in the gardening year.

Apart from a few skinny leeks left over from last year and some salad leaves in the greenhouse, my small vegetable patch is now providing very slim pickings – so it's comforting to know that there are some perennial vegetables which, planted once and requiring very little additional care, will provide a harvest during the desperate months when your garden may be otherwise bare. Here are five to give you food for thought:

High-Yielding Early Vegetables

Rhubarb is an ultra-reliable spring vegetable, cropping heavily for months until stems start to become tough and sour by midsummer. You can also force rhubarb for a still earlier harvest. Rhubarb is one of the easiest edible plants to care for, thriving in almost any situation, on any soil – it will even produce well in partial shade. It does like a high-nitrogen feed once a year, so a mulch of well-rotted manure or poultry manure pellets around (but not covering) the crown in late winter will help boost productivity. Plant new crowns in spring to start harvesting from next year.

Perennial asparagus crowns

Patience is a virtue, so they say, and if you fancy growing asparagus you'll need to be very virtuous indeed. Set out the crowns (which bizarrely resemble the 'facehugger' in the Alien films – to me, at least!) in late winter or early spring, then expect to wait three years from planting before you can take your first modest harvest. It's worth the wait – once happily established, asparagus will crop prolifically for six to eight weeks every year. Full sun and free-draining soil are a must for this plant.

Perennial Vegetables With Luscious Leaves and Stems

Sea kale is another plant that needs time to settle in before you start harvesting. After three years you can blanch the plants under a bucket for tender asparagus-like shoots in late spring, or you can pick the cabbagey green leaves for cooking. Sea kale is native to the UK, and (again, like asparagus) it needs free-draining soil and full sun to simulate the conditions of its native habitat on the seashore. As an extra bonus, bees are attracted to the flowers in summer.

From spring onwards, sorrel will provide lemony-tasting leaves which can be added raw to salads, or cooked in soups or stews. Like many leafy greens sorrel is tolerant of some shade, so it's useful in those parts of the garden that are less sunny at the start of the year. Sorrel is easily started from seed sown in spring, and can be grown either as an annual for tender leaves ideal for salads, or as a low-maintenance perennial.

Perennial sorrel leaves in the vegetable garden

Scorzonera is usually grown as an annual for its edible roots, but if you leave the roots alone it's actually a hardy perennial. In early spring, cover the plants with several inches of straw or leaves and wait for the young shoots to push through, ready-blanched. Cut them when they're about 10cm (4in) tall and use both shoots and leaves in salads, or cook the leaves in soups and stews. The young flower buds and their flowers stalks are also said to be very tasty, but if you get fed up of it you can always dig up whole plants and eat the roots instead.

Other Edible Plants to Help Fill the Hungry Gap

Don't forget that many perennial herbs are evergreen and can be picked all year – while they won't fill an empty stomach, they will help to liven up your recipes. Rosemary, thyme and sage will all be available, and perhaps oregano, although it often partially dies back in cold winters. If you have forced chives under cover you may be lucky enough to have some oniony leaves still available.

Ramsons (ramps or wild garlic) provide an early wild crop for foragers

Wild foragers are well catered for too, with lots of spring leaves and flowers such as wild garlic (also known as ramsons or ramps), nettles, dandelions, violets and bittercress, to name a few.

You may not eat heartily at this time of year if you're relying solely on your own garden for all your vegetable needs, but I hope this shows that it is possible to eat fresh from your garden at all times of year. Do you have a favourite edible perennial to help fill the hungry gap? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

By Ann Marie Hendry.

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Show Comments


"Nine star perennial cauliflower is great!"
Vanessa Burholt on Friday 20 February 2015
"Excellent suggestion! And just right for the hungry gap too. It's not one I've tried yet as it does need quite a bit of space, but perhaps in the future..."
Ann Marie Hendry on Friday 20 February 2015
"My favourite is Dwarf Green Curled Kale. The side shoots are particularly delicious this time of thee year."
David Brown on Sunday 22 February 2015
"Hi, Virtually all members of the cabbage family are great for winter. Winter cabbage, spring greens, kale Brussels sprouts, autumn planted onion sets, China rose radish, Parsnips, leeks carrots and beetroot Use slug pellets and fleece to cover some plants to keep birds off."
Peter allen on Thursday 26 February 2015
"Thanks for the article - i am going to look into getting some sorrel for the garden... it grows all around here so do I simply need to transplant some in and get it to grow all year round? Also I would love to grow wild garlic all through the year - is that possible? Thanks !"
Rebecca on Saturday 18 November 2017
"Hi Rebecca. I wouldn't dig up plants from the wild as it removes a food source and habitat for wild animals, plus it may be illegal depending on where in the world you live (it definitely is in the UK). Sorrel seeds are cheap, and you can get pretty red-veined varieties as well as the traditional plain green ones. Wild garlic won't grow year-round I'm afraid. It produces leaves and flowers in spring then dies down completely for the rest of the year. You could try growing garlic chives for a longer season of garlicky flavour. "
Ann Marie Hendry on Tuesday 21 November 2017
"I would also suggest Society Garlic, Tulbaghia Violacea, its easy to find in landscape plants, very rare you can find it in the edible section. Easy to grow, can use leaves all year round or the flowers have a bit more mild of a taste, great for potato salad. Strappy leaves to about 15, 20cm, good for borders, I'm partial to the variegated type myself. "
Jazmyn on Friday 4 October 2019
"Great suggestion Jazmyn!"
Ann Marie Hendry on Saturday 5 October 2019
"I am going to give gardening one more try. I use to always have gardens as a child I helped my parents and after marriage if I had any questions my parent or grandparents helped. Now it’s been over 25 yrs since I had a garden. I don’t own a tractor my helpers ( daughter and grandkids moved states away). My question is this I have to hire a farmer down the road to plow my garden and last year I got a very late start, is there another way to plant without having to wait on someone else?"
Terri on Sunday 24 January 2021
"Hi Terri. I'd recommend looking into no-till (or no-dig) gardening. We have articles on the subject on this website - use the search box at the top of the page to find them. I'd also suggest perhaps reducing your garden a size that is more easy to manage. "
Ann Marie Hendry on Tuesday 26 January 2021

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