It’s not a new story. Growing our own vegetables is great for sustainable food production… or could be if we did more of it.
About two thirds of the vegetables we eat in the UK are grown here on farms. But mostly not sustainably, what with the imports of oil and gas, fertiliser, pesticides and machinery we use to grow and transport them. Growing our own at home can cut food miles to food metres. We are free to garden organically and employ all sorts of other tricks of the trade to make our growing even more sustainable.
But even with the ‘grow your own’ revolution (apparently somewhere between a half to a third of us are at it) only about 4% of our fruit and vegetables currently come from our gardens and allotments. People who don’t grow their own often say it is the time it takes which puts them off. Not surprising; we’re a nation of very busy people. And that’s surely why even those who do grow vegetables, don’t grow more of them.
But how about if harvesting your veg for tea was much the same as nipping outside the back door to get a bunch of herbs. How about if, in thousands of urban and suburban gardens, half the ornamentals in the flower beds were replaced by vegetable bushes! I know it’s a childish concept, the vegetable bush, but I like it. A plant which sprouts up (or leafs up) each year and also stays for years, is easy to look after and gives you a good portion of food for your tea.
Well to be honest, some of the perennial vegetables I’ve been exploring for the past few years fulfill these criteria and some don’t. One of my favourites is Good King Henry (Chenopodium bonus-henricus) and one of the things that really attracts me to it is that it’s been quietly performing its role in Britain as a vegetable bush for hundreds of years. The tradition of its use mostly died out during the last century, but is still within living memory especially in Lincolnshire. Here are a few echoes of that tradition in snippets I’ve found on the net:
From Good Year at Allotments, Horncastle News 13th August 2009
‘The couple grow a spinach-like vegetable known as mercury, it is also known as Good King Henry, Lincolnshire spinach and poor man’s asparagus. Mr Sizer said it was once popular but you would not find in the shops now. “It’s like spinach and is full of iron,” he said. “Years and years ago when I was a young boy we used to have it at my granddads.”’
From Growsonyou.com website 9th April 2011
‘i haven’t seen or tasted markery or marquery since i was a small boy. no one i have asked has heard of it except for one man who said it is a weed and takes a lot of getting rid of and he had only just succeded. mother treated it like a leaf vegetable and ate it often. grandfather had a large clump which he harvested year-round. it looked like a dock plant gone crazy. the very dark green leaves looked like black string when boiled and (to me) it tasted bitter but livened up cabbage no end. i would like to taste it again. i suspect markery is a local name for probably a more well known plant. please help.’ Verne, Lincolnshire
From GardenBanter.co.uk forum 11th April 2003
‘Marcory – may be spelt wrong – An old person told me about a vegetable she used to eat in her youth. It was called “marcory” but she didn’t know how to spell it. Does anyone know what it is? She said it was leaves like nettles.’ Chris
And here’s a rather longer account, if you have the patience (it’s worth it!), from a time when the tradition was still common:
Journal of Horticulture and Cottage Gardener 26th March 1874
‘This vegetable is grown, or rather grows itself, in thousands of gardens in this county (Lincolnshire). In many villages every farmer’s and cottager’s garden has a bed of it; in fact, a plot without a “Markwerry” bed is considered by many to be singularly barren and destitute. It is not, however, generally met with in the gardens of the gentry, and I observe that as farmers rise to this higher position (and they have risen rapidly), the Mercury beds become neglected, and are eventually destroyed. This may be that gardeners have a prejudice against it, regarding as a rubbishy crop. Certain it is that it will grow in spite of their cultural skill, and clings to its home with the pertinacity of any indigenous weed. Yet it is not a weed, but may be correctly described as a plebeian vegetable, highly esteemed by its numerous humble owners……It is often called Everlasting Spinach, and the name is as expressive as any that could be chosen…….In many gardens it is grown near to the cottage, so that soapsuds and other refuse are handily given to it, so as to induce a quick free growth and enable the owner to “cut and come again” a good many times over.’
Of course the other criteria for a perennial vegetable to deserve a place in your border is that you have to like the taste of it. We had our first meal of Good King Henry shoots earlier this year and loved them. They had the succulence of purple sprouting broccoli and a mild spinach flavour. We find the young leaves cooked delicious too whilst the older leaves are fine after a bit of a soak in salty water before cooking. But I’ve also heard it described as tasteless, bland and even vile.
But if an Everlasting Spinach bush isn’t for you there are other perennial vegetables which might do the job. Sea kale with its beautiful flowers, sturdy clumps of Welsh onions, lemony garden sorrel, day lilies with delicious edible flowers or, a rarer plant but one which is becoming more available, Caucasian spinach (Hablitzia tamnoides) a climber which will clothe a trellis in a shady spot each year – related to Good King Henry and considered by some to be even tastier.
I have some perennial vegetables available for sale at the moment including a few Good King Henry. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for a list of what is available.