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Crop choices expand for edible garden landscapes

By Virginia A. Smith
Philadelphia Inquirer

Most gardeners know about asparagus and rhubarb, crops that can last for decades. But what about pawpaw, persimmon, jujube and mini-kiwi, lovage and sorrel?

Any of those in your backyard?

These plants are largely unfamiliar to all but the most ardent believers in the idea that long-lived food plants can be delicious, nutritious and beautiful enough to earn a place in American gardens and kitchens alongside tomatoes, peppers and other annual edibles.

Pandora Young, a Michigan native who grew up gathering wild blueberries on family camping trips, certainly qualifies as an “ardent believer.”

“I think of these as my special foods,” Young said while cutting open a pawpaw and scooping out its yellow flesh. The custardy texture of this oddball fruit is redolent of banana, mango and maybe even pineapple.

Catherine Smith, owner of Redbud Native Plant Nursery in Glen Mills, Pa., first noticed a heightened interest in special foods and new flavors two or three years ago. It has only gotten stronger.

“I’m seeing younger people who’ve been studying permaculture … and a lot of the interest is due to the proliferation of CSAs,” she said. “Even downtown, the urban farmers have created a lot of interest.”

CSA stands for community-supported agriculture. Subscribers pay for weekly shares of seasonal produce and products supplied by local farmers.

Permaculture, short for permanent agriculture, is a self-sufficient way of gardening and growing food to mimic nature’s complexity. It features a layering of trees, shrubs, and plants; wildlife- and pollinator-friendly plants and practices; composting and other no-waste processes; and often, chickens.

“There are a lot of people into edible gardens right now,” said Smith, who sells native fruit bushes such as blueberry, blackberry, cranberry, elderberry, gooseberry, huckleberry and raspberry, as well as native serviceberry, persimmon, and pawpaw trees.

Can you eat that?

While older customers might share memories of their mothers’ homemade serviceberry jam, younger folks often have no idea what they’re looking at.

“I can’t tell you how many people come in and say, when the blueberry bushes have fruit on them, ‘Can you eat that?’ They don’t realize those are the berries they’re buying in the grocery store,” Smith said.

That much-discussed disconnect between Americans and their food is the result of decades of social change, including the development of a global food trade that makes it possible for shoppers to buy virtually any fruit or vegetable from almost anywhere in the world in any season.

Long story short, even the devoted legions enjoying a long summer of homegrown ‘Big Boys’ and ‘Cherokee Purples’ would be shocked to know what Eric Toensmeier grows all year long: 200 species of perennial fruits, vegetables, and nuts on one-tenth of an acre in Holyoke, Mass.

Toensmeier, 42, is coauthor with Jonathan Bates of the 2013 book “Paradise Lot: Two Plant Geeks, One-Tenth of an Acre, and the Making of an Edible Garden Oasis in the City.”

Toensmeier calls this compact ecosystem, which the men share with their wives and kids, “an intensely managed backyard foraging paradise” that allows them to “walk through the garden every day and … pick fresh greens, fruit and other foods, grazing on them straight from the plant.”

Nothing wrong with annual edible crops, he said, but perennials offer many advantages.

They build up the soil. Their roots control erosion and capture rainwater. And once established – some take a while – they provide food year after year with little effort.

Toensmeier and Young agree that a mix of native and nonnative perennial foods works best, and before the native-plant purists out there protest, consider that carrots, tomatoes and apples, American diet staples all, are not native to this part of the world.

“Nobody eats an all-native diet,” said Toensmeier, who aims to find a middle ground that embraces a wide range of edible plants, regardless of origin, that “are adapted to our soils and climate and taste delicious.”

Persimmon, jujube, lovage

But native is a good place for Young to start her visitor’s introductions. Besides the pawpaw, which is North America’s largest indigenous fruit tree, she offers up a native persimmon.

Smaller than a Ping-Pong ball, it’s gooey inside, without the pucker-up astringency that persimmons picked at the wrong time have. Young, an adventurous chef who whips up lotus root chips and sumac tea for her Longwood students, uses persimmon pulp in custards and puddings.

Asian jujubes next; they’re the size of a large olive, with a mild apple taste. And mini- or hardy kiwi, a vine that produces grape-like fruits with a flavor similar to kiwis. (Young bakes them in fruit tarts.)

“I never imagined they would be so delicious,” said Susan Quinn, one of Young’s students, as she scours the vine for fruit.

Young also likes the underused lovage, which tastes like a “super intense celery” and has the added benefit, at Bloody Mary time, of having a hollow stem. Jerusalem artichoke, or sunchoke, is another favorite; think of it as a more nutritious white potato.

Before buying any of these perennial edibles, Young and Toensmeier recommend identifying the ones that require a male and female plant to produce. And as always, remember: Right plant, right place.

Beyond that, do as Young does: Enjoy.

“My parents didn’t tell me not to put things in my mouth,” she said, popping a tiny kiwi, skin and all, down the hatch.

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