What is a Perennial?
A perennial is any herbaceous plant that will survive for more than 2 years in the proper environment. If you think that vegetables are all annuals that need to be planted each year and fruits all grow on woody trees, think again. There are a number of perennial vegetables and fruits that you can plant once and harvest from for years to come.
Why Plant Perennial Fruits and Vegetables?
Are you interested in growing your own healthy food, becoming more self reliant, saving money, and planning for the future? Then you should be interested in perennial crops. Your initial investment of time and money will reward you for years to come. Prepare your perennial beds properly, water and weed your plants, top dress with compost, and you will harvest fresh food for your table year after year.
Although you need to provide proper soil, water, and sunlight for best growth, most of these plants will eek out an existence and provide you with nutrition even if neglected. So planting some, or all, of these perennials will provide you with food insurance through the possibility of tough times ahead. What if you just can’t get your regular crops in the ground due to illness or weather? Perennials will come through with nutritious fruits and vegetables. With a little bit of extra work, you can raise enough of these vegetables to can, freeze, or dehydrate for sustenance through the lean times of the year. Propagation will allow you to turn a few plants from the nursery into a nice sized bed of edibles.
A vegetable is any edible part of a plant, other than the fruit. Carrots are vegetables, but tomatoes and peppers are technically fruits. The following is a list of some common vegetables that come back year after year.
Asparagus – This delicacy likes sandy, well drained soil in a spot that receives at least 7 hours of sun. It thrives in areas with a cold or dry dormancy for part of the year. Before planting asparagus crowns, thoroughly clean out all weeds and work in compost. Loosen soil to about 12″ deep. Each crown should be planted 12″ apart in rows 4′ apart or more. Dig a trench about 8″ deep and mound the soil up into a small hill for each crown. Spread the roots around the mound and cover with soil. Add soil or compost periodically to slowly mound up the crown. Water for the first two years and side dress with compost. Wait until the third year to harvest your first spears, and leave some stalks to grow the rest of the summer. Asparagus crowns will remain productive for 20 years and will propagate from seeds.
Rhubarb – Often thought of as a fruit, we actually eat only the stems which are vegetables. This crop requires a chilling period below 40 F to go dormant and will not survive in southern climates. Rhubarb likes a soil rich in humus in a spot that receives full sun. Loosen soil and remove all weeds. Compost will get the plants off to a good start. Plant crowns about 2 to 3′ apart to give them room to spread out. Side dress with compost or well rotted manure every year for best results. Don’t harvest the first year after planting and only harvest a small amount the following year. Rhubarb will produce well for 10 to 15 years and will need to to be divided when plants become too crowded. (Note: the leaves are poisonous!)
Perennial Onions – Often called bunching onions or Egyptian Walking onions, these members of the allium family can be eaten at any stage of growth. They have a pungent flavor and can be used as green onions, bulbs, or the small bulbils can be used as pearl onions. Plant the bulbils out in a row to harvest over an extended period of time as young green onions. As they get larger, they will produce a small top set of bulbils and the original bulb will become woody. Another onion will grow from the same root to carry on the next generation. These onions are very hardy and not at all picky. Provide them with decent soil and plenty of sun for best results. They are one of the first plants to green up in my garden each spring and the last to be harvested in the fall.
Horseradish – Usually grown for its pungent root, this perennial vegetable can also be utilized for it’s spicy greens. They have a tendency to take over a garden bed, so choose your spot wisely. Plant roots in the spring or fall in loose, well drained soil in a sunny location. Let your horseradish grow for two years before harvesting in the fall after leaves turn brown or in the spring before new growth appears.
Garlic – Every fall, as you harvest your garlic bulbs, replant some of the cloves for a crop the following year. Choose a sunny, well drained spot in the garden. Work in some compost as you harvest and replant. In the spring, clip off the scapes, or young flower shoots, to encourage larger bulbs. Store garlic in a cool dry place to use in the winter.
Jerusalem Artichoke – This pretty flower is not an artichoke, nor is it related to them. It does produce a crisp, starchy root that can be used in place of water chestnuts for a veggie stir fry, or it can be cooked and chopped into salads. The flowers are very tall, towering overhead, and need full sun. It’s hard to get rid of these plants once you put them in a bed, so choose your spot wisely.
Although I have yet to try the following perennial vegetable crops, I have read that they are wonderful additions to the kitchen garden and will provide you with fresh greens for many years. I hope to try some of these soon so I may share my experiences growing, harvesting and cooking these healthy plants: Ground Nut, French Sorrel, Good King Henry, and Sea Kale. For those in more southerly climate, you can add artichokes to the list.
Check out this video about polyculture cropping your perennial vegetables…
Eric Toensmeier, author of Perennial Vegetables, tours his perennial root crop.
Do you grow perennial vegetables? Would you like to add more to your garden?