What’s the Lady Farmer cure for the January doldrums? Planning the next season’s garden, of course! There’s a jumble of seed catalogs and plant guides that I keep fireside and peruse while visions of veggies dance in my head. This year I’m especially excited to be expanding my selection of perennial vegetables.
Why cultivate perennial vegetables in place of the annuals that comprise the typical summer garden? The tomatoes, squash, peas, peppers, lettuce, cucumbers and the like that we consider standard home-grown produce are easy enough to grow, and even the inexperienced gardener can expect a good yield. Perennial herbs and vegetables, on the other hand, are harder to find and usually take longer to establish, so it might be a year or even longer before you get food from a plant.
Despite these drawbacks, the benefits of growing perennial vegetables are many. For starters, they are a lot less work! You plant them once and then you can neglect them. Once these edible perennials have taken hold they will be repeat performers year after year and establish mature root systems that not only enrich the soil and crowd out the weeds, but increase the plant’s resistance to drought and pests as well. Perennials help hold water and nutrients in the soil and create habitat for a wide variety of microorganisms that make a garden fertile and healthy. Also, because the soil around the plant doesn’t have to be disturbed every year, it’s able to capture carbon from the atmosphere and sequester it, an important process in the reversal of global warming. And if that isn’t enough, perennial vegetables are often harvested earlier or later in the year, thereby extending the season. They’re also useful in creating a permanent edible landscape. Just imagine having an established food supply from your garden that comes back every year on its own!
So which vegetables are perennial? The ones we’re most familiar with are rhubarb and asparagus, but there are many others. Here are few perennial veggies that are good to start with, some of which I have already and others that I plan to introduce this year.
Perennial Vegetables To Plant in Your Garden
Sunchokes (Jerusalem Artichoke)
Plant these tubers in the ground and enjoy beautiful sunflower-type blooms on top of a dense cluster of 6-8 ft stalks in late summer. At the end of the season, you can dig up the tubers and eat them like potatoes — cooked in soups, mashed, baked or fried.
Ramps (Wild Leeks)
Shade-loving,clumping and spreading leafy vegetable used as a green in salads or as a flavoring such as a leek or scallion. The bulbs can be used like garlic and onions. (Also in the old fairy tale, it was Rapunzel’s mother who was craving ramps and sent her husband to steal them from the witch’s garden.)
Also called warty cabbage, this leafy green resembles arugula but produces a small broccoli-like flower. It grows in clumps and has a slightly bitter, peppery flavor. It’s a great addition to mixed cooked greens or eaten raw.
This leafy shrub grows to about 3 ft tall and wide. The leaves can be used like collards or mustard greens while the new spring shoots are harvested and prepared in much the same way as asparagus. The flower is similar to broccoli.
Can be used like spinach, cooked or raw, though when eaten fresh, the strong lemony flavor serves well in a mix with other milder leafy greens. It grows easily from seed and catches on quickly in the garden, improving the soil around it season after season.
You probably won’t find a wide selection of perennial vegetable plants or seeds from the usual sources, but all of the above are available at www.foodforestfarm.com.
Want to learn more? Eric Toensmeier’s book Perennial Vegetables (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2007) was a great resource for this article.