For many people from different walks of life, gardening has always been a staple hobby. Whether you are in retirement, homemaking, or creating a sustainable home, planting one’s own food and harvesting has always been a rewarding activity.
In 2020, the year of staying-at-home and hoarding on groceries, gardening became more than just a hobby. It became a survival skill and a rewarding form of self-care. Checking Google Trends within the last five years, the terms easy-to-grow vegetables, vegetable gardens, and perennial vegetables reached their peak in search engine interest. From March to May during the lockdown period, these topics gained massive spikes.
There’s a valid reason why plants and gardening have gained a renewed interest among people. Our need to be surrounded by nature is one enough reason to fill our homes with plants. But in vegetable gardening, it isn’t just about beautifying and bringing nature into your home and life. It’s about growing edible food in your own little garden.
Small vegetable gardens often encourage planting easy-to-grow vegetables like lettuce and peas. Those who have more space can grow pumpkins or watermelons, and if you want to gift vegetables to neighbors and friends, you can plant the fast-growing radishes. But most varieties of these plants are annuals. That means they are often high maintenance veggies that need tilling, potting, and planting annually.
The good news is, there are a fantastic array of perennial vegetables available for you to grow in your garden. Like most flowers that don’t demand too much of your time and care, perennial vegetables are not high maintenance plants in your garden. Your beds and borders won’t need changing every season, and best of all, you will yield an abundance of nutritious crops.
If you are new to gardening, are looking to start an edible landscape or permaculture, this is the ultimate list of perennial vegetable plants perfect for you!
What is a perennial vegetable?
As you try to learn more about gardening and become a full-fledged edible food grower, you will come across terms like biennials and annuals referencing crops and plants. What does it mean when a plant is a perennial vegetable?
The simplest and straightest answer to the question: perennial vegetables are vegetables that can live for three years or more. Annuals must be planted every year, while biennials, as the name suggests, only live for two years.
The beauty of a perennial vegetable is you won’t have to replant them each year to enjoy a harvest. The work that is required of you mostly involves the time when you plant your garden the first time. The effort that you do here should last for several years, and some plants can even go and last for decades!
A Brief History of Perennial Crops in North America
Perennial fruits and vegetables should be big and popular in the United States. But why isn’t it? We highly recommend you pick up the book Perennial Vegetables by award-winning author and plant specialist Eric Toensmeier. His work has become the foremost authority on perennial edibles.
When you trace back the origins of gardening in the United States and Canada, you will find that much of our traditions come from Europe. Except for some fruits and nuts, there are only a few perennial crops grown in those areas. The European climate allowed for agriculture that was centered on grains, legumes, and livestock. When the early settlers came to North America, they brought with them all these methods and crops.
This was a missed opportunity because the North American landmass is actually well suited for gardening practices from warm and tropical regions. That means our soil and our gardeners are very much capable of growing perennial fruits, vegetables, and crops.
Generally speaking, perennial vegetables should be more widely available in comparison to annual crops. Perennials are proven to be more nutritious. They are easier to grow and are naturally more suited for our local garden. Let’s go over the pros and cons of creating your own perennial vegetable garden.
Pros and Cons
Benefits of Perennial Vegetables
We gardeners love to throw that term around as if it’s harvesting season and crops are in abundance, but let’s consider why this is the case for perennial edibles. When you compare perennials to annual vegetable gardens, you’ll know that the latter requires much more attention. You will need to do more watering, weeding, and working to yield more crops.
With perennials, the bulk of the work is only in the beginning, when you have to establish them in your garden with all factors considered. When they are stable, they are mostly indestructible even when if they are badly neglected. You will be enjoying plants that are more resistant to weeds, drought, and even pest infestation.
It’s the fact that while these are easy-to-grow vegetables, they also give high yields of crops. This benefit alone is a good reason to start your own perennial garden.
Build and Strengthen Soil
When you leave soil bare, you expose it to the dangers of erosion by elements such as wind and rain. Not only that, constant tillage harms the quality of the soil. Perennial gardening is a healthy practice for the soil – the way that nature designed it. Leaving it intact for longer allows the plants to grow and add more organic matter. Good fungi and animals also benefit from the absence of disruption in their ecology.
According to Eric Toensmeier, “Perennials improve the soil’s organic matter, structure and porosity, and water-holding capacity through the slow and steady decomposition of their roots and leaves.”
Longer Harvest Season
Imagine enjoying the fruit of your labors in all seasons, from spring to summer! Perennial vegetables can provide food throughout the year. So while your annual plants are still trying to sprout, you can already enjoy vegetables and fruits from your perennial plants.
Perennials with Multiple Functions
On top of all the great benefits we’ve listed above on perennials, they also possess other good garden functions. Some vegetables or fruits can double as ornamental plants the improve the aesthetics of your landscape. Some can function well as erosion control for steep slopes, hedges, or ground covers.
Some veggies possess the ability to fix the nitrogen in the soil, which makes them an organic fertilizer for themselves and their neighboring plants. Because they can thrive long term, they can also provide edible shade, like certain vines that can be grown over trellis frames. The multi-functions are interesting!
The Challenges of Perennial Vegetables
While these crops are great for most gardens, remember that no crop is perfect. There are some challenges and disadvantages to growing perennials.
While they are low-maintenance, some veggies are slow to establish. You will go through the challenge of stabilizing them that might take several years of growth before you see your efforts rewarded. The asparagus is one example.
Growing perennials does not mean you’ll stop planting annuals. The two types are meant to be complimentary. A garden variety is good, especially if you want to have crops all year round. Some perennial greens become bitter once they flower, so they are best harvested only early in the season.
Many perennials have a certain taste that many Americans aren’t yet accustomed to. But if you also enjoy time in the kitchen and would like to explore interesting flavors, this could be an inspiration for you.
This is a funny thought, but some greens are so easy to grow, if you neglect them for some time, they can quickly turn and become weeds in your garden. If you grow asparagus, artichokes, or rhubarbs, then you might have an idea of this next challenge. You need to be mindful of the landscaping of perennials in your garden. The maintenance is different from that of annual vegetables.
The perennial also faces a different type of challenge in terms of pests and diseases. While crop rotation works on other plants to minimize diseases, this can’t be the case for perennial vegetables. Unfortunately, once they are fallen with a disease, they have it for good.
Tips for growing perennial vegetables
No matter the size or scope of your gardening project, the best way to start is by always having a solid plan in hand. This way, you can create a budget that is suited for you. As we’ve established, there are many benefits to growing perennial edibles. Planting them in your garden is a smart time and money move.
However, this does not mean that perennials do not need any form of maintenance, whatsoever. These crops require regular fertilization and a proper amount of pest control. Unlike annuals, most perennials don’t produce food for the first three to five years.
To get the most thriving perennial vegetables, find out different factors such as which plants are best grown in your zone. Determine the precautions you need to take, especially during different seasons.
Starting With Seeds
If you are starting your vegetable garden with seeds, be aware that this is more challenging than buying seedlings. But this is definitely cheaper, and more rewarding in the process.
Always plan out your garden even if you can’t see it right now. Find out which vegetables grow best with what. Remember that perennial vegetables can become invasive. Plants like mint or chives are better grown in containers to control their growth.
As with all plants, seeds have different needs. Start with a few seeds so you won’t be overwhelmed and end up in analysis paralysis. Get yourself the right tools even before you start planting. Invest in seed-starting stands or get inventive with a DIY setup. Let nature work its wonders for your garden by planting a good mix of veggies and ornamentals. This will attract pollinators and give you more plants.
Starting with seeds will need a little more attention and care, but once it is done, the seeds and soil will do the rest of the work. Allow the elements to do their work and you will have healthy plants.
Incorporating Perennials In Your Existing Garden
If you have an existing vegetable garden, you can add perennial edibles by expanding the edges. Remember that one benefit of growing perennials is that it can strengthen the soil and control erosion. You can expand the edges of your garden by tilling a 3 to 4-foot wide perimeter bed. You can also take a year of preparation on your soil by adding mulch to the edges.
Perennial vegetables can be successfully grown with annuals, but they are better suited for beds devoted solely to perennials. That’s because unlike annuals, they grow extensive root systems that should not be disturbed by tilling and cultivating. Check your existing garden with decorative plants, you’ll find that you may already be growing perennial plants as ornamentals. If you have flowers or shrubs in your landscape, consider adding vegetables like sea kale or French sorrel, and turn it into an edible landscape.
Eric Toensmeier encourages his readers to explore edible landscaping because it is a smart way to make use of space. He adds, “One of the things I love about growing these foods is that there are different ones for different niches… Not all require full sun and loamy soil the way most annual vegetables do. You can grow many perennial greens and herbs on the shady north side of the house, below trees, in a wet site, or in other unused areas of your property.”
If you want to take your gardening skills to the next level and improve your garden diversification, think about permaculture gardening. This gardening discipline focuses on nature’s ecosystem, strengthening the relationship of the plants, to the soil, insects, and wildlife. This will take more time. Gardening expert Bethann Weick suggests a five-year plan for gardeners who want to practice “layering” in their gardens.
The result of this practice is your own food forest with edible vegetables, herbs, fruit trees, shrubs, and vines. Exciting, isn’t it?
Perennial Veggies Anyone Can Grow
Not only is this vegetable a delicious and flavorful addition to your dishes, but you can also gather several artichoke heads from one plant. That’s value for money! Artichokes are hardy plants, although they will need protection during the winter months when the weather is colder. Don’t confuse this vegetable with the Jerusalem artichoke (or sunchoke) we’ll cover that later in this list.
How to Grow Artichokes:
The variety of this vegetable that is ideal for perennial growth is the globe artichoke. The imperial variety is often grown as an annual crop. If you are buying this plant, make sure that it is already mature or about two years old. You’ll enjoy more crops sooner with this option.
The globe artichoke is grown from crowns, so plant their crowns 4 inches in depth and space them apart for at least 4 feet. This vegetable thrives in warm climates, zone 7 to 9. Plant them during mid-spring or early fall in a garden bed with well-drained soil that gets full sun.
This vegetable needs plenty of water and should get hydrated 2-3 times per week. Ensure that the soil is rich with nutrients, add mulch around the base. Feed the plant with some slow-release organic fertilizer to get a thriving vegetable.
How to Harvest Artichokes:
During the spring growing season, trim back the stalks to help them grow more. Your artichoke should be ready for harvest season during the late summer or fall. Finding the crown, cut about 3 inches away. Use a knife to remove the foliage from the plant. If you are into canning, this is one veggie you can do. Or toss them in with salads or dips.
Ah, kale. Here’s a vegetable that has grown in popularity over recent years because it is considered a superfood. We like adding this to our smoothies, soups, or salads. It’s packed with vitamins and nutrients that are great for our body. The good news for gardeners is, like many perennial vegetables, kale is easy to grow. It can be harvested during the fall season, which gives you a vegetable supply the grows back year after year.
Most varieties of kale are grown as biennials. But there are also plenty of perennial options for you depending on your zone.
– Daubenton: One of the easier varieties to propagate, just save cuttings of the Daubenton and grow an unlimited supply.
– Walking Stick: The sight of these plants will leave you visually awed. The vegetable has long stalks and stems, much like a walking stick. Some grow as tall as 6 to 12 feet tall!
– Sea Kale: Those with challenging wet and sandy soil need not worry, the sea kale can grow in difficult soil conditions. You can also grow this perennial alongside ornamental plants because its grayish-blue leaves and white flowers are attractive bushes for your garden. Her shoots, young leaves, and flower buds are all edible! They taste like regular kale and are just as healthy.
How to Grow Kale:
The best times to plant kale seeds is during the early spring and late summer when you can then enjoy a fall harvest. These plants will grow with a minimum challenge; in fact, you can even sow seeds 4-5 weeks before the last frost of the season. Even in these conditions, you will find that varieties like sea kale will thrive.
With well-drained soil, place them in a spot that gives full sun. Plant 12-18 inches apart. Like many perennial plants, sea kale is hardy to zone 4.
How to Harvest Kale:
You can very easily determine if kale is ready to be gathered. Check the leaves or foliage of the plant, and if it is already the size of your palm, you can simply snip the leaves off. Avoid touching the center of the plant because that is where new growth forms. Just like that, you will have another batch for your healthy meals.
Let’s be real, any meal becomes automatically better with asparagus. Whether you steam or sautee, just add this to the side, and your dishes are instantly elevated. But asparagus can be a little pricey to buy fresh, so here’s how you can grow them.
How to Grow Asparagus:
Asparagus Officinalis is the scientific name of this hardy, long-lived perennial vegetable. If you are one to wait, you can grow asparagus from seed indoors and wait about three years. Yikes! That’s why many gardening experts will recommend that you buy one-year-old asparagus crowns from your local garden during the spring season. This will save you the troubles of the first year and you can start harvesting after 2 years. Plant the crowns in a full sun area with a rich compost mix. Suited for zone 3 to 8.
For a dedicated asparagus bed in your garden, measurements should be at least three feet wide; meanwhile, the length is your own preference. The plants should be spaced 18 inches apart and top the crown with loose soil.
How to Harvest Asparagus:
These perennials require herculean patience on your part. But the reward is well worth it. Give the plant time to strengthen their root. In year two, you can snip a few spears from each plant. By year three, you will yield crops that will come back every year and continue for decades. Asparagus is ready for harvest from early spring to mid-spring.
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These leafy green veggies have tart or lemon-flavored leaves. Perfect for those looking to make their soups and salads more interesting. Sometimes this plant is classified as a vegetable, while other times, it is considered an herb. Either way, you should add this to your perennial garden for early spring to late fall harvest.
The two popular species of this plant is the common garden sorrel (Rumex acetosa) and the French sorrel (Rumex scutatus). If you aren’t familiar with this plant, at all, know that they are actually relatives of the rhubarb. French sorrel tastes really great in early spring and will become a little bitter during the warmer weather. Garden sorrel is hardy to Zone 5, while the French sorrel is hardy to Zone 6.
How to Grow Sorrel:
There are plenty of options for planting sorrel. You can start with cuttings, root divisions, or from the seed. The simplest method, however, is to sow the seed directly. Space the seeds three inches apart. Again, like many perennials require full sun, this will grow best with this light. During the summer growing season, you can provide some partial shade.
How to Harvest Sorrel:
After sowing your seeds, it will need about 40 days to sprout in size and then two months to mature. Watch out for the leaves, when they are 4 inches long, you can begin harvesting. Choose tender leaves for eating. One reason you won’t find French sorrel so much in the groceries – they don’t store well. They can stay in your fridge for a week the most, but you’ll have less of the richness of the flavors. This is one of those veggies that are truly best eaten fresh from the garden.
Growing up, the site of chopped spring onions garnished on food meant that we were having a fancy and special dish. The savory aroma of the onion can heighten the flavors of any meal, as well as add color to soups and meat. Having them easily accessible in your garden will help improve your culinary style.
How to Grow Bunching Onions:
This hardy perennial can be grown in many ways from seeds or by division. You can plant them in a spot that gives partial shade, but they are best grown in full sun with well-draining soil. If you wish to start with seeds, sow them in early spring for a summer harvest. Or, if you want to have bunching onions in the fall or spring, sow in the later parts of the summer growing season.
If you are purchasing an established plant instead, you can divide the bunching onions and spread them throughout your garden. Division involves digging up the clump and carefully splitting the roots into different sections. You can then replant these. The division is best done during spring.
How to Harvest Bunching Onions:
You can try harvesting this hardy perennial like chives, just snip off the leaves as needed. Leaves easily come back even after being cut down multiple times. Wait for the plants to grow 4 to 6 inches high. We want to get their strong flavor, and bunching onions are better when they are larger.
Another option is to pull the entire plant out. You will have to wait up to five months from seeding to harvesting. Every part is edible and ready for cooking.
Ramps or Wild Leeks
Have you ever heard of ramps? These onion relatives are traditionally enjoyed by foragers in the Appalachian Mountains. This perennial blooms in spring and people back in the day would fry these in animal fat butter with eggs and potatoes. For the early settlers and natives, ramps were an early spring food source, they prized this veggie for its freshness and flavor.
How to Grow Wild Leeks:
Until recently, this perennial was foraged, not cultivated. They naturally grew in forests, shaded areas with moist and well-draining rich soil. If you decide to grow these veggies, remember that the seeds need a warm period to break dormancy, and then it must be followed by a cold period. Germination will take some time, from a period of six months up to eighteen.
If you are growing them in your garden, plant them in the shadiest area or under trees. Transplant bulbs in the early months of February to March. Hardy to Zone 4.
How to Harvest Wild Leeks:
When the plant is mature, you will find bright green and full leaves. To begin harvesting, you can snap off the bulb just above the base instead of digging up the entire leek. This method will allow the growing part in place so you can come back for more in the next year. Both the greens and the bulbs are edible!
New Zealand Spinach
While the regular spinach is available for the cooler seasons, during the warmer days, it will slow down leaf production. This perennial variety, on the other hand, will keep growing through the hot summer season. It’s equally nutritious and delicious like it’s cousin variety.
How to Grow New Zealand Spinach:
Plant this veggie where there is plenty of sunlight. You can start the seeds outdoors after the frost has passed. Soil should be moderately moist when it is still establishing its roots.
How to Harvest New Zealand Spinach:
The older mature leaves of this spinach may be too bitter for your taste. Harvest when the leaves are still young. Like other leafy greens, you can remove the leaves and allow the plant to grow back year after year.
Egyptian Walking Onion
Walking onions really do sound like a funny name for a perennial, however, the fact is, this veggie will grow to eventually walk across your garden. The good news is, they aren’t difficult to control and aren’t invasive. If you live in a big home with many mouths to feed, this perennial multiplies quickly, and you can easily pull up a walking onion to eat.
How to Grow Walking Onions:
If you plant these perennials around summer, you will enjoy a harvest in the next growing season. Plant the bulbs in soil with 6 to 10 inches of distance between each bulb for big, pungent walking onions. If you’d rather have milder, green onions, place the bulbs 2 to 3 inches apart.
Give these perennials full sun and well-drained soil. Avoid heavy and wet soil to encourage thriving growth. When they are grown, the stems are topped with bulbs. As it gets heavier, the crown topples to the ground. If not harvested, these little bulbs take root, and a new plant grows, hence the name. Zone 4 to 8.
How to Harvest Walking Onions:
If you want to avoid the walkers growing all over your garden, you can gather the little onions at the top of the stem. The mature bulbs should be 1/2 to 1 inch in diameter, like the size of a shallot. The walking onion also produces edible bulbs below the ground! You may also take by digging. You can store the onion bulbs for up to a year by securely placing them in a box or mesh bag.
Imagine bright yellow flowers with stems that go as high as six-foot tall. Related to sunflowers, the helianthus tuberosus are perennials that have these beautiful flowers that open in late summer. But they’re not mainly grown for their florals, rather, gardeners keep this perennial because of their nutritious and filling underground tubers. Believe it or not, the Jerusalem artichokes, also called sunchokes are veggies! You can eat the perennial vegetable tubers raw or cooked like potatoes.
How to Grow Jerusalem Artichokes:
This perennial isn’t picky about soil, give the full sun to partial shade. Some gardeners claim they can be grown in any climate, but they can most thrive in Zone 4 to 9.
These grow really tall, so better plant them where they won’t shade the other sun-loving crops. Give them ample room or about a foot apart and three inches deep. Gardeners consider them to be invasive, that’s one of the things you need to keep under control during the growing season. But beyond that, there isn’t much work required to grow the Jerusalem artichoke.
How to Harvest Jerusalem Artichokes:
Use a digging fork to harvest the tubers. They are sweeter and tastier after a frost or two. If you mulch the bed, you can reap crops by winter, or you can take them earlier during autumn. These perennials store well and can be kept in a cool basement.
Good King Henry
The beauty of the Good King Henry (Chenopodium bonus-Henricus) is that the whole plant provides multiple uses. During the first parts of spring, the first shoots that emerge can be eaten like the asparagus. When the plant begins forming leaves, then you have the greens. These are treated like spinach and can be cooked by boiling or steaming.
Chock full of vitamins, many people claim that it provides more nutrition than spinach. With iron, calcium, vitamin B, and C, this is a great addition to your growing garden. Like most perennials, once it has stabilized, it needs very little care, just the right amount of water.
How to Grow Good King Henry:
Many find it challenging to germinate this perennial. Instead, purchase a seedling from your trusted nursery. The roots of the Good King Henry are sensitive. See that roots are already growing from the bottom of the pot before you transplant. Remove the pot and keep the whole soil if possible, and place it in the ground. This helps avoid as much root disturbance as when planting in your garden. Space the seedlings twelve to eighteen inches apart.
Unlike other perennials, provide a semi-shade for this plant. Water daily for the first year, and allow them to establish during this growing season. You’ll have to wait for a few years before you can reap your rewards.
How to Harvest Good King Henry:
Around the early spring of the second year, you can begin harvesting. The shoots can be gathered and pealed, the young leaves can be tossed in salads or cooked like spinach. Even the seeds of this perennial can be grounded and added to flour. When you pick them, you must use the plant right away as this does not store well.
Which Perennials are Grown as an Annual?
Some perennials are grown as annuals because it is easier to maintain them this way. These are some of the crops:
- Roma Tomato (according to the Missouri Botanical Garden)
- Many kitchen herbs such as oregano, sage, and thyme
Perennials should gain more popularity in our home gardens. They are easy to care for and reward you with a host of benefits. Happy planting!