Derek Markham – TreeHugger | Traditional backyard gardens tend to be full of annual vegetables that need to be started year after year from seed, and while those veggies can be well worth the time and labor it takes to grow them, planting some perennial vegetables in your garden and yard can end up putting food on your plate for far less effort.
Unless you live in a region with a year-round growing season, your tomatoes and peppers (which are perennial by nature) will need to be planted anew each spring, because they can’t handle the cold temperatures of winter, but there are other vegetables that can overwinter in many place and spring back to life as soon as soil temperatures are warm enough. By dedicating a garden bed or two to perennial vegetables, especially in a polyculture with other perennials, you can pack a lot of food production into a small area.
6 Perennial vegetables that keep on giving, year after year:
1. Asparagus: This slender spring beauty is probably the most well-known perennial vegetable, and one of the most coveted early spring vegetables (and the relatively high price in the produce section to prove it). It’s not a quick producer, such as many annual vegetables are, but asparagus can end up providing tasty green treats every year once they get established. Although it’s possible to start asparagus from seed, you can speed up the harvest timeline by at least a year or two by planting crowns that are several years old, which are usually available in garden centers every spring (or if you know someone with a large asparagus patch, you may be able to convince them to give you some crowns when they divide their plants).
2. Sunchokes: Also known as Jerusalem Artichokes (even though they don’t resemble artichokes at all), sunchokes are a relative of sunflowers that produce an edible tuber that is crisp and sweet. This perennial vegetable can be eaten raw or cooked as you would a potato, and is often described as having a nutty flavor. The sunchoke plant itself can grow rather tall, as a sunflower does, so it’s well suited to planting as a border or along an edge of the garden. The tubers are harvested in the fall, with some of them left in the ground (or replanted after harvesting) for next year’s plants.
3. Groundnut: The American groundnut (Apios americana), also called the Indian potato, is one of those perennial vegetables that doesn’t get much attention, but could be a great addition to any garden. The groundnut is a perennial vine that produces edible beans and large edible tubers (more properly “rhizomatous stems”), and is native to the eastern portion of the US. The vines grow to about six feet long, and can be grown up a trellis (or up other plants) for dense plantings. The groundnuts are harvested in the fall, and as with sunchokes, some should be left in the ground for next year’s growth.
4. Artichoke: These thistle relatives, properly called globe artichokes, aren’t the most soft and cuddly vegetables, but yield a large tasty flower bud Eeyore would absolutely love. Growing artichokes does take a bit of room in the garden, as they can grow to 6 feet or more in height, and like most perennial vegetables, a couple of years of growth is often necessary before they’ve matured to the point that you can harvest enough flowers to grace your table. While they can be started from seed, artichokes can also be planted from dividing an established patch, or from starts available from the garden center.
5. Rhubarb: This perennial vegetable is not only edible, but is also a colorful addition to the garden, and comes in varieties of red, pink, and green (the color of the stalks). Rhubarb is best planted from a crown, which can be acquired from a garden center (or a neighbor whose rhubarb bed is out of control), and should be allowed to grow for several years before harvesting the stalks for that perennial summer favorite, strawberry rhubarb pie. Only the stalks of the rhubarb are edible, but the leaves, which are toxic to humans, make a great addition to the compost pile.
6. Horseradish: While it’s a stretch to call horseradish a vegetable (it’s more akin to a condiment that you either love or hate), this perennial plant from the mustard family is a must-grow for the spicy crowd and the sushi lovers. The leaves of the horseradish (also edible) are rather plain and unassuming, and the small white flowers are nothing to write home about, but the large root of the horseradish is source of the strong flavor that can bring one to tears. In some areas, horseradish can take over the garden with the invasive growth habit of its roots, so when harvesting them in the fall, it can be good practice to remove as much of the roots as possible, and to only replant enough of the root sections as you will need for next year.
What other perennial vegetables for backyard gardens or as part of an edible landscape do you grow?