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Permaculture has a lot to do with getting the maximum yield for minimum work.
Why Edible Perennials
Permaculture is sometimes referred to as “lazy gardening.” This catchy phrase refers to permaculture’s emphasis on minimizing unnecessary work in the garden while at the same time, using less effort and money.
One of the main ways you can reduce your work in the garden is by planting perennial edibles instead of annuals.
Perennials take a bit of extra time to establish versus annuals, but once they get comfortable, they’ll do the following:
- Come back every year like clockwork
- Be more resistant to pests
- Provide larger harvests than annual vegetables
“You do not need to know what is happening exactly or where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith, and hope.”
There are many great resources on perennial vegetables already, so I won’t attempt to rehash their content here. But if you’re looking for an index of edibles and their functional uses in the garden, I highly recommend:
- Martin Crawford’s Creating a Forest Garden
- Eric Toensmeier’s Perennial Vegetables and
- Temperate Permaculture’s index of edibles and their functional use in the garden.
A word of warning: These resources tend to be encyclopedic in their coverage and don’t provide the information about how to grow, let alone, where to buy these plants or seeds.
What I want to provide for you in this blog, is an easy introduction to the world of perennial vegetables and how to immediately get planting. This way, you can add perennials to the list of “bankable” yields you can rely on every year.
The following is a list of perennials that do not include: trees, herbs, tropicals, or some permaculture favorites like comfrey that are more medicinal and not typically edible. This list is by no means exhaustive, and I invite you to add your own edible perennials in the comments below.
The plants that follow are suited mainly for the temperate climate, and I’ve broken them down into three categories:
- Sure Win
- TLC (Tender Loving Care)
SURE WIN PERENNIALS
We should have all started growing perennial vegetables (and fruits) yesterday!
(You can click on the vegetable or fruit’s name to find out where to buy it.)
Lovage is a type of perennial celery (slightly stronger, and more distinct in flavor than celery) that loves cool weather.
It’s relatively easy to grow from seed. It grows on average about 3 feet tall in the spring and produces about 1–2lbs of stem and foliage from one plant. This is probably enough for most families.
Jerusalem Artichokes, or “Sunchokes” and contrary to one of its names, is not originally from Jerusalem.
“Sunchokes” are in the Aster family. They grow 8–10 ft tall, and produce small sunflowers at the top of its tall stems.
The roots are harvested in the fall and can be sliced and best roasted, among other vegetables. They can also be eaten boiled and spiced like potatoes.
Almost too easy to grow, sunchokes will provide you with many pounds of harvest, but are known to be hard to remove once established, so planting them in a bed of their own makes sense.
- easy to start from seed
- don’t mind the shade, and
- will reliably send out large stems with fronds in the early spring.
The stems are usually baked or stewed in deserts such as “Strawberry Rhubarb Pie,” where their pleasant tangy sour taste matches well with strawberries.
One plant will produce around 3 lbs of stems in a year, which is plenty for most families.
"I’m sneaking this fruit into this list because it’s one of the easiest (and cheapest!) berry plants to grow. Strawberries readily-establish in the garden and are pretty forgiving about soil quality.
They have shallow roots and need a bit of shade and water, but aside from that, they require minimal care.
There are two main types:
- An Everbearing (continuous harvest from early summer to mid-fall) and
- June-bearing (one main crop) type
The everbearing varieties don’t produce as large a strawberry as the June ones but produce more throughout the year.
Ten Everbearing plants can easily provide 3lbs of strawberries, and they produce runners each year that become new plants.
TLC (Tender Loving Care) PERENNIALS
Plants that are either a little bit harder to get established or are harder to find.
Asparagus crowns (the base root of the plant) are easy to find. After establishing themselves, they can produce up to 1/2 lb of spears per plant for 20 years. The only reason I list them in the TLC category is that they take a few years to establish in a garden.
Cardoons are thistles in the sunflower family. They are non-cultivated artichokes and are sometimes called “thistle artichokes.” Its leaves are culinary prizes, especially during Christmas-time in the regions of Lyon, France, and Navarre, Spain.
Their out-of-this-world blooms are attractive to pollinators, and they are very cold-hardy. You will notice that the soil quality improves around the plant’s base when you grow it.
These cultivated artichokes are also members of the Aster family, but unlike their cousins, the Jerusalem Artichoke, they yield huge edible blooms instead of roots. Chefs prize their soft, inner-core, but removing the hard, prickly outer leaves is time-consuming, and they tend to be picky about shade and heat requirements.
These wild “garlic/onions” have become the rage in fancy restaurants around the country. Still, many foodies have been foraging the ramps into oblivion, and there are very few dedicated ramp growers out there (I’ve become one of them after getting some from West Virginia). Only the leaves are harvested each year, leaving the base to regenerate each year.
The Walking Onion (also known as Egyptian or Tree Onion) is another perennial in the allium family. These plants have their “bulblets” at the end of their stalks.
The weight of the “bulblet” makes them “walk” and plant themselves a short distance from the original plant. Both the actual original bulb (strong flavor) and the bulblets can be collected and eaten (milder flavor). It’s hard to find these for purchase, though. You can usually buy them during the fall planting season.
A root vegetable in the lettuce family, these veggies produce long (18 to 24″) scraggly roots that can be boiled and mashed or served as an “oyster-like” substitute.
You can also eat the side shoots, and flowers, but unfortunately, the roots are quite brittle and are time-consuming to extract. That being said, salsify’s seeds are quick to germinate when they are started in seed flats.
A little bit of sorrel in a soup or stew can add a pleasant sour tang that results in amazing health benefits. Sorrel helps the body fight inflammation.
Sorrel leaves can get quite bitter and can be robust growers. Some may consider both these traits desirable, but don't say we didn't warn you.
A sorrel-look-alike that is a less bitter alternative, the Turkish rocket is a brassica, with cabbage-like leaves, broccoli rabe-like flowers, and asparagus-like stems.
It is easy to grow, but almost impossible to get rid of and is considered invasive. It’s also a bit hard to find Turkish rocket seeds, but Restoration Seeds (linked above) usually carries them.
In rural areas of northeastern North America, the young unfurled fronds, called fiddleheads, are considered a delicacy. Do not eat ferns raw. The Book of Greens includes a recipe for many of the edible perennials mentioned in this blog, as well as one for Fiddlehead Pizza!
Ostrich fern sprouts are picked and eaten in Japan.
LONG SHOT PERENNIALS
Sea kale is a brassica that prefers growing along coasts. It’s quite hard to find seeds and even harder to get them to germinate successfully (some techniques involve scarification and refrigeration). It’s quite a versatile food with edible leaves, shoots, and flowers if you do get it established.
Like Good King Henry, this is a perfectly acceptable root vegetable that is comparable to parsnip and carrots. Given how easy it is to grow carrots and parsnips, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to grow it even if it is a perennial.
The difference between most organic vegetable gardens and permaculture ones is a heavier reliance on perennials.
Perennials are dependable.
They are generally easier to grow and require less work.
So your challenge is:
- Choose one or more perennials from among the list above.
- Plant these perennials in your garden this year.
And if you are interested in committing to a regular garden routine,
This "Garden in 15 Minutes" PDF is a handy tool to help you start and keep a daily garden habit.