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Perennial Vegetables and The Other Reasons You Should Consider Them for Your Garden

Luckily for me, my mother was the sort who insisted that I taste something before deciding I didn’t like it. The habit has served me well in later life. As a traveler, I’ve been able to shift my palate from one country’s cuisine to the next, enjoying whatever ingredients seem common to the local fare. As a vegan, those versatile taste buds have kept the doors open to many more options, and the diversity helps to provide a better balanced diet of vitamins and minerals. Then, ultimately, as a permaculturalist, switching to perennial crops comes easily, and I welcome the new flavors.

However, what I’ve noticed in my experience with introducing other people to the practice and perennials is that the change isn’t always so welcomed. At the last farm I was on, building a demonstration garden, the owner was only very interested in prototypical annuals despite a wealth of the perennial possibilities we were planting. Working with NGOs, I’ve realized that, while people are excited about growing more food, the idea of introducing something new to their diets isn’t nearly as inspired. Instead, the expectation seems to be that we will be growing the same old corn and bean staples, making the need for nutritional and culinary education an equally important aspect for a permaculture project to succeed.

Why Perennials Are Sometimes a Hard Sell

In theory, planting perennials would be something that people would latch onto. They are less work. They require less resources. They are better for the stability of the soil, helping to prevent erosion while maintaining a network of soil life beneath the surface. They extend harvests, often producing crops earlier and later than annuals can do. They make great, productive, living fences, trellises, shade and animal habitats. And, of course, perennial nitrogen-fixers enrich fertility and provide quality chop-and-drop mulch. Their usefulness is substantial and not really up for debate.

Bunching Onions (Courtesy of Laura Turner)
Bunching Onions (Courtesy of Laura Turner)

However, while all that utility is fantastic, convincing finicky eaters and impatient cultivators to convert to more perennial vegetables can still be challenging. Often, they take longer to get started, such as asparagus requiring at least a couple of years to start providing harvests. They also tend to have stronger flavors, something akin to wild food versus factory-farmed, and a largely unfamiliar. Other perennials are voraciously self-sowing and become intrusive to someone fighting for growing space for their tomatoes. As well, perennials can sometimes have more specific issues with diseases and pests because they don’t allow for crop rotation, which leaves them, though hardy, vulnerable.

Of course, permaculture design, with its time-stacking, guild building, and adaptation to nature’s lead, embraces the perennial woes, but for some reason, not everyone has adopted permaculture just yet. Until that happens, we can introduce one long-lasting, high-producing perennial at a time and converting those water and energy intensive annual gardens into enduring, low impact food oases. Hopefully that will mean we should have plenty to eat this year and next.

Great Zone-Spanning Perennials to Include in the Garden

Obviously, with perennials having to survive the worst of weather conditions each year, be them the frigid winds from the north or torrential tropical storms, different plants work much better in different areas. The book to buy for an extensive list (here’s the truncated online version) is Eric Toensmeier’s Perennial Vegetable Gardening, which was original written for the US and Canada, but has since expanded to include list for all zones. Instead of simply reproducing this list, we’ll look into some of the more versatile choices and what they can provide the garden and gardeners.

Sunchoke (Courtesy of Christian Guthier)
Sunchoke (Courtesy of Christian Guthier)

• Perennial leek (Allium ampeloprasum), multiplier onion (Allium cepa aggregatum), walking onion (Allium cepa proliferum), nodding wild onion (Allium cernuum), and garlic chives (Allium tuberosum)

For lovers of onions, and who among isn’t, these two choices only make since for the garden. The grow in cold temperate climates, as well as in the hot and humid tropics. They are herbaceous perennial with high production output that’ll fill the sunny understory edges. They can be used to provide fresh and powerful flavor in lieu of annual onion varieties. Plus, by serving them fresh and green, they’ll deliver a lot more nutrition per bite.

• Turkish rocket (Bunias orientalis), watercress (Nasturtium officinale), and Malabar spinach (Basella alba)

There are many, many perennial salad greens that can be grown in the different zones, but few span the spectrum. These two do, so they warrant listing. Watercress is garnering a lot of praise for being nutritionally packed these days, and for cultivators, it’s a great plant for taking advantage of moving water spaces. Turkish rocket is prolific, so much so that it is often consider a weed, but it has delicious leaves and a stem similar to broccoli. It also has a deep tapping root that mines minerals for the garden, and it attracts beneficial insects and can be used as animal (as well as human) fodder. Malabar spinach, not at all related to spinach, does prefer hotter weather and will produce more in it. However, it is a perennial vine that grows and gives like mad, and it does have a flavor like spinach when cooked. It also works like okra as thickener for soups, stews, and sauces.

• Sunchoke (Helianthus tuberosus) and ground nuts (Apios americana)

Tubers are a favorite dietary staple, and both of these plants produce them in abundance. Sunchoke, also known as Jerusalem artichoke, produces a crunchy tuber with a flavor reminiscent of artichoke and a texture like water chestnut. It can be eaten raw or cooked. Once established, it takes more effort to control than cultivate. Ground nuts, a leguminous plant of the pea variety and not a peanut, functioned as the “potato” for Native Americans in the north (South Americans had hundreds of varieties of actual potatoes). While it does produce pods of edible peas, it is more revered for its tuberous roots, which are compared to roasted sweet potato, only very high in protein. It’s also a nitrogen-fixing vine.

Winged Bean (Courtesy of Eric Toensmeier)
Winged Bean (Courtesy of Eric Toensmeier)

• Scarlet runner bean (Phaseolus coccineus), winged bean (Phosphocarpus tetragonolobus), and pigeon pea (Cajanus cajan) or Siberian pea shrub (Caragana arborescens) and other pea trees/plants.

Undoubtedly, we all want to have nitrogen-fixing legumes in our garden mix, both for their soil amending qualities and for the abundant, protein-rich harvest they can provide. Unfortunately, finding one that works well in temperate and tropical climates proves quite the challenge. Scarlet runner beans, winged beans, and pigeon peas are all huge producers and perennial in the tropics but can’t handle the frosts and freezes. For colder weather, there is a collection of pea shrubs, the caragana family (in Mafioso terms), that loves the full sun but prefers a brisker breeze. Like the tropical choices, these provide a lot of food each year, and they live for decades.

More Reasons to Love Perennials and How to Introduce Them to Annual Gardens

Perennial vegetables are obviously a great choice for anyone’s garden, but if people still seem a little resistant, perhaps it’s best to introduce them as a great way to keep garden beds active and colorful throughout the year, continually attracting beneficial insects and predatory species while providing high-yielding windbreaks or visual borders, erosion control, and often improve soil fertility either through mulching, nitrogen-fixing, deep-tapping and mineral-mining roots. In other words, perennial vegetables provide much more than food. Simply put, they are amazingly useful elements to smart garden design.

Special thanks to Small Footprint Family, a great website for the folks trying to care for the planet on a local and personal level.

Feature Image: Turkish Rocket (Courtesy of Eric Toensmeier)

Jonathon Engels

The financially unfortunate combination of travel enthusiast, freelance writer, and vegan gardener, Jonathon Engels whittled and whistled himself into a life that gives him cause to continually scribble about it. He has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in the meantime, subjecting the planet to a fiery mix of permaculture, music, and plant-based cooking. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.

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