Plant a Perennial Food Garden
By Eliza Cross
While the word “perennial” might bring to mind flowering plants such as peonies and penstemon, a number of vegetables, fruits and greens will also return to the garden each year. From beans to berries, this collection of hardy edible plants will grow well across many climate zones. Some varieties may die back in the fall but will freely reseed or propagate, providing new plants the following season with minimal work.
Soil preparation is especially important for cultivating perennials and creating optimum conditions that will sustain the plant for many seasons. Most hardy edible varieties thrive in well-drained soil rich with organic matter, and in full-sun locations that get at least six hours of summer sunlight each day. In northern climates, thick layers of mulch and season-extenders such as cold frames and crop covers can help hardy food plants survive the winter.
Some edible perennials can also be incorporated into flower gardens and landscapes. Sorrel and thyme are both lush ground covers that can be easily established under taller flowering plants. Scarlet runner bean vines can be trained on a trellis for a stunning summer display of red-orange flowers. Bronze fennel’s feathery leaves provide a striking contrast to green plants, and can even be used as a dramatic centerpiece for a container garden.
Throughout this article, we refer to the USDA hardiness zones. If you’re not familiar with your gardening zone, visit The National Gardening Association to learn which zone you’re in. Your local county extension office can recommend the best varieties of perennial food plants for your area. Establish these hardy growers in your yard and you’ll benefit from increased harvests and greater self sufficiency—along with more time to stop and smell the peonies.
Jerusalem Artichokes (Helianthus tuberosus)
Jerusalem artichokes—sometimes called sunchokes—aren’t true artichokes at all, but rather tubers from a species of the sunflower plant. A dedicated garden bed is ideal, as the prolific plants can sometimes become invasive. Plant the tubers in the spring and give the plants a wide berth in the full-sun garden, as they may grow as tall as 10 feet. (Plant climbing beans nearby and the vines will use the sunchoke stalks as a natural trellis.) Harvest the chokes by digging them up in the fall, keeping the larger ones and dropping any small tubers back in the bed to regrow the crop. Raw Jerusalem artichokes have a crispy texture similar to water chestnuts. When cooked, the mild-flavored tubers can be used like potatoes in many recipes. Read All About Growing Jerusalem Artichokes for additional information.
Scarlet Runner Beans (Phaseolus coccineus)
Best known for their fast-growing vines and ornamental red-orange flowers, scarlet runner beans produce delicious edible green beans that are tender when picked young; larger beans tend to develop fibrous pods. The colorful legumes can also be allowed to mature on the vine before shelling and cooking or drying. Scarlet runner beans are easily direct-sown in springtime, and they grow best on trellises or heavy poles. The vigorous vines grow as a perennial in zones 6 and up, and can be hardy to zone 4 with heavy winter mulching.
Radicchio (Cichorium intybus)
It may look like a red cabbage, but radicchio is actually a member of the chicory family that grows upright with striking leaves of deep red and white. Radicchio seeds can be direct-sown in prepared beds as soon as the soil can be worked in the spring, and the plants thrive when temperatures are cooler; in summer heat, the leaves grow bitter. Harvest radicchio by slicing off the entire head at the soil line; if the roots are protected and undisturbed during the winter, the plant will come back the following spring. Raw radicchio leaves add a fresh, slightly bitter flavor to salads. The leaves become sweeter when cooked, and can make a nutritious, savory addition to cooked dishes such as soups and pastas.
Early Purple Sprouting Broccoli (Brassica oleracea ‘Italica’)
This prolific biennial broccoli variety grows well in zones 3 through 10, and it’s cold-hardy in regions where winter temperatures don’t dip below 10 degrees. The seeds are direct-sown in the garden in the autumn and overwintered. In the spring and early summer, the plant’s purple florets emerge as side shoots on the main stems, which can grow several feet tall. The individual florets are cut from the stem and taste like common broccoli; they also turn green when cooked. Although this variety is classified as a biennial, many gardeners report harvesting shoots from the same plant for multiple years.
Asparagus (Asparagus officinalis)
If you’re a patient gardener with a sunny, low-traffic spot in your garden you can dedicate to an asparagus patch, you’ll enjoy the incomparable flavor of the tender, just-picked spears for years to come. For the highest yields and strongest asparagus plants, purchase one-year-old crowns of all-male hybrid varieties, which put their energy into producing stalks instead of seeds. The plants grow best in trenches dug a foot apart and 6 to 12 inches deep. During the first year or two, the emerging spears should be allowed to grow without harvesting. In the third year and every spring thereafter, the plants will produce harvestable spears for about six weeks. For more information, read Asparagus: Early, Easy and Excellent.
Rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum)
Although the stalks are generally eaten and prepared like a fruit, rhubarb is technically a vegetable. The exceptionally cold-hardy plant can be tricky to establish, so it’s best to start with roots obtained from a reputable local grower. Plant the roots in a sunny spot with lots of room for the large leaves to grow, and give them plenty of water. The tender red-green stalks that emerge should not be harvested during the first growing season—and only lightly during the second year—so the leaves can feed the roots for the following year’s growth. From the third year on, the stalks can be harvested annually near the soil line. Once established, a rhubarb plant can remain productive for 15 years or more. For detailed growing instructions, read All About Rhubarb Plants.
Herbs & Aromatics
Shallots (Allium cepa ‘Aggregatum’)
Chefs favor shallots for their mild, oniony flavor, and growing them in the garden is much more economical than buying them at the grocery store. Similar to garlic, shallots grow as individual cloves around a central stalk and have golden, papery skins. Obtain sets from a reputable gardening center or catalog, and plant bulbs in early spring for a late summer harvest and in the fall (everywhere except where winters are very severe) for a harvest early the following summer. Harvest shallots by lifting the entire clump from the ground and separating the bulbs. Smaller bulbs can be returned to the ground to continue growing. If the plants are protected in the winter with heavy mulch, they can continue to be harvested as long as the dirt can be turned.
Garlic Chives (Allium tuberosum)
Garlic chives—also known as Chinese chives—taste of both garlic and regular chives, making them a versatile addition to the garden and kitchen. A member of the lily family, the garlic chive grows as a perennial in zones 4 and higher and tolerates a wide range of soil conditions. The plants are easily started from direct-sown seeds in the spring and grow in clumps. The flat, dark green shoots can be snipped as soon as they’re several inches long. Regularly cutting off the flowers will discourage dormancy and extend the harvest.
Bronze Fennel (Foeniculumvulgare ‘Rubrum’)
Bronze fennel is an herb that grows as a perennial in zones 5 through 10, and as an annual in northern climates. Similar to green fennel, but with purple feathery plumes, bronze fennel’s colorful foliage also makes it an interesting addition to a flower bed.
Fennel plants can grow to 6 feet tall in some areas. When the stalks flower, the seeds can be harvested or left to self-sow for new plants the following season. The wispy leaves have a mild, anise flavor and can be added raw to salads or cooked and used to flavor fish and other dishes. For more information, read All About Growing Fennel.
German Thyme (Thymus vulgaris)
A perennial in zones 5 through 9, German thyme is sometimes called winter thyme because of its cold hardiness. An easily grown herb, the seeds can be direct-sown in partial shade or full sun. In cold climates, generously mulch the plants after the ground freezes and trim back the woody growth in the spring. German thyme’s tiny aromatic leaves can be used to season a wide variety of savory foods.
Sorrel (Rumex acetosa)
Sorrel is a lesser-known perennial herb with tangy, lemony leaves. Because it tends to wilt after picking, sorrel doesn’t ship well and therefore isn’t a grocery store staple. The seeds can be direct-sown in the garden as early as three weeks before the last frost. Tender young sorrel leaves have the mildest flavor, and can be snipped when they reach 4 inches tall and harvested throughout the growing season. Sorrel leaves can be used raw in salads and cooked like spinach in other dishes; for cooking ideas, read Sorrel Recipes: The Zingiest Garden Green.
Spearmint (Mentha spicata)
With a milder flavor than common peppermint, spearmint pairs with both savory and sweet foods, and it’s a fast, easy grower. Spearmint can be started from direct-sown seeds in the spring and will live happily in the garden with minimal care. Edging or heavy mulch can help contain the plant’s potentially invasive spreading habit. Spearmint leaves can be harvested at any size, and regularly pinching off flowers will prevent the leaves from becoming bitter.
Alpine Strawberries (Fragaria vesca)
Also known as woodland strawberries or fraises des bois, these petite berries have a sweet, intense flavor and narrow, pointed shape. They aren’t susceptible to many of the diseases that affect more common strawberry varieties, and the compact plants are a good choice for smaller gardens. Plant nursery roots or plants in the spring, and once they’re established they’ll produce fruit each year from early spring to the last frost. Some varieties send out runners, which root and propagate new plantlets. The runners can also be cut off and the plants will use the energy to produce larger fruits. Learn more by reading All About Growing Strawberries.
You can also find information about perennial blueberries and purple grapes in Incredible Edibles: 13 Nutrient-Rich Plants.
Raspberries (Rubus idaeus)
A dedicated, full-sun bed that you can access from all sides is the perfect spot to establish a raspberry patch. Raspberries generally grow well in zones 3 through 9, and varieties include summer-bearing plants that fruit on two-year-old canes and ever-bearing canes that produce crops in summer and fall. The plants can be susceptible to viruses, so start with certified disease-free bare root plants; yellow and red raspberries tend to be hardier and less susceptible to disease than black and purple varieties. To learn more, read All About Growing Raspberries.
Eliza Cross is the author of seven books, including her most recent cookbook, 101 Things to Do With a Pickle. She blogs about sustainable living, organic gardening, good food, simplifying and saving money at Happy Simple Living.
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