This post was most recently updated on April 20th, 2020
I think we can all agree, low maintenance plants are easier to maintain. Imagine growing vegetables that require just about the same amount of care as perennial flowers and shrubs—no annual tilling and planting. Perennial Vegetables thrive and produce abundant and nutritious crops throughout the season without the required inputs that annual vegetables demand.
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Once established in the proper site and climate, perennial vegetables planted can be virtually indestructible despite neglect. Established perennials are often more resistant to pests, diseases, drought and weeds, too.
Benefits of Perennial Vegetables in your Food Forest
1) They are ready earlier in the season as they are already established. So while you are planting out tiny seedlings of our annual vegetables, your perennials are already big plants ready to go.
2) They can perform several roles in the garden at once – not just food. Many perennial vegetables are also beautiful, ornamental plants that can enhance your landscape. Others can function as hedges, groundcovers or erosion control for slopes.
In a food forest perennial vegetables and plants form the lower herbaceous layer.
Still other perennial veggies provide fertilizer to themselves and their neighboring plants by fixing nitrogen in the soil. Some can provide habitat for beneficial insects and pollinators, while others can climb trellises and provide shade for other crops.
Perennials vegetables need to be carefully placed into a permanent place in your garden, and will have to be maintained separately from your annual crops. Try extending your current garden a bit and adding a border of perennials around the edge.
Drawbacks of Perennial Vegetables in the Food Forest
No crop is perfect, and perennial vegetables are no exception. Here are some of the disadvantages of growing perennial vegetables.
Many perennial vegetables are very slow to establish, and may take several years to begin yielding well. Asparagus is a classic example taking up to 5 years from seed to harvest.
Like annual crops, some perennial greens become bitter once they flower. This means that their greens are really only useful early in the season. Perennial vegetables are not supposed to replace annuals, but to complement them. In this case, perennial greens are available early in the season, providing greens until the annuals are up and running.
Many perennial vegetables have rather strong flavors, especially ones that are adapted to cold climates.
Some perennial vegetables can become weeds in your garden, or escape and naturalize in your neighborhood.
They also need dedicated space for them to live – they cannot fir in your usual garden bed rotation (just like you probably do now for asparagus, globe artichokes, or rhubarb).
Because you can’t use crop rotation to minimize diseases, once they have a disease, they often have it for good—for example, plant viruses are problematic with some vegetatively-propagated perennial crops. However diseases in perennials is less common than in annual vegetables.
A note on perennials vegetables grown as annuals
Sometimes you may see “perennial grown as an annual” potatoes for example. If left in the same place year after year, potatoes would build up terrible disease pressure.
On the other hand, many crops usually grown as annuals make fine perennials (such as skirret, which actually has better flavor when grown as a perennial). In some cases, we just don’t know what would happen to these crops if they were allowed to persist for multiple years.
Why you’ve probably never heard of perennial vegetables or herbs before
Why are asparagus, rhubarb, and globe artichokes the only perennial vegetables most gardeners have heard of?
There is very little published about perennial vegetables. So information is hard to find unless you go digging for it. The older generation often knew what could be eaten from the selection of plants we have come to know as ‘weeds’ and ‘flowers’.
Only a small number of nurseries and seed companies offer even the best perennial vegetables. These plants will never have the chance to become popular if no one can get their hands on them. I suspect that they make so much money from selling annuals that it is not in their best interest to offer perennial versions or alternatives (cynical much?)
I have found that our local locavores Facebook group to be the most valuable resource for finding perennial vegetables that do well for us in the south of New Zealand.
Perennial food producers include the usual berries, nuts, and other fruit trees, but perennial vegetables are not so common. Here is a list to get you thinking.
50 Perennial Vegetables for your Food Forest or Garden
Bunching Onion Red
Bunching Onion White Welsh
Egyptian Walking Onions
Good King Henry
Kailaan (Chinese Broccoli/Chinese Kale)
New Zealand Spinach
Pikopiko- the hen and chicken fern
50 Perennial Herbs for your Food Forest or Garden
Some of these are technically annuals but they re-seed themselves. Some of these are medicinal rather than everyday eaters, please check before throwing them in a salad!
Basil- Bush, Sacred, Sweet, Thai
Bergamot bee balm
St johns wort
Do you have any to add?? Let us know in the comments below.
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