Growing your staple produce in your own home garden is always a rewarding activity. Yet, many home-owners put off this laborious task at the start of the growing season. The happy solution to this problem is to grow perennial edibles!
You can grow them along with your regular crop of veggies. Once they are planted and soil-accommodated, they need very little attention, except for ‘topdressing’ and occasional pruning and weeding. In this way, you will have something to look forward to even if you miss the spring or fall planting.
Perennial plantings take a bit of planning though. Just remember the following when you add them to your ‘edible landscape:’
- Select the varieties that can do well in your USDA zone and the microclimate in your garden.
- Plant them interspersed with your annuals so that your garden is uniformly filled out throughout the year.
- Prepare the planting spot carefully since you will be letting them grow there undisturbed for many seasons.
- Leave plenty of space between perennials as they will multiply faster than you think!
- Plant only a few at a time so that you have better control over them if they turn out to be invasive or fail your expectations.
Here’s an excellent selection of 19 veggies and fruits that will keep growing back in your garden like mushrooms after rain:
1. Globe artichoke
Cynara scolymus is a native plant to the Mediterranean, so it thrives best in warm climates. If you live in USDA 7 or above, you can grow this ‘thistle relative’ as an annual and harvest the edible flower buds from spring to mid fall! When it is started from seeds, the flower buds are produced in the second year, and in the following 3-4 years. Alternatively, you can use root cuttings from already established plants (or ready–to-plant starts).
They need plenty of room in a sunny location in order to grow and spread fast. You can hope for large flower buds with regular watering and feeding, especially with a potash fertilizer at the time of bud formation. Also, remember to divide the clumps every 3-4 years to promote vigorous growth.
The asparagus is one promising perennial vegetable that will reliably come year in-year out. It is a seasonal vegetable when grown outside, but an expanding mound can be harvested for over 2 decades! The culinary type called Asparagus officinalis can be grown from seeds, but only in 2-3 years’ time can you expect spears worth your dinner table. So, it is way better to buy 1-year old crowns of hybrid varieties, or get divisions from someone having clumps of male plants.
The elite asparagus plant is a cool-loving one, hardy to USDA zone 4. But there are a few cultivars, such as UC 157 and Jersey Knight, which can be grown in warmer areas as well. Grow this prized vegetable in well-drained, slightly-alkaline soil, next to your tomatoes vines, since they are mutually beneficial companions.
3. Jerusalem artichoke
Helianthus tuberosus is actually an American native plant, obviously with a misleading name. It has nothing to do with Jerusalem, and is only distantly related to globe artichoke, although the edible tubers have a similar taste. It is also known by more suitable names such as sun artichoke and sunchoke, and is closely related to the garden sunflower, widely used by Native Americans.
Its tubers are starch-free and high in the dietary fiber inulin known for its cholesterol lowering and chemo-protective ability. This ‘inulin’ is great for gastrointestinal health as it aids the growth of beneficial bacteria in the stomach. This sun-loving plant is easy to grow almost anywhere. It produces large quantities of tubers every year, so it suffices to plant only a few.
Water in your garden is ideal for watercress or Nasturtium officinale. It can be grown right from the seeds, or it can be started with a single clump. Either way, you will soon end up having plenty for use and even for giving away. When you buy watercress, you get whole clumps with or without roots, but in your garden you will be harvesting only a few leaves from each clump.
They will grow back quickly, in a continuous supply. Its crisp, peppery leaves are great salads dressers. Leaves can be cooked too, but they will taste differently.
5. Tree onions
Tree onions or Allium cepa var. proliferum are a variety of regular onions that grow in a bunch of bulbs on the flower stalks. When these top sets grow bigger, the stalks bend until they “kiss” the ground, starting new plants a little away from the mother plant. This has earned them the common name ‘walking onion.’ These easy growing plants are a great asset to any mixed garden.
Apart from the top sets, the leaves and the underground bulbs can be eaten too, but this type of onions is tougher and more pungent than regular onions. To plant these onions you can either divide a clump or use the top sets. Plant them any time of the year, even in winter if the ground does not freeze. They are now considered a hybrid between the regular onions and the perennial Welsh onion.
Rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum) is a spring-harbinger. This is a cooler-regions plant since it cannot withstand temperatures above 90F. It looks for well-drained soil, mixed with rich manure. Sections of rhubarb roots should be planted in early spring and the soil should be kept moist. Since the clumps can grow 3-4 feet across, sufficient spacing is essential. The leaves can be harvested from the 2nd year onwards, and for the next 2-3 years, but after this time they may need to be divided. These plants are quite tough and “tolerate” neglect, but good care will be welcome too.
7. Ostrich fern
The North American species Matteuccia struthiopteris, commonly known as ostrich fern, is worth growing in damp spots in your garden. The tender fronds of many ferns known as fiddleheads are eaten when they are tightly coiled, but they are often gathered from the wild, depleting the wild stock and occasionally gathering toxic ones by mistake. So, growing your own is the safest way around them.
It does especially well in USDA zone 3 to 7, and will supply you with fiddleheads in spring if you take care to harvest less than half the fronds that come up. Buy some plants from a reliable supplier instead of trying to grow them from spores.
8. Scarlet-runner bean plant
Phaseolus coccineus is a legume, often grown as a decorative plant for its bright red flowers, but the edible beans are a ‘super vegetable.’ When tender, they can be cooked as snap beans, and shelled when they are plump with seeds. You can harvest the dry pods for dry beans.
Add the edible flowers to salads and stir fries for color. Once started from seeds, scarlet-runner bean plants can grow as perennials in warmer spots, and can be overwintered in colder areas by cutting off the top growth and mulching. New stems should emerge from the underground parts in spring.
9. Potato bean (American groundnut)
This is another neglected perennial legume despite having the ability to become a survival crop. Although it is North America-borne, the potato bean Apios americana is mainly grown in Japan now. It grows wild in moist areas across USDA zones 4 to 9. The potato bean vine produces strings of small tubers underground and bean-like pods above the ground.
It is also known as American groundnut after its tubers. The beans and the tubers are very nutritious since they have high protein content. The plants can be started from both seeds and tubers. It spreads by tubers and keeps coming back more vigorously every next year, so find out if the plant is invasive in your vicinity before planting it in the ground.
Foeniculum vulgare or simply the fennel is all-three-in-one: a spice, an herb, and a vegetable. This aromatic Mediterranean plant has been naturalized across the world and is grown for different purposes in different places. Fennel seeds are sweet and spicy with a flavor similar to anise seeds. They are mostly used in breads and curries.
Its feathery leaves may look like dill, and can be used as an herb to flavor dishes. The leaf stalks can be cut off per need, and used like celery. Lastly, the bulbous leaf bases are used as food, either raw or sautéed or stir fried. You can grow it from seeds as a perennial in USDA zones 5-10, yet it is treated as an annual in colder areas.
11. Sweet potato
Although sweet potatoes are usually grown as annuals in cooler climates, the vines can live as perennials in the same spot in warmer areas for years on end. Due to its rooting from nodes, the plant can spread very fast and fill large areas until abundantly present. Both its tubers and its leaves are edible. The tender shoots with 2-4 leaves can be cooked like spinach.
Either way is good: grow sweet potatoes from rooted cuttings you get from garden centers, or make your own planting material by allowing the tubers to sprout and put out many runners. The sweet potato vine can grow in poor soil, yet it offers plentiful harvest if the soil is loose and fertile.
Dandelions are consistent perennials as they come up in the same spot despite your best efforts to get rid of them. That makes them ideal for a perennial edible landscape. Young leaves can be added raw to salads while the older ones can be cooked as regular vegetables. Both the root and the flowers can be used for brewing dandelion tea which has anti-inflammatory and diuretic medicinal effect.
Since dandelions grow in almost all USDA zones as a weed, locating the planting material is not difficult at all. Grow them from seeds or dig up plants from places where you don’t want them to grow. To stop new dandelion plants from uncontrolled sprouting all over the garden, harvest all flowers before they set down seeds.
Rumex acetosa or the common garden sorrel is a leafy vegetable with a lemony tinge that merits a place in each edible landscape in USDA zones 4 to 9. This cold hardy perennial can withstand a few frosts, but eventually dies down, only to resurrect early in the spring in a rosette of tender green leaves.
Leaves can be eaten raw in salads and sandwiches. And the sorrel soup is a fantastic meal to try out. If you plant seedlings in early spring, you can enjoy the leaves once the plants are well-established. Sorrel patches spread rather quickly, so start with only a selected few. To prevent seedlings popping up all over the garden, cut off the stalks when the plant bolts.
If you just keep the plants mulched and do not allow for overcrowding, a strawberry patch in the garden can give you rich harvest for several years. You can choose seasonal varieties for a heavy yield or ever-bearing ones for staggered production. Strawberry plants love sunny areas with rich, slightly acidic soil. If you don’t have sunny patches in your garden, you can grow woodland strawberry (Fragaria vesca), which grows well in partial shade.
Being spiny plants that have delicate appearance, translucent berries are a must-have for any edible garden in the temperate regions. They are cold hardy to USDA zone 3, but don’t do very well in the summer heat. Plant rooted cuttings 6-feet apart to provide adequate space for their arching canes.
Bear in mind that gooseberry bushes love rich, well-drained soil. Regular watering and feeding with potassium fertilizers and top covering with dolomite limestone give good results. Also, regular pruning keeps the bushes healthy and neat, besides producing bigger berries. The American gooseberry Ribes hirtellum has better yield, but gives smaller fruits while the European variety Ribes grossularia yields larger, flavorful berries.
Ribes aureum, aka Buffalo currant and jostaberry, is a mix of gooseberry and black currants. It combines the best features of both fruits, and gives you sweeter berries on spineless canes. What’s more: it is resistant to the diseases affecting the parental species.
When grown in rich, moist soil from rooted cuttings, the plants grow vigorously, and start bearing fruit in 2-3 years. You need ‘decent’ space to accommodate these large bushes. Since they are self-fertile, a single bush is enough to start with. Use in the same way you use blackcurrants.
When it comes to raspberries, you cannot complain since both summer bearers and ever-bearing varieties are available spring-and-fall around. There are purple raspberries, red raspberries, and their albino versions, known as golden raspberries, to choose from. You can find different cultivars that do well in USDA zones 3 to 10. Just plant rooted cuttings of the variety of your choice in spring.
Depending on space and zone limitations, you can have several types, but plant them at least 6-8 feet apart. Every year, each plant will put up an increasing number of long canes. Rich soil and regular plant feeding give continued fruiting too.
Being North American natives, they also deserves to be part of every edible garden. A blueberry plant, once established, can provide berries for a few decades, but many cultivars are self-sterile and require more than one plant to guarantee fruit production. You can choose between lowbush Vaccinium angustifolium and highbush Vaccinium corymbosum, or its hybrid varieties.
Blueberry bushes are acid-loving ones. They grow finest in soils with pH 5. Soil should be evenly moist and well-drained. With occasional pruning you can keep the bushes healthy. For warmer climates (USDA zone 7-10), the tall growing Rabbiteye blueberry (Vaccinium ashei ) may be ideal.
They come in black (Ribes nigrum) and red (Ribes rubrum) varieties, and the albino version of red variety. Currants are one of the easiest-to-grow perennial fruits for eatable gardens. These cold hardy plants do very well in sunny locations in cooler areas and in partial shade in warmer places. They reliably produce fruit every year from the second year of planting on.
They are generally sprouted from cuttings, and prefer moist, slightly-acidic earths. Once the plants are established, all you have to do is prune them every year to keep the bushes under control and to promote new growth. The tart and sweet fruit can be used in an array of dishes, and made into delicious jams and jellies.
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