Want to enjoy delicious fresh food from the garden with minimal work? Get to know these perennial vegetables you can plant once and harvest for years!
WHAT ARE PERENNIAL VEGETABLES?
Most people who’ve grown their own food have focused almost entirely on annual vegetables, which need to be planted every year and die at the end of the season. Perennial vegetables, on the other hand, come back year after year, producing food without replanting.
Busy gardeners like me lean on perennial food plants to minimize the amount of attention we need to pay to our gardens. In addition to the numerous fruit trees and shrubs you can grow in an edible landscape, there are plenty of perennial vegetables to add to your garden so you can enjoy summer’s bounty even if you don’t have a dedicated veggie patch.
ADVANTAGES OF PERENNIAL VEGETABLES
I’m not saying growing spinach, cabbage, garlic, or spaghetti squash isn’t a worthwhile pursuit, but particularly if you’re the type of gardener who isn’t always on top of spring garden tasks like seed starting (raising my hand here!), something that comes out of the ground exactly when it’s supposed to without any thought from you is one of the coolest things in food gardening, IMO.
Though I’ve failed many a time at keeping an eye on the seeds I’ve sown in the crazy weather of Minnesota springs, I can always count on enormous crops of rhubarb and sunchokes no matter how distracted I am. Also, like other perennials suited to our challenging climate, perennial vegetables tend to resist disease and pests better than many annual food crops.
I’ve long been fascinated by permaculture and have experimented with many cold-tolerant perennials in our not-so-big yard. In addition to plum, apple, juneberry, and cherry trees, we’ve grown gooseberries, honeyberries, grapes, strawberries, and raspberries, as well as several unusual perennial food plants I’ve found in the many permaculture guides I’ve devoured over the years.
As you’ll see in the list below, we’ve greatly expanded what we consider food plants, so we now have numerous other sources of perennial vegetables growing on our humble 1/10 acre corner yard. Many of them masquerade as ornamentals, and passersby have no idea that the groundcovers wind up in our salad bowl.
Another advantage of perennial vegetables for the eco-friendly gardener is that the soil where you grow perennial food plants doesn’t get dug or tilled every year, which turns out to be far better for the microbes that live there. Those microbes provide food for your plants and also play a critical role in storing soil carbon.
For those of you dealing with the challenges of colder climates, you’ll be pleased to see how many of these perennial vegetables thrive in zone 4. Some manage in climates as cold as zone 2!
CONSIDERATIONS WHEN PLANTING PERENNIAL VEGETABLES
1. Plant perennial vegetables where you want them to stay for a long, long time.
Because they’re perennials, you need to think carefully about where you’re planting, as they’ll be growing where you put them for years to come, possibly even decades. While you can dig them up and move them, that will set them back, and some particularly aggressive growers may be hard to eradicate once planted. (Looking at you, sunchokes!)
2. Pay attention to sun exposure.
You’ll need to select your site thinking carefully about future sun exposure. Trees that are small now could cast shade on your site as they grow, drastically reducing your harvest. My front yard was completely bare when I started and got lots of sun because there were no trees. The trees we planted have matured, and the front yard is now very shady. I’ve had to adapt accordingly. Here are a number of vegetables that grow in shade if you’re planting an area that gets less sun. I’ve also noted some of the perennial vegetables that can handle some shade.
3. Perennial doesn’t mean completely maintenance-free.
While they take considerably less thought and effort than annual veggies, your perennial vegetables may still need a little care to help them thrive. Mulching to conserve moisture, applying compost to give them nutrients, and thinning may all be necessary to maximize your crop and prevent them from taking over.
4. Perennial crops may require patience.
Unlike those early greens you plant that can start yielding in a matter of weeks, perennial vegetables may take years to mature. Those you plant this season will likely be ready for light picking next season, but others, like asparagus, for instance, won’t be ready for the first harvest for at least three years.
INCORPORATING PERENNIAL VEGETABLES INTO YOUR LANDSCAPE
I’m a huge proponent of adding food plants to ornamental yards. Somewhere along the way landscapers and homeowners decided that food plants and “ornamental” plants are somehow entirely different, and yards should only have ornamentals.
This distinction is pretty arbitrary, as so many plants used in edible landscaping are beautiful as well as delicious. Fruit trees and shrubs are often as ornamental as (sometimes more than) their non-edible cousins, and gorgeous herbs like thyme and oregano make wonderful groundcovers and additions to traditional flowerbeds.
There’s absolutely no reason you can’t grow rhubarb or perennial edible greens in your perennial bed or have an ornamental planting filled with your favorite culinary herbs.
If you have a dedicated veggie patch, you might consider adding perennial vegetables to the borders of the garden, which can also help with erosion control.
WHERE TO GET PERENNIAL VEGETABLE SEEDS & PLANTS
Some plants — ostrich ferns and rhubarb, for example — are easy to get from neighbors or friends as divisions. Here’s more on how to get these and other perennial plants for free.
But a lot of the plants listed below are not very common, so you’ll likely need to order seeds or plants from online sources. Some options are listed below.
Here’s a list of additional sources from Chelsea Green.
PERENNIAL VEGETABLES LIST
I’ve highlighted around 50 perennial vegetables in this list, ranging from greens to tubers to stalks and seeds. But there are lots more options to consider. You’ll find plenty more in the books below:
ASPARAGUS (Asparagus officinalis)
If you have the space, an asparagus patch can provide your family with plenty of luscious asparagus for decades. I love to add asparagus to spring garlic and spinach for an incredible seasonal topping for pasta. Asparagus is also often grown as a companion plant for strawberries. Here’s how to grow asparagus from the Empress of Dirt. Asparagus is hardy to Zone 4.
RHUBARB (Rheum rhabarbarum)
Though treated in cooking as a fruit, rhubarb is in fact a vegetable, which makes it especially exciting to use in desserts and treats like rhubarb crisp, rhubarb sauce, and homemade fruit leather with rhubarb. There are loads more uses for rhubarb, and it’s a tough plant that’s pretty tolerant of neglect. I now have seven rhubarb plants growing along the parking strips of my corner lot, all originating for another gardener’s division. Here’s how to grow rhubarb. Hardy to zone 3.
FIDDLEHEADS (Matteuccia struthiopteris)
The immature fronds of ostrich ferns, fiddleheads are around for a very short time and are considered a spring delicacy. Because they thrive in shade, they’re an excellent choice for those parts of your yard where you can’t grow much to eat. They’re pretty tough and easy to grow, hardy to zone 2.
SCARLET RUNNER BEAN (Phaseolus coccineus)
In mild climates (zones 7-11), scarlet runner beans will come back each year, unlike other beans you might grow in the garden. Though they’re not perennial in freezing zone 4, I plant them for their beautiful flowers and enormous beans, which we dry and use for winter soups. Bonus: Bean leaves are also edible, letting you harvest greens from your garden all summer long.
PEA SHRUBS (Caragana)
This cold-hardy legume produces edible pods, seeds, and flowers. Like other legumes, it fixes nitrogen, making it extra useful in the garden. It also attracts beneficial insects. Many varieties are hardy to zone 2. More on pea shrubs from Temperate Climate Permaculture here.
SUNCHOKES/JERUSALEM ARTICHOKES (Helianthus tuberosus)
Sunchokes are members of the sunflower family, growing from tubers that mature in the fall. They have a nice crunch, and can be used raw or cooked. Sunchokes can get invasive, so plant them somewhere you won’t mind them taking over. We grow a small patch as a privacy screen at our lot line. They thrive in the poor soil, and every September their sunny blooms are a cheery last hurrah of summer. Hardy to zone 4.
SKIRRET (Sium Sisarum)
Skirret is a starchy root related to parsnips, which many fans say it resembles in flavor. Once a garden staple, skirret forms a clump of tasty edible roots. Here’s a great write up on skirret from Scottish Forest Garden and a good history and historical recipes from Wikipedia here.
OCA (Oxalis tuberosa)
Also known as New Zealand yam, oca is native to Central America and has been an important staple there. It has edible tubers and leaves. Read more about oca at Temperate Permaculture. Hardy in zones 5-9.
GROUNDNUT (Apios americana)
Groundnuts, also known as potato bean and Indian potato among other names, produce edible tubers and seeds. The tubers in particular were long used by Native Americans and then by early settlers as a staple food, rich in protein and harvestable throughout the year.
Groundnuts grow on vines, and are sometimes planted alongside Jerusalem artichokes, which can provide support. They can grow in full sun or part shade and prefer well-drained soil with consistent moisture. Hardy to zone 3.
QUAMASH, CAMAS, CAMASS (Camassia quamash)
Quamash was an important staple crop for western Native Americans. Like Jerusalem artichokes, the quamash bulb is high in inulin and must be cooked before consumption to avoid digestive upset. They require a very long cooking time (9 hours in a pressure cooker, according to Martin Crawford in How to Grow Perennial Vegetables), so it’s worth considering whether you’ll use get around to using them before planting. Hardy to zone 4.
CHINESE ARTICHOKE (Stachys affinis)
Also called crosnes or mintroot, Chinese artichoke forms small, crisp tubers. Another great option for partial shade areas of your garden, this plant is reliably hardy to zone 5 and may survive further north with winter cover. Here’s more on growing crosnes from Mother Earth News.
Unlike Jerusalem artichokes, which we grow for their roots, globe artichokes are grown for their buds. A thistle relative, globe artichokes have a reputation as being a bit finicky to grow. Some varieties of globe artichokes may be grown as perennials in zones 6-13, and they can be grown as annuals further north.
SORRELL (Rumex acetosa)
This lemony-flavored green is a relative of rhubarb, and like rhubarb, can survive even in very cold climates. Common sorrel (Rumex acetosa) is hardy to zone 3, while French sorrel (Rumex scutatus) is hardy to zone 6. Here’s info on growing sorrel from Mother Earth News.
MINER’S LETTUCE (Claytonia perfoliata)
Miner’s lettuce is an extremely cold-hardy green eaten raw in salads or used like spinach in cooking. High in vitamin C , its common name derives from its use by 19th century miners, who ate it to prevent scurvy. It’s perennial to zone 6, and may self-seed in cooler climates. Can tolerate some shade.
GOOD KING HENRY (Chenopodium bonus-henricus)
In addition to its wonderful name, Good King Henry has many winning attributes. A traditional European vegetable, this amaranth relative has tasty leaves, shoots, and flowers. Tolerant of shade, it’s a great choice for those less sunny parts of your yard. Hardy to zone 3.
SEA KALE (Crambe maritime)
Sea kale is a perennial brassica, meaning like the kale you love in baked kale chips, it’s in the same family as broccoli and cabbage. High in vitamin C, sea kale has edible leaves, shoots, flowers, and roots and was a popular garden vegetable in Europe and North America for centuries. It doesn’t travel well, though, so you won’t find it in grocery stores. Fedco seeds sells sea kale, though they list the plant hardiness to zone 5. I’ve seen sea kale listed as zone 4 elsewhere, so if you’re somewhere more north, it might be worth a try.
Several types of spinach-like plants (not actual spinach) can be grown as perennials, depending on your climate. They’re listed in order of hardiness below.
Caucasian Mountain Spinach (Hablitzia tamnoides)
In cooler climates, you can try Caucasian mountain spinach, a relative of quinoa. Fedco Seeds notes that it works well as understory plant, tolerating some shade and providing very early greens. In How to Grow Perennial Vegetables, Martin Crawford notes that the plant’s deep taproots make it drought tolerant. More growing info at Incredible Vegetables.
Malabar Spinach (Basella alba)
Malabar spinach is a tropical vining plant, making it a popular choice for hotter climates, zones 7-13. Here’s more info on growing malabar spinach from DIY Natural.
New Zealand Spinach (Tetragonia tetragonoides)
This heat-loving spinach impersonator can take over when the heat makes your spring spinach bolt. High in vitamin C, it was used on 18th century voyages to prevent scurvy. Perennial in zones 8-13. Grow a Good Life has growing info on New Zealand Spinach.
WATERCRESS (Nasturtium officinale)
If you have a wetter area, you can grow this tasty and nutritious green in the brassica family. Hardy to zone 2.
CHICORY (Cichorium intybus)
Common chicory is a relative of dandelion with a long taproot that is often roasted and used as a coffee substitute. The greens of some varieties are used in salads or cooked in soup or as pasta toppings. Radicchio is a type of chicory that can grow as a perennial in warmer climates. More on growing radicchio from Dengarden here. You can also welcome the wild type of chicory to your garden. Here’s more on foraging chicory from Grow Cook Forage Ferment.
TURKISH ROCKET (Bunias Orientalis)
A perennial option for brassica lovers, Turkish rocket has a reputation for toughness, weathering drought well because of its long taproot. Indestructible is a great quality in a garden plant, so I’m adding this one to our edible yard this season. Here’s more on growing Turkish rocket from Edible Acres. Hardy to zone 4.
LOVAGE (Levisticum officinale)
A relative of parsley, lovage has a strong celery flavor. It’s also valued for numerous medicinal properties. Read more about lovage from Herbal Academy here. Hardy to zone 4.
HORSERADISH (Armoracia rusticana)
A tough, easy-to-grow root in the brassica family, horseradish’s spicy flavor can liven up cooking and clear your sinuses. Here’s more on growing horseradish from Mother Earth News. Hardy in zones 2-9.
RAMPS (Allium tricoccum)
Also known as wild leeks, ramps are often foraged, but there’s no reason you can’t grow some of your own in a shady spot. In fact, you’re far more likely to catch their very short season if they’re growing right there in your yard than if you have to go hunt them down in the woods. Ramps are a great way to get some early food from a less sunny part of your yard, and growing your own helps avoid overharvesting wild ones.
You can grow them from seed or find someone to get a division. They’re slow-growing, so don’t expect a huge harvest, but early-season home-grown veggies are such a treat, they’re worth the effort.
POIREAU PERPÉTUEL/PERPETUAL LEEKS (Allium porrum)
Incredible Vegetables calls poireau perpétuel “one of the tastiest, low maintenance and easy to grow perennial vegetables providing a yearly harvest of slender leeks.” Considering how long it takes to grow annual leeks (and how short my growing season is), I’m considering planting some of these. Hardy to zone 4.
SCALLION OR WELSH ONION (Allium fistulosum)
I love scallions for stirfries and homemade soups, and perennial scallions are a new addition to this year’s garden. Most people grow them as annuals, but if left in the ground rather than dug up, these bunching perennials will increase in size multiply. You can harvest by thinning the bunch. Hardy to zone 3.
Scallions grow quite quickly from seed. Here are the fastest growing vegetables you can plant annually.
EGYPTIAN WALKING ONIONS (Allium × proliferum)
These perennial onions are said to “walk” because they don’t stay where you plant them. Rather than the big bulb underground that standard onions grow, walking onions grow little bulbs at the top of their stalks which tip over into the adjacent ground and replant themselves. Hardy to zone 3.
GARLIC (Allium sativum)
Though most of us grow garlic annually, garlic can also be grown as a perennial, something I’m going to try this season after reading about how to grow garlic as a perennial at Practical Self Reliance. Hardy to zone 2.
Though not technically a vegetable, we treat mushrooms as veggies in the kitchen, and it’s worth considering how you might incorporate these wonderful fungi into the home garden. Growing my own mushrooms is high up on my garden bucket list. Our family loves them, and they’re so good for you and delicious in so many different dishes. Whether you go for shiitake, oyster, or just regular button mushrooms, harvesting your own from your garden is worth pursuing. Here’s more on how to grow mushrooms from Gardener’s Path.
PERENNIAL VEGETABLES BEYOND THE VEGGIE PATCH
In addition to the perennial vegetables above, less commonly-known edibles can be harvested from your garden as well. Here are three categories of plants to consider harvesting from your yard.
1. EDIBLE GARDEN PLANTS
Hostas are a common garden plant that most of us don’t realize are edible. I first learned about this from Angela England’s wonderful edible landscaping book Gardening Like a Ninja. You can eat the shoots as well as the flowers. Here’s more on eating hostas from fellow Minnesotan Forager Chef.
Martin Crawford writes, “there are few flower crops that are substantial enough to be called a vegetable, by day lily ranks top of the list.” He suggests using them in salads or stuffing them, and notes the buds may be used like green beans, which they resemble in flavor. They may be used to thicken soups and stews.
Hank Shaw at Hunter Angler Gardener Cook recommends the tubers highly. Most daylilies are hardy to zone 4, though some varieties may tough it out to zone 2.
Here are more than 150 flowers you can eat.
Ice Plant (Sedum specatabile)
These common garden succulents reportedly taste juicy and delicious in salads. Hardy to zone 6.
2. EDIBLE FLOWERS
Edible flowers make a beautiful addition to salads and are often used in syrups and sweet summer treats. Here are some flowers to consider harvesting this season:
3. EDIBLE TREES AND VINES
Most people don’t realize how much food is growing on trees in their yard. Here are some common options to consider:
- Pine, spruce, and other conifers have several edible parts. Spruce tips can be foraged in spring, while the needles can be brewed into spruce tea year round.
- Many deciduous trees not only produce edible nuts, but also have edible leaves and inner bark. Maple, linden, mulberry, and sassafras are just a few examples. Here are some ways to harvest food from your trees from American Forests.
- Though most of us grow grapes for the fruit, the leaves are edible and nutritious as well.
4. EDIBLE “WEEDS”
A number of prolific plants have gotten a bum rap as “weeds,” causing millions of people to miss out on some seriously nutritious free food. Here are some of my favorites.
Dandelions used to be considered food, not a detriment to a perfectly manicured lawn. If you’re tossing your dandelions, you are depriving yourself of a wonderful early spring veggies. Here’s more on dandelions and how to use them.
One of the best sources of plant-based omega 3s, purslane is a perennial vegetable I look forward to every season. Though most North Americans treat purslane as a weed, in much of the world it’s a valued vegetable. Here’s more about how to use purslane.
Nettle (Urtica dioica)
Nettle is an incredibly nutritious early spring green. Full of vitamins and minerals, nettle leaf is also a go-to for herbalists for addressing things like seasonal allergies and pain.
Wild violets come back beautifully year after year, and even after the flowers are gone, the leaves may be enjoyed in salads, smoothies, and medicinal teas. Here’s how to use edible wild violets.
We don’t have Japanese knotweed in my area, but if we did, I would be cooking with it regularly.
One of the first green things up in spring, Virginia waterleaf is a mild green that can work in any number of dishes. It’s also abundant when there’s very little else growing.
The invasive weed “that ate the South,” kudzu is reportedly quite tasty. Here’s more on foraging kudzu from Edible Wild Food.
Milkweed turns out to have some terrific edible uses. I haven’t tried them yet, but after reading about how to eat milkweed at Practical Self Reliance, it’s on my list for this season. Milkweed sounds like a fantastic perennial vegetable!
This list of perennial vegetables could go on and on. Several books on perennial vegetables include more than 100 options to consider for your garden! If you need more inspiration, check out one of the books below.
Here are a few of the other unusual perennial vegetables you may want to pursue:
- Earthnut pea (Lathyrus tuberosus)
- Arrowhead (Saggitaria spp.)
- Tigernut or chufa (Cyperus esculentus)
- Hog Peanut (Amphicarpaea bracteata)
- Cattails (Typha spp.)
- Water Lotus (Nelumbo lutea)
- Tree Collards (Brassica oleracea)
- Ulluco (Ullucus tuberosus)
- Curly, Yellow, Broad-Leaved or other edible Docks (Rumex spp.)
- Udo, or Mountain Asparagus (Aralia cordata)
Temperate Climate Permaculture has a great list of perennial food plants (including many of the perennial vegetables mentioned above) organized according to how they could function in a permaculture food forest. Worth checking out.
Do you grow any perennial vegetables? What are your favorites?
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Photo credits: Luisa Sirpa, Bob Jones, Tony Alter, Anna reg