Perennial vegetables are ideal, low-maintenance staples to a home garden, and a great way to eat well on a tight budget. There are a variety of perennial veggies to choose from, and the right ones will nourish not only the ground they grow in, but also the bodies that partake of their bounty. Whether you’re doing urban gardening or you have space to really spread out, discover which vegetables can last the year.
What Are Perennial Vegetables?
The word “perennial” in the dictionary definition means “lasting or existing for a long or apparently infinite time.” Not to say that every perennial seed or bulb you plant is the vampire of vegetation, practically immortal, but evergreen trees and shrubs are so-called because they appear to be forever green, all year around.
As opposed to annual plants and flowers which must be re-planted every year, perennial plants can re-bloom and regrow each year with proper care, without needing to be re-seeded at all. When you have perennial vegetables, you have the means to source food from your own front lawn—a great way to beautify your curb appeal and (bonus!) to use water more responsibly. Watering sod grass because it looks better than dirt is a waste when compared to watering a garden that can feed your family, your neighbors, and your friends. Don’t know your neighbors that well yet? Plant a garden and they will come; it’s a wonderful conversation-starter, and a great way to turn your neighbors into new friends.
Which Are Perennial Vegetables?
When planted and well-tended, perennial crops are continually recurring. According to the book Perennial Vegetables: From Artichokes to Zuiki Taro by Eric Toensmeier, there are over 100 perennial edible vegetables you can grow around the world. In a North American climate, here are 15 veggies to get you started, including their growth areas, nutritional uses, and health benefits:
- Jerusalem artichokes (Helianthus tuberosus): Started from tubers rather than seeds, Jerusalem artichokes grow tall, and their leaves change color in the fall. Strongest in the American Northeast and Southeast Canada, they look less like the commonly known artichoke (globe artichokes, which are also perennials) and more like potatoes. Because of that they can be used in hardy stews, and are not only a good food for gut health, but might also be beneficial for preventing colon cancer.
- Sea kale (Crambe maritima): Native to the cold, rocky beaches of Scotland, sea kale can also be grown on America’s Pacific coast (in California and Oregon). Short, flowering, and tough, sea kale doesn’t spread erratically (no risk of it overtaking the other occupants of your garden). It also provides vitamins, fiber, and natural immune-boosting elements when eaten.
- Potato bean (Apios americana): Commonly known as a “groundnut,” the potato bean grows in the eastern parts of North America, while doing particularly well in the Pennsylvania region of the U.S. It is often found growing around ancient Native American campsites, and is a comfortable addition to any stew.
- Sorrel (Rumex acetosa): Such a regular member of gardens across the world (including Europe and Asia), it’s commonly known as “garden sorrel.” Perhaps a better flavor-garnish to food due to its high levels of oxalic acid, it’s a pleasantly tart way to add a lemony flavor to salads or fish when you don’t have a lemon handy. Similar is French sorrel (Rumex scutatus), which also comes with visually striking red veins running through its bright green leaves.
- Good King Henry (Chenopodium bonus-henricus): Introduced by European settlers, Good King Henry is a perennial herb rich in iron and vitamin C, and grows well in northeast America, Canada, and (strangely) Utah. In early spring, the young shoots of this plant can be used as a stand-in for asparagus (hence its other name, Poor-man’s Asparagus), while its dark green leaves are similar enough to spinach to be prepared the same way.
- Asparagus (Asparagus officinalis): Speaking of the original asparagus, it can be grown all over North America. As widely as it can be grown and flourish, that is how rich it is in nutritious benefits. Practically containing the entire alphabet of vitamins, asparagus has: vitamin A, vitamin B1, vitamin B2, vitamin B3, vitamin B6, vitamin C, vitamin E, and vitamin K. An excellent source of dietary fiber, it also has folate, potassium, zinc, iron, and so much more. For all of its multi-vitamin properties, asparagus is a natural immune system booster, and can be added to many recipes as well as enjoyed as its own dish.
- Rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum): Visually appealing with waxy, red leaf stalks, rhubarb adds tang to tarts, sauces, pies, and preserves. Growing well in most of the United States, rhubarb plants regularly endure for 5 years or more. Use them as a cornerstone to your garden—they aren’t going anywhere.
- Garlic (Allium sativum): Best planted in fall and harvested mid-summer, garlic grows in most of the U.S. Often used in food for its strong flavor, garlic has medicinal purposes beyond its unique taste: for colds, high blood pressure, cholesterol control, and more. For garlic chives however, you’ll want the more onion-like Allium tuberosum, which can grow in particularly cold climates like those of Wisconsin, Iowa, and Nebraska.
- Chayote (Sechium edule): Native to Central America and Mexico, chayote is an avocado-shaped vegetable that can be grown in Louisiana. Plain in taste (and so easy to flavor and spice as you please), chayote nevertheless is packed with fiber and vitamins, and helps control bad cholesterol.
- Scarlet runner beans (Phaseolus coccineus): Able to grow along the American Atlantic coast, these bold-red runner beans grow on twining perennial vines, and can be used much like any bean with the added bonus of their visual appeal.
- Egyptian walking onions (Allium X proliferum): Not unlike shallots, Egyptian walking onions or “tree onions” can be grown all through North America. The bulblets can be cooked or eaten raw, and though they don’t walk, they can be characterized as appearing to have “a crazy Medusa onion hairdo” according to Michigan State University.
- Watercress (Nasturtium officinale): An aquatic perennial plant that has a plant profile in all of North America (for everywhere except North Dakota, according to the USDA), watercress can be included in a variety of recipes, including a nice watercress tea sandwich.
- Turkish rocket (Bunias orientalis): Deep-rooted and sometimes hard to eradicate once planted, Turkish rockets are extremely healthy and great in a salad. With yellow flower buds, from May-August, it’s a beautiful addition to any garden in North America, Europe, and parts of Russia.
- Tree collards (Brassica oleracea var. acephala): With richly purple leaves and an odd, tall appearance, these plants (not quite trees) are highly nutritious and a rich source of calcium. Easily grown in a California climate, they are propagated by cuttings instead of seeds, and, unlike normal collards or the similar kale, they will not die when they go to seed.
- Welsh onions (Allium fistulosum): Whether you know them as spring onions, Japanese leeks, or scallions, Welsh onions are actually native to Canada, and are able to grow in areas like Alaska, Illinois, and Vermont. Whether chopped up to give texture to soups, dashed into scrambled eggs, or mixed in with savory pancakes, this vegetable is packed with vitamins and health benefits. It can even be eaten all on its own: sautéed, dipped in yogurt, wrapped in bacon—the choice is yours, get creative!
Eat, Grow, Love
These edible perennials are wonderful staples to your vegetable garden, your dinner table, and your diet. Less work to maintain and enjoy than annual crops, they can be enjoyed by you and your family as both a fresh-air project and an environmental benefit. While you’re at it (or if you’re pressed for space in an apartment), you could grow perennial herbs on a windowsill, perennial flowers just for their beauty each year, (or if you’re even more ambitious): perennial fruit trees! With a big enough yard and a green enough thumb, you can cultivate more than vegetables—you can grow your own feast.
To find out which perennial edible plants are able to grow in your area, you could start by visiting a local garden center or doing some internet sleuthing. To grow edibles yourself is to save money, avoid food additives, and literally get back to the earth. With perennial veggies, what you plant in the first year will pay you back in nutrition next year…and for many more years to come.