Most of the vegetables we grow at home are annuals (tomatoes, peppers, corn) or biennials (kale, beets, cabbage), plants that have a one- or two-year life cycle and must be replanted on an annual or biennial basis. However, there are a select few vegetable plants that are perennials, meaning they have a relatively long lifespan.
Many of these plants live for many years without much maintenance, yielding tasty treats for years if not decades into the future. There’s also the fact that these plants are often highly-prized foods, including asparagus, artichokes and rhubarb.
People who know me know I practice the philosophy of edible landscaping. I select plants for my landscape based on their edible qualities. Luckily, many of these perennial vegetable plants are attractive and find a home right in the landscape. I’ve incorporated several over the years, and plan to keep on adding more.
To get you started, here’s a list of my favorite perennial vegetables:
This perennial is my perennial favorite (see what I did there). Mother’s Day has me thinking about rhubarb.
My maternal grandmother loved rhubarb and would make rhubarb cobblers for various spring and early summer dinners. Unfortunately, my youthful palate did not appreciate the tart treat, but I’ve grown to love it over the years. I found a simple rhubarb pie recipe a few years ago and often bake one up for pot lucks and other dinners. It makes a nice, mounding foliage plant for the landscape, too.
There are lots of asparagus lovers out there, and the tasty stalk is getting easier to find fresh in the grocery store. Growing your own, however, can be rewarding year after year. A well-planted asparagus bed can last 30 to 50 years with minimal maintenance.
While many serious growers plant rows or beds of asparagus, home gardeners can also opt to sneak groupings of asparagus into the landscape. Each year (after the second year) you’ll be able to harvest several flushes of growth.
When the stalks get too small (the size of a pencil), you stop harvesting and allow the plant to grow to a ferny mass that is a few feet tall.
Many of the older varieties of asparagus commonly started from seeds, such as the Mary Washington, have both male and female plants. Since they are busy trying to produce fruits to reproduce, the female plants are generally much smaller and produce less than the male plants. Newer varieties that are sold as crowns, such as Jersey Knight, are selected to be all male and are much more productive.
This is a new favorite of mine. Garden sorrel is a short, compact plant that is a relative of rhubarb and buckwheat. Unlike rhubarb, though, you do eat the leaves of sorrel. The leaves are tart and sometimes lemony and are a good addition to salads or even soups.
I’ve added a red veined variety of sorrel to my landscape as a striking ground cover (it will spread, but not rapidly). You can easily start it from seed or plants.
While it may be uncommon for local gardens, it is possible to grow artichokes in the garden. If you have a protected area or if winters are mild, these plants can be established as perennials with good mulching.
The tasty artichokes that we eat are actually the unopened flower buds of a certain type of thistle. The plants have spiky silver-green leaves that are attractive.
A master gardener in Greenbrier County turned me on to the variety Tavor, which produced artichokes in the first season — which is especially good if the winter is harsh and your perennial ends up being an annual.
Not to be confused with the other artichoke, this plant is a type of sunflower that yields tasty tuber-like roots. The plants grow several feet tall and don golden yellow flowers in the fall. At the end of the season, you dig up the roots (leaving some behind for next year) and enjoy.
They have a nutty flavor and can be eaten like potatoes (baked, boiled, mashed, roasted). They can also be eaten raw. Just a few cautions: the plant can be pervasive and spread quickly, and eating too much can result in a gassy after-effect.
And many more
Those are just a few of my favorites, but there are plenty more to choose from. There’s horseradish (to put on your prime rib), ground nut (a starchy tuber from a legume plant) and several types of perennial onions and leeks. Not to mention all of the herbs. They all make great additions to the vegetable garden or even the landscape.
There’s one major consideration you need to make when planting perennial vegetables versus the traditional annuals: soil preparation.
When you plant a tomato or pepper, you are planning on a year’s worth of growth. When you plant asparagus or rhubarb, you need to plan for a generation’s worth of growth. Because these plants can live for many decades, you want to give them the best start. This usually means adding lots of organic matter to the soil, especially if you have heavier clay soil.
After that, you’ll have to rely on side dressing with fertilizer. After the initial planting, there will be limited times to improve the soil, so you have to get it right from the start.