Great Reasons to Grow Edible Perennials

, written by Jeremy Dore gb flag

Raspberries

This week I was asked about whether we could incorporate perennials into GrowVeg.com garden plans, so that they stayed in position for the next year. It’s definitely something we would like to do and it set me thinking about the value of these plants on a vegetable plot. It turns out that there is a growing movement extolling the benefits of growing perennial plants for food. After all, perennials were once a much greater part of our ancestors’ diets and they are great for the land since they don’t involve all the soil disturbance (and hence erosion) associated with agriculture. But are they really that viable for the home gardener?

Most of the popular vegetables that we grow are annuals or biennials. Annuals germinate, grow and produce ‘fruit’ or edible leaves within one growing season. Biennials, such as carrots, have a natural lifecycle of two years – they put down good roots in the first year and then produce flowers and seed the next. In most cases we want the edible roots, not the seeds, so we harvest them at the end of the first year.

Globe artichoke

There are a few perennials that are commonly eaten – asparagus, globe artichokes and rhubarb are good examples. Others, such as tomato plants, can be perennial in nature if given a mild enough climate. Many more examples exist when it comes to fruit – indeed most fruit comes from trees and bushes which are naturally perennial plants. In order to supply a good range of food however, it’s necessary to think a bit wider. Here the hunter-gatherer analogy comes in again – what about growing hazelnuts or chestnuts?

I’m certainly not in any hurry to throw out all my regular vegetables but I can see some distinct advantages in looking at perennials. They may take more effort, time and expense to establish but they will pay back handsomely in all these areas after a few years. With flooding and high winds an increasing reality of life for many people, perennials offer a more robust crop. And they usually require less maintenance than annual crops which are constantly struggling to beat the weeds growing up around them.

Apples

In fact the more I consider it, the more sense it makes. One of the main reasons that annuals are favoured over perennials in commercial production is that they are easier to mass-harvest. But that’s not half as much of an issue for home gardeners. In fact, time spent harvesting is often one of the most enjoyable parts of what we do and fruit bushes give some of the most valuable produce when measured by supermarket prices. Commercial producers may want uniformity of crop but on our plots a variety of perennial bushes and plants encourages wildlife, spreads the harvest and deters pests. (If you want a really radical justification then check out an organisation called Plants for a Future)

So, I’ve decided to give perennials a much higher priority. This week I used the excellent advice on the RHS site about taking cuttings from fruit bushes, together with a nice blog post on Landscape Juice about how not to stake trees and bushes. I now have blackcurrant and raspberry cuttings to go with my cordon apples.  Next season I fancy trying globe artichokes. The results may take a while but I’m sure in a few years I’ll be smiling and reaping the benefits.

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Comments

 
"Great Site!! One of the best hard copy references for edible perennials can be found here: http://www.chelseagreen.com/2007/items/perennialvegetables "
OnstrawRob on Saturday 9 February 2008
"That looks like a really useful reference on the subject and is certainly not one that I had come across. Have you read it? Does it live up to the promise of being 'filled with valuable growing tips'?"
Jeremy Dore on Monday 11 February 2008
"I have read other books by the author, notable Edible Forest Gardening 1/2. He did the appendixes (each over 30 pages) and they were unreal in detail and usefulness. While I have not read this book, it comes highly recommended and I feel comfortable standing by those and my other experiences with his work."
OnestrawRob on Tuesday 12 February 2008
"Good Blog Jeremy, this one is interesting. Again its a question of how much space the gardener has got available to him/her. Perennial planting should include an Aparagus bed, Globe Artichokes, Jerusalem Artichokes, Rhubarb of course and then perhaps some Good King Henry a sort of perennial spinach that you cut and come again from. All these are delicious, but take up a lot of space and grow tall so you have to be careful not to shade your plot. If I had room I would certainly grow all these and there are some herbs that can be treated as perennials."
DavidM31 on Saturday 16 February 2008
"Sorrel; delicious! Crops through the winter."
KEVIN JOHN TURTILL on Monday 10 March 2008
"Once I began researching this topic, I found heaps of info. There are vast numbers of edible perennials available, with the best place to strt being ones indigenous to your area, then on to ones from countries with similar climatic conditions. I can give examples if you like:) Happy hunting!"
tanglevine_forest on Thursday 8 January 2009
"Tanglevine_forest, thanks for your comment. Yes, please do give some examples and an idea of where you are based, or which climate they do well in. Kevin - I'll be growing sorrel this year for the first time, so thanks for the recommendation!"
Jeremy Dore on Friday 9 January 2009
"I am in subtropical clime, here is drier than most subtropics, though. I think most of the herbs I know are from England(or europe), though-mint, chamomile, Dandelion(eatleaves,roast roots,)Comfrey(leaves),chickweed-Stellaria media(whole plant, medicinal),I don't know too many, but will have fun researching them. Also in your clime,(unless your neighbor gardens, and you steal his sun) I would be building gardens like a bookshelf, facing the South(I think in the northern hemisphere)so I could maximise on space and sun.I think you get lots of rain there, so tubs drying out should'nt be a problem. I would also plant anything that self seeds.In my garden(approx 350m2 without buildings)I have ((N)=native to this area) Mango, Lychee, Papaya, Loquat, Avocado,Grape vines(fruit and leaves),Passionfruit vines, Lemon,Fig,Native rasberry(N), Native passionfruit(N), Carpobrotus-Pigface(N)(GroundCover)-fruit-leaves,Melastoma(N)(shrub)-fruit,Backhousia citriodora(N)(smlTree)-leaves as flavor,Dioscorea bulbifera(N)(vine)-tubers(need processing),Native mulberry(N)(shrub)-fruit,Austromyrtus dulcis(N)(smlShrub)-fruit, Native cordyline(N)-growing tip(will reshoot), Alpinia caerulea(native ginger)(N)-root-fruit,leaves as flavoring,Eugenia reinwardtiana(N)(shrub)-fruit(yum!),Eustrephus latifolius(N)(climber)-roots-fruit,Geitonopesium cymosum(N)(climber)-growing tips,Castanospermum australe(N)(lgeTree)-Beans(NEED PROCESSING-very poisonous otherwise), Paperbark(N)(tree)-bark to wrap food in,Pumpkins, Sweet potato, Tomato(self-seeds),Okra, Beans,Potato(am looking into a perennial alternative)millet,sorrel,dock(eat leaves), parsley,rosemary,other herbs.I crammed this lot into half of my garden, and still have half to fill. Hope this list is useful to someone. All of the unknown plants can be googled.Happy gardening!"
tanglevine_forest, aka Charlotte on Thursday 22 January 2009
"Go to www.perennialsolutions.com Lots of useful productive perennial food in there. Also www.pfaf.org website and its book is a great resource (book is very good). Also "perennial vegetables" book by Eric, or "tasty tubers of the world". I am growing so far rhubarb, lovage, kale, jerusalem artichokes and chives, besides some wild natives, and a moringa tree indoors. I have tried on the past with nice success Yacon, Chufa, Chinese artichokes and Skirret, easy to grow and nice food. I am very excited to try out mulberries, elaeagnus species, air potatoes, oca, ulluco and mashua, prairie turnip, siberian pea and many others"
Paulo on Tuesday 22 May 2012
"Borage self seeds and comes back each year you eat the flowers. Nastustiums, flowers and leavs are eddible there actually related to brasicas. Potatoes can be treated as Perennials (i found this out accidently must have left a few small spuds in the ground last year hehe). Dont forget stinging nettles, mint, parsley, winter savory, winberrys, elderflower, hawthorn, sweet bay, heck my swiss chard came back this year as it was a mild winter and i haf used it as cut n come again. Im north west england... Ohhh and strawberrys yum."
sami on Friday 20 July 2012

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