Perennial vegetables—crops that you plant just once and harvest year after year—are relatively rare in North American gardens.
With the exception of asparagus, rhubarb and artichokes, most gardeners are probably unaware of the tasty, extremely low-maintenance bounty that can be harvested when many annual crops aren’t available.
A Brief History of Perennial Crops
According to Perennial Vegetables by Eric Toensmeier, most North American gardening and farming traditions come from Europe, where there are very few perennial crops except fruits and nuts.
Cold and temperate Eurasian agriculture centered around livestock, annual grains and legumes, and early European settlers to North America simply brought their seeds and their cultivation methods with them, including draft animals for plowing up the soil every year.
However, in more temperate and tropical areas of the world, including much of North America, perennial root, starch and fruit crops were actively bred, selected and cultivated. These perennial crops were favored perhaps because they require less work to grow, and lacking large domesticated draft animals, only hand tools were available for farming.
Whatever the origin of our neglect of these amazing plants, we shouldn’t ignore these useful and productive foods any longer. Perennial vegetables should be much more widely available, especially because, compared to annual crops, they tend to be more nutritious, easier to grow, more ecologically beneficial, and less dependent on water and other inputs.
Benefits of Perennial Vegetables
Perennial Vegetables are Low Maintenance
Imagine growing vegetables that require just about the same amount of care as perennial flowers and shrubs—no annual tilling and planting. They thrive and produce abundant and nutritious crops throughout the season. Once established in the proper site and climate, perennial vegetables planted can be virtually indestructible despite neglect. Established perennials are often more resistant to pests, diseases, drought and weeds, too.
Perennial Vegetables Extend the Harvest
Perennial vegetables often have different seasons of availability from annuals, which provides more food throughout the year. While you are transplanting tiny annual seedlings into your vegetable garden or waiting out the mid-summer heat, many perennials are already growing strong or ready to harvest.
Perennial Vegetables Can Perform Multiple Garden Functions
Many perennial vegetables are also beautiful, ornamental plants that can enhance your landscape. Others can function as hedges, groundcovers or erosion control for slopes. Other perennial veggies provide fertilizer to themselves and their neighboring plants by fixing nitrogen in the soil. Some can provide habitat for beneficial insects and pollinators, while others can climb trellises and provide shade for other crops.
Perennial Vegetables Help Build Soil
Perennial crops are simply amazing for the soil. Because they don’t need to be tilled, perennials help foster a healthy and intact soil food web, including providing habitat for a huge number of animals, fungi and other important soil life.
When well mulched, perennials improve the soil’s structure, organic matter, porosity and water-holding capacity.
Perennial vegetable gardens build soil the way nature intended by allowing the plants to naturally add more and more organic matter to the soil through the slow and stead decomposition of their leaves and roots. As they mature, they also help build topsoil and sequester atmospheric carbon.