While most food gardeners concentrate on annual vegetables like tomatoes, cucumbers, and lettuce, there are many perennial vegetables that offer an annual crop of leaves, stems, fruits, roots, tubers, flowerbuds, or bulbs. Plus, most are easy to grow, resistant to pests, and improve soil. There are so many reasons to add perennial vegetables to your garden and landscape. Read on to discover fifteen of my favourite perennial edible plants.
Perennial vegetables have become a foundation of permaculture gardening and used widely in food forests along with fruiting crops like highbush blueberries, apples, grapes, and currants. If the thought of a low-maintenance harvest of leafy greens and tasty tubers intrigues you, I highly recommend the award-winning book by Eric Toensmeier, Perennial Vegetables. It’s packed with pros, cons, and all the detailed info you need to get started growing perennial vegetables.
Benefits of growing perennial vegetables
Here are nine reasons to consider adding some edible perennial plants to your yard:
- A reliable and annual harvest.
- Most are very easy to grow and low care perennial plants.
- Perennial vegetables are typically more insect resistant than annual crops.
- There is a wide selection of flavors and edible parts.
- No tilling which supports the soil food web.
- And speaking of the soil food web, many perennial vegetables build soil with their deep root systems and annual foliage decomposition.
- There are many beautiful perennial vegetables which can be planted in flower gardens or landscape borders.
- Many, like rhubarb and asparagus are long-lived.
- Late cropping perennial edibles like oca and Chinese artichokes extend the harvest into late autumn and early winter.
Planting perennial vegetables
As with any type of garden, do a bit of research on your plants before you head to the garden centre. Some perennial vegetables grow best in full sun, while others prefer a partially shaded or even woodland site. Grow those that will thrive in your landscape and your garden zone. I’ve included the growing zone range for each type of perennial vegetable in the list below. And when it is time to plant, put in a bit of extra work with soil preparation. These plants will be in the same spot for years, or even decades, so this is your chance to improve the existing soil by adding amendments like compost, aged manure, and organic fertilizers, as well as remove weeds.
And note that it can take several years for perennial edible plants to size up and grow big enough to produce a harvest. You need to practice patience (I know, I know, this is HARD for gardeners!). For some types of perennial vegetables buying plants, bulbs, or tubers instead of waiting for seed-grown plants to mature can be a shortcut. Or maybe you have a friend with a plant that you can divide. That first year, pay attention to watering to help perennial crops establish well. And in subsequent years I suggest top-dressing around your plants with compost and a granular organic fertilizer every spring to encourage healthy growth.
15 perennial vegetables
Please note that the hardiness zone listed with each plant are USDA zones.
Artichokes (Cynara cardunculus var. scolymus, zone 7 to 9)
I’ve been growing artichokes for over fifteen years but I’ve always treated them like an annual vegetable in my zone 5B garden. I pick a short season variety like Imperial Star and start the seeds indoors under grow-lights in February. In mild climates artichokes are a perennial vegetable and return year after year.
Yet, cold climate gardeners like me can enjoy an annual crop of artichokes without replanting by overwintering the plants in a greenhouse or polytunnel. For the past few years I’ve been deep mulching my polytunnel artichoke plants in December with a two foot deep layer of straw or shredded leaves. This is covered with a row cover to hold the straw in place. The following April I remove the mulch and the plants sprout in about two to three weeks.
If you are in a warm climate, zone 7 or above, plant artichokes in the sunny garden bed with well-drained soil. Dig in plenty of compost or aged manure before transplanting and top-dress with a slow-release organic vegetable fertilizer.
Asparagus (Asparagus officinalis, zones 3 to 8)
Asparagus is a hardy, long-lived perennial vegetable that offers a bounty of tender spears in mid to late spring. Like most vegetables, it grows best in a sunny garden bed with well-drained soil. You can grow it from seed started indoors and moved to the garden once the risk of frost has passed, but you’ll be waiting at least three years to harvest. Instead, I recommend buying one year old crowns from your local garden centre in spring. Growing asparagus from crowns results in a harvest in just two years.
Before planting, put some time into bed prep. Remove any weeds and loosen the soil to a depth of sixteen inches. If you’re making a dedicated asparagus bed, it should be at least three feet wide and as long as you like. Plants should be spaced eighteen inches apart so calculate bed length based on the number of plants you want to grow.
Amend with compost or aged manure and place crowns about six to eight inches deep. Cover with an inch or two of soil. As the plants grow, fill in the rest of the planting hole gradually. Keep the bed consistently watered that first year. Give the plants time to settle in and size up. Don’t harvest until year two and only take a few spears from each plant. By year three you can expect a large annual harvest which continues for decades. Our website also has more extensive info on growing asparagus, including articles on Asparagus Growing Secrets and When to Cut Back Asparagus.
Good King Henry (Chenopodium bonus-henricus, zones 4 to 8)
This hardy plant offers a dual harvest to gardeners. First there are the pencil thick shoots that emerge in early spring. These can be cut and used like asparagus. Then there are the greens, the main reason to grow Good King Henry. The arrow-shaped leaves are treated like spinach and cooked by boiling or steaming. The raw leaves, especially those that are mature, are rather bitter. Blanching or boiling reduces bitterness.
Seeds for Good King Henry are available from seed companies but be warned that they can be slow to germinate. Stratifying the seeds or winter sowing them (like this post about winter sown onions) helps break dormancy. When you’re ready to transplant the seedlings into the garden, space plants twelve to eighteen inches apart. Give them two to three years to size up before you begin to harvest.
American Groundnut (Apios americana, zones 3 to 7)
This North American vining plant is a garden stunner with showy burgundy flowers. There are a lot of edible parts on groundnut including the beans (must be cooked) and the young shoots, but the preferred edible part of groundnut is the starchy tubers. Tubers for planting can be bought online from seed companies. The harvest takes place in late fall after a few hard frosts which sweetens the tubers.
Groundnut is a vigorous plant and thrives in moist soil, often growing beside rivers and streams in its natural habitat. It can grow eight to ten feet a year and when planted in home gardens, should be given sturdy support on a fence, arbor, or other structure. The tubers take two to three years to size up with each growing up to two inches across. The tubers are rather unique in that they are held in a string, like a beaded necklace. They need to be boiled but once cooked can then be pan fried for a treat high in starch and protein.
Tree Kale (Brassica oleracea var. ramosa, zones 6 to 9)
This is a plant with a lot of names including tree collards, walking stick kale, and perennial kale to name a few. It’s also a great plant for kale lovers who want to grow a reliable crop of delicious purple-green leaves for salads, sautéing and a million other dishes. Tree kale is quite easy to grow when planted in full sun in a garden bed amended with several inches of compost or aged manure. You don’t plant seeds, but rather rooted cuttings bought from a garden center, online nursery, or taken from the plant of a friend.
Once established, tree kale can grow six to eight feet tall and four to six feet wide, producing a huge amount of leaves. Provide support for the plants as they grow by inserting a six foot tall wooden stake or grow it against a trellis. In colder climates, you can plant tree kale in big pots and bring it indoors for the winter.
Egyptian Walking Onion (Allium x proliferum , zones 3 to 10)
About a decade ago I ordered an Egyptian Walking Onion plant online from a specialty herb company. Within two years I had enough to share with friends and neighbors. This unique perennial vegetable multiplies quickly and happily wanders around the garden. That said, it’s also easy to control and you can pull up – and eat! – any that start to invade neighboring plants.
The fresh green shoots emerge very early in spring and can be used like scallions. By early summer the stems are topped with tiny bulbs and as the season progresses, the crown of bulbs gets heavier and topples the plant to the ground. The little bulbs then root and a new plant emerges. If you don’t want them all over your garden, gather up the little onions at the top of the stems. Dry them for a week or two and store in a cool site for a burst of onion flavor all winter long.
Hosta montana (Hosta montana, zones 4 to 8)
I featured Hosta in my third book, the award-winning Veggie Garden Remix and I got so many questions about harvesting and eating hosta. For me, my favorite way to enjoy this common landscape perennial is by harvesting the hostons in early spring. Hostons are the pointy, tightly furled leaf tips that emerge first. Once they’re about six inches long – but before they begin to unfurl – they can be sliced off at the soil surface. We pan fry them or roast them in the oven – delicious, especially with a dash of soy sauce and sesame oil.
Sorrel (Rumex acetosa, zones 4 to 9)
I love the lemony flavor of sorrel which is so welcome in spring salads or soup. The plants form a big clump of bright green leaves and thrive in full sun to partial shade. Before planting, amend the soil with a few inches of compost. Sorrel can be grown from seeds, which should be started indoors under a grow light or in a sunny window, or pick up a plant from a nursery. I’m a big fan of Raspberry Dressing sorrel which is a very ornamental, yet edible, cultivar with dark green leaves and bright red veins. It’s not as long-lived in the garden but is a beautiful and delicious plant.
If you have a friend with a clump of sorrel, you can take a few pieces by dividing the plant in early summer. This allows enough time for the divisions to settle in before the arrival of the cold weather. It’s a good idea to dig up an established sorrel patch every five or six years, or if you notice the plants are overcrowded or declining. Once they’ve been dug up, you can divide the plant into smaller clumps and replant in a new site.
If allowed to self-seed, sorrel can become invasive so clip flowers as they fade if you want to control the spread. Or, grow Profusion, a variety developed by Richters Herbs in Canada. This superior variety offers many outstanding characteristics: it’s less bitter, the leaves are more tender, and it doesn’t flower.
Rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum, zones 2 to 9)
If you’re going to grow perennial vegetables, you need to plant rhubarb. It’s perhaps the easiest plant to grow and thrives in sun, shade, partial sun, and in a variety of soil types. It’s bothered by few pests and diseases and even the deer and rabbits avoid it. Just avoid boggy soil. And while rhubarb will grow practically anywhere, you can increase the rhubarb yield by picking a site with at least eight hours of light and adding compost or aged manure to the soil before transplanting. Because rhubarb loves rich soil, I top-dress my plants every spring with a few inches of compost.
Rhubarb is a pass-along plant often shared by family, friends, and neighbors. It can be divided in early spring before the leaves are fully unfurled. Use a sharp spade or shovel to dig a chunk with at least two growing points.
The only edible part of rhubarb are the stems which are treated more like a fruit. Rhubarb is often stewed, baked into pies, muffins, and crumbles, or turned into jam.
Ramps (Allium tricoccum, zones 3 to 7)
Ramps, or wild leeks, are a foragers treat in spring with a unique flavor that hints of onions and garlic. A North American native plant, ramps eventually colonize and spread throughout their growing space. I don’t recommend planting ramps in a vegetable garden as they don’t like full sun. Instead, look for a spot beneath tall deciduous trees or in a woodland garden. The leaves die back in summer and pale pink flowers add beauty and interest. Seeds soon follow and can be gathered and scattered on the soil surface. It’s best to sow seeds outdoors to break dormancy. They’ll grow on Mother Nature’s schedule. Trying to germinate them indoors can be tricky and stratification is necessary.
If you manage to find a source of bulbs (don’t dig them up from the woods), carefully transplant them six inches apart in soil that is amended with leaf mold compost or garden compost. Water well and mulch with shredded leaves. Give the patch time to establish and spread, so hold off harvesting homegrown ramps for at least three to four years, especially if your plants were grown from seed.
Jerusalem Artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus, zones 3 to 8)
Also called sunchokes, Jerusalem artichokes are native to North American and yield dozens of bumpy, knobby tubers in autumn. You can even harvest into winter if you mulch the bed with straw or shredded leaves. Or you can harvest all the tubers in autumn and store them in a cool basement or root cellar.
As far as perennial vegetables go, this plant is a stunner! Jerusalem artichokes are tall with beautiful small sunflower-like flowers that open in late summer. And they’re very pollinator friendly. There are many named varieties you can buy from garden centers or online sources. I recommend planting a few different varieties are there is a range of maturation times as well as skin colors and tuber shapes.
To plant, tuck tubers in a sunny garden bed with well-drained soil in early to mid-spring. Look for a site that is either isolated or bordered with rocks or other materials. This will help contain the vigorous spread of Jerusalem artichokes. Plant tubers four to five inches deep and sixteen to eighteen inches apart.
Chinese artichoke (Stachys affinis, zones 5 to 8)
Also called crosnes, Chinese artichokes aren’t a common vegetable found in supermarkets, or even farmers markets. They are very easy to grow, however, and return and multiply from year to year. This perennial crop is a member of the mint family and the plants look like mint as they grow – square stems and similar leaves – but they don’t have the scent or flavor of mint.
The edible part is the tubers. The quirky little tubers are very crisp and juicy and have a mild artichoke flavor. Sauté them in butter or add sliced raw crosnes to salads for a yummy crunch. They even make delicious pickles!
The tubers are available from mail order catalogs or specialty nurseries and can be planted in early spring. Plant tubers three inches deep and a foot apart. The harvest begins in late autumn when the plants die back. Any missed tubers will re-sprout the following spring but you should thin the plants to a foot apart as overcrowding reduces tuber production.
Horseradish (Armoracia rusticana, zones 3 to 9)
Horseradish is one of toughest and hardiest of the perennial vegetables and grows well in full sun to partial shade. The edible part is the roots, which are harvested in fall and depending on your location, into winter and early spring. Once harvested, the roots are peeled and pureed into a strong-flavored condiment.
There are different varieties of horseradish which can be ordered as crowns from specialty catalogs or you may luck into horseradish roots or crowns for planting at a local garden centre in spring. Or, you can try planting a root from your grocery store. Give the plants a full year in the garden before you begin to harvest. And when you do harvest, dig on either side of the plant with a spade or garden fork, picking up the root pieces that break off. If you’re not ready to use it all, place extra roots in a plastic baggie in the fridge.
Purple sprouting broccoli (Brassica oleracea var. italica, zones 6 to 9)
Purple sprouting broccoli is a half-hardy perennial that when planted in the right spot (sheltered, sunny, great soil) can become perennial and produce an annual harvest of delicious flowerbuds. Don’t expect huge domed heads like those of common green broccoli varieties. Instead, purple sprouting broccoli yields many small purple florets from late summer through early winter.
Start the seeds indoors under grow-lights in early spring, moving them to the garden six weeks later. These plants take awhile to grow and produce a crop so plant them in good soil where they’ll receive plenty of sun and be patient. Harvest the gorgeous flower buds as they sprout to keep production going. When the cold weather arrives in autumn, cover plants with a mini hoop tunnel or mulch deeply with straw. In spring the plants should send out more flower shoots to harvest, and if you’re lucky, continue to produce for months. If the plants are still growing strong the following autumn, protect them again for winter.
Oca (Oxalis tuberosa, zones 9 to 10)
Sadly, oca isn’t a crop for my northeast garden, but southern gardeners can try their hand at growing oca, also called New Zealand yam. This common name may lead you to think this tuberous vegetable hails from New Zealand but it’s actually a native to South America. The waxy and colorful tubers have been grown throughout the Andean region for centuries.
To grow oca, plant tubers in late winter indoors, transplanting the vines outside once the risk of frost has passed in spring. Look for a site that offers well-drained soil (sandy soil is perfect) and partial shade (morning sun and afternoon shade is ideal). They have high moisture needs so water often if there has been no rain. You can also plant the tubers in containers but use a well-draining potting mix like cactus mix. The tubers won’t form until the day length shrinks below twelve hours which means a late autumn harvest for most parts of North America. Save the smallest tubers for replanting.
This is by no means a complete list of perennial vegetables. There are many, MANY more you can use in an edible landscape! Also look for others like cardoon, Sylvetta arugula, Hablitzia, lovage, perennial scallions, ostrich fern, and sea kale, just to name a few. And perennial herbs like chives, thyme, oregano, French sorrel, and sage.
Do you grow any perennial vegetables in your garden?
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