Imagine harvesting fresh veggies from your garden each summer without putting in the effort to start your garden from scratch. Perennial vegetables allow just that! Perennials survive the winter and return to produce again the following summer. Here, we’ve highlighted a few star perennial vegetables that make a great choice for a garden in North America, and how to grow them!
There are two main categories of plants: annuals and perennials. Perennial plants describe those that persist through multiple seasons. In general, part of the plant dies back in the winter and regrows in the spring. On the other hand, annual plants go through their entire lifecycle within one growing season. Some plants are even considered to be biennials, that have a two-year lifecycle.
Perennial plants are especially notable outside of the tropics because of the dramatic differences in climate between the seasons. But this begs the question: how do they survive the winter? What makes them more resilient than annuals? These plants actually have responded to cold climates and developed specific adaptations to allow them to persist year after year.
Perhaps obviously, the big perk of perennial vegetables is that you only need to plant them once, and they’ll thrive in the garden for years. But there are a few other reasons that perennial plants give your garden that extra edge.
By nature, perennials develop a more extensive root system than annual plants. The breadth and depth of the roots not only allow the plant to reach nutrients that other plants wouldn’t be able to reach, but they also increase the overall health of the soil. The roots actually develop a synergistic relationship with the microbial community. As a result, more quantities of better minerals become available to all the plants in the area. Perennials are the gift that keeps on giving!
Again, because of a more effective root system, perennials hold more water in the soil. This benefits the whole garden for two reasons. First, it keeps the soil from draining too quickly. Additionally, when the soil dries out, plants are more likely to erode away with loose soil. Thanks to perennials, other plants are kept hydrated and they don’t wash away!
Throughout the years of a perennial’s lifespan, the roots are continually expanding. By opening pockets of air in the soil, the roots of perennials keep the soil aerated. Well-aerated soil ensures other plants to have access to the water and oxygen they need to survive.
Many gardeners will sow a crop cover plant during the winter months to protect the soil. Crop cover plants keep the soil from eroding, increase organic matter, reduce compaction, and retain moisture. Though some of the foliage dies back in the winter, perennials act as an excellent crop cover that you don’t have to dig up in the spring.
One of the first springtime crops, asparagus makes a delicious treat. Once established, it will return each year, sometimes lasting upwards of 20 crop-yielding seasons. As a bonus, asparagus has beautiful fern-like leaves and makes for a delightful ornamental after it has stopped producing for the year.
While a couple of varieties can be started from seed, most asparagus plants are started by planting crowns directly in the soil in early spring. To plant, dig a trench that is 12-18 inches wide and 6-8 inches deep. Then, create a small ridge of soil in the center of the trench, where the crowns will be planted. Space crowns 12-18 inches apart.
This perennial vegetable does best with well-draining soil and at least partial sun. It notoriously doesn’t like to get its ‘feet’ wet. Often, a raised bed makes a great choice for asparagus to eliminate the risk of water pooling.
After the plants have stopped producing, let the foliage grow. You can even add some mulch to the base to add extra protection and nutrients. In the winter, when the foliage has turned brown and shriveled, cut it down to the ground.
A star of many desserts, rhubarb is one of the most well-known perennial vegetables. Famous for its beautiful green to pink stalks and notorious for poisonous leaves, rhubarb is an interesting plant, to say the least. Once planted, it will produce for at least five years!
Rhubarb can either be planted in the fall after dormancy has set in or in the early spring as soon as the ground is workable. Similar to asparagus, rhubarb crowns have the most success as plant starters. To plant, dig a large, wide hole and bury the roots at least 2 inches deep. Mulch the area with hay or cow manure to keep the young plant moist.
Rhubarb loves the sunlight, so pick a spot in your garden with full sun. Additionally, it does best with cooler temperatures year-round (below 40ºF in the winter), so rhubarb does the best in zones 6-10.
To keep your rhubarb plant growing from year to year, make sure to remove seed stalks as soon as they appear. This will keep the plant’s energy directing toward the roots and stems, staying hearty throughout the seasons. Rhubarb plants get pretty bushy and can be divided every few years. If you choose to split your plant, wait until the fall dormancy has set in.
Despite the name, Jerusalem artichoke is completely unrelated to globe artichokes. In fact, it is a type of sunflower and goes by the other common name ‘sunchoke.’ These plants are grown for their edible tubers and make an easy addition to your perennial vegetable garden.
Tolerant of most soils, Jerusalem artichoke is a plant that can be reserved for the lesser quality areas of your garden.
After you dig up the ones for eating, you can leave the remainder of the tubers in the soil to regrow the following year. No real tricks here!
Depending on the hardiness zone and your care practices, other plants can be grown perennially. Here are some tips on how to encourage a few other veggies to persist through the seasons.
Between fresh produce and a delightful hobby, gardens serve to delight and enrich anyone’s life. Adding a few perennial vegetables to the spread will not only ease the planting stress each spring but will improve the overall health of your garden. Why wait to start?!
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