One of the very first things new homesteaders should focus their energy on is getting perennials established. Fruit trees and berry bushes take several years of growing before they’re ready to harvest, so it’s important that you get them going right away. Many herbs also continue to produce for years once they’re established- culinary and medicinal; definitely get them in the ground as well.
But don’t stop there! Perennial vegetables are often overlooked and underused in the home garden. Many people don’t realize how many vegetables you can plant once and continue to enjoy for years down the road. Not everyone can grow everything in their climate, so do your research and find the best perennial vegetables for your area.
Here are a few that I’m focusing on growing where I am (zone 7)…
1. Egyptian Walking Onions (aka: Tree Onions, Topset Onions)
Walking Onions have earned their name by the way they multiply. The tops of their stalks grow clusters of bulbils or “sets”. As the bulbils grow, they weigh down the stalk and cause it to bend to the ground. They then take root and soon you have another onion plant growing. In this way they quickly spread, and will provide you with plenty of onion greens and small bulbs.
Walking Onions are quite hardy, growing well in zones 3-9. Plant sets approx. 2 in. deep in well draining soil, 6-10″ apart. You can plant them any time of the year, as long as the ground can be worked. They do well in full sun or part shade.
2. Jerusalem Artichokes (aka Sunchoke, Sunroot)
A great substitute for potatoes, these tubers grow much like a weed, and can quickly take over your garden bed if you don’t harvest them regularly.
Jerusalem Artichokes prefer a loamy, well draining soil in full sun, though they can tolerate clay soils and part shade. They grow tall, up to 12 ft., so place them somewhere where they won’t shade other sun loving crops. Plant small tubers 4-5″ deep, and 16″ apart. A hardy perennial, Jerusalem Artichokes can grow in US zones 2-9.
3. Globe Artichokes
Not to be confused with Jerusalem Artichokes, these guys produce tasty flower buds- eaten before they open and bloom. The base of the leaves as well as the heart are edible and absolutely delicious when steamed in Italian Dressing and dipped in melted butter or mayonnaise.
Artichokes are easily grown from seed. Start indoors in February, planting them 1/4″ deep in seed starting mix. Once the plants have grown several inches and have at least 2 sets of true leaves, they’re ready to be transplanted outdoors after all danger of frost is past.
Artichokes grow best in zones 7-11. Transplant seedlings into rich soil in full sun, spacing them about 4 ft. apart. I’ve found that my artichokes suffer in the hot, humid summers here in the South, so I have planted them where they get partial afternoon shade. They sprout up in Spring and produce flower buds to be harvested before they die back to the ground in the summer. Our artichokes usually come back in Fall, when the cooler temperatures have returned, and often we get a second, smaller crop before winter kills them back again.
Another plant-it-and-forget-it crop, asparagus is maintenance free and dependable. I’ve found it very easy to start from seed, though you’ll get a crop much sooner if you start with 1 or 2 year old crowns.
Asparagus grows in zones 3-8, with some varieties doing better than others in certain climates, so do your research before planting. This crop loves rich soil; if you have clay like I do you might consider putting asparagus in a raised bed for best results. Dig a trench 4″ deep and 10″ wide, set crowns in the bottom and fill back in with loose, rich soil. These plants will multiply, so give them plenty of room by placing them 15″ apart.
A staple crop to the indigenous people of the Andes of Peru for centuries, Yacon has only recently made it’s appearance in the United States. This handsome plant grows edible tubers on the root system, much the same as the way potatoes grow. The flavor is fresh, crisp and juicy, and mildly sweet like a cross between an apple and a melon. They’re delicious peeled and eaten fresh, or shredded into a slaw. You can also cook the tubers down to make a sweet syrup.
Yacon can’t stand freezing ground, so if you have harsh winters it’s best to plant them in a pot that you can move indoors. Although a frost will kill it back to the ground, a good layer of mulch will protect the roots from mild cold weather. Make it a large pot- Yacon typically grows to 5 ft. tall with a spread of 3 ft. wide. They’re said to grow easily in zones 9-11, though other regions may be able to grow them with a little more care. In zone 7 where I live, if you don’t have a greenhouse to overwinter them in, you can harvest the rhizome and store it in a cool, damp place (such as a root cellar) through the winter to be replanted in Spring.
You can find Yacon seeds online, but it’s easiest to grow them from rhizomes. Plant them in moist, rich soil, about 2 inches deep. Keep the soil moist and warm until its first leaves appear, then water when the top of the soil gets dry. Yacon loves full sun and thrives in warmer weather.
Did you know that garlic can be grown as a perennial? It’s true! Just leave them to go to seed and you can be sure to have another crop the following year.
Garlic is one of the easiest things to grow. My first planting actually came from store bought garlic. You can probably find some at a local Farmer’s Market to grow as well, though ordering online will yield a wider variety of choices.
To plant garlic, break apart a head into individual cloves. Plant the cloves in a sunny, well drained bed, with the root side down. Push the cloves into the soil so that the tops of the cloves barely stick up above the ground. Space them about 8 inches apart. Keep them watered and they’ll sprout before you know it.
When it’s time to harvest, leave some of the smaller plants in the bed to die back. They’ll come up again the following year, and provide a new crop. (Here’s a great article on How To Plant Garlic As A Perennial.)
Photo Credit: Stan Shebs
7. Prickly Pear Cactus
Prickly Pear Cactus is actually one of the few plants that is a vegetable and a fruit. While the pads are commonly enjoyed in South American as a perennial vegetable, the “pears” on the cactus are considered a summer fruit. The pads can be eaten fresh or cooked, and the fruits can be used to make juice, jelly, and even candy.
You can buy Prickly Pear plants, or you can take a cutting from a friend’s and propagate it. You can also plant them from seed, but obviously it would take much longer to have a ready-to-eat crop if you go this route. They prefer drier, sunny conditions, so if you live in a very wet climate they probably won’t grow too well for you. This diverse perennial does well in zones 7-10.
Commonly known in the US as a condiment, in other parts of the world horseradish roots are more often enjoyed as a grated vegetable. The greens are also edible, although they are said not to be very tasty.
Horseradish can be grown as a perennial in zones 2-9, and treated as an annual crop in other regions. It loves full sun, but can tolerate partial shade. Almost any soil will do, as long as it doesn’t become waterlogged.
Dig a hole about a foot deep, and fill it in with good compost. Place a horseradish root into the hole at an angle, with the top of the root only 2 inches from the surface of the soil. Cover over and keep watered. If planting more than one, space them 30″ apart. Plants grow almost 5 ft. tall, and can become invasive if not harvested regularly.
Photo Credit: Siim
9. Sea Kale
A great alternative to annual kales, Sea Kale will come back year after year once it’s established.
Sea Kale grows well in zones 4-8, but can be grown to zone 6 and cooler with heavy winter mulching. Direct sow seeds in early Spring, in rich sandy loam soil, 18-24″ apart. It prefers moist, well draining conditions, in partial shade.
The roots are edible, and can be eaten fresh or cooked. They also travel well. Kale leaves can be enjoyed raw in salads or steamed. Very high in Vitamin C. (Check out this great article for more on How To Eat Sea Kale.)
10. Radicchio (aka Italian Chicory)
Grown as a leafy vegetable, radicchio can be eaten raw in salads, or grilled to reduce the bitter taste. The roots can also be roasted as a tasty coffee substitute.
Start seeds indoors 8 weeks before your area’s last frost date, or direct sow outdoors four weeks before your last frost date. Prepare a bed with loose, well draining soil in full sun. Space plants 8 inches apart. Keep them watered, especially during hot weather to reduce bitterness. Grows well in most zones, benefiting from light frosts.
Harvest the leaves by cutting them close to the base of the plant. You can also cut the entire head, uproot the plant, and “force” it to grow a new plant in a cool basement or root cellar.
And Many More…
Believe it or not, there are actually many more perennial vegetables to consider growing in your home garden. Love To Know Garden has a GREAT article listing ALL of the perennial edibles that can be grown at home. Check it out.
I would encourage all of you to consider which of these plants would do well in your region, and then do a little more studying into how to plant, grow, harvest, and enjoy them. The more perennial edibles you plant, the less you have to worry about having something to eat in an uncertain future.
Many of these are included on our top survival crops infographic which you can check out here
Do you have a favorite perennial vegetable that wasn’t mentioned? Tell me what you’ve got growing!