The Best Perennials for Continuous Fresh Produce

The Best Perennials for Continuous Fresh Produce

What’s better than fresh, garden-to-table produce? Recurring, year after year, produce, of course. That’s what you get when you plant perennials in your garden. Because of this natural longevity, perennials are some of the most popular choices for at-home gardens. This article will look at some of the best perennials for your garden, from spicy horseradishes to the ever-present garlic clove and even some tasty fruits like berries. 

What Are Perennials?

There are three kinds of plants for yards and gardens, annuals, biennials, and perennials. Annuals live for one growing cycle (one year), biennials for two cycles, and perennials for more than two cycles. Just about every kind of plant falls into one of these categories, even trees and bushes, which are considered woody perennials. The key differentiating feature between these three categories is the need to reseed and resow. Annuals will need to be reseeded and resowed each year, and biennials once per two years. This reseeding can consume large amounts of time and energy, especially on a large scale. The most appealing aspect of perennials is that they only need to be seeded and sown once and will provide continuous value for years, or even decades, depending on the plant.

History of Perennial Vegetables

The history of perennial vegetables dates back to the earliest days of civilization. As early cultures began developing agriculture, perennial fruits and vegetables were most often grown as secondary crops alongside more extensive annual rotations. They have also seen use by niche farmers and growers who turned them into more valuable artisan goods. Artichokes are a particularly ancient plant that traces their roots back to North Africa in 800 A.D. Eventually, it spread to Arabia and then to Italy and the Mediterranean, where they exploded in popularity. 

The demand for more niche or specialized crops like asparagus, rhubarb, and yams has undoubtedly grown in recent history. Our more complex culinary culture has led to a valuable market for these vegetables. Furthermore, some have even become everyday household staples, such as garlic. However, annuals still far outweigh perennials in the grand scheme of the international market. Perennials make up between 33-56% of all cultivated vegetable species, but they only occupy roughly 6% of the world’s vegetable cropland.

Why Should You Plant Perennials?

While international markets far prefer annuals, at-home gardeners often prefer perennial crops. Home gardeners lean towards these plants due to their generally hardy nature, consistent output, and low investment. With today’s hectic and cramped schedules, many gardeners can’t take the time needed to sow and reseed their beds each year. This time sink, or lack thereof, makes perennials that have a one-time investment, an appealing option. Another factor to consider is the cost of purchasing perennial vegetables in-store. Since most are considered specialty products, they’re often more expensive. Perennials’ consistent root structures also help build soil stability and erosion, making them popular in many modern landscaping movements like permaculture gardening.

Garlic 

Also known as Allium sativum, garlic is a flowering vegetable that is a part of the Amaryllidaceae family. They’re directly related to onions, shallots, leeks, and cousins to lilies, amaryllis, daffodils, and snowdrops. Garlic is in many cultures’ culinary traditions, from Asia to Europe and South America. Garlic is a worldwide vegetable that finds a place in almost every American kitchen due to its intense, savory flavor and essential nutrients.

Garlic is remarkably easy to grow. Aim for planting in the late fall before the first frost. Garlic bulbs do best when they have a dormancy period during the winter – this dormancy period allows them to grow a robust root system before popping up in the spring with a full bloom. Plant single cloves in small rows with about half a foot between them and about 2-3 inches down. Cover with mulch, and let them sit. Garlic is technically a perennial but is usually planted and harvested like an annual. As the garlic bulbs are harvested, drop a clove back into the hole you gathered to keep the rotation going. 

Artichoke

The globe artichoke, or by its scientific name Cynara cardunculus, is a thistle species and a member of the Asteraceae family. Popular in the Mediterranean, a single artichoke plant can produce six to nine artichokes per season. The large, silver-green leafed bulbs on the top are the edible portions. These bulbs possess tough exterior leaves that eventually flower into a vibrant purple. To consume them, they must be peeled off to access the savory core within. 

Artichokes do best in climates with humid, cooler summers and mild winters. You can plant artichokes as seeds or seedlings. For seeds, start them inside during the winter, and migrate them outside about two months later. As seedlings, you should plant them just after the last spring frost. They should be spaced about 4 feet apart and watered regularly. 

Rhubarb

Rhubarb is one of the longest-lasting, most resilient, and easiest plants to grow on this list – and it’s almost wholly pest immune. Rhubarb, or Rheum rhabarbarum, is a member of the Polygonaceae family and is related to buckwheat. It possesses tall, bright, ruby red, leafy stalks and has a tart, crisp flavor. Only the stalk portion of the plant is edible, and the leaves contain a potent toxin called oxalic acid, so you need to remove them carefully before eating. Rhubarb originated in Asia but was quickly brought to Europe and then America. While a vegetable, it’s typically treated as a fruit and is incorporated into pies, tarts, jellies, jams, and preserves. 

To start growing rhubarb, you must purchase a rhubarb crown from a garden center. These crowns can be planted in the fall or spring. When planting in the fall, they will undergo a dormancy period, after which they will pop up in the spring. For spring plantings, aim for early in the season as soon as the soil is workable. 

Chives

Chives are a multipurpose powerhouse. They’re delicious culinary ingredients, produce vibrant edible flowers, and drive away certain pests. These veggies are a member of the Amaryllidaceae family, like garlic, and have a taste similar to, but milder than, onions. They have a bright white bulb at their base, with long green, leafy stems that develop violet flowers. While technically a perennial herb, they’re often used as vegetables in many dishes, particularly European and Asian soups.  

Chives are a little pickier season-wise and prefer cooler temperatures. It’s best to plant them early in the spring, as soon as the soil is workable. Sow the seeds about 2 inches apart and only about a half to a quarter-inch deep in the soil. Chives require little maintenance as they grow, but you should harvest them before they fully bloom. Their violet flowers are known for spreading seeds like wildfire and can quickly overtake your garden. 

Kale

Kale, or Brassica oleracea, is a member of the Brassica family, along with cabbage and Brussel sprouts. It’s a well-regarded superfood, jam-packed with nutrients, vitamins, and antioxidants, and tastes great to boot. This leafy green is one of the most popular perennials to be planted in gardens this year, and with all its excellent benefits, it’s no wonder why. While not technically a true perennial but a biannual, it’s still frequently included in perennial gardens for its easy growth and hardy nature. Kale produces long, thick stems that possess leafy stalks. After the first year, these stems flower and produce seeds, after which the plant dies. Kale is also beloved for these flowers, as they’re incredibly bright and stunning, ranging in color from pink to purple, white, and yellow. 

Kale can be grown in spring or fall, depending on when you want to harvest it. For spring plantings, plant seeds just about a month to a month and a half before the last frost. For fall planting, seed about three months before the first fall frost. Kale should be planted 18-34 inches apart, as its bushing leaves grow very wide. 

Horseradish 

As hardy as it is spicy, horseradish is a favorite perennial for at-home gardens. Horseradish is a tough root vegetable belonging to the family Brassicaceae, alongside wasabi and mustard, but, interestingly, not radishes. Above the surface, horseradish possesses long green stalks with wide bright leaves. However, underneath the soil, horseradish produces long, fleshy roots that can extend up to 10 feet straight down. Furthermore, they can possess large, complex root systems that grow several feet in diameter. 

To grow horseradish, you’ll need to plant bits of its root section in the early spring. It takes over a full year for horseradish to be ready for harvest, so plan to uproot it in fall next year. Horseradish will grow best in ideal conditions, which means planting it away from other vegetables and properly clearing out the soil beforehand. Be sure to fully trowel the ground of the horseradish bed at least 10 inches to a foot down. Once the bed has been prepped, plant the pieces of root about 4 inches down and at least a foot and a half apart. Many at-home gardeners also utilize large, raised beds for horseradish due to their invasive nature.

Watercress

Watercress, sometimes called yellowcress, is a water-growing member of the cabbage family. Distantly related to radishes and wasabi, watercress is one of the oldest known plants to be consumed by humans. Watercress is a popular culinary ingredient with a sharp, peppery taste that is rich in vitamins, iron, and calcium. It is a semi-aquatic plant, most often grown in water features and pots. It’s not advisable to eat watercress when grown fully in a DIY water feature or when exposed to manure due to the risk of parasites; as such, we will go over growing watercress in pots. 

To grow a watercress, obtain a water-tight pot, and fill it with a soilless mix of perlite, vermiculite, and peat. You can grow watercress from shoots or seeds. In either case, plant them a few weeks before the last frost of early spring. The peat mixture of the pot will have to be kept moist for the plants to germinate and grow, so you’ll need to fill in the rest of the way with water. The water should be changed about once or twice per week as the plant grows. 

Three-cornered Leek

Also known as the onion weed, snowdrops, and Allium triquetrum, the three-cornered leek is an Allium family member alongside onions and garlic. It has a mild, onion-like flavor, with all parts, from its flowers to the stalks and bulbs, being edible both raw and cooked. While grown in vegetable gardens, the three-cornered leek is commonly used as an ornamental plant due to its dense coverage and beautiful white and yellow flowers. 

The three-cornered leek is remarkably easy to grow and maintain – its reputation as a weed is well-earned. Furthermore, in some areas, namely the U.K., it’s an invasive species and illegal to propagate in the wild, so check your local ordinances before picking up some seeds. If you’re free and clear to grow it, it’s best grown inside a pot or planter. You’ll want to avoid planting it in beds, as it propagates very easily and will quickly overtake a garden plot. It’s not picky about soil but does prefer heavy to partial shade. Plant them just before the last frost of the fall, and after a dormancy period, they’ll begin to sprout in the spring. The plants take a long time to grow fully, just under an entire year, so you can start harvesting at the beginning of next fall. The flowers and stalks are what most home gardeners prize in these plants, often adding them to salads or lightly grilling them. 

Lovage

This European plant is technically considered a spice but is often grown and used as a vegetable in home gardens. Lovage, or Levisticum officinale, is a tall stalky plant that belongs to the carrot family. It possesses a spicy flavor similar to celery or parsley, and each part of the plant is edible. The leaves are popular in salads. The stalks can function like celery, the seeds dry to become spice, and the roots are vegetables. 

Lovage plants do best when planted as seeds in late spring, after the last frost. They will grow large, up to 6 feet tall, with leafy foliage extending 3 feet around. They like full sunlight and will need heavy watering when young. They grow quickly and will be harvestable in late summer to early fall. The leaves are known to taste best when harvested early, so try pulling a test plant in the late summer to determine readiness. 

Sorrel

Sorrel, also known as dock, spinach dock, French sorrel, or narrow-leaved dock, is a member of the Polygonaceae family alongside rhubarb and buckwheat. It’s a small leafy vegetable popular in salads or cooked lightly in French cuisine. It has a light, tart, lemony flavor and is renowned for its crispness. Sorrel grows to around 2 feet tall and can produce a flowering stem that grows up to 3 feet. This flower has a deep crimson bulb, with certain species also possessing a bright white bloom, making it an occasional inclusion in flower gardens. 

Sorrel is easy to grow, responding well to outside gardens and pots. It should be planted in early spring or late fall and will explode in growth once the summer heat increases. For seeding in garden rows, plant them about half an inch deep and a foot apart. Give them consistent water, and they should be ready to harvest in about two months, once the leaves are around 4 inches long. 

Tree Onions

While not growing on trees, the tree onion is a hybrid of the welsh onion and shallots. Also known as Egyptian walking onions or topside onions, these unique plants grow their bunching bulbs above the ground atop long stalks. These stalks become weighted down with the bulbs, bending them to the side of the plant, where they drop off and propagate. This unorthodox method of seed dispersal is where the plant gets its “walking” name since the plants appear to walk along as they multiply. The bulbs have a highly pungent, shallot-like flavor. These bulbs are often used in Asian cuisine similarly to scallions but can also be pickled or used to substitute for onions. 

Tree onions take time to grow, usually around a whole year to completely develop. Plant them late in the summer to the first frost of fall for the best results. They will undergo a dormancy period, show sprouts next spring, and then be ready for harvest next summer. They do best when planted 2 inches deep and 2-3 inches apart. They like wet, loamy soil with moderate sun and are extremely easy to grow, often requiring little maintenance and upkeep. 

Jerusalem Artichoke

This sunflower family member is neither an artichoke nor does it have any significant relationship to Jerusalem; as such, the plant’s etymology is as remarkable as its flavor is delicious. While there are numerous origins for this plant’s peculiar name, the most likely culprit is rooted in the Italian word for sunflower, girasole, which was altered over time into Jerusalem. The artichoke part of its name originates from its flavor, which is similar to that of the popular Mediterranean thistle. It’s also known as the French potato, Canadian potato, topinambour, lambchoke, and sunchoke. Terminology aside, this plant is a tuber and belongs to the Asteraceae family alongside other sunflowers, daisies, and asters. It grows tall, between 4 and 9 feet on average, with bright yellow flower buds that are about 5 inches in diameter. The edible part of the plant is its root, which is 3-4 inches long, dark brown, and uneven, greatly resembling ginger root.

Jerusalem artichokes are one of the best plants for first-time gardeners as they’re low-maintenance, hard to kill, and beautiful to behold. You should plant them in the early spring, right before the growing season’s last frost. Plant them 4-5 inches deep in the soil and about a foot to a foot and a half apart. They can thrive in just about any soil and prefer full sun. It takes them about five months to grow and mature, and they’ll be ready for harvest from October to December. 

Good King Henry

This plant is known by many names, including poor-man’s asparagus, perennial goosefoot, Lincolnshire spinach, and English mercury, to name a few. A member of the Amaranthaceae family, this leafy green has been a popular addition in European gardens for hundreds of years. It’s known for its tall stalks and broad, crisp leaves that taste similar to spinach when cooked. It also possesses large conical groups of flowers at the top of its stalks. These flowers, while not edible, have a deep green to red color. 

Good King Henry prefers cool weather with full sun and moist, loamy soil. It should be planted outside, as it can easily suffer from transplant shock. Plant the seeds about a month to two months before the last frost for the best growth. Plant its seeds about a quarter-inch deep and around 1-2 feet apart. It takes this plant a year to fully mature before it’s ready for harvest. Once it’s ready, its leaves, roots, and stems are all edible — the leaves are best when prepared like spinach, with the leaves and stems tasting best when blanched. The stems are harvestable in the spring to early fall, and the stalks as soon as spring or early summer. 

Berry Bushes

While not vegetables, berry bushes are some of the most beloved and sustainable home garden perennial plants. Berry bushes, like fruit trees, are an excellent long-term investment to work towards while annual and faster-growing perennials begin showing results. Most berry bushes take around two years to grow berries, but the wait is well worth it. Sweet, savory, and incredibly versatile berries are some of the tastiest and most rewarding perennials in any garden. There are many varieties of berries to choose from, but the most popular options are raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, and gooseberries. Let’s look at blueberries to see what growing a berry bush entails.

Blueberries

Blueberries, or Vaccinium, are a flowering bush within the Ericaceae family, alongside huckleberries and cranberries. They’re entirely native to North America and have existed here for over 13,000 years, with the most popular modern cultivars being developed in the 1930s. Created plump, bright, and extremely sweet, blueberries are a superfood that is jam-packed with vitamins, antioxidants, and nutrients. They’re eaten raw, cooked into jams or preserves, or turned into compotes. Their bushes can grow from a few feet up to over 12 feet in diameter. The berries themselves are small, from about the size of a pea to as large as an inch. 

Blueberries are easy to grow if very slow going. They like sunny spots with shelter, as strong winds can damage them. Blueberries are planted as a small bush, with a tied burlap sack covering the whole root structure, called a root ball. These small bushes do best when planted in the early to mid-spring. You will need to dig a hole about a foot and a half wide and 2 feet deep for the plant’s root ball. It should sit just below the soil’s surface by about half an inch. Once placed, pack the hole with soil, and if planting multiple bushes, make sure they are 4-5 feet apart in the rows, with rows spaced 8 feet apart. When purchasing the bushes from a garden center, you can select how old they are. It takes four years for blueberries to begin producing, so most gardeners go with 2-year-old bushes, giving them two years of healthy growth time before harvesting. We should note that some blueberry bushes take longer to produce fruit, up to around six years. Once ready, they’ll start making berries in early mid-summer to late fall. 

Final Thoughts

While annual crops may be more present in international markets and crop fields, perennials hold a special place in many homeowners’ backyard gardens. Many perennial vegetables are still enjoyed today as wonderful delicacies with a history dating back to the earliest civilizations. There are many choices for an at-home garden, from popular staples like garlic and kale to more uncommon but no less tasty powerhouses like rhubarb and Good King Henry. 

Thankfully for novice gardeners, perennials are generally easy to grow and will last for years while producing delicious crops. But, we should mention that this is a general overview of these wonderful fruits and vegetables and not a definitive guide for growing them. Some can be difficult to cultivate correctly, and others can be dangerous to pets, so be sure to research them thoroughly before heading down to the garden center. There are also many more popular perennial vegetables out there, such as radicchio, chicory, wild leeks (also known as ramps), asparagus Officinalis, and even dandelions.

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