In the world of all things edible, perennials are worth their weight in gold! They require a little more planning up front, such as additional soil amendments and thoughtful placement, but are some of the most rewarding and easily cared for producers in your garden. They also make for beautiful landscape additions, leaving you more workable garden space.
Although I can often be found ignoring planting zones all together (the dead Mango tree in the compost bin will attest to that), it is important when considering some perennials and may impact variety selection. Pick a variety hardy in your zone to insure success. We linger somewhere between USDA zone 7b and 8a; these are our favorite, most productive perennials.
I could write sonnets about my love of Asparagus. They are the first thing to come on in early spring; while you’re still day dreaming of putting your started plants in the dirt, asparagus’ first steams are already reaching for the sky. It produces heavily for several months before bushing out into a beautiful fern that will shade out most weeds – which means even less work for you! Once established, they are also extremely drought tolerant and are very hardy in hot and cold temperatures.
If cared for properly, an asparagus root can be productive for over 15 years. Growing up, my grandma had roots in her garden that were nearly 30 years old and still producing year after year. This earns asparagus the number one must-have perennial spot.
Fresh herbs make all the difference in cooking, but are so expensive at the grocery store or farmer’s market! It may surprise you to learn how easy they are to grow at home as perennials. Rosemary, Thyme, Oregano, Mint, Sage and Lavender are all hardy perennials in most growing zones. In zone 8a/7b, where I live, Parsley also grows as a perennial with no extra effort, while dill and cilantro self-seed each year. Herbs do well with confinement to a pot (indoors or out), and are beautiful edible additions to traditional landscaping. The sheer fact that they will pay for themselves a thousand times over earns them the number two spot. However, their evergreen beauty through the winter months, ability to attract pollinators, ease of care and capacity for improving the flavor profile of everything in your kitchen could nudge them into first place if you’re not as obsessed with asparagus as I am.
Blueberries, Raspberries, Strawberries, Cranberries, Goji berries – all berries! Berries are expensive to buy and often soaked in a chemical soup of pesticides. You can find cultivars of most kinds of berries well suited for almost any growing zone. Although they often take a couple years to start producing heavy yields, I promise they will be worth the wait. Most berries require a little pruning to keep plants healthy and yields high, but it is very little maintenance when you consider how many non-fruit yielding trees and bushes you extend the same effort to each fall.
4. Walking Onions
I was gifted a few precious heirloom walking onion bulblets, and now have an entire bed full! It was certainly one of the best gifts ever. When these onions grow, they look much like green onions or scallions. You can trim the tops off and directly substitute them in any application you would use green onions. You may use the large underground bulb onion that forms at the base and also the small pearl like onions that form at the tip in place of a flower. The plant “walks” itself by sprouting bulblets on the original stalk, which then bends under the weight, setting the small onion bulb “seeds” down, allowing them to root near the parent plant. If you allow the bed to become well established (ie., don’t over harvest the first year, and allow the onion to “walk”), you will never run out of onions. That’s right – forever with onions. It’s a glorious thing.
Pies. Does this need further explanation? Rhubarb is extremely difficult to find in the market here. I was told by a local gardener that Rhubarb simply does not grow well in this climate – this is where ignoring growing zones can occasionally come in handy. I was determined to grow rhubarb; committed, against all odds, to force it to grow and get my pie. As it turned out, it was beyond simple and took no extra effort short of picking up a rhubarb crown from the farm and garden shop. I planted it, and it grew. It really is just that simple… Go figure.
Rhubarb dies completely back in the late fall and returns in early spring with bright red steams and huge beautiful leaves, gracing the barren garden with color. And then you harvest the leafstalks a few at a time, compost the leaves and make it into pie. Be sure to keep little hands, mouths and beaks away from the leaves of the plant as they contain oxalic acid, which is considered toxic. Also be careful to not over harvest the first two years as it establishes itself. Never take more than half of the plant’s leafstalks away in any given harvest, so that the plant will have enough foliage to sustain itself.
Bonus: Swiss Chard & Kale
Now, I know that Swiss Chard and Kale are not technically perennials, but did you know they can often behave like one? I have two year old swiss chard and kale plants that will not stop growing. And if they want to grow year round, who am I to stop them? Their preferred growing seasons are fall, winter and early spring, during which will be the best time to sow your seeds. However, they are very hardy plants that often times survive the summer heat. Growth will be minimal during the summer months and I would discourage harvesting during this time to avoid stressing the plant. Production will pick right back up when the temperature becomes a little more bearable. To keep up growth as a perennial, it is important to make sure the plant is not depleting the soil of vital nutrients. You can do this by amending the soil with compost annually or biannually, watering with compost tea every couple of months, or adding other organic fertilizers.
So there you have it – our favorite perennial fruits and veggies. What is at the top of your must-have edible perennial list?