In the middle of winter, it’s easy to get carried away with thoughts of all the things you will plant this spring. The back-breaking labour of planting, the endless weeding, the constant battle with pests – all that recedes into the corners of one’s memory at this time of year.
But did you know there were vegetables you could plant once and enjoy for years to come?
In his book “How to Grow Perennial Vegetables,” Martin Crawford makes the following case for low-maintenance, low-impact gardening with perennial vegetables:
- Less work: You don’t have to cultivate the soil every year, and with vigilance the need for weeding will decrease over time.
- Fewer carbon emissions: With a reduced need for yearly cultivation comes a reduction in the amount of carbon dioxide that is released into the environment when the soil is turned.
- Better for the soil: The soil structure is maintained since the land does not need to be cultivated as much. This means humus levels build up, moisture is retained and nutrients won’t wash away.
- Healthier food: Perennials have a larger root structure and can therefore access more soil space and take up more nutrients
Some perennial crops to consider include arugula, asparagus, horseradish, garlic, rhubarb and radicchio. Or consider these less conventional options:
Egyptian Walking Onion: These unusual heirlooms can be harvested young, as spring onions, or allowed to mature into a shallot-like bulb. As the set at the top of the onion grows, its weight pulls the plant over, where the bulb re-roots itself, giving it the name of a ‘walking onion’.
Oca: A waxy, brightly colored tuber with South American origins, oca is an excellent source of carbohydrates, phosphorus and iron. The leaves and yellow flowers are also edible, but the tubers are the real prize. They are grown like potatoes and prefer sandy soil, a bit of shade and cool, damp weather.
Sea kale: This member of the brassica family mounds and spreads and is grown as both an ornamental and an edible plant. While the leaves resemble ordinary kale, the shoots can be cooked like asparagus. In the wild, it grows along the coast and therefore makes a natural companion to seafood like or shrimp.
Jerusalem artichokes/sunchokes: No, they don’t originate in Jerusalem. In fact, they’re native to North American. Seamen from Italy and Spain apparently referred to the tubers as ‘girasoles’, because the flowers look like sunflowers; ‘Jerusalem’ is evidently an English corruption of that word. The ‘artichoke’ moniker probably stuck because they are cooked in a similar fashion. Expect a mild but nutty and sweet flavour that can be eaten both raw and cooked.
Collard greens: These bitter, nutrition-laden leaves are better harvested after a frost. Collards have been part of culinary traditions for approximately 2,000 years. In the Southern U.S., they are often cooked with onions and smoked or salted meats. Although they’re associated with southern cuisine, collard greens grow particularly well in northern climates and are cold resistant.
UPDATE: Collards can be grown year-round, though they are not truly a perennial. For more details, see our post: The Collard Conundrum