Growing food that doesn’t need planted again saves time, effort, and money.
The Snarky Gardener was tasked with writing a paper for his permaculture class. This is part 1 of several written about perennial food crops from a permaculture perspective.
Perennial versus Annual Food Crops
With our current agricultural systems, annual monoculture plants rule with corn, soybeans, rice, and wheat being the primary crops. Every year, lots of money and non-renewable energy is used to till the soil, plant the seeds, remove the weeds, protect the crops from insects, and fertilize. Perennial food crops, when planted in a polyculture (ie with many other plants), help to mitigate much of these costs while providing a long term answer to growing our food. This is not to say that annual crops don’t have a place in a permaculture future, but their dominance will need to be reduced for designed systems to work to their full capacity and potential. Biologically, most annual plants are weeds, needing disturbed ground to thrive (thus all the tilling). This churning of the soil is very destructive to the web of life that exists under the surface. Earthworms, fungi, bacteria, and other organisms work in harmony to break down dead plant material and create the conditions plants need to survive and thrive. Perennials reduce the havoc tilling causes as they don’t need to be planted over and over. There are also some annual no-till systems that achieve some of the same goals, like the use of cover crops and special equipment to punch planting holes for corn and soybeans, but unfortunately they have been slow to be adopted.
Conventional Garden Perennials
Some perennials are commonly utilized by gardeners. Many perennial herbs (like mint, sage, thyme, oregano, chives, horseradish, and lemon balm) are easy to grow (sometimes too easy as mint and horseradish can be invasive). Living up to 15 years, asparagus is one of the first plants to be eaten the spring. Its spears can be grilled or baked with olive oil and parmesan cheese. Strawberries come back year after year, spreading by the use of runners. Rhubarb (which was planted next to the strawberries by my grandmother) produces reddish stems which can be used in desserts (strawberry rhubarb pie anyone?) or soups. Note: the leaves and roots are poisonous.
Lesser Known Garden Perennials
Perennials unknown by many people can also be used in the garden. Ramps (aka Wild Leeks) are found wild in the eastern United States and grow in shady and/or wet areas. Also a native of the eastern US, the groundnut (a nitrogen-fixer) grows in 6 foot vines and produces tubers that taste like nutty-flavored potatoes. Sunchokes (or Jerusalem Artichokes) are a North American native related to the sunflower. They grow from 6 to 12 foot tall and have crisp, sweet tubers. Egyptian walking onions get 3 foot tall, set bulbs on their tops, and then fall over to spread to others parts of a garden. Crosnes (or Chinese Artichoke) is a mint relative that spreads using runners and and have crisp, sweet small white tubers. Good King Henry is a traditional European leafy green spinach relative. French Sorrel has lance-shaped leaves good for salads.