The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Pros and cons of perennial vegetables

Dandelion greensBefore I delve right into the most intriguing plants from Eric Toensmeier's Perennial Vegetables, it's worth taking a minute to see if perennial vegetables are right for you.  The advantages are intriguing.  Since you don't have to plant them every year, perennial vegetables are low maintenance and work very well with no-till systems, building soil quality with their decaying leaves.  Some are shade tolerant, which is seldom true with annual vegetables, so you can slide these perennials into out of the way spots in your garden.  Even more intriguing, perennial vegetables extend the harvest season, often providing food when your annual vegetable garden is at its worst.  I was won over this March when I wandered out into the yard and picked some mulch-blanched dandelion greens long before any of our annual greens were ready to eat --- who wouldn't want delicious food that they hadn't worked for when no other fresh food is available?

Picky eaterAs a certified picky eater, the answer could be "me."  Toensmeier is very realistic about the potential of perennial vegetables, and goes so far as to explain that many perennial vegetables are too strong-flavored to be a mainstay of the diet.  Perennial greens are usually at their best just when I picked my March dandelions (which were scrumptious, by the way), but later in the year after the perennials bloom, you'd be much better off eating swiss chard out of your annual garden.  Another disadvantage is that many perennial vegetables take years to establish, just like asparagus or fruit trees, and since you can't rotate perennials through your garden, viral diseases can build up and wipe out your crop.  Other perennials are altogether too tenacious, turning into weeds in your garden, and non-vegetable weeds can be yet another problem among your perennials if you're not adept at creating weed-free no-till beds.

The conclusion that I came to is that perennial vegetables are really a complement to your annual vegetable garden, not a replacement.  If you're happy with the amount of work you're putting in and with the year-round output of your vegetable garden in a certain area (like tubers for us), you  might decide to forego perennial vegetables in that category.  But if you've had problems with making your annual crops produce in a certain category (like storage onions) or provide fresh food all year (like greens), there's almost certainly a perennial vegetable that can be slid in to fill that niche.

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This post is part of our Perennial Vegetables lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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I have been OBSESSED by Toensmeier's book since I ordered it on a whim this past fall. I love the perennials that I already have (fruit, mint and asparagus) and want to add more. In fact, I am expanding my garden beds just to make room. I always like to have a back-up plan for doing things (i.e. if my stove stops working, I can cook on my wood stove). The perennials are my back-up plan to my nascent seed-saving project. I also like the fact that so many of them are flowers (musk mallow, yellow asphodel, etc).

I found that the best thing to do is go through the book with sticky notes and mark the ones that will work in your part of the country. There's a surprising number that work in Appalachian North Carolina where I live. Then go through and figure out what will work on your land; I eliminated most of the wet-soil crops like fuki and udo, which sound like they would love your soggy valley.

One problem I had was tracking down some of the more exotic veggies. The root crops seem to be hardest to find, like potatoes, and they're the most expensive, too. (A quarter of my seed budget. Yikes!) I hunted online and found that the best sources for exotics were Oikos Tree Crops, Mapple Farms and JL Hudson Seeds. They have some of the rarer things like Chinese Yam and Chinese Artichoke.

The leafier things that you can start from seed are easier to find, and they cost a LOT less. This includes lovage, chicory, scorzonera, etc. Pinetree Gardens and Fedco seemed to be the cheapest sources.

I never did find a decent-looking skirret clone for sale. Toensmeier seems to have a semi-secret website called Perennial Pleasures, which he uses to distribute perennials to people in Massachusetts. I have written to him asking if he can ship his skirret down to NC, but I haven't gotten an answer yet, just an auto-reply that says he's taking the winter off and will be back this spring.

Comment by Faith Tue Jan 11 13:17:04 2011
Thank you so much for all of that hands on info (including his semi-secret website!!). I agree that finding them is tricky (and I didn't even go searching for any tubers.) He does have an extensive list of sources on his website, and I suspect I would have needed to hunt through the nurseries with only paper catalogs to find a lot of the selections. Luckily, the few plants I was able to hold myself too all seemed to have relatively normal sources. :-)
Comment by anna Tue Jan 11 16:26:48 2011

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