Bonus: They’re Perennials
Perennials are a pleasure to grow because they reappear year after year, taking much of the grunt work (and expense) out of gardening. But while many home gardens include perennial flowers, few feature perennial vegetables, aside perhaps from asparagus and rhubarb.
That’s a shame. Not only is there no need to replant each spring—but perennials typically require less watering and weeding than annuals…and most are relatively resistant to pests and diseases.
Here are five perennial vegetables that can thrive across much or all of the continental US. If you have trouble finding them, my website, PerennialSolutions.org, has a list of plant sources.
Sea kale (Crambe maritima). This perennial looks like a big silvery-gray cabbage, but it sprouts tender, delicious buds similar to small broccoli heads. The leaves of first- and second-year sea kale plants (pick in the fall after growth is completed) are edible and taste like collards.
Sea kale’s spring shoots are edible, too—they have a slightly bitter hazelnut flavor. Cut them off when they reach six to nine inches, and prepare them like asparagus. Young sea kale grows slowly, however, so it’s wise not to harvest these shoots during the plant’s first two years.
Helpful: Cover sea kale’s shoots for a few weeks with mulch or upturned flowerpots if you intend to eat them. The less sunlight that reaches these shoots, the better they will taste.
Sea kale is easy to grow across most of the US, except in the hottest parts of the South. It likes full sun and fertile soil—seaweed-based fertilizers are a particular favorite—but can tolerate partial sun.
Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica). The young spring leaves and shoots of stinging nettle are phenomenal to eat once they have been boiled for one to two minutes. The flavor is like a rich nutty spinach. It’s extremely nutritious, too.
The plant’s green and purple shoots are ready for cooking when they reach a few inches in height. It typically is the first vegetable you can eat from the garden each year, particularly if you live in a cold part of the country. In the Northeast, it often is possible to start harvesting stinging nettle’s spring growth while there’s still some winter snow lingering on the ground.
Stinging nettle is very easy to grow and is happy in either sun or partial shade. In fact, the biggest challenge for gardeners tends to be controlling stinging nettle’s growth. Cutting off seed heads before they ripen should prevent the plant from becoming an annoying weed.
Warning: The word stinging is part of its name for a reason. Wear gloves when touching the leaves (cooking destroys the sting) and stems.
Sylvetta arugula (Diplotaxis muralis and Diplotaxis tenuifolia). These members of the cabbage family can provide edible greens year-round and year after year in mild climates—though in colder northern states, they tend to grow as annuals. The leaves can be harvested starting in year one. Young leaves have a very strong arugula flavor. Older leaves taste best when cooked. The muralis variety has a milder flavor than tenuifolia.
Sylvetta arugula prefers hot summers and dry soil. It can get weedy if it goes to seed, so it is worth deadheading—removing flowers as they start to die.
Welsh onion (Allium fistulosum). This member of the onion family often is grown as an annual scallion, but it also is a perennial. If you don’t harvest the bulb after the first growing season, it will form a perennial clump that will grow new bulbs and stems year after year. When you want onions for your table, just remove a portion of this clump and leave the rest. The flavor is comparable to that of the common onion—and you can use the stalks as chives.
Welsh onion likes full sun and regular watering but will tolerate partial shade and dry soil. It is less susceptible to pests and diseases than the common onion, but some ongoing weeding can be helpful.
Alternatives: Other perennial onions include garlic chives (Allium tuberosum)…walking onion (Allium cepa proliferum)…and perennial sweet leek (Allium ampeloprasum).
Wolfberry (Lycium barbarum and Lycium chinense) is also known as the goji berry. Both the fruit and leaves of this perennial viney shrub are edible. The fruits are small and red with a flavor that suggests cherry tomato mixed with sweet licorice. They can be consumed raw or cooked. The plant’s iron- and protein-rich leaves, which can be harvested the first year, are nice either raw or boiled in soups and have a flavor like watercress.
Wolfberry is very tolerant of dry soil. It does struggle in extreme heat, however, and it is somewhat susceptible to mildew—planting it in an area that has good airflow can minimize this risk. Also keep an eye out for slugs.
Caution: People taking blood thinners should not eat this plant.
THE EDIBLE HOSTA
Many gardeners grow hostas, but few realize that they can provide food. In fact, the spring shoots of hosta leaves are not just edible, they’re quite tasty. Prepare them as you would asparagus shoots—the flavor is comparable. (The fresh spring leaves of hostas are edible as well.)
There are many varieties of hosta, each with a slightly different flavor. If you don’t have hostas in your garden, ask a local nursery if you can cut off shoots and taste a few varieties that grow well in your area before selecting plants. Hosta montana and Hosta sieboldii often are listed among the best-tasting varieties.
Hostas are easy to grow, and most varieties are shade tolerant. Different varieties have different preferences, so ask your nursery for growing advice.
Caution: Hostas are toxic to dogs and cats.