When it comes to establishing a self sufficient food landscape, perennial vegetables should not be overlooked. It quite exciting when food starts popping up out of the ground in early spring, with no effort on your part. Edible perennials are hardy, reliable food crops that need very little care and attention. You do need to be mindful of where you plant them as these plants tend to be quite invasive.
Our homestead has evolved from one that provided food in the summer months only, to one that provides us with food from early spring right through to when the ground freezes. We owe this to the discovery of perennial vegetables and wild edibles. Each year we enthusiastically add more to our food landscape. These days we are more inclined to turn edible wild plants (weeds) into delicious wine and jelly than to pull them up from the ground.
Listed below are some easy to grow perennial vegetables and fruits. They all thrive in our zone 4 garden but many are quite hardy to even colder climates.
Horseradish (Perennial: Hardy to Zone 3)
The Horseradish pops up all over this bed, it knows no boundaries. Although you can harvest it whenever you want to, we tend to harvest ours in the spring. Some roots will be replanted but the active underground root systems ensure that many new roots will grow regardless. You can read all about planting, harvesting, storing and using horseradish here: Horseradish; Harvesting, Planting and Storing
Rhubarb (Perennial: Hardy All Zones)
Rhubarb is another reliable garden perennial. It’s such a diverse plant and there are so many innovative ways to prepare it. Rhubarb can be planted in the early spring or late autumn. Your best bet is to find a relative or neighbour with a rhubarb patch and get them to divide one of their plants for you. To learn some of the creative ways to grow and use rhubarb you might be interested in reading: Rhubarb: How to Plant, Grow, Harvest and Preserve
Jerusalem Artichokes (Hardy to Zone 3)
The Jerusalem artichoke is a species of sunflower native to eastern North America. It is cultivated for the tuber which is treated as a root vegetable. This perennial vegetable is very easy to grow. Plant the tubers in the early spring and harvest what you need after the first frost or let them overwinter and harvest in the spring. They develop pretty sunflowers in August but unlike all other sunflowers this species does not provide seed/oil.
The herbs that we plant in raised beds seem to thrive better than those in the ground. They are heavily mulched with straw over the winter. Although some are rated for a warmer zone than 4, with good insulation and protection from the weather you can sometimes trick your herbs to grow in slightly cooler climates. It’s worth planting in different areas to experiment. You may find that one location does really well, and another they die off. The herbs that have done best for us include: Mint, oregano, thyme, winter savory, clary sage and lavender.
Chives (Hardy to zone 3)
Garden chives with their lovely purple flowers are always a welcome sight in the spring. It will be a while before we have onions from the garden so these greens add a wonderful mild garlic/onion flavour to your meals and the flowers are a fun addition to salads. They are really quite pretty and look beautiful in flower gardens.
Strawberries (Hardy to zone 2)
The strawberry plants are lovely and green already. Cover them with a heavy mulch over winter to protect them, and remove it in the spring so that the sun can warm the soil. It speeds up the growing process a bit. We keep the strawberries in raised beds and cover them with netting to protect the berries from critters. Strawberries are perennial but you do need to replant new ones every three or so years as they will produce less fruit over time.
Raspberries, Blackberries & Other Berries (Hardy to zone 2)
Raspberries and Blackberries are really easy to grow. The beauty of these perennial fruits is that you can propagate (take cuttings) from each plant, and plant those, expanding your patch over time. Other Perennial fruits to consider planting include: Hardy kiwi, asparagus, gooseberies, blueberries, currants & hascaps.
Grapes (Hardy to zone 3)
I must admit, we battle the birds every year when it comes to our grapes. What they leave behind for us makes a delicious grape jelly. Grapes take some patience, they take 3-4 years to produce. Be sure to select varieties that are suitable for your growing zone. They can provide a nice shaded area in a garden or even a living fence.
Apple Trees (Hardy to zone 2)
Apple trees grow wild around us in New Brunswick, Canada. We have also planted our own grove in hopes of getting some nicer, sweeter apples. You can make wine, apple sauce, juice, fruit roll ups and so many other things using the apples. You can also graft multiple varieties of apples to a single tree. Grafting is interesting and not overly difficult to learn. Select varieties suitable to your hardiness zone.
Wild Perennial Food
There are also some less popular edibles that might already be growing on your property such as sorrel, stinging nettle, winter purslane, dandelion along with many others. You can even use fireweed, wild roses and clover to make jams and jellies. Discovering how to identify and use local wild edibles is a wonderful way to expand your nutritional landscape. You can find a wonderful list of common wild edibles broken down by growing zones here. Use caution and make sure you know what you are doing before consuming wild edibles.
Spring is an exciting time, and with some extra thought and planning you can get a lot more food from your garden. It’s quite addicting to discover new methods of extending your food production with less work. Perennial vegetables are hard to beat when it comes to high production food sources for minimal effort.
Remember to research varieties and select those that are best suited to your specific climate!