The benefits of perennial vegetables and food plants are numerous when compared to annual vegetables. I have become an ardent supporter of perennial crops and I will lay out the reasons, which are persuasive.
Obviously without regular tilling and planting, the soil is disturbed less frequently so the perennials are better for the soil and this means better for the environment. Healthy soil sequesters more carbon than our trees, and is the greatest water cleaner, a giant water filter taking out all the poisons and helping us to a healthier life. Soil is also one of the best places to store water. Well hydrated landscapes are healthier and more resilient and productive, and healthy, well vegetated soil stores more water than depleted soil.
Thousands of years of plant breeding in the cold north has meant selection for plants which boom and bust in a few months because of the short growing season. This type of vegetable culture has been carried to the ex colonies. As a permaculturist, because of the way we are taught to think, the annual treadmill of sowing, planting out, and then harvesting in quick succession bothered me and I've been looking for a solution. I saw beautiful gardens laid by colleagues turn to dust after summer. I realized that a month of neglect turns an average vegetable garden into a wasteland. It seemed especially wrong in our permanently temperate Mediterranean climate.
Although our growing season is all year round, we have mostly annual vegetables at a place like the Cape, unfortunately. Most unfortunately, because perennials are not only better for the soil, they are often less developed and bred, and closer to the wild varieties. This means they are much hardier and their water and fertility needs are lessened compared to four month growth period annuals, which need perfect conditions to grow uninterrupted and rapidly, to build perfect plant tissue as fast as possible. Needing less coddling, perennials are often more tolerant of the vagaries of climate and soil.
Perennials are not only hardier concerning water and soil fertility, they have greater resistance to pests and diseases. They are closer to wild varieties genetically and have inbuilt chemical resistance which has evolved over eons.
At the Cape we have frequent drought and poor soil, so its obvious that hardier vegetables like perennial vegetables will do better than the annuals. So for all the reasons above, perennial vegetables supply greater food security. Not only this they can give us greater health security, for which I will lay out two reasons below.
Obviously, perennial vegetables are much less work. After planting and watering until they are established, only trimming and harvesting is needed. Most working people are under too much time pressure to grow their own food. If they are not wealthy enough to buy organic their diet of agribusiness fodder both vegetable and animal exposes them to the danger of degenerative disease, in which possible chronic illnesses and a slow decline, in discomfort and at horrendous cost, looms in late life. Perennial vegetables are perfectly tailored to the lives of busy people who don't earn fabulous salaries but still want to eat healthily.
Because of their closeness to the wild plant originator,
and their in-built chemical resistance to disease, perennial vegetables have
the highest nutrient value of all. Breeding selects for
appearance, blander taste or sweetness, fast growth, rapid germination and greater profit. Breeders of past ages never even
nutritional value because it was not yet known. A lot of breeding has been done without the health of the consumer being paramount and marketability being the main consideration. The protective benefits for human health of the diverse phytochemicals found in many wild, well adapted plants is not even part of main stream dietetic or medical knowledge. It will likely not be a consideration for commercial plant breeding for a long time to come. People complain that our vegetables and fruit taste so bland these days. Selective breeding for blandness is part of the cause. As the
bitterness and strong flavors were bred out of the vegetables and fruit,
and many plants were selected for whiteness, like potatoes and maize, their
nutrient and protective value against disease declined. The plant chemicals
that protect us from degenerative disease give the strong flavors and
bright colors. The old tangy, sometimes bitter, colorful perennials are better for us.
On this page you will find links to all the perennial vegetables and food plants I've written about from experience growing them. I have forty perennial food plants in the garden and I intend to write about them all in time and acquire more. So far you can read about how to grow Harpephyllum caffrum, the tangy African wild plum, tamarillo fruit, nopal cactus greens, or prickly pear, delicious carob (the chocolate of the desert), pineapples, mint, olives, New Zealand and dune spinach, rosemary, chard, acorns and turmeric. Becoming interested in perennial vegetables has opened up a wonderful new world to me. Because of our climate I've had to look beyond the European vegetables. Most food plants from warmer regions are perennial, to take advantage of the long growing season. A vast cornucopia of new foods becomes available, a splendid variety that transcends anything I thought possible when I began to look for perennial vegetables. The diversity is utterly overwhelming. I imagined they would be few and far between, and taste horrible, so stuck I was in a Eurocentric food paradigm.
To begin with ideas for a perennial food garden I've begun to collect pictures on this topic on Pinterest.
Many of the commonly discussed perennials are hard to find at the local nursery. However my plant sourcing research indicates that in Europe, India, China and the USA there is a much greater diversity of available perennials in commercial nurseries than in South Africa. Nonetheless I am making slow progress. A good
source is food. Many tubers and spice and grain seeds found in food shops will
grow. We are culturing seed taken from fruit. I know that grafting good fruit stock is the way its usually done, but we are aiming for a wilder, more resilient version of the big tasteless apples at the grocery store. As I learn more about sourcing and growing perennials, and their climate and soil tolerances, I can
document my progress.
Following is the list of perennial food plants which I have grown and written about. It shows which parts I know to be edible from experience, with how to grow instructions and more.
African wild plum tree berries
Tamarillo (tree tomato) fruit
Nopales (prickly pears) pads and fruit
New Zealand and dune spinach leaves