Everyone loves fresh veggies but the amount of work that goes into a vegetable garden is a lot less appealing. Perennial vegetables are gaining popularity as a lower-maintenance alternative to conventional annual crops. You can plant perennial vegetables once and enjoy harvests for years to come.
This is not a new concept – many parts of the world rely on perennial vegetables, like cassava and taro, that live for many years and can be maintained and harvested by hand. Many annuals in the north are grown as perennials in warm, southern climates. Still, there are many wonderful perennial vegetables that grow well in colder climates.
Pros and Cons of Perennial Vegetables
Perennial vegetables grow back from their existing root systems when conditions are right so plants can start growing much sooner and faster than annuals that have to be started from seed each year. Some claim that perennial crops are more resistant to diseases, pests, and drought than annuals since they’re meant to survive year after year.
Perennial vegetables have high yields when grown in the right conditions. In fact, some grow so well that you need to harvest them frequently to prevent them from becoming weedy.
In addition to filling your belly with delicious food, perennial crops can benefit your garden in the long term. They have long-lived root systems that prevent soil erosion, while also improving soil organic matter.
The downsides, include the time it takes for plants to establish, pest or disease pressure from leaving crops in the same spot, and potential invasiveness. Many gardeners opt to grow perennials to complement to their annual crops.
Asparagus (Zones 2-8)
Asparagus (Asparagus officinalis) is a very familiar perennial vegetable to the North American gardener. It’s easy to find recipes and friends to use up all your fresh asparagus and it is an excellent choice for cold climates, with cultivars that are hardy down to Zone 2. Asparagus prefers cooler climates and struggles through long, hot, southern summers.
Asparagus takes a couple of years to establish before it can be harvested, but once it’s established it remains productive for around 15-20 years, so it’s important to select the best cultivar for your area and tastes. New cultivars like the ‘Jersey’ series only produce high-yielding male plants. ‘Guelph Millennium’ is a male-only cultivar best for places with long, harsh winters since it comes up about a week later than the ‘Jersey’ series.
Rhubarb (Zones 2-6)
Rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum) is another familiar perennial commonly used to add a tangy twist to sweet baked goods but can be used in a wide variety of dishes and drinks. Rhubarb is an ideal perennial because it’s easy to grow, fairly drought tolerant and highly productive. For the best flavor, harvest the plant from May to early July.
Most people avoid eating rhubarb leaves since they believe they’re too high in oxalic acid, though the actual amount is similar to carrots and less than parsley. If you decide not to eat the leaves, they’re perfectly fine in compost or used as mulch.
Rhubarb plants also have ornamental value with their large, glossy, and uniquely shaped leaves. They look right at home among ornamental plants, especially in spring when the new leaves are reddish.
Bunching Onions (Zone 5 to 9)
Perennial bunching onions (Allium fistulosum) are easy to grow and can be harvested all summer long. They grow quickly from seed and start growing in early spring when planted in fall. You can save a lot of money and slimy food waste if your grow your own bunching onions.
Egyptian Walking Onions (Zones 3 to 10)
Egyptian Walking Onions (Allium proliferum) distinguish themselves from other onions by growing small bulbs called “bublets” at the top of the stem as well as underground. The plant gets its name from the way the stems bend over from the weight of unharvested bublets to start new plants nearby. Walking onions grow so well that they could walk all over the garden!
Onion lovers will benefit greatly from planting walking onions because they’re harvestable during the entire growing season, unlike annual onions which are harvested in late summer and tend to sprout before the next harvest. Walking onion greens can be harvested in the spring, the top set bulbs starting in midsummer and the underground bulbs in late summer or fall. Bulbs can be eaten fresh or cured.
Good King Henry (Zones 3 to 9)
Originally brought to North America by European settlers, Good King Henry (Chenopodium bonus-henricus) is becoming increasingly popular in cold climates as a perennial leafy green vegetable. Good King Henry is a relative of spinach and tastes similar, though more bitter. The new shoots are a delicacy in England and used as an asparagus substitute.
“Leaves can be harvested and cooked like spinach and taste rich, deep and nourishing. Unlike spinach, this is a strong tap-rooted and hardy perennial! It comes up super early in the spring, generally when dandelions and nettles are just waking up, making it one of the very first greens of the season. They will ‘bolt’ or flower as the season warms, but the good news is the young flowers can be harvested and cooked up and taste great, too!”
Hosta (Zones 4 to 8)
Hosta is an excellent edible perennial – it’s almost indestructible and the entire plant is edible, from the shoots to the leaves to the flowers. The flavor is described as a cross between lettuce and asparagus. Hostas have been popular for centuries in Japan, where they’re sold in supermarkets or harvested wild in mountain regions. The tender new shoots are considered the most delicious part, though small new leaves are also eaten. Blanched hostas, which are grown in the dark, are especially popular.
Bottled horseradish can be kept in the fridge for a few months but starts loses potency after only a couple of weeks. Hardcore horseradish lovers buy fresh roots and grate them as needed. Better yet, gardeners can grow Horseradish plants (Armoracia rusticana) with little effort.
Horseradish is a perennial, though some say you should harvest after a year for the best flavor and texture. You can grow plants from root cuttings, and when the time comes to harvest the roots you can save pieces to grow next year’s plants. Roots should be harvested when plants are dormant in early spring or fall. Extra roots can be kept in the fridge or freezer or left in the ground for a spring harvest.
Sunchoke (Zones 3 to 8)
Sunchoke (Helianthus tuberosus), also called Jerusalem artichoke (though it is not an artichoke and is native to North America) is known for its nutty, sweet tubers, which become creamy like small potatoes when cooked. The entire plant is edible, but you’ll likely only be able to find recipes for the tubers due to all the hype surrounding them.
In recent years, this plant has gained another common name: Jerusalem fartichoke. Eating a lot of tubers might cause gastrointestinal distress in some people due to high levels of inulin, which is a non-digestible fiber. A single tuber contains more than a day’s worth of inulin, though there are methods to make sunchokes more digestible.
Sunchoke plants multiply rapidly and can become invasive, which can be a good thing if you or your friends can eat them without discomfort but will become an issue if you change your mind about growing them.
American Groundnut (Zones 4 to 9)
Looking for a perennial root vegetable that doesn’t give you stomach problems? American groundnut (Apios americana) could be your new best friend. It is a North American native flowering perennial vine valued for its tubers that look and taste like small potatoes. The flowers, beans, shoots, and leaves are also edible with a faint beany flavor. The unique, fragrant flowers also add interest to the garden.
The tubers grow along the root system like beads on a string, sometimes even several feet away from the plant. They can be harvested at any time but will take at least two years to grow to a decent size for cooking. The vines can become invasive if they’re allowed to grow over other plants – they can grow about 10 feet per year.
Artichoke (Zones 5/6 and up)
Artichokes (Cynara cardunculus var. scolymus) are grown as perennials in Zones 7 and above and as annuals in Zones 6. With the correct overwintering techniques, gardeners in Zone 5 and 6 can grow artichokes as perennials as well. Shorter season cultivars like ‘Green Globe’ and ‘Imperial Star’ are best for northern climates.
Since artichokes are usually priced at a premium in grocery stores (in-season, each one goes for about a dollar in Canada), it wouldn’t hurt to try growing some yourself.
More Perennial Vegetables for the Adventurous Gardener
There are many more edible perennial veggies that will grow in cold climates. Some are hard to find but are worth a try if you want to expand your repertoire of perennial vegetables.
- Ostrich fern fiddleheads (Zone 2 and up)
- Ramps (Zone 4 and up)
- Garden sorrel (Zone 5 and up)
- Watercress (Zone 5 and up)
- Sea kale (Zones 4 and up)
- Hardy/arctic kiwi (Zones 3 and up)
- Lovage (Zones 4 and up)
Written by: Marika Li