On perennial vegetables

There is a theory out there whose premise is, once global warming and Peak Oil collapse the world as we know it, we’ll all need to get back to the gardens, but we’ll need a boatload of perennial vegetables in there because we’re going to be so time-crunched taking care of the rest of our needs that we’ll have little time for annual vegetables.  I have two quibbles with this argument.  One, end of the world or no, we should ALL get back to the gardens, and two, if the world collapses, so too do our day jobs, so we’ll therefore have LOTS of time for any type of gardening, perennial or annual. How long does it take, really, to plant a few rows of beans?

But any time-crunched vegetable gardener likes the idea of perennial crops.  Trouble is, there are very few vegetable crops that are true perennials:  asparagus, artichokes, cardoon, rhubarb, Good King Henry, some onions; that’s about it.  However, many crops can become perennial if you let them reseed themselves! This actually rewards you two ways:  one, you don’t need to replant them, and two, your laziness actually finds reward.  I should also add point three:  Volunteers are Good.


This picture shows Year #4 of a tomato crop.  Five years ago, my mother brought over some of those tiny annoying grape tomatoes because she was going out of town and figured we could use them.  Considering I am the only raw-tomato eater in the house and I find these tasteless things abhorrent, the majority of them made it to the compost.  And from the compost, the seeds found their way to this small patch of earth.  Granted, it will be the end of August when I get to harvest a tomato off of them, but look!  Perennial tomatoes!  And I should here mention these things taste so much better than my mother’s cast-offs.

So:  the moral of the story:  A bit of laziness is good!  Cold compost (that which does not kill all seeds) is a good thing to spread around the gardens.  So is letting a few things run to seed to self-sow.  It might just save you some time next year.

26 responses to “On perennial vegetables

  1. Just proves that tomatoes are not hard at all to grow. In fact, they grow themselves.

  2. I consider dill, cilantro, parsley and chamomile to be great reseeding annuals in my garden. I just leave them be and they reseed themselves all over the place. I don’t let the tomatoes do that though. I have such a short season that they rarely make it to fruiting before September if I don’t start them indoors.

  3. I don’t have a ton of space for volunteers, but do have dill/cilantro etc. like Daphne. And if a tomato appears in a reasonable or humorous location…I’ll leave it. I often let a radish or two bloom since they are pretty, and often get a few random radishes in early spring–handy!

  4. Yes, I love it! It’s amazing how many of these plants will re-seed themselves with a vengeance if allowed. Every other weed in our garden this year was/is a vegetable. This spring, I told my wife that if I die all she has to do is weed the garden the year after my untimely death as most of the vegetables will grow themselves.

    I disagree with the ease of beans though, mine have given me nothing but grief this year…plant and replant. I think I have enforced my will upon them though as they have now tired of fighting my every effort and started to spring forth.

    Also, I was reading somewhere that if the peak oil globally warmed world does collapse we will need to let our garden grow in disarray anyway. That way when the mutant zombie bikers stumble across our plots they will be unable recognize the real crops. I’m not worried though, I don’t think most people know what a real vegetable plant looks like much less a zombie biker. That and I don’t see how they will have gas for their bikes, so I guess they will be walkers not bikers.:)

    I love my cold compost piles…so full of life.

  5. Enjoy reading here.
    I can’t bear to part with anything that comes up volunteer. I just admire it’s tenacity and have to let grow. Consequently, I have a Sanford and Son type of garden, but, I love it.

  6. Not to mention that hunter-gatherers at most spent about 4 hours a day on food gathering. At least that’s what my anthropologist husband says.

    There will always be time. Compost, now there’s something I can imagine shortages of.

  7. At the bus stop down the street from me I noticed a few weeks back a tomato plant growing at the edge of a storm drain in about an inch of dirt and it has three tomatoes growing on it.

  8. I agree with Kimberly’s garden approach. I would really have appreciated any volunteer vegetables this year.
    Did you have your mama over for tomato salad from her perennial harvest?

  9. Uh, I have the SAME 2 Serrano chile plants in pots for going on 4 years. And they’re still producing. I just bring them in the basement in the winter, put them in front of a window & water them occasionally. So add peppers to that list.

    BTW, I think grape tomatoes are really tasty. You really don’t like them?? I find that amazing!

    One last thing: I have yet to eat anything (except 2 banana peppers) out of my garden this year! With all the cold weather, nothing’s growing! A few of my tomatoes have a tiny green tomato on them, but my tomatillos, pole beans, cukes, zucchini & most of my peppers have yet to produce anything. What a weird summer!

  10. Ed, oh yes, they do. They’re one of my more recurrent weeds, that and squash!

    Daphne, I will say I was so jealous when you told me earlier that your parsley reseeds itself. Then, this year, voila, I found 5 volunteers! Hooray! But you know what I do with some of those volunteer tomatoes (the bigger ones, I mean)? I let them go, then pull them out of the ground before frost, and hang the whole plant by the roots from the floor joists in the basement. I get tomatoes in November this way!

    Sara, the “humorous” location is key, isn’t it? Likewise, if something doesn’t offend, it gets to grow, otherwise, it’s off to the compost. I let some radishes go to seed this year, and did you know the green seed pods are REALLY TASTY? Try it!!

    Mike, you’re not going anywhere so Mrs H needn’t worry. But surely I meant that PLANTING beans was easy! I have had a plant-and-replant year too: in point of fact, I have 3 beans I need to redo just this very morning. But I do fear mutant zombie bikers, don’t you? Something ELSE to worry about!!!

    Hello Kimberly! Thanks for commenting… I gave my friend Jason a dog that kind of came into my life and he called him LaMont mainly so he could yell LaMOONNNNTTT at the dog park! I used to be really very forgiving as a city gardener of volunteers, but now I have hardened my heart for the most part. Lots more space to garden that way!

    Oh Stef there are compost shortages NOW even. I really don’t think one can have enough! Maybe that is what I will be doing once the world collapses: spending 4 hours/day making compost. Heck, there are less pleasurable tasks, surely! but *sigh* wouldn’t it be nice to be able to spend one’s entire day working in the gardens and with foodstuffs, as opposed to the furtive few hours we spend now? Maybe that’s what retirement will be for me…if I can ever afford to retire. We’ll eat well though!

    John, see, what a determined plant that truly is! And good eye: did you go back for an urban harvest?

    Pamela, boohoo for your garden this year! Hey: fall planting season is upon us though (already) so go make hay! But no, my mother calls our house her favorite restaurant so of course she has eaten those tomatoes. And everything else. I plant things just for her, like rutabagas (yuck).

    Laurene, I know: it has been a completely crummy year for most fruiting things, but the leafy things are entirely happy! Those peppers. They are perennial in their native lands, so keeping them going sounds like it could definitely be do-able; great for you though! DO you ever take them out of their pots in the summer? And I do like these new grape tomatoes; the other ones from the store just were like eating packing peanuts.

  11. I enjoy my self-seeding dill, but have to also plant more in order to get the correct timing for pickles. And volunteer tomatoes are always in abundance, but I usually pull them because they are in the wrong spot or have come up too late for a harvest. One I did leave this year is growing beside my front step in the sedum garden. I am glad I did, since it is my favorite….plum. And the wrought iron hand rail is proving to be a great place to stake and train this indeterminate beauty.

  12. Oh, sorry, my mistake…it is not plum! Will enjoy it anyway.

  13. Sorrel, El, don’t forget sorrel as a perennial vegetable!

    This year, besides the usual volunteer mustard, lemon basil, dill, cilantro, tomato, lettuce & winter squash, I had volunteer potatoes. Very cool.

    Of course in other climate, many crops that are annuals for us are perennial…

    I often find that many of the volunteers over the years become stronger & healthier plants. Not always… but often.

  14. No, I haven’t taken the serranos out of their pot for fear their roots would go crazy. But I have them in large pots & feed them periodically with fish emulsion. Their chiles aren’t huge, but they get the job done! 😉

    Yeah, any tomatoes from the store lack any real flavor or character. But my grape tomatoes are like candy (usually), they’re so sweet! I have a lot of little ones, but no red ones yet this year.

    I’m trying 2 types of Chiggoria this year: Spadona & Catalogna. In the past, we used to go dandelion picking in the countryside, but this year I thought I’d try to grow my own. They’re getting there (I was a little late getting them planted). Of all the greens I have tried, I think I’d have to say that beet greens are my favorite, so far. What a great plant! You get the beets AND the greens!

  15. I read somewhere that people used to go down to the sewage plant to get their tomato plants, as the seeds don’t digest…..eeeeeewwwww!

    When the swiss chard starts looking ratty I just cut it back and lo and behold….it just comes right back!

  16. I too have been thinking about perennial veg, particularly as it seems not only time saving in planting, but also in the prep – seeding, etc. But I never knew that many plants can turn into volunteer plants! Do some perform better than others?

  17. I have tomato volunteers from last year, peppers everywhere (from the thai chili I didn’t clean up in time) and somehow, volunteer potatoes. I have no idea where those came from. All in all, they are plants that are little surprises, like finding a $5 bill in your winter coat pocket.
    As to the zombie bikers—who knows? Maybe my infra-red motion-detector croaking frog will scare them off.

  18. Poppies for poppy seed, oil potential, bees love the pollen. Reseed everywhere, pretty easy to id & pull when little.

    But, w/o day jobs and forced to do more by hand: composting, washing, farming, transport, mending, making & repairing tools, hygiene, care & schooling of kids, food preservation, house maintenance, culture…
    Perennial veggies would certainly come in handy.

    The only people I know who are self-sufficient gardeners (they only buy grain, a bit of sugar etc) work more or less full time in the garden from March – November. They say food preservation takes as much time as gardening. No time for other jobs.

  19. Thought you might be interested in this:

    Ending 10 000 Years of Conflict between Agriculture and Nature

    Organic agriculture is not enough; we must replace annual with perennial crops.


  20. Hi Michele! Yeah, I have to do that with dill too, just to make sure I have enough to use when I need it. But you should try to do the hanging thing with one of your volunteers this fall once frost threatens. I just uproot the whole thing, hang it in the basement, and pick tomatoes as they ripen. I had tomatoes at Thanksgiving!

    Sylvie, I have a garden friend whose thoughts on potatoes are going to have him plant them in late November, seeing as how well the volunteers spring up! But yes, I forgot sorrel, as well as a bunch of other things too. I treat sorrel more like an herb though because it melts away so quickly in the pan!

    You know, Laurene, you could bonsai those peppers. Bonsai artists trim the roots as well as the leaves, and change out the dirt every two years. Just a thought! I love chickories, and they’re one of the most reliable overwintering veggies in the greenhouse. They like it kind of cool so maybe they’ll take off more in the fall for you. But with this summer’s weather, maybe that’s what’s happening now for you!

    Petunia, I hope you give those chard trimmings to the chickens. One of the reasons my gardens got fenced in is because they LOVED pecking my leaves to nothing!! But yes, it’s a biennial, too bad it doesn’t recharge in the spring. It also does great in the greenhouse over the winter. But the tomato seeds: that would take that gel casing off the seeds for sure! Yuck!

    MC, well, tomatoes and squash are my best performers, but they’re from the compost. But any biennial that overwinters and goes to seed is a candidate: carrots, parsnips, kale, beets…you just should try it.

    Hi EC. My point is perennial vegetables are good, not bad, but not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. As someone who works 40-50 hours a week and only buys milk products and grains (and I would have gotten dairy goats had our economic picture been rosier this year) I would definitely think that having no job would mean I would have more time to tend to life, my whole life. Electricity is my big slave: it enables me to can and to freeze my meat, but I could get by without it if need be. I don’t know. I am halfway there is all I am saying. Thanks for that article. In that instance, it’s looking at inputs and realizing that our obsession with annual plants is detrimental to the earth and is terribly energy intensive, thus unsustainable, and I wholeheartedly agree. Small-scale subsistence gardening where one doesn’t till every year, with its mix of self-seeded, annual and perennial plantings, trees, and weeds, is terribly sustainable. But yes, I would like a perennial wheat, and I hope they make one happen! As it is, I have alfalfa for green manure. Wish I had more. Look into Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway: there’s a second edition that just came out and there’s all kinds of good stuff in there.

  21. I never thought about bonsai per se…but I do trim them each year as a means of spurring new growth (& so they don’t get too big).

    I just might try the bonsai idea, but I don’t know much about it. I suppose I could find a lot on the internet & the library, though. Thanks for the idea!

  22. Enjoyed this post! I agree, volunteers are good! There are actually many more perennial vegetable varieties than you suggest, however. Eric Toensmeier recently published an entire book about perennial vegetables and he lists over 100 varieties!

  23. I enjoyed this post. I agree, volunteers are good! There are actually many more perennial vegetable varieties than you suggest, however. Eric Toensmeier recently published an entire book about perennial vegetables and he lists over 100 varieties!

  24. I recently read the Toensmeier book, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in trying some different, more exotic, perennial vegetable varieties.

  25. Helena Chechopoulos


    Was reading your forum and enjoyed the comments. I am planting my fall/winter garden and am looking for a source of Good King Henry vegetable seeds as mentioned in Elliot Coleman’s book, the four season harvest.

    Anyone know a source?

  26. Hi Michelle, yes, I was familiar with that book! Thanks for mentioning it. It does have some good finds in it, except, of course, you have to find them first. I agree anything that can just “stay” in the garden is a good thing.

    Thanks for the second recommendation, Bill. Do you think you’ll grow any of them? I do already, some more obscure things that kind of fall between veggies and herbs.

    Hi Helena, Fedco sells them (finally). This is the link:
    but it would appear they’re out of them for the season. I might have some available for a seed trade in late September, so stay tuned.

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