Forever food

By Sally Nex

Just imagine a veg patch which goes on giving, year after year – no need to resow or plant up each spring, and nothing to clear away in autumn.

All that’s needed is a bit of weeding, maybe some mulch and a little protection from pests – and in return you get armfuls of produce not just this year, but next year too and for many years to come.

Perennial food plants come back again and again, usually getting a little better every year. You’re probably already familiar with some – asparagus, for example, rhubarb and artichokes (both globe and Jerusalem). Fruit trees and bushes are perennial, of course, as well as many herbs including rosemary, thyme and sage.

The big, dahlia-like tubers of frost-tender yacon are sweet enough to eat raw: dig them up to overwinter somewhere frost-free and you’ll have them for years

But there’s also a wide range of lesser-known edible perennial plants which grow perfectly happily in UK gardens and provide you with a permanent supply of day-to-day greens, roots and florets to eat – no resowing required.

Grow perennial veg and you’ll never be short of something to pick. You’ll be doing your bit for the environment, too, as you use much less compost, plastic pots, water and fertiliser when you sow once and grow for years. You’re also leaving your garden soil undisturbed, which is great for locking up carbon; it also allows the complex web of interconnected life underground to thrive, so your soil is healthier and so are your plants.

Mashua, or tuberous nasturtium, looks rather better than it tastes

The best perennial vegetables give you everyday harvests which you can eat just as happily as their annual equivalents. But there are a few which don’t quite live up to their promise: I’ve grown the tuberous nasturtium mashua (Tropaeolum tuberosum) for many years as it’s hardy in my southern garden. It’s a very pretty plant, scrambling up a trellis and covered in little tubular orange flowers in autumn. But though you can eat the roots, whether you’d want to is another matter: they’re so peppery they make your nose run. They do lose their bite if you cook them – but they lose the rest of their flavour, too.

So here are my top perennial veg – the ones that are really worth growing and give you a crop you’ll genuinely want to eat. Plant once and you’ll have them for years – truly forever food!

Daubentons kale keeps producing nutritious, tasty greens for five years or more

Daubenton’s kale

There are many perennial kales, from towering tree kale topping out at about two metres tall, down to this one which is around waist height and much easier to accommodate in a garden. Copious, cabbagey leaves with a sweet taste, more like summer cabbage than winter kale.

Nine star broccoli

Is it a cauliflower? Is it a broccoli? Well it can’t really make its mind up, to be honest. Grows just like purple sprouting, but produces white sprigs, like mini-caulis, for most of the year, and – as long as you don’t let it flower – for up to five years after that, too.

Skirret

This Tudor root vegetable looks like a skinny carrot and tastes like sweet potatoes. The roots grow in clusters and keep resprouting year on year – so if you leave some in the ground after harvesting, it’ll keep coming back. It’s fiddly to peel, so parboil first then rub the skins off instead.

Babington’s leeks

Leeks that come back, and back, and back: just cut them about 3cm above ground level rather than pulling them, leaving the roots in the ground. Within weeks it resprouts with a new slimline leek, about the thickness of a pencil, with a lovely garlicky flavour.

Make room in your garden for perennial asparagus and you’ll feast for years

Chinese artichokes

Perhaps the easiest of all the perennial veg to grow as it’s so hardy. Dig the curious knobbly roots in autumn (they’re dead ringers for witchetty grubs) and eat raw or steam gently: they have a crunchy texture like water chestnuts and a nutty, savoury flavour.

American groundnuts

This pretty climber goes by many names, including potato beans, hopniss and most properly of all, Apios americana. Enjoy the beautiful burgundy pea-like flowers all summer, then in autumn harvest the strings of tubers, like mini potatoes with a beany flavour.

Sally Nex

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