Posted by: lialeendertz | February 18, 2010

Animal, mineral, perennial, vegetable

Perennial Vegetables by Eric Toensmeier

No one hates sowing seed, do they? What kind of a terrible, miserable git wouldn’t get a thrill out of seeing those hopeful little green shoots emerging from dark, still soil? I do get it. I really do. I know what I’m meant to feel. But in truth, when I see hopeful little green shoots, I see work. I see the exponential multiplication of pots as seedlings get pricked out and then on. I see windowsills stacked and windows darkened with etiolated growth. And I see my inevitable neglect of some as yet unspecified proportion, and the guilt as I watch the stunted and rootbound slowly die.

Put simply, it has always seemed a lot of work, and now I find that it is all down to a historical tick, a hangover that has followed us down the years from the dawning of agriculture. I am vindicated. I have been reading Perennial Vegetables by Eric Toensmeier, and it turns out our collective dependence on annual veggies all comes down to an excess of domesticated draft animals. We had them, so it was easy to plough up our fields and sow anew each year. In the New World they didn’t have them, and had to make do with hand tools, and so instead they concentrated their energies on developing perennial vegetables. Perennial as in: sow once, plant, nurture, eat for eternity (or a few years, at least). Bliss. The result is that vegetable gardens in tropical areas are more like gardens: a mixture of trees, vines and perennials. Now I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty low on domesticated draft animals. I generally end up making do with a spade myself, and – throwing in the sowing aversion too – I am thinking those New Worlders might be onto something.

I want to grow food in my garden but without ripping everything out and bringing in allotment-style raised beds. I want, as I have said before, a garden I can just wander out into and pluck food from, forage from when I want something to eat. And I particularly love the idea of that Garden of Eden-like tropical veg garden of vines and trees. Its temperate equivalent is the forest garden, of which you will find a wonderful example at the Agroforestry Research Trust in Devon, (which, incidentally, I visited and wrote about twice for the RHS magazine The Garden a great many years ago – once about nuts and once about edible bamboos – but it must have been before the internet was invented as I can find no online trace of them whatsoever. You will have to come around mine and rifle through my toddler-threatening mountain of back copies, if you’re interested.) Basically, a forest garden comprises fruit trees, nut bushes and an edible understory, planted in such a way as to echo the canopy and lower layers of a forest. The only examples I have come across are on a fairly large scale, but it strikes me that this is a pretty good model for any garden, or for my garden, at least.

The fruit trees and nut bush layers seem fairly easy to achieve. It’s your edible understory that is causing consternation, and this is where the perennial vegetables come in. It has to be admitted that many of the perennial vegetables Toensmeier mentions are pretty obscure and odd-sounding. The word ‘mucilaginous’ comes up rather too often for my liking; perhaps it’s a mouth-feel I could grow to love, but the kids are going to take a bit more persuading. I can just picture their cherubic little faces now….ahh, sweet…Oh no! They’re frowning slightly! One of them is crying! Now they’re demanding poptarts! It wasn’t meant to be like this… So anyway, I am starting tentatively by planting those I already know and love: asparagus, rhubarb and globe artichoke. It’s a slightly lame response to a Eureka! moment, I know (especially when I have just found this website chock full of perennial vegetable plants suitable for the UK) but I’m easing myself in slowly, and will get braver as time goes on, I promise (and would welcome any suggestions for good ones to try, in the meantime).

I can’t quite work out why people don’t generally plant rhubarb, asparagus and the like in among other plants, in normal, ornamental gardens. Even Toensmeier recommends planting them up in dedicated allotment-style beds and rows. I think each ideally wants a tad more air and elbow room than they will get here, but I can’t imagine it will make that much difference. Perhaps I am about to find out. I will plant all immediately and set my perennial, Eden-like, forager’s forest garden in motion. Or at least I will when my bleedin’ plant order finally turns up.

(By the way, in case you missed it, my last post on lawns and carbon, among other things, inspired a hugely interesting and informative post on a similar subject by Mark Diacono over on his always-entertaining Otter Farm blog. If you havent read it already, make yourself a cup of tea, get comfy – it’s really that sort of a blog – and do so.)



  1. Spookily I was admiring that book on Amazon last night and wondering whether it was worth adding to my already overloaded shopping basket!

    I’ve found the perennials a great way of making my allotment look like it’s being cultivated enough ready for the season’s first inspection 😉

    If I remember correctly the Permaculture people are rather keen on promoting Forest gardening…

  2. I had a look at the website and am delighted to know I am already growing at least three perennial vegetables – cardoons, rhubarb and, of course, dandelions. But what the hell are ‘pig nuts’?

    • Accoring to HF-W in River Cottage Cookbook pignuts are Conopodium majus. A tuber with a nutty cum peppery taste. Cooked they taste like a cross between sweet potato and roast chestnut

  3. Fascinating post. I love sowing seeds in principle, but so much work. A better balance of annuals and perennials has to be the answer – just as in ornamental garden. Thanks for link into peren veg website

  4. Hurray – you Lia L are falling into my cunny trap (that I didnt know I’d made) to have someone doing the edibles in such a way with the ornamentals spiced up with a bit of forest gardening. Im doing a talk soon about what gardens will be like in 2020 and what you’re doing is right in the heart of where i think gardening will go. Which is also handy as i only do edibles so am unlikely to mirror where i think gardening generally will go (altho i am being attacked by non-edible enthusiasts trying to wear me down from all sides). We should don anoraks, clasp clipboards and lead the uninitiated and unwilling around my v young forest garden and perennial allotment and then yr garden, followed by a mucilaginous picnic.

  5. When we moved house in Edinburgh, we had lovely surprise of rhubarb planted by previous owners coming up. Somehow being able to eat it felt even more of a bonus than other perennial plants they left. Am going to look at that website now.

  6. Ticks all the right boxes for me.

    The beauty of what you describe is a far less intensive method of growing but often more productive.

    On the other hand, unknowingly, a lot of what we grow each year from seeds are in fact biennials/perennials. Toms, runner beans, peppers – it is climate (among other reasons) that dictates our decision to treat them as annuals. Now overwintering a tomato in a forest garden – that would be a challenge.

  7. Mucilaginousness is much underused in both gardening and cooking – although it has its place in advanced obstetrics.
    My overall most hated task (right up there with hanging curtains and painting skirting boards) is pricking out. Fiddly and irritating. Especially Nicotiana and other things with oompah-loompah sized seeds. Beans: that’a a proper seed. Or beetroot: that has nobbles and is reet (sic) manly.
    I have asparagus in the borders of a garden I made in Gloucestershire. Looks fab: all frondy and with red berries.

    • Now you see, you need to read Veg Patch more…seed trays and pricking out arefor fools. . Modules for bigger stuff and guttering for the rest, that’s the way forward, you mark my words

  8. Cunny trap?
    That has to be a cross between cunning and honey but sounds appalling.

    • It’s a linctus for sore throats – sold by Hall’s if I recall correctly

      • A cunning linctus? *gets coat*

  9. VP – That is spooky. Highly recommended, has given me lots to think about.

    Dawn – funnily enough, the dandelions are among the plants in the book that most appeal. ‘Italian Rosica’ is apparently a large attractive dandelion with red ribs and a rich, nutty, slightly bitter taste. So there.

    Gilly – welcome! and thanks for pig nut info

    Mark – ignoring your unfortunate spelling mistake for the moment (see below) I am delighted to hear that my garden is the future. I suspected it all along. The plants arrive tomorrow, apparently, so give them a couple of weeks to bed in and then bring your crowd round. They better not wreck the lawn though.
    But really, your talk sounds fab. When/where?

    Sarah – Lovely. Glad the link is helpful

    Si – Apparently though we also ‘annualised’ some perennials to fit into our systems, while those in tropics selected and bred mainly perennial versions, wherever there was a choice. Means there is scope for re-perennialising things like brassicas though.

    JAS – You know I suspected that about asparagus. It’s a good looking plant at whatever stage. Great to have confirmation that it works as an ornamental.

    JAS/Chas/MarkD This is a family blog and your comments are straying perillously close to the sort of smut that will get the lot of you barred. Stop it now.

  10. I agree, there is nothing more pleasurable than foraging for food the garden. Though there is a slight difference between pyjama-clad fig plucking on perfumed tropical nights and gnawing raw sticks of rhubarb in wellies and fleece – but I suppose everyone has a personal vision of Eden.

    My windowsills are only 2.5 inches wide; I predict muddy carpets this spring.

  11. I have rhubarb growing in the borders as it is so ornamental and also trying to get some artichockes going (although I cant spell them). I like the idea of growing perennial veg, other veg just seem so labour intensive.

  12. Ben – With a bit of luck and if the wind is blowing in the right direction I should be receiving a fig plant tomorrow, so I hope to be donning pyjamas and doing, you know, that thing you said, as well as the raw rhubarb chewing. Particularly on perfumed tropical nights.

    Helen – I have ordered one that has particularly red stems, apparently (although they all seem to claim that) so am hoping it will look particularly ornamental.

  13. It’s been literally weeks Lia since I laughed out loud but this post did for me — thanks.

    Sheila Averbuch

  14. er, I should clarify it was laughing with you rather than at the idea of perennial veg…it was the Poptarts that did it.

  15. Being as there appears to be an amnesty on lewd remarks and double entendres in this post I’d better get them out now (oops) before your next post. Bugger, bum, balls.

  16. As an allotment holder who works full-time I was very grateful for the info about perennial veg, especially as many of them, such as elecampane, have medicinal as well as nutritional value. Check out Urban Fringe Dispensary in Bristol – we make and dispense herbal medicines using many locally grown and sourced herbs.

  17. Sheila and Lisa – delighted to be of service (although I feel, Sheila, that i should clarify that i do not actually feed my children poptarts. Potato waffles, yes, poptarts, no)

    Mark – you are teetering on the precipice of the spam box of no return

  18. Lia, love this!
    I’ve been interested in the work of Robert Hart for a while now – he made a forest garden at Wenlock Edge back in the sixties (far out man!), all based on seven stories of plant layering to create a miniature, largely edible, organic forest garden to provide food in beautiful surroundings whilst also encouraging wildlife.
    As a busy working mum (like you, and many others), I am very interested in steering clear of the traditional splitting of the garden into orchard, fruit garden, vegetable patch and herb bed and instead growing all together on the same piece of ground, one storey above another. Not only do I not have the space to split things up, but I love the idea that once established a forest garden is supposed to be self-perpetuating, self-fertilising, self-watering, self-mulching, self-weed-suppressing, self-pollinating, self-healing and highly resistant to pests and diseases – in essence, in theory, a forest-garden requires minimum human maintenance short of picking the fruit.

    Early days for me here too, but it’ll be fun to share notes. xx

    You probably know Robert Hart already, but just incase, here are a couple of links

    and a video of him in action at

  19. You’re so right about potato waffles and poptarts. The former clearly being a nourishing and wholesome foodstuff for one’s tiny people, especially when served with baked beans and an extra side of sauteed mushrooms for any adults present. Poptarts, on the other hand – evil incarnate.

    Random junk food-related aside: my absolute fave Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstalll moment ever was when he made the substitute Findus Crispy Pancakes (which I had a terrible and unsated craving for when pregnant last time).

    Anyway, yes, onto more serious matters. Fabulous post, that book looks fantastic. What’s with the mucilaginous veg though, I thought that only applied to okra, which is gobbin’, unless served in a gumbo made within the state of Louisiana, preferably by a Cajun, in which case it’s heavenly.

    This also reminds me that although I grew cardoons for years, I could never be bothered to eat them – looks trumped sustenance, I am afraid. Perhaps the answer is lots and lots of rhubarb.

  20. I’ve discovered that rhubarb looks lovely among the roses in my front garden, mixed in with perennials herbs and tomatillos (alas they are annuals, but beautiful and delicious and a favourite of mine). Most people are quite taken with the idea of growing food among ornamentals, I’ve discovered, when they see my garden. They just hadn’t given it any thought.

    I have tried, without success, to turn my brown lab dog into a pack animal. He’s most selective in what he digs though, so I’m pretty much resigned to hand tools, as were my Canadian forebearers.

  21. anne-marie – It makes sense on so many levels, doesnt it? Have looked at those links and they are very useful, thank you, shall be back there many times, and really look forward to comparing notes with you.

    jane – thanks for the heads up on the cardoons, shall steer clear. I may have painted a falsely negative picture of the other veg in the book. Reckon lots of it will turn out great, but it is going to take a little experimenting and bravery on my part.
    I loved those HFW crispy pancakes too! I became a veggie aged 10 (I know, what a brat) and I think the oozy cheese ones formed a major part of my diet from that moment onwards. Yum…

    Hello Kate! Your garden sounds great. And tomatillos in Canada too?! very impressive.

  22. Lia – this is my first ever comment on a gardening blog- I have been a lurker up to now but I just had to say thanks for the great read. I have seen forest gardening mentioned on twitter via @markdoc et al so you have certainly inspired me to investigate more on the subject!


    • Michelle – I couldnt be more delighted. That is lovely. I lurked for a long time before I started leaving comments. It is a bit scary, isnt it? So pleased to be your first! (and that you enjoyed the post)

  23. Horseradish, artichokes, both jerusalem and chinese, sorrel….. I’m not hearing any happy little voices! I’d keep those poptarts available.

    Great post and great writing!

    Best Wishes


  24. Yep, have rhubarb by the ton and artichokes, waiting for the asparagus. I think I might need to wander off and read more about forest gardens.

  25. Sounds great in theory and I’d love to be proved wrong but it’s not going to happen. Unless by vegetables you just mean salad leaves – which Robert Hart seemed to be very fond of and of which there are plenty of perennial varieties to choose from. But perennial peas and beans? Potatoes? Yes there are perennial alternatives if you’ve got the acreage to compensate for the pitiful harvests but most of us haven’t. And vegetables growing in the shade of trees – nope, works in the tropics but here most of them need full sun. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of permaculture but I think it’s a question of balance, and annual varieties will I think always be part of the equation in our climate.
    PS You’ve probably heard of it but in case you haven’t Ken Fern’s Plants for a Future ( is a good resource for edible perennial plants.

    • Hi Simon – Well no, am not going to be able to grow the same crops, but as you say, there are alternatives (if I can just get a bit more adventurous with my cooking). My plan is not really to try to be self-sufficient off of my garden – I dont think that can be done on such a small scale – but to use what has been primarily an ornamental garden to also produce some edibles. I do have an allotment for the other stuff, which I wasnt partiuclarly planning to put down to perennials (although now I think of it, it’s quite an appealing idea, work wise) and to be honest I have had such dire luck with potatoes in recent years that any alternative would be quite welcome!

      • Oh right I get it now. Looking forward to seeing how it goes.

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