Articles abound as to what to plant in your garden each year to get the best harvest. Did you know that you can create a permanent garden of sorts on your land that will come back from year to year with little effort? All the better if you live in a climate that tends to be colder or shorter seasoned than most climates.
Even if you live in an especially short-seasoned or colder zone, you may be able to winter over some varieties that are labeled with higher hardiness zones. This is especially true if you have a sheltered area near your house or other heated area that can harbor some of the heat that escapes buildings and thus raise the zone in that small area. You can also opt to use other methods of actively creating a microclimate, such as using a cold frame or otherwise protecting your plants from the elements. You don’t necessarily have to limit yourself only to those plants that are definitely in your specific plant hardiness zone, as long as you are willing to experiment and take the risk of failing. If at first you don’t succeed…
Here are some hardy perennials for your consideration.
I remember growing up and going on spring walks with my mom and grandmother in Colorado. They would occasionally stop and pull up the tender green shoots from the ground, which would show up later that day on the dinner table. That was all I knew about asparagus until I grew up and started learning about growing my own food and wildcrafting.
Asparagus is generally hardy in zones 3 to 8. It likes well-drained soil with good sun exposure, and the shoots pop out of the ground when the soil temperatures rise above 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Nutritionally, it is high in Vitamin A, Vitamin B1, Vitamin B2, Vitamin C, Vitamin K, folate and iron.
If you are looking to grow asparagus in one of the colder zones, you will want to be especially choosy about what variety of asparagus to grow. One suggestion for a variety that will emerge later than other varieties (and thus have less risk of damage from spring freezing) is Guelph Millennium.
Rhubarb is another hardy perennial that I remember when growing up in Colorado. Rhubarb tends to be very cold hardy and most varieties can stand a lot of neglect and still produce a good crop. It is native to Siberia, so that tells you something about how hardy it can be. It actually needs a period of good frost time in order to grow good hearty stems in the spring. Rhubarb is hardy to zone 1 and prefers fertile, partially shaded, free-draining soil. Harvest in the spring and into the summer. Remove any seed stalks that shoot up to extend harvest.
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While the leaves of rhubarb are toxic, the stems are quite tasty and useful. They can be used to make jams and jellies, cobblers, salads, pies (the reason it’s called “Pie Plant” by some old timers), and I’m sure even more gourmet dishes that I haven’t had the chance to try. Some like to chew on a piece of rhubarb on a hot summer day. Nutritionally, rhubarb is high in several B-complex vitamins and vitamin K. Red stalked rhubarb contains significant amounts of vitamin A.
If you know someone in your area with a rhubarb patch, ask them if they can donate some to you the next time they divide theirs out. This should happen in the late fall/winter, when the rhubarb is dormant. This is the best way to get a variety that will do well in your area.
3. Alpine Strawberries
Alpine strawberries, otherwise known as woodland strawberries, are another option to use as a perennial crop option. While you won’t get enough to harvest and make jam anytime soon, you will be able to harvest berries from early spring and into fall. Alpine strawberries are small berries that pop with intense strawberry flavor and offer your body Vitamin A and C, potassium and manganese. They also serve as a digestive aid.
Alpine strawberries are generally hardy in zones 3-10, and need only 6 hours of direct sun a day to fruit, so take that into account when determining where to put them. They may be started from seed, or gotten from some plant nurseries. Do not crowd plants, and try not to water the leaves when watering, as they can be prone to fungus if put in continually damp conditions.
4. Groundnuts (Apios Americana)
Groundnuts, a native plant used by native Americans in eastern North America, are hardy down to zone 3. These are not peanuts, as one might at first think. The plant grows into a long 4-6 foot vine that produces leaves in spring, flowers June-September, and tubers in the fall that taste something like a nutty potato or roasted sweet potato. A bonus is that the plants are nitrogen-fixing and beneficial to the soil. Harvest is in the fall.
Groundnuts need full sun to partial shade, as well as moist, well-drained soil. They will also benefit from a shrub nearby, as they naturally grow in woods and thickets. Nutritionally, they are a source of protein, Vitamin B1 and Vitamin B2. They can be eaten raw, cooked or dried and ground into a powder to thicken soups or add with flours to baked goods.
5. Good King Henry
Good King Henry, like spinach and quinoa, is a perennial member of the Chenopod family of plants. Hardy down to zone 3, the first sprouts and shoots can be eaten like asparagus in spring, the leaves can be cooked and eaten like spinach, and the seeds of the plant can be harvested later in the year and used as a grain (much like quinoa-the grain will need to be rinsed before cooking).
Some other names for Good King Henry are: Lincolnshire spinach, poor man’s asparagus and perennial goosefoot. The plant likes partial shade, and tends to take over an area if left to its own devices (you may prevent too many seeds starting new plants by plucking off many of the flower (they are edible, too). The plant is rich in Vitamin A, Vitamin C, iron and calcium.
6. Jerusalem Artichoke
Hardy down to zone 2, Jerusalem artichoke is another plant native to North America. It thrives in the cooler northern states and climates, and even naturalizes itself if left to its own devices. Jerusalem artichokes, also known as sunchokes, are not artichokes from Jerusalem. They are tubers that grow in the root system of a plant that looks much like a smallish wild sunflower above ground.
Jerusalem artichokes are a tuber that is high in inulin, unlike most starchy vegetables, making them suitable for diabetics. The texture of the raw tuber is much like a water chestnut, and they taste somewhat like an artichoke. Others describe the cooked tubers to taste like a nutty potato. Be warned: Some people do experience gastric upset, especially when eating it raw. Just try a little bit at first and see how your body fares before eating a lot of it, to see if this particular plant suits you.
Jerusalem artichokes prefer full sun and well-drained soil. They are high in iron, potassium and many B vitamins.
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7. French Sorrel
French Sorrel, a relative of both rhubarb and buckwheat, is hardy to zone 3. It has a sour, tangy flavor (probably the reason it’s also called “lemonade in a leaf”) that makes it more suitable as an addition to other foods, as opposed to making an entire side dish or majority of a meal from it. It can be eaten raw or cooked. It is high in Vitamin C, and often the first plant settlers ate in spring.
8. Thunderchild crabapple
Let us not forget crabapples, those pretty trees in spring that produce small sour apples later in the year. Many varieties of crabapples are hardy to the lower zones and can be a source of calcium, vitamin A, Vitamin C and iron. Don’t forget, they can be made into jellies, are a great source for homemade pectin, and they can be used to make your own apple cider vinegar.
Crabapple trees prefer full sun and well-drained soil. Make sure you pick a crabapple that will bear fruit, and not a variety that has been developed just for the flowers alone.
One particularly hardy variety is the Thunderchild crabapple, which is hardy to zone 3 and can handle temperatures down to -40°F.
9. Wild Roses
Wild roses can offer a notable source of vitamin C when the plants bear rose hips in the fall. They also provide many, many other vitamins, minerals and nutrients in their little fruits. Wild rose hips can be grown where citrus fruits cannot be grown. In fact, they have been used for one of the main sources of vitamin C during wartimes when citrus fruits were unavailable. They are hardy to zone 4 or lower. True wild roses have exactly 5 petals. Do some wildcrafting and see if you can’t find some already growing in your area.
Many old-timers considered the wild roses to be a weed, as it has a way of taking over an area. If you decide to add wild roses to your land, be aware of this habit of the plant. The plants are thorny and may help create a barrier against intruders, but this can be a bad thing if you have to wrestle the plant back every year. If you have an area that seems suitable for a roaming plant, roses will likely grow there, as they are a particularly hardy plant. The roots of the wild rose offer very effective erosion control as well.
The Currant is a thorny deciduous shrub hardy down to zone 3. Some are even hardy down to zone 2. Currants were banned in the 1920s due to the thought that they helped to spread a fungal disease that hurt the timber industry. Fast forward to the present, and currants are making a comeback. Check to see whether there are any bans in your state before growing them.
Red and black currants contain four times the Vitamin C as oranges, and twice the beneficial antioxidants of blueberries. Red currants are considered to be the best, producing great clusters of the red berries that are easily picked. They can be used for jams and jellies, beverages, syrups, or eaten out of hand.
Currants like full sun to partial shade and do well through cool summers. They tolerate a wide variety of soils, but need good drainage to perform well.
So there you have it: 10 plants to think about adding to your perennial garden. Will you plant any of these in your garden this coming year? Do you have a hardy edible perennial on your property? What is it and how do you use it?