Edible perennials are at the heart of a successful permaculture garden. These plants live for several years, are abundant, and bring diversity and resilience to the garden. They perform many functions in the system, and dramatically increase the harvestable yield.
Not only do perennials provide an ongoing supply of food, fibre and medicine for the gardener, they also provide structure to the garden, mulch, in-garden windbreaks or shade, habitat for beneficial insects, hides for birds and frogs, pollen for bees, and organic matter for the soil.
Perennials are easy to grow and harvest. Well-chosen perennials need little maintenance to be healthy and come back year after year. Their root systems access water and nutrients deep in the soil, making them typically more hardy and self-reliant than annuals. They can withstand difficult conditions and are great for challenging corners of the garden.
There are thousands of edible perennials to choose from. Here are ten easy ones to start with. Keep adding diversity.
TURMERIC (Curcuma longa)
Turmeric has been used in India for over 2500 years. Well known as the yellow colour in curries, it is actually a medicinal powerhouse with a wide range of benefits. Eat some every day. Fresh is best – in juices, curries, grated in salad, yellow rice … It is a pretty member of the ginger family, producing abundant rhizomes that are ready about nine months after planting.
YACON (Smallanthus sonchifolius)
Also known as Peruvian ground apple, yacon is a superb addition to a food forest or perennial vegetable garden. It grows vigorously to two metres even in poor soils, and the ground heaves with the abundance of tubers forming underground in autumn. The crunchy sweet tubers can be eaten raw – in salads, juiced – or cooked.
ALOE VERA (Aloe vera barbadensis)
Aloe vera, a perennial succulent, has incredible medicinal benefits and has been used therapeutically for over 5000 years. It is excellent for cooling burns and sunburn, and soothing bites and chapped skin. It’s a fabulous digestive aid and detox plant that can be added to salads and smoothies. It survives in low water use gardens, but can get sunburnt, and it is resistant to most pests. Plant it in easy reach for emergencies.
QUEENSLAND ARROWROOT(Canna edulis)
Arrowroot is an ancient Inca food, and an extremely useful perennial: it’s easy to grow and prolific; its edible rhizomes and young shoots provide food year-round; the leaves can be used as mulch, providing abundant organic matter; and placed well, the fast growing stems can provide an in-garden windbreak or summer shade. The edible purple-skinned rhizomes are best harvested before the shoots become too big.
COMFREY (Symphytum officinale)
Comfrey is indispensable in a permaculture garden – an excellent soil conditioner, dynamic accumulator, mulch, compost activator, liquid manure ingredient, nutrient trap, weed barrier, animal and bee forage. It is also a great topical healing herb.
TULSI, HOLY BASIL (Ocimum sanctum)
A sacred healing herb from India that helps reduce stress, strengthen immune systems, promote longevity, increase endurance, fight infections, relieve congestion and headaches, and improve digestion. Also a rich source of vitamins and minerals. In a permaculture garden its constant flowering attracts pollinators and other beneficial insects, and it provides protection for small birds that help with pest management.
DAYLILY (Hemerocallis species)
For half the year, daylilies add bright colour to the garden with very little care. Daylilies are considered a delicacy by wild-food gatherers as many parts are edible – the young shoots, unopened flower buds and little tubers.
SOCIETY GARLIC (Tulbaghia violacea)
Society garlic provides greens and flavour all year round and is very drought hardy. It makes an excellent edge – dense clumps of upright leaves can hold back mulch and help to keep weeds out. Both the leaves and mauve flowers are edible, and make a great addition to salads, dressings, omelettes, stir-fries, soups and sauces.
KANG KONG (Ipomoea aquatica)
Fast growing tender shoots and leafy greens are harvestable all year. A great tasting green with high iron, vitamins and minerals – for salads and stirfries. Easy to grow in a little pond or broccoli box. Excellent for limited space gardening and as a fodder.
BRAZILIAN SPINACH (Alternanthera sissoo)
This edible groundcover is a leafy green which can be used raw or cooked and has a great texture. It forms an attractive mound of decorative shiny leaves that is productive all year round – guaranteeing fresh greens in your garden. As a herbaceous border it requires almost no attention and has few pests.
Morag Gamble of SEED International and the Ethos Foundation (ethosfoundation.org) is a passionate permaculture teacher, designer and activist who gives away over 10 000 perennial cuttings a year from her award-winning garden at Crystal Waters.