Mediterranean Perennial Vegetables in Our Food Forest
Many favorite garden vegetables, like pumpkins, corn, cauliflower and lettuce, are annuals. They only grow for one season and die when the season is over, so you have to plant them year after year.
Perennial vegetables are those that come back at the start of each new season again and again.
In our food forest we grow mediterranean perennial vegetables for several reasons:
1. Perennial vegetables extend our harvest season
Most annuals are harvested through summer and fall, but some perennial vegetables are ready to harvest much earlier, while others can be harvested throughout the year.
2. Perennial vegetables are low-maintenance
Once perennial crops are established, they require little care from us.
They have deeper roots than annuals, so they are much more drought tolerant (so important in our dry, hot, mediterranean climate).
From our experience they seem to be more resistant to pests, disease and pressure from other plants they share space with.
3. Perennial vegetables help build soil
Once they are planted (or showed up voluntarily – like many of our globe artichoke), they are there to stay (for the most part).
No dig and no till around them keep the soil undisturbed, and with their deep roots, they draw up and incorporate into their biomass a lot more trace minerals than annual vegetable varieties.
As they lose their leaves, the plants keep adding more and more organic matter to the soil. This builds topsoil, promotes healthy soil structure and creates an abundant habitat for animals, worms, fungi and bacteria.
4. Perennial vegetables are beautiful
More than just a tasty and nutrient-dense food, mediterranean perennial vegetables provide a beautiful backdrop to other plants in our food forest, as some of them grow quite large.
Those are a few of the mediterranean perennial vegetables we grow successfully and easily in our forest garden:
Globe Artichoke (Cynara scolymus)
Globe artichoke is a large, beautiful perennial vegetable plant in the thistle family. What we eat as artichokes are the edible flower buds.
We harvest the artichokes in spring, with a second peak in fall.
We harvest the flower buds when the stalk has fully extended but the bud has not opened. From experience, it’s better to err on the side of harvest too early rather than too late.
Swiss Chard (Beta vulgaris var. cicla)
Swiss chard is a member of the beet family and we eat both its stems and leaves either cooked or raw in smoothies.
Typically it’s a cool-season crop but we found that although its growth slows down in summer, it’s a great salad green to grow when it gets too hot out for the others.
Chard is a superfood, high in vitamins A, C, and K and it doesn’t have that bitter taste that a lot of other greens have.
Normally Swiss chard is a biennial, which means that it will go to seed the second year and then die. But since in our mediterranean climate never experience frost, our Swiss chard behaves like a perennial vegetable, living for 3-5 years.
Most people grow peppers of all types as annuals: sown, grown, picked, then added to the compost heap at the end of the season. However, we treat these plants as perennial vegetables and they happily live for 5-7 years.
We prune the peppers at the end of the season, which gives us a head start on the new growing season, shortening the time until we get production, extending the harvest period and producing each year more peppers.
We pick the peppers in different stages – depending on the flavor we want (although the more ripe they are – the more taste and nutritional value they develop).
Aubergine (Solanum melongena)
Just like peppers (same Solanaceae family) aubergine (or eggplants) are mostly treated as annuals, but in a hot, dry mediterranean climate they can easily live for a few years, producing more and more each year.
What we do is prune the branches, at the end of the season, to the lowest new growth.
We harvest our eggplants when they’re young (best taste) in mid- to late summer, and use them extensively roasted and cooked.
Rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum)
Rhubarb is a perennial vegetable we never heard of – until our retired English farmer neighbor enthusiastically told us how he loves it sweetened in pies, tarts, and jams.
We only eat the stalks of the rhubarb plant. These have a rich, tart flavor. The leaves of the rhubarb plant are poisonous, so don’t eat them. If you, like us, don’t consume sugar – there are plenty of great “rhubarb without sugar recipes” online.
Rhubarb grows easily here, for already 4 or 5 years – but it needs a cool weather to thrive (we planted in a shaded corner just outside the house).
Pepino or Pear Melon (Solanum muricatum)
The pear melong is another perennial plant from the nightshade family (like the peppers, eggplants, tomatoes and potatoes).
We got our first plant as a gift when we moved in, as a tiny seedling. Since then it keeps growing like crazy and we use it as much as a ground cover as a vegetable (or actually fruit).
The unusual, round fruits have a cream color with purple streaks. The deliciously sweet and juicy flesh has a taste and aroma similar to melon, and we usually eat it while working in the garden.
Aloe Vera (Aloe barbadensis miller)
Although not a vegetable, Aloe Vera is a perennial we wouldn’t want to live without in our mediterranean food forest.
Aloe Vera might be the best-known medicinal plant – dating back to ancient Egypt where it was called “the plant of immortality” and was used medicinally as early as 5,000 years ago for health, beauty and skin care benefits.
Although you can use the entire leaf of the plant to produce Aloe Vera juice – we prefer to use that much more purified (and potent) Aloe Vera gel by only using the inside of the leaf for external care and in smoothies.
I’d love to learn from you…
What mediterranean bee plants, trees and herbs bees and other pollinators devour in your own garden or food forest.