Roots and Shoots: Visual Interest and Easy Care with Perennial Vegetables

By Pamela Doan

We finally made it and the official last frost date is behind us as of May 15. In theory, it should be warm enough to set out our warm weather plants and expect vigorous growing days ahead. I’m still holding off on tomatoes, though. They need daytime temperatures above 60 degrees and we’re not quite there yet. The end of May is usually the best bet for our zone.

These last few weeks of May are a frenzied time for most gardeners. So many plant sales to attend, buying up vegetables and flowers to transplant. After the early excitement that comes from perusing seed catalogs in February, the plant sales and well-stocked landscape centers are the next best thing to look forward to for a gardener.

The search for annual and perennial flowers that will brighten the landscape and fill in for any plants that didn’t survive the winter is part of the fun. Dreams of a bountiful harvest of homegrown vegetables drive purchases of tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, and other summer favorites. The most popular and commonly grown vegetables in a garden are annuals, meaning they only last one season and have to be planted anew every year. There are some wonderful perennial vegetables, though, that come back every year, are long lasting and worth the initial effort to get started.

All this could be fresh from your garden. (Photo by P. Doan)

All this could be fresh from your garden. (Photo by P. Doan)

Asparagus is one of those vegetables that people either love or hate; it forces people to take a side. If you’re on the side of love, this perennial vegetable can add visual interest anywhere in the yard and be delightful to have fresh and homegrown. Asparagus requires a commitment, though; it needs to be planted and stay in the same spot. One patch of crowns can last for many years after it’s established.

For best results start with one- or two-year-old crowns. These can be purchased at many nurseries or online. It can be planted as soon as the soil is workable in the spring. Asparagus likes rich soil with a pH on the higher end around 7.0 and preparing the soil this year to be ready to plant early next spring is a good approach. Choose a site with full sun and begin adding lime or phosphorus to get the pH balance correct. Asparagus will appreciate added compost or manure, too.

This vegetable rewards the patient. A full harvest won’t come until it’s third year. Depending on the age of the crowns you started with, this could be the second or third year after planting. Harvest too soon and the plants will always be weak and spindly. It needs time to set up a deep root system and store food. When it’s ready for harvest, though, you can count on eight to 10 weeks of a crop. Tricks like mulching half the plants to warm the soil earlier than the other half and cutting it back can extend the season for an additional six to eight weeks, ensuring a crop that lasts all summer.

Asparagus is a good choice for edible landscaping, too. The delicate fronds are attractive in a mixed bed with other plants; it doesn’t have to be relegated to the garden plot. Take into consideration that depending on the variety it can grow 5-9 feet tall and will shade other plants and space it accordingly before planting. I like it as a foundation planting or border in the yard.

Rhubarb, another one of the earliest spring crops to plant and harvest, has many uses in cooking. The stalks can be bright pink, red or green and the leaves are large and nicely shaped with white flowers, making it another visually appealing choice for edible landscaping. Give it a chance to establish for a year before harvest and plant it in full sun. Like other vegetables, it appreciates a pH balance between 6.0-6.5. It’s relatively disease and pest free, making it an easy-to-maintain and carefree friend in the garden. Think of all the time you’ll have left to fuss over the tomatoes and their issues.

Other possibilities for perennial vegetables include ramps, lovage and Jerusalem artichokes, also called sunchokes. Each of these has its merits for cooking and visual interest in the yard or garden, depending on your palate.


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