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Perennial Vegetables For Florida

By Bruce of Stone Marmot

Jan. 26, 2011

Most all of the vegetables grown in the United States are annuals which live less than a year and need to be replanted every year. This is wasteful in time, energy, resources, and money. After all, most fruit and nut plants, which are often bushes or trees, are perennials which produce for many years with little effort or additional expense once they are planted and established. Wouldn't it be nice if vegetables were the same way?

The truth is that there are many vegetables that are perennial. But most of them are not commonly used in American diets. This is mostly because food production in the US is a business and not a household affair. For business, it is more convenient, and hence, more cost effective, if each area is planted with all of one type of plant and these plants are planted in the highest density (plants per acre) possible.

Perennials tend to need more space per plant of each type to survive with minimal additional inputs other than what nature typically provides. That does not mean that food production per unit area has to be less than with commercial farming techniques, as you can mix other types of food plants with each other. This mixing of plants, if done correctly, actually helps improve the output of all the plants, as the characteristics of the different plants, such as nitrogen fixing, leaf shedding, mineral extraction from the soil, shading, pest control, etc., provide resources needed by other compatible plants. This is how natural landscapes, such as forests, survive indefinitely with no human input. In fact, among many this concept of planting many compatible food producing plants in one area is often referred to as a “food forest.” Research “permaculture” for more info on these techniques.

But it is difficult for commercial farming to deal with an area that has a mix of different plant types. Also, it is commercially expensive to manage an area where the plants all have different life cycles. It is easier and cheaper just to plant all of one type of plant in an area at the beginning of the growing season, artificially provide for its needs, such as fertilizing, watering, and weed and pest control, throughout the season, and then harvest the area all at one time at the end of the growing season, and then strip the area bare and start all over again the next season. It is also easier to concentrate on shipping and marketing a lot of one type of vegetable than a much smaller amount each of a number of different types of vegetables.

But we as home gardeners don't have these concerns. In fact, we want a variety of vegetables and don't really want an excessive amount of any one vegetable.

Also, with annuals, you need to harvest them when the food products are ripe. Otherwise, they go to seed and die much sooner than if they are continually harvested. So if you go out of town or are busy with work when your produce is ripe and you can't harvest it, you lose the whole crop for that season. And my experience is you can't trust the neighbors to do this, even if you let them have all the output during the time they are caring for the plants. This is not as much of a concern with perennial vegetables.

It is difficult finding what kind of perennial vegetables there are and which are suitable for your area. I live in the Tampa Bay area in Florida and have not found a good list for what works in my area. Therefore, I decided to try to create my own list of what might work for my own yard. I'm sharing this with you not only to help you but also so that hopefully some of you may have more to contribute. Hence, this is a starting point and I expect it to change and grow as I get more input from you and we all get more experience.

The few permaculture books that exist mention some perennials. “Gaia's Garden,” by Toby Hemenway, is one of the better books I've seen that gives a good introductory overview to permaculture and focuses on what works in North America. “Perennial Vegetables,” by Eric Toensmeier, is the best compilation to date on perennial vegetables suitable for the US and Canada that I've seen. The Peterson Field Guide, “Edible Wild Plants Eastern/Central North America” by Lee Allen Peterson, also provides some clues to suitable plants. I also like “The Edible Landscape,” by Tom MacCubbin, as a good introductory and reference book on edible gardening in Florida, particularly for a gardening beginner, which I still consider myself. These are my four primary references, plus internet searches, of course, in my search for what is suitable for my area, and my yard in particular.

This is the Open Office spreadsheet of what I found, with a MS Excel version found here. Again, this speadsheet was developed for my yard and its conditions, which are drier and well drained. So I avoided plants that do better in moist soil, though I did include some aquatic plants as I may add a small man-made pond (made from something like an old hot tub or kid's wading pool) in the future. I also excluded some plants that I felt required too much careful selection and processing to be safe to eat, such as pokeweed. I never intended this list to meet everyone's needs, only my own. But I'm making it available to help others who may have similar conditions and to provide a starting point for those who might like to create a more complete list.

Some of the plants on this list aren't really perennials here in the Tampa Bay area of Florida. But I included them because they either are very prolific in reseeding themselves or resprout from tubers and it is often very hard to find all these tubers when harvesting and you almost always miss some, which end up resprouting. Also, some are killed back to the ground during a light frost (marked as “dieback” in the table), but usually recover quite well once the weather warms. So, all these types of plants behave like perennials since you don't have to replant them each year. But note that you may have some bare spots in your yard a couple months of the year if you are also using these plants for landscaping.

Note that I did include some plants that are potentially toxic. This may seem odd to some, but many of the plants we are used to eating, such as tomatoes, potatoes, tapioca, almonds, and carrots, are also toxic unless you select the correct part of the plant and/or process it in a particular way. So you should further research anything that has a special comment in the “Toxic” column so you understand what needs to be done to render the plant safe to eat. In fact, you should take care and go slow in eating any plant on this list, as you could experience an allergic reaction or discomfort, such as gas, from any food your body isn't used to eating.

This table only is a quick summary of what to consider, but doesn't really give any detail on how to use the plants, such as how to grow them, how to prepare them for eating, what pests or diseases might affect the plants, etc. The table is just a starting point, a list of what plants to possibly consider for your yard. You still need to further investigate each plant that appears a candidate for your yard in much more detail to confirm that it is really suitable for both you and your yard.

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