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Useful Plants from Robert Nold’s “High and Dry”

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One of the more challenging environments for food production is cold and arid. I’ve been investigating useful perennial plants for that climate for many years. A few years ago I purchased Robert Nold’s High and Dry: Gardening with Cold-Hardy Dryland Plants. Robert isn’t interested in growing these plants for food, but he has an incredible wealth of knowledge and years of experience in growing plants in his Littleton, Colorado garden with 10″/250mm of precipitation a year and -10F/-23C winter temperatures.

I was fortunate to be able to visit Robert and his garden with a class last year. It was fascinating to see his collection, and I was struck by the beauty of these tough high desert survivors.

Robert’s book is quite remarkable and offers great information on growing and propagating these species. He doesn’t say which are edible or otherwise useful though. This article is intended as a “key” to help permaculturists and edible landscapers utilize his book to select species for a cold, arid perennial food production system. I’ve already cross-indexed them with other resources for you. High and Dry also has much to say on the subject of gardening in cold, dry climates in general – for example, he reports that most of these plants grow in soils with little or no organic matter in their native habitats, and are more vulnerable to disease in compost-enriched soils.

This article features many of the useful species from High and Dry. Get a copy and read it to learn all about his experiences growing them. All of these species have survived Bob’s test conditions of 10″/250mm of rainfall a year and -10F/-23C. All are native to the western United States, and some to adjacent Canada and Mexico as well. Of course there are many other useful species, native and not, that are suited to this area. Growers in other cold, dry regions (particularly in Central Asia) may also want to grow some of these species.

My sense is that these might represent the things you grow farther from home, while close by you’d have water-loving crops like peaches and apples watered by greywater and roofwater (or plain old drip irrigation).


Robert’s front yard with Cercocarpus (nitrogen), Lycium (fruit), Quercus (acorns), Cylindropuntia (fruit), Yucca (fruit), Elaeagnus (nitrogen), Opuntia (fruit, vegetable) and more. This is a zero-irrigation garden area in a region with -10F/-23C and 10″/250mm of precipitation per year, full of edible and useful plants (though he grows them only for beauty). The acorn from this oak (Q. undulata I believe) was the best I’ve ever had. Littleton, Colorado.


A piece of Robert’s back garden with Cylindropuntia (fruit), Yucca (fruit), Cercocarpus (nitrogen), Pinus (nuts) , and Amorpha (nitrogen). This is a pattern that a cold, arid food forest can follow. Littleton, Colorado.


Few trees grow in the high and dry country, and fewer still are much use to us in the food forest. Here are some good ones recommended by Nold. Pinyons are slow to grow and don’t bear annually but can grow where nothing else will. Mesquites are delicious and nitrogen fixing. We could use people identifying and propagating good forms of oak, mesquite, and pinyon.

Latin Name Common Name Uses Functions
Cercocarpus ledifolius mountain mahogany nitrogen-fixer
Pinus edulis, P. monophylla pinyon pine nuts
Prosopis glandulosa honeypod mesquite staple pods, honey plant, coppiced firewood nitrogen-fixer, fodder pods
Quercus emoryi, Q. hybrids, Q. undulata “sweet” acorn oaks
Robinia neomexicana New Mexico locust edible flowers, firewood nitrogen-fixer

New Mexico locust is a nitrogen-fixing, coppiced firewood plant. Sedalia, Colorado.


Cercocarpus ledifolius is a very tough nitrogen-fixer, handling arid conditions and -50F/-45C! Robert’s garden.


Pinyon pine savannah, with Utah serviceberry. Near Reno, Nevada.


Honeypod mesquite has excellent edible pods, fixes nitrogen. Some forms hardy to -10F/-23C, this is the hardiest mesquite. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.


Emory oak is one of the few I’ve eaten that can be enjoyed free of bitterness. Image public domain.


This region excels in useful shrubs, including many edible berries and a large number of legume and non-legume nitrogen-fixers.

Latin Name Common Name Uses Functions
Amelanchier alnifolia, A. utahensis serviceberry berries
Amorpha fruticosa, A. nana false indigo pesticide nitrogen-fixer, contour hedgerow
Ceanothus fendleri, C. velutinus snowbrush nitrogen-fixer
Cercocarpus montanus mountain mahogany nitrogen-fixer
Elaeagnus commutata silverberry soap nitrogen-fixer
Fallugia paradoxa Apache plume nitrogen-fixer
Lycium pallidum wolfberry fruit (native goji)
Prunus americana American plum fruit
P. besseyi sand cherry fruit
P. virginiana chokecherry fruit
Purshia tridentata bitterbrush nitrogen-fixer
Ribes aureum, R. cereum, R. odoratum currants fruit
Shepherdia argentea, S. canadensis buffalo berry fruit (not fantastic), soap nitrogen-fixer

The lovely nitrogen-fixer Amorpha nana with banana yucca. Denver Botanic Garden.


Serviceberries are the blueberry of the arid west. Montreal Botanic Garden.


Arctostaphylos patula and others make excellent evergreen groundcovers. Fruit edible but not fantastic. Denver Botanic Garden.


Cercocarpus montanus, one of many in this nitrogen-fixing genus. Colorado National Monument.


Eleagnus commutata, fruit terrible but used to make soap. Nitrogen-fixer. Robert’s garden.


Fallugia paradoxa, Apache plume, a stunningly ornamental native nitrogen-fixer. Denver Botanic Garden.


Lycium pallidum, our spicy-fruited native goji (one of many native American gojis in fact). Robert’s garden.


Mahonia repens, creeping Oregon grape, a nice evergreen groundcover with small, sour fruits. Denver Botanic Garden.


American plum, Prunus americana. Doesn’t bear well every year but when it does wow! Littleton Colorado.


Sand cherry Prunus besseyi, extremely tolerant of arid conditions and heavy deer and elk browsing. Nice fruit but not great. Please find a good one and propagate it! Holyoke, Massachusetts.


Bitterbrush, Purshia spp., nitrogen-fixer for cold arid lands. Near Reno, Nevada.


Ribes aureum, buffalo or clove currant, heavy bearer in dry conditions. Holyoke, Massachusetts.


Buffalo berry, a spreading nitrogen fixer. Some varieties taste better than others, I’ve never met anyone who said they were wild about the flavor though. Image Wikimedia Commons.


This group includes cacti and “woody lilies” like agaves and yuccas. There are many useful species in this group. I’m not aware of any prickly pears with inedible fruit or pads, for example – though many are so small or spiny as to be not worth the trouble. A form of O. phaeacantha called “Mesa Sky” is noted for having particularly good fruit, while O. basilaris var. aurea is relatively spineless for nopale (edible cactus pad) production. I’m unaware of improved agaves or banana yuccas but would love to see people out there testing, selecting, and propagating them!

Latin Name Common Name Uses Functions
Agave parreyi agave swollen base cooked just before flowering living fence
Cylindropuntia imbricata, C. whippleyi cholla cacti flowerbuds, fruit living fence
Echinocereus engelmannii, E. stramineus strawberry cacti fruit
Mammillaria heyderi, M. wrightii pincushion cacti fruit
Opuntia basilaris, O. englemannii, O. fragilis, O. macrocentra, O. phaeacantha, O. polyacantha prickly pear cacti fruit, nopale vegetable pads living fence (some)
Pediocactus simpsonii hedgehog cacti fruit
Yucca baccatta banana yucca cooked fruit, fiber living fence

Cylindropuntia whipplei, with edible flower buds and fruit, surely as fine a living fence as you could ever want! Grand Junction, Colorado.


Echinocereus species are known as “strawberry cactus” for their small, sweet fruits. Denver, Colorado.


Opuntia basilaris var. aurea, the spineless beavertail prickly pear cactus, with edible fruit and nopales. Spinelessness definitely a plus for harvest! Note small glochid spines still present. Denver Botanic Garden.


Fruits of banana yucca are cooked as a semi-sweet vegetable. Also a fiber crop. Image Wikimedia Commons.



The region excels in edible roots. Though I’ve not included them here, Nold lists a hundred or so plants in the aster family, which attract beneficial insects.

Latin Name Common Name Uses Functions
Amorpha canescens leadplant tea nitrogen-fixer
Brodiaea spp. bulbs
Callirhoe involucrata purple poppy-mallow roots groundcover
Calochortus spp. Sego lily roots
Cucurbita foetidissima buffalo gourd seeds groundcover
Dalea spp. prairie clover nitrogen-fixer
Dichelostemma spp. bulbs
Erigeron flagellaris fleabane attracts beneficial insects, groundcover
Helianthus maximiliani Maximilian sunflower shoots, seeds attract beneficial insects
Ipomoea leptophylla manroot roots
Lewisia spp. bitterroot roots
Lomatium spp. biscuit roots Roots attract beneficial insects
Lupinus spp. lupine nitrogen-fixer
Oryzopsis hymenoides Indian ricegrass seeds
Phacelia tanacetifolia scorpion weed attracts beneficial insects

Purple poppy-mallow, groundcover with edible roots.Near Moab, Utah.


Sego lily, edible roots. Sedalia, Colorado.


Buffalo gourd, groundcover perennial squash with edible seeds. Image Wikimedia Commons.


Maximilian sunflower, edible shoots and seeds. Birmingham, Alabama.


Manroot morning glory, wild relative of sweet potato with enormous edible roots. Image Wikimedia Commons.


Biscuitroot, edible roots and attracts beneficial insects. Holyoke, Massachusetts.


Phacelia, grown commericaly for beneficial insects on farms in Europe but native to dry western North America. Near Reno, Nevada.


Indian ricegrass, important wild staple grain historically and a minor perennial crop today. Moab, Utah.





Forest Gardens and Commercial Food Forestry Workshop – Vermont June/July 2014

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Edible Forest Gardens and Commercial Food Forestry

Saturday, June 28, 2014 to Thursday, July 3, 2014

Huntington, VT USA

Want to learn about edible forest gardens, agroforestry, and commercial food forest business development for cold, humid climates? This is the workshop for you! Choose from an introductory weekend and an advanced six-day intensive. For more information or to register click here.


Butternut, hazel, sunchoke and elderberry: nuts, fruits, tubers, and beneficial insects!

Part 1 – Home Scale Introduction to Forest Gardens  June 28th – June 29th 

Edible forest gardens are edible ecosystems that mimic the structure and function of natural forests, while producing food and other useful products. Trees, shrubs, vines, perennials and fungi work together in polycultures to create low-maintenance gardens or larger productive landscapes. Learn simple guidelines, based on real experience, for designing “polycultures” of several species. Small group design exercises will give participants the information necessary to create beneficial ecosystems and fruitful harvests in their own forest gardens. We’ll profile regionally adapted species, give general tips for growing perennial vegetables, and discuss the larger context of perennial agriculture’s contribution to sustainability.


Serviceberries are great native components of forest gardens.

Part 2 Commercial Food Forestry – (Includes Introduction to Forest Gardens) June 28th – July 3rd

This portion of the workshop discusses enterprise options (products and services), marketing strategies, equipment and infrastructure requirements for regenerative perennial farming systems. Additionally, Eric will present case studies of food forest businesses. Get to know hardy perennial crops ready for commercial production. We’ll focus on lesser-known species including perennial vegetables with commercial potential  for marketing to restaurants, farmers’ markets, and particularly for CSA’s – including perennial salad crops, braising greens, broccolis, edible shoots and cut flowers, with coverage of a few nuts and fruits. As a bonus Eric will discuss his forthcoming book Carbon Farming: A Global Toolkit for Stalization with Tree Crops.


Seaberry is a new commercial crop for cold climates. A nitrogen fixer with edible fruit, it is a great candidate for food forestry.

Eric Toensmeier has studied and practiced permaculture since 1990. He is the author of two award-winning books: Perennial Vegetables (2007) and Edible Forest Gardens (2005, with Dave Jacke). His latest book is Paradise Lot: Two Plant Geeks, One Tenth of an Acre, and the Making of an Edible Garden Oasis in the City (2013, with Jonathan Bates). Eric is an expert on the world’s useful perennial crops. He has run an urban farm project and a seed company, and taught and consulted throughout the Americas in English and Spanish. His current project is a book: Carbon Farming: A Global Toolkit for Stabilizing the Climate with Tree Crops and Regenerative Agriculture Practices.

Vermont Edible Landscapes

Vermont Edible Landscape, LLC is a land planning business focused on the development of agro-ecosystems. We work with our clients to design, install and establish ecologically regenerative landscapes. We approach land management through an agrarian lens utilizing a variety of diverse biological disciplines. Our services include: Site Evaluation, Planning and Development.


Agroforestry Support Species for Cold Climates

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Silk tree in my garden serving as living trellis to arctic kiwifruit; also shade provider for shade crops including currant, mayapple, fuki, and edible hosta. Also fixes nitrogen.

Rafter Ferguson’s recent excellent article “Permaculture for Agroecology” challenges the permaculture movement to read up on whats happening in related fields like agroecology and agroforestry. I’m particularly interested in learning from the well-established agroforestry practices of the tropics to see what might be applied in cold climates. I’ve been learning a lot about what species are used in cold-climate agroforestry as I research the book I’m writing. Here are some species being used on farms for practices like alley cropping, contour hedgerows, living fences, windbreaks, living trellises, and shade for crops. They serve as our alternative to multipurpose tropical trees like Leucaena and Gliricidia.

Many more species could be used for these purposes and undoubtedly are. I’m focusing here on species are are reported in the literature and those that I have personally used or witness to be used for these purposes. My primary sources are Mansfeld’s Encyclopedia of Agricultural and Horticultural Crops, Participatory Agroforestry Development in DPR Korea, and Agro-Ecological Farming Systems in China. Please share your successes, failures, and observations – and set up some formal trials!

Here I’m defining cold climate as boreal (USDA zones 1-3) and cold temperate (USDA zones 4-6), and warm temperate (USDA zones 7-8). These are place with real winters, outside of the subtropics. Arid means 0-250mm of rainfall (1-10″), semi-arid is 250-1000mm (10-40″), and humid 1000+mm (40″ or more). Species market with an asterisk (*) fix nitrogen.

Cold-Climate Superstars

Two species clearly emerge as the most multifunctional (or at least most widely used and written about; many other species are potentially as versatile).

SILK TREE Albizia julibrissin


The attractive flowers of the multifunctional Albizia julibrissin.

Silk tree, or mimosa, is a beautiful small tree from E. Asia. It is hardy through USDA Zone 6 through the tropics, and likes semi-arid to humid conditions. Throughout the lowlands and highland tropics, Albizia species are important agroforestry crops. This one is for us! Silk tree fixes nitrogen and resprouts vigorously. It is used in alley cropping and contour hedgerow systems, crop shade, and serves as a windbreak.

FALSE INDIGO Amorpha fruticosa

False indigo is native across North America, though it is mostly ignored here. In China and Korea it is an important agroforestry species. It is hardy to USDA Zone 3 though warm temperate, and handles semi-arid to humid conditions. In fact I have seen it grown in very dry high desert, and deeply flooded floodplains. False indigo is a multistemmed shrub, coppicing readily. It fixes nitrogen, and is used in alley crop, contour hedgerow, and windbreak applications.


False indigo is a very cold-tolerant multipurpose agroforestry legume.

Alley Crop Species

Alley crop systems integrate rows of coppiced woody plants, usually nitrogen-fixers, with wider bands of annual crops. Some crop trees are also intercropped with annuals in alternating rows (like black walnut, pecan, and jujube), but here we are focused on alley crop plants that fix nitrogen to support the neighboring crops.

Albizia julibrussin* silk tree E. Asia cold temperate to subtropical humid
Amorpha fruticosa* false indigo N. America boreal to warm temperate semi-arid to humid
Hippophae rhamnoides* seaberry Eurasia Boreal to cold temperate Semi-arid to humid
Morus alba White mulberry E. Asia cold temperate through tropical semi-arid to humid

Contour Hedgerow Species

Contour hedgerows are essentially alley crops on slopes, planted on contour. They are an excellent erosion control strategy and over time can form living terraces. I suspect Cornus sericea would do a good job at this as well.


Contour hedgerow of elderberry in Mexico.

Albizia julibrussin* silk tree E. Asia cold temperate to subtropical humid
Amorpha fruticosa* false indigo N. America boreal to warm temperate semi-arid to humid
Aronia melanocarpa chokeberry N. America boreal to warm temperate humid
Caragana microphylla* Littleleaf peashrub E. Asia boreal to warm temperate arid to semi-arid
Morus alba White mulberry E. Asia cold temperate through tropical semi-arid to humid
Sambucus canadensis Elderberry N. America to Mesoamerica Cold temperate to subtropical humid

Living Fence Species

Some of these are come from cuttings like proper tropical living fences, while others are grown from seed.

Caragana arborescens* Siberian peashrub E. Asia boreal to cold temperate semi-arid to humid
Cylindropuntia spp. Cholla Americas Cold temperate to tropical Arid to semi-arid
Gleditsia triacanthos honey locust N. America boreal to subtropical Semi-arid to humid
Maclura pomifera Osage orange N. America cold to warm temperate semi-arid to humid
Morus alba White mulberry E. Asia cold temperate through tropical semi-arid to humid
Prinsepia utilis Cherry prinsepia E. Asia cold temperate through tropical semi-arid to humid
Prunus spinosa sloe Europe warm and cold temperate humid


Cultivated to reduce the impact of wind on crops, livestock, or farm buildings.

Amorpha fruticosa* false indigo N. America boreal to warm temperate semi-arid to humid
Caragana arborescens* Siberian peashrub E. Asia boreal to cold temperate semi-arid to humid
Caragana microphylla* littleleaf peashrub E. Asia boreal to warm temperate arid to semi-arid
Elaeagnus angustifolia* Russian olive Eurasia boreal to warm temperate semi-arid
Elaeagnus umbellata* autumn olive Eurasia cold to warm temperate humid
Hippophae rhamnoides* seaberry Eurasia Boreal to cold temperate Semi-arid to humid
Populus spp. hybrid poplar hybrid boreal to warm temperate humid to semi-arid
Populus nigra black poplar Eurasia, N. Africa boreal to warm temperate semi-arid to humid
Robinia pseudoacacia* black locust N. America cold to warm temperate semi-arid to humid
Salix purpurea purple willow Europe, An. Africa boreal to warm temperate, humid humid

Living Trellis

Cultivated to serve as the trellis on which to grow vine crops. In my own garden I use Albizia julibrussin and Amorpha fruticosa for this purpose.

Populus spp. hybrid poplar hybrid boreal to warm temperate humid to semi-arid
Populus nigra black poplar Eurasia, N. Africa boreal to warm temperate semi-arid to humid

Crop Shade

These crops re intentionally cultivated to provide shade to crops that need it (like ginseng, coffee, etc.)

Albizia julibrussin* silk tree E. Asia cold temperate to subtropical humid
Alnus cordata* Italian alder Europe cold to warm temperate humid
Styphnolobium japonicum* Japanese pagoda tree E. Asia cold temperate to subtropical semi-arid to humid
Toona sinensis fragrant spring tree E. Asia cold temperate to subtropical humid


Spring: Season of Perennial Vegetables in the Cold-Climate Garden

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Excerpted from Paradise Lot by Eric Toensmeier with contributions from Jonathan Bates

Bates and Toensmeier will be hosting a perennial vegetable tasting and edible landscaping workshop at their garden in Holyoke, MA, USA this April 26, 2014.

Jonathan Bates with spring perennial vegetables.

From the beginning of my interest in plants for permaculture and edible landscaping I identified perennial vegetables as a real gap in the available information. Nobody seemed to know what perennial leaves, roots, and shoots could grow under or between fruit trees, nut trees, and berry bushes. I spent a number of years accumulating information on the species which culminated in the publication of Perennial Vegetables in 2007. Since then I’ve presented many workshops for master gardeners groups, organic growers, and landscape professionals. Everyone seems shocked to learn that we have such a fine palette of long–lived and low–maintenance vegetable crops for cold climates. The fact that many of them are fine ornamentals is a lovely bonus as well.

In 2000 Jonathan and I ordered seeds of perennial veggie crops from some unusual companies, including the amazing French company B & T World Seeds, who offer more than 18,000 species and varieties. Seed packets and shipping were not cheap, but we only had to do once (thats the great thing about perennials!). We grew out the pants and transplanted them here to our new home when we moved in 2004. At this point many of them are ten years old and still going strong, producing leaves, broccolis, shoots, roots, and fruits.

After the long desolation of a Massachusetts winter, things start to move pretty quickly after the snow thaws. This is the season of perennial vegetables, and the time that their advantages over annual crops become very clear. In the time it takes to get annual crops ready to eat outside, we have already gone through three months of perennial vegetable harvest. At that point the perennials pass the baton to the annuals, having bolted and lost their flavor until the coming fall or spring.

In March as the snow melts the bedraggled remains of last year’s perennial vegetables poke out. Though there is some freezing damage on the leaf tips, baby greens are already coming up here and there throughout the garden.

“Profusion” sorrel.

Sorrel (Rumex acetosa) is a overlooked vegetable in most gardens. The sour leaves are typically good eating in spring but quickly lost to bolting and bitterness. We grow a non–flowering variety called “Profusion” that never flowers. It just keeps on cranking out fresh leaves all season long. Partial shade, drought, and even two feet of snow only seem to slow it down temporarily. Sorrel is a great example of a multifunctional permaculture species, because its deep roots concentrate nutrients from the subsoil. Calcium, phosphorus, and potassium accumulate in the leaves and are made available to neighboring plants over time as the leaves break down into the soil again. Sometimes we speed this process up by cutting back our sorrels and mulching with them. This also causes a flush of tender new growth. “Profusion” sorrel is also notable for the density of its growth. We planted a dense row of it as a barrier between two different types of ground cover and have had good success. Sorrel also grows very nicely in the greenhouse all winter.

Water celery, aggressive but abundant.

Like sorrel, water celery (Oenanthe javanica) pokes its head up early and has tender shoots waiting and ready as the snow melts. From now to the end of April these greens are among our favorite salads. Sometimes Jonathan and I get down on our hands and knees and graze on it like sheep. It’s parsley–celery flavor gets to be too strong by the end of May but boy are we happy to have it in March, and again in late fall. We have found water celery can be quite a weed in our water garden, so to keep it under control we have a patch in dry partial shade. This slows it down to the point that it often dies back completely in mid-summer.

Caucasian spinach, quite delicious.

Early spring is also the season of sprawling spinach shoots (Hablitzia tamnoides). Like a skinny asparagus with tender leaves, this is a high-class vegetable. Though we have had trouble finding the perfect location and conditions for it, one plant in somewhat moist partial shade has persisted about four years now. By April, shoot season has passed and the season of edible leaves has begun. These can be eaten raw well into June. Few perennial vegetables can compete with that lengthy season.

Sunchoke puts on dramatic growth.

March is not too late to harvest last year’s perennial root crops. Some, like sunchokes (Helianthus tuberosa) are at their absolute best this time of year. Sunchokes, also known as Jerusalem artichokes, store their energy as starch in their tubers over the winter, but as spring comes they converted to sugar in anticipation of the growing season. What is a decent vegetable in the fall becomes almost as sweet as apples in spring.

Tubers of groundnut.

We dig other root crops in early spring as well, like skirret (Sium sisarum), Chinese artichoke (Stachys affinis), and groundnuts (Apios americana). For many years I was not a huge fan of groundnut tubers. They seemed a second–rate substitute for potatoes. We still grew plenty of them, because they are native, high in protein, and fix nitrogen. But it wasn’t until I read Samuel Thayer’s The Forager’s Harvest that I learned how to deal with groundnuts in the kitchen. Thayer suggests treating them like the bean relative that they are. Following his advice, I mashed up some boiled groundnuts with chili spices and cheese as though they were refried beans. Suddenly this high–protein native crop had found its place in my diet.

Ramps, the wild forest leek of the eastern forest.

April comes and plants are leafing out everywhere in the garden. The absolute delicacy of spring for us is ramps (Allium tricoccum). This native wild leek grows in the shade of moist deciduous woods throughout Eastern and North America. I had always read about Appalachian ramp festivals where the whole town reeked of garlic for days. When we lived at Wonder Bread Organic Farm Jonathan and I decided to host our first Ramp Festival, a tradition we continued with for four or five years. This celebration of spring abundance brought friends with dishes like nettle quiche and Japanese knotweed crisp. Our friend Frank Hsieh brought all whole roasted spring lamb from his farm.

I had been keeping an eye on a patch of ramps across the street from a Subway the next town over for several years. My sustainable harvests had provided the ramps for many of our festivals. Then one year I drove by to visit the ramps and to my horror saw that a large condominium development was going in. I rounded up a crew from the ramp Festival and we rescued hundreds of plants. Today they and their progeny are growing in our garden (and many others as well).

Perennial scallions (Allium fistulosum).

Perennial scallions come into their own in April too. If you grow scallions from seed you can time the harvest to have them any time of year. That’s very nice but a bit more work than we had in mind. Every spring our Welsh and walking onions send up their new scallions. We dig or divide their clumps for harvest and transplanting. This glut of scallions is welcome after a long winter and put to use in fried rice and scrambled eggs. Fall brings a second flush of scallions which are welcome again.

Giant fuki at close to full size.

At the base of our bamboo, in the shade of a feathery–leafed mimosa grows a plant with enormous round leaves up to three feet across. This is fuki (Petasites japonicus giganteus), a popular wild edible in Japan and a very bold statement in the landscape. Not content to grow ordinary fuki with its eighteen-inch leaves, we obtained the giant form. I was pleased to learn that giant fuki is sterile and thus has no chance of dispersing into the environment. Besides, that is, it’s incredibly aggressive rhizomes. But our fuki is hemmed in by bamboo rhizome barrier on two sides and a frequently traveled for path on the other. We actually wish it would grow faster so that we could harvest more, because fuki is a favorite spring vegetable on both sides of our duplex. Like rhubarb, it’s the leaf stalk that is eaten, but fuki is more analogous to celery as a vegetable. We boil the stalks, peel them by hand, and marinate them in umeboshi or raspberry vinegar with some shredded ginger and tamari.

Some people balk at the labor involved in processing crops like fuki. To me I don’t mind spending fifteen extra minutes in processing a vegetable that took no work to grow since I planted it four or five years before. It’s just a question of whether you account for the labor in growing as well as cooking your food.

Good King Henry

April brings an embarrassment perennial vegetables riches just keeps coming. Asparagus, good King Henry (Chenopodium bonus-henricus), and giant Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum commutatum) provide tasty shoots. Even the tightly curled shoots of hostas can be cooked up this time of year, though I admit they’re not my favorite. But you’d be hard pressed to find a hardier vegetable for full shade. Violet leaves are usually fairly bland, but Dave Jacke introduced me to a cultivar called “Rebecca” which has remarkable vanilla–mint flavored leaves and flowers that are quite delightful. Another April favorite are the wasabi–like roots of the eastern native toothwort (Dentaria diphylla). This delightful groundcover has piquant horseradish-flavored roots and leaves. I’m convinced that a commercial producer could market the roots to the finest sushi restaurants.

Yum! Purple asparagus.

The king of cold–hardy perennial vegetables is asparagus, and around here May is the peak of harvest. We grow “Purple Passion”, and its fat spears keep coming for more than a month. Fresh–steamed asparagus is as good an argument for turning your lawn into a garden is anything I can imagine.

Sea kale broccolis.

When I first saw sea kale, I fell in love. Against the dark green garden foliage, the powdery blue-green sea kale called out, coaxing me in for a closer look. The purple hues of the new leaves added to the beauty. Although the tender spring leaves are edible, kinda like collard greens, our experience is that the plant adds only a half dozen leaves a year, and are the plant’s summer solar panels. Eating them would put an end to the plant in short order (an alternative is to eat some leaves in the fall after most of the growing has taken place). We have come to love not the leaves, but the early spring broccolis. Along with the first six to eight inches of tender new flower stalk growth, the broccolis, or “broccolitas”, can be eaten raw, mixed into salads, or lightly cooked with butter and salt, or added to a vegetable stir-fry. Outstanding.

From the beginning, Eric and I have experimented with hundreds of species of little-known plants. Like sea kale, many of the plants are perennial vegetables. A perennial vegetable being a plant that re-grows for three or more years, and has some part of it that is eaten like a vegetable. Like asparagus, sea kale broccolis are ready to pick weeks before most annual vegetables can be planted. Perennial broccolis like sea kale can be grown as permanent, low maintenance, early season vegetables. By extending the growing season in this way gardeners can grow delicious vegetables for more days out of the year.

Many of you reading this may ask why more people aren’t growing perennial vegetables like sea kale. One answer may be that a monoculture of annual broccoli can grow more calories, then a monoculture of asparagus or sea kale. But, what does it really take to grow broccoli these days? And how much soil is being eroded from all the plowing and cultivation? Not to mention the chemicals, fuel, and water it takes. From our experience perennial vegetables can be grown with a lot less labor and inputs, with zero soil erosion. Perennial veggies don’t fit the typical monoculture mindset, and our industrial, “turn a profit fast”, “economies of scale” food system.

When mixed with a diversity of other perennial vegetables, fruits and nut producing trees and shrubs, and grown in multistory polycultures, the minor yield shortcomings of sea kale fall by the wayside.

Because our sea kale has lived as long as ten years, we’ve been able to enjoy its flowering season every spring. Imagine an explosion of three-foot tall, snow white bundles of small flowers, filling the garden with a voluminous honey scent. Take that annual broccoli! It’s a fantastic bee attractor to.

Turkish rocket broccolis.

But wait, there’s more! Yes, another “broccolita” in our garden. Turkish rocket also forms a broccoli (kind of like broccoli raab) with a pungent mustardy tinge. It is best cooked, giving it a nutty flavor. Over the last few years I’ve come to really appreciate the power of this plant. The crown has a deep taproot, which helps support it through drought. This root “mines” the subsoil for important, life-enhancing minerals. The mature hairy leaves protect it from most pests. It is a long-lived perennial, thus it provides increased food mass as it ages. More recently I’ve learned that the nutritional value of Turkish rocket is very high, and its crude protein content (22%) at flower bud stage is comparable to peanuts!

Both of these “broccolitas” are from wild lineages. What does that mean? From our experience, once established these plants are fairly pest and disease resistant (North American pests haven’t figured out how to get through the thick waxy leaves on the sea kale for example), and they seem well adapted to drought. A down side would be that they really haven’t been domesticated at all. So they do need some breeding work to produce bigger broccolis. But, because they are fairly low maintenance, it would behoove many more willing gardeners to tuck them into your perennial beds, and gain a little more fresh spring eating. Enjoy the broccolitas!

The sweet anise roots and foliage of sweet cicely.

An unlikely favorite of ours are the large seeds of sweet cicily (Myrrhis odorata). When still green and unripe they taste exactly like black jellybeans. We all eat lots of them in spring, and they are real favorite among children who visit the garden. Jonathan and I had tried to start sweet cicily from seed when we lived at Wonder Bread farm, but had never gotten it to germinate from the seed packet. We finally bought some plants, and when they seeded for the first time here in Holyoke we threw fresh seed all over the garden hoping that if you might germinate. I’m pretty sure every single one did, creating a new weed problem for us. Now we deadhead what we don’t eat to help keep the species under control. A few years ago we learned a trick that made pulling sweet cicily much more delightful. It turns out that the roots (sometimes as large as carrots) are also anise flavored. They are a bit strong but wonderful when mixed with other root crops and a pleasant nibble fresh out of the ground.

Sylvetta, the perennial arugula.

At this time Jonathan and I were both still single and we spent an inordinate amount of time in winter (and even summer after dark) reading up on useful plants. Many’s the time one of us would cry “dude!” and run over to learn the details of some strange crop on the Plants for a Future database or from a moldy old tome. I had profiled a perennial arugula called sylvetta (Diplotaxis muralis) in Perennial Vegetables. I had filed it away in my head as only hardy to zone seven and written it off as a candidate for our garden. But Jonathan insisted he wanted to try it, and I went along primly thinking to myself that it didn’t stand a chance. Much to my surprise, the plants resprouted vigorously the next spring. The woody parts of this shrub are not hardy, but the roots survived just fine, and these are the only part you eat anyway. So much for my award–winning expertise. Sylvetta has gone on to self-sow with abandon in our garden. We have recently corralled it under our grapes where it can do its thing without smothering anything more delicate. The strong arugula flavor of sylvetta is outstanding in omelettes but perhaps it is best chewed fresh in the garden with a few ripe alpine strawberries.

Groundcover of garlic chives.

The perennial vegetable with the longest season in our garden is garlic chives (Allium tuberosum). This humble plant is viewed by most people in the U.S. as a minor crop at best, or even exclusively as an ornamental. But in China the blanched shoots and flower stalks are a commonplace crop. For Jonathan and I, the garlicy greens are wonderful in spring and fall, though we have many other perennial vegetables to choose from at that time. In late summer this crop comes into its own with twleve inch stalks tipped by an edible flower bud. They can be thrown into whatever you might be cooking for lunch or dinner. I often see bunches of these flower stalks for sale at Asian markets bit I rarely meet a gardener who uses their garlic chives in this fashion. Once they open the flowers are also very lovely and quite attractive to honeybees. This is another case like sweet cicily where we could not get it to grow from seed packets but fresh sown seed is a weedy disaster. We have now isolated our garlic chives in some areas that it can dominate (and be deadheaded), and have ruthlessly weeded it out of our other beds.


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When I visit tropical and subtropical forest gardens I often see ginger, turmeric, galangal, and cardamom in the understory, beneath and between the fruit trees. In fact, according to P.K. Nair’s fantastic Tropical Homegardens, ginger and turmeric are universally found in tropical homegardens (ancient, traditional food forests) around the world.

zingiber officinale1

True ginger (Zingiber officinale) is the most important member of the family, with edible rhizomes and shoots. Surprisingly, ginger can handle 15F/-9C (USDA zone 8).

I was thus very excited the day my copy of T.M.E. Branney’s Hardy Gingers arrived in the mail. This book profiles perhaps 100 members of the ginger family (Zingiberaceae) and the related Costaceae. How nice to learn that many, many gingers can handle some cold, and are grown by gardeners in the US and UK as ornamentals.

Hardy Gingers also lists uses for many of these species. I went further and cross-referenced with Kunkel’s Plants for Human Consumption (listing 18,000 edible plants) and Mansfeld’s Encyclopedia of Agricultural and Horticultural Crops (6,000 cultivated crops) and came up with a list of edible gingers for temperate climates.

zingiber mioga

Mioga ginger (Zingiber mioga) has edible shoots, leaves, flower spikes, and rhizomes. This is the winner at -10F/-23C (USDA zone 6). Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

I garden in USDA zone 6 (-10F, -23C), and have a protected area for more tender species. Last year I planted three edible hardy gingers there: mioga ginger (Zingiber mioga), with edible shoots and roots; butterfly ginger (Hedychium coronarium), with beautiful edible flowers; and zedoary (Curcuma zedoaria), a species of which almost every part is used as a spice. Currently I’m waiting for the snow to melt to see which ones survived. Plant Delights nursery taught me that you have to personally kill something three times before you know it won’t grow for you, so I’m on my way.

curcuma zedoaria1

Zedoary (Curcuma zedoaria) is grown for starch, extracted from the roots. The spicy shoots, leaves, flower spikes, and leaves are also used. Hardy to 5F/-15C (USDA zone 7).

The uses of these crops fall into several categories:

  • Rhizomes. These are spicy roots used like ginger, turmeric, and galangal.
  • Starch. Some Curcuma roots are cultivated for extraction of starch (like Queensland arrowroot or kudzu).
  • Shoots. Eaten like asparagus. This is a major use of true ginger and mioga ginger.
  • Leaf. Some are used to wrap foods while cooking to add flavor, others are directly used as a spice.
  • Flower spikes. Eaten as a spicy vegetable.
  • Flowers. Edible spicy flowers.
  • Bulbils. Small spicy roots that grow on the flower head of Globba species.
  • Fruits, seeds. These are used like cardamom.
curcuma longa1

Turmeric (Curcuma longa) can handle 5F/-15C (USDA zone 7). The rhizomes make a great tea and are wonderful shredded into stir-frys or cooked with rice.

Food foresters in warm (and cool) temperate climates might be interested in planting members of this useful and ornamental family of plants in their understory. Many hardy gingers are quite shade tolerant. The table below presents the results of my cross-indexing of Hardy Gingers with Kunkel and Mansfeld. You’ll notice that turmeric, galangal, and even true ginger grow beyond the subtropics. Pick up a copy of Hardy Gingers to learn more about cultivating this interesting group of plants.

Latin Name USDA Zone Minimum Temp. Light Edible Uses
Alpinia caerulea 8 20 F/-6 C sun fruit, root tips, leaves, flowers
A. galanga 7 10 F/ -12C part shade cultivated galangal: for roots, flowers, spicy fruits, leaves
A. japonica 7 10 F/-12C part shade fruits
A. nutans 8 15 F/ -9C part to shade fruits like cardamom
A. zerumbet 7 0 F/ -17C sun to part leaves as food wrapper, shoot tips, rhizomes, flowers
Amomum dealbatum 8 15 F/-9C part shade seeds, flower spikes
A. subulatum 8 15 F/-9C part to shade seed pods cultivated as “black cardamom”
Bosenbergia rotunda 8 15 F/-9C shade cultivated for spicy roots, also shoots and leaves
Costus speciosus 7 0 F/-17C part shade shoots edible, rhizome
C. spiralis 9 25 F/ -3F part shade young leaves
Curcuma alismatifolia 8 15 F/-9C sun to part flowers
C. amada 9 20 F/-6 C sun to part rhizomes, cultivated
C. angustifolia 8 15 F/-9C sun to part cultivated for starch extracted from rhizomes, also flower spikes
C. aromatica 7 10 F/-12C sun to part starch extracted from rhizomes
C. aurantiaca 9 22 F/ -5C sun to part young flower spikes
C. longa 7 5 F/ -15C sun to part cultivated turmeric, rhizomes used fresh or dried, young shoots, leaves
C. petiolata 7 5 F/-15C sun to part “used as a spice”
C. rubescens 7 5 F/-15C sun to part starch extracted from rhizomes
C. zedoaria 7 5 F/-15C sun to part cultivated for starch extracted from rhizomes, also shoot hearts, flower spikes, leaves, young rhizomes eaten
Globba globulifera 9 20 F/-6 C part to shade spicy aerial bulbils
G. racemosa 8 15 F/-9C part to shade spicy aerial bulbils
G. schambergkii 8 15 F/-9C part to shade spicy aerial bulbils
Hedychium coronarium 7 5 F/-15C sun to part flowers and flowerbuds
H. gracile 8 15 F/-9C part shade “used as a spice”
H. spicatum 7 5 F/-15C part shade fruits, dried rhizome
Kaempferia galanga 8 15 F/-9C part to shade cultivated for leaves, rhizome
K. rotunda 8 15 F/-9C part to shade cultivated for leaves, rhizome, shoots
Zingiber cassumunar 8 15 F/-9C part shade flower spikes, rhizome
Z. mioga 6 -10 F/ -23C part to shade cultivated for shoots, also rhizome, leaves, flower spikes
Z. officinale 8 15 F/-9C sun to part cultivated ginger, rhizome and shoots
Z. rubens 7 10 F/-12C part shade seedpods
Z. spectabile 9 20 F/-6 C part shade “flavoring”
Z. zerumbet 8 15 F/-9C part shade rhizomes, shoots


Here are a few sources for hardy gingers:

Amulree Exotics

Aloha Tropicals

Gingerwood Nursery

Plant Delights Nursery


These are all in the UK or USA.



subtropical species resources

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Hello to everybody from the FGCU and ECHO workshops.  Thanks for a great time, here are some resources.


South Florida native all-stars

South Florida introduced all-stars

Florida perennial plant palette 2013




Upcoming Events 2014

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Hi everybody. Mostly I’ll be writing my next book in 2014, but I will be going on the road to give some presentations and also inviting all of you to my home for some tours to sample the fruits of each season. Please contact the organizers for more information.


Perennial Crops and Food Forests

February 8

ECHO, Ft. Meyers FL USA

Featuring hands-on bamboo and biochar opportunities and tours of ECHO’s incredible tropical demonstration farm.


Backyard Bioshelters

March 8

Holyoke MA USA


Local Food Enterprise Summit

A Financial Permaculture Convergence

Earth Learning

March 10-14

Homestead FL USA

Permaculture Writers Workshop and Retreat

March 29-30

Holyoke MA


Paradise Lot: Perennial Vegetable Spring

April 26

Holyoke MA USA


Edible Forest Gardens and Commercial Food Forestry

May 23-28

Au Petit Boisé

Frelighsburg, Quebec CANADA


Create Your Paradise LotMay 16-18

Omega Institute

Rhinebeck NY USA


Paradise Lot: Berry Summer

July 5

Holyoke, MA USA


Edible Forest Gardens and Commercial Food Forestry

June 27-July 2

Burlington, VT USA

Details TBA


Edible Forest Gardens and Commercial Food Forestry

July 28-Aug 3

Woodbine Ecology Center

Sedalia, CO USA


Bosque Comestible

September 1-5

Las Canadas

Huatusco, Veracruz MEXICO

This course will be in Spanish


Paradise Lot: Fruit and Nut Tasting

October 17-18

Holyoke MA USA


Regenerative Enterprise and Commercial Food Forestry

October 20-26

Blue Ridge Permaculture Network

Virginia USA


Designing Food ForestsNovember 7-9

Occidental CA USA


Educational Concerns for Hunger Organization Annual Conference

November 18-20

Ft. Meyers, FL USA




Carbon Farming Conference

February 10-14

New York, USA

species resources for south Florida

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Here are some species lists I’ve put together for folks in South Florida.

Florida perennial plant palette 2013

South Florida introduced all-stars

South Florida native all-stars

fall workshop series

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I’m on the road doing a number of workshops this fall. Please come check them out!

Rainwater Harvesting and Edible Forest Gardens

August 23-28, Sedalia, CO

Hosted by Woodbine Ecology Center, a two-part series: first rainwater harvesting and greywater utilization with Brad Lancaster, followed by a forest gardens weekend intro with five-day advanced design option.

Buffalo gourd (Cucurbita foetidissima) is a native perennial staple crop for cold, dry regions.

Ecological Edible Landscaping

September 12, Hockessin, DE

An evening bringing together the best of native plant gardening and permaculture, hosted by the Mt. Cuba Center, home of one of the finest collections of eastern native plants I’ve ever seen.

Camassia scillioides, our eastern native staple bulb, at Mt. Cuba

Camassia scillioides, our eastern native staple bulb, at Mt. Cuba

Edible Forest Gardens

September 13-15, near Philadelphia, PA

A weekend forest garden design workshop hosted by Green Light Plants, a great nursery featuring useful eastern native plants and other permaculture specialties. We’ll check in on Dale Hendricks’ mature pawpaw trees, incredible groundnut collection, and interesting polycultures.


Planting understory polycultures beneath pawpaws at last year's workshop.

Planting understory polycultures beneath pawpaws at last year’s workshop.

Edible Forest Gardens and Commercial Food Forestry

October 4-5, Reno NV

Cold and dry climates are among the most challenging for agriculture. This workshop will include tours of some very interesting successful food forests in the Reno area.

Yellowhorn (Xanthoceras sorbifolium), a promising protein and oil nut crop for arid cold regions.

Commercial Food Forestry

October 14-18, San Ramon, CA

Commercial food forestry and regenerative enterprise planning. Featuring the fantastic Elizabeth U, author of Finance for Food.

Regenerative enterprise planning is what we need to scale the forest garden up to the commercial food forest.

Food Forest Tasting Workshop

October 18-19, Holyoke, MA

Come tour our Paradise Lot garden and Tripple Brook Farm, and taste forest garden delights like pawpaw, hardy kiwifruit, chestnut, butternut, and more. This is also part of the highly recommended FEAST permaculture design course.

Some of the bounty from last year's fall harvest at Paradise Lot.

Some of the bounty from last year’s fall harvest at Paradise Lot including chinkapin chestnuts, pawpaws, Asian pears, hardy kiwifruit, and American persimmon.

International Permaculture Convergence

November 25-Dec 6, Cuba

I’ll be presenting on perennial staple crops at the International Permaculture Convergence in Cuba.

Breadfruit, one of the finest perennial staple crops for the humid tropics.

Breadfruit, one of the finest perennial staple crops for the humid tropics.


Perennial Vegetables DVD review in Permaculture Activist

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Permaculture Activist  #88, May 2013

Five segments show perennial vegetables of every shape and size growing in climates from Massachusetts to Mexico and back by way of Florida. Eric is photogenic, poised, and delivers in a beautiful voice. He’s a fount of fabulous fare on growing and preparing unusual foods. High production values and an excellent script make this long film very practical and appealing as it follows closely the content of Eric’s book of the same subject. The final segment covers methods of planting, propagating, and maintaining. A treat for visual learners of all ages.

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