Perennial Vegetable Gardening with Eric Toensmeier (DVD review)

Reviewed by Sanne Kure-Jensen

Gardeners and farmers considering permaculture or season extension will find this film an excellent resource. It features over a dozen perennial vegetables on Toensmeier’s Massachusetts garden. The host also shows high-elevation, temperate gardens at Las Cañadas in Huatusco, Veracruz, Mexico (bosquedeniebla.com.mx). Those growing conditions are comparable to those in the Pacific Northwest. The final segment of the video covered Toensmeier’s workshop at ECHO’s global farm in North Fort Meyers, Florida (echonet.org).

Every spring, perennial vegetables offer growers an extra 4 – 6 weeks of garden fresh foods. Unlike most annual vegetables, many perennial vegetables tolerate full and partial shade and even wet conditions. Toensmeier enjoys supplementing his perennial garden with standard summer annual vegetables like tomatoes.

Perennial vegetables resist annual droughts with deep, established root systems. They resist leaf-eating pests or slugs by growing new leaves using their large root reserves. Unlike most annual vegetables, perennial vegetables resist early or even heavy frosts. Most need less care than annual vegetables.

Toensmeier adds 1” of compost every year or two to his. He said his biggest chore is to harvest food.
One important challenge with perennial vegetables is that you only get one chance to prepare the beds and improve soils. Perennial vegetables need deep loose, fertile soils. Toensmeier adds amendments per soil test recommendations, adds compost and loosens soils with a broad fork.

Another approach is to use sheet mulch to establish perennial gardens or beds for the following season. First kill and remove all weeds, lay down a layer of cardboard as a weed barrier. Cover with compost leaves and wood chips up to 24” deep. It will become a thin compost layer and be ready to plant next year. Lay dry mulch like wood chips on top to suppresses any weed seeds in the upper layers that may sprout.

Growing in polycultures helps to minimize competition and maximize cooperation. Toensmeier trains Chinese yam vines on living trellises for easy harvest of its small berries. He used horizontal bamboo poles secured between Siberian pea shrubs (nitrogen fixers). Late in the season, he placed a sheet under the vines to catch the harvest of yam “berries.” Under all this, he grew ramps as an early season ground cover, which disappear before the yam harvest.

Toensmeier’s perennial vegetable garden includes an edible water garden. Plants attract and feed beneficial insects. This helps balance his garden with natural pest control. He recommends using pots in a water garden for easier harvest and containing running plants like water celery.

Be especially careful with non-native water plants, he advises. Do not plant them in natural waterways, streams or ponds where they might overtake a natural area or escape downstream. He uses a closed pond with a rubber liner and has enjoyed success growing in kiddy pools.

Perennial vegetables can include trees or large shrubs. Coppicing encourages young growth at an easy harvesting height.

Three Brothers. Sunchokes or Jerusalem artichokes take the place of corn. A mint relative with edible tubers, Chinese artichoke takes the place of squash. Groundnuts take the place of beans. Toensmeier eats this like spicy refried beans. He surrounds this garden with root barrier of 18” aluminum flashing. At the end of the growing season, these plants offer huge yields.