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7 Edible Perennial Plant Swaps

This year, I’m adopting a more intelligent approach to gardening by replacing some of my annual edible plants with perennials through plant exchanges.

stunning malabar spinach

Initially, I dedicated my garden solely to annual edibles, realizing they demanded significant time, effort, and resources for a lifespan of just a season or two. Continually filling the gaps each season was an exhausting task, and with the unpredictable climate, I often missed planting or harvesting opportunities. Eventually, my garden became chaotic and unproductive, leaving me with empty garden beds.

Perennials, in contrast, thrive for multiple seasons, offering a ‘plant once, enjoy for years’ benefit. They save a gardener’s time and resources, providing a steady supply of produce with minimal effort. Once established, perennials usually need less watering and fertilizing than annuals and can even protect young annual plants from harsh sun and wind.

Embracing this wisdom, I’m redesigning my front garden to include edible perennial plant swaps, aiming for an even balance of 50% annuals and 50% perennials. It’s time for a change: my high-maintenance annuals are being replaced by low-maintenance perennials that promise ease and abundance.

1. Swap Potatoes for Sweet Potatoes

I’ve developed a fondness for growing potatoes, and I’ve learned that they do best when contained in a pot. They didn’t quite take to the sandy soil of my raised beds, as they require a lot of water and nutrients.

On the other hand, sweet potatoes are well-suited to my sandy soil and flourish, creating a dense ground cover. Their edible leaves, reminiscent of chard in taste and texture, need to be cooked before consumption. Both the leaves and the sweet potato tubers are harvestable at any time.

2. Swap Melons for Pepinos

I’m quite fond of those delightful Minnesota mini-rockmelons, but they’re quite a handful to grow in my garden! They attract various pests, requiring constant vigilance. A few years ago, an unexpectedly hot October devastated the plants, preventing the melons from ripening.

Contrastingly, my Pepino bush thrived under the same conditions that were detrimental to the Minnesota Mini melons. Pepinos, with their taste and texture akin to rockmelons, are significantly easier to cultivate. Despite common misconceptions about their lack of flavor, I’ve found this to be far from the truth.

The key to enjoying Pepinos is to wait until they’re fully ripe. You’ll know they’re ready when they display striking purple tiger stripes and emit a fragrant aroma, at which point they are wonderfully sweet. Additionally, Pepinos are incredibly straightforward to propagate from cuttings.

3. Swap Green Climbing Beans for Scarlett Runner Beans

Climbing beans in my garden are such a treat that they often get eaten right off the vine, hardly ever reaching my kitchen! I still enjoy growing them annually, following the traditional Three Sisters method in my spring garden.

Among all, my top choice is the Scarlett Runner Bean. This variety could easily pass as a decorative plant in an edible garden, thanks to its stunning red flowers and robust climbing ability. For those who prefer a different aesthetic, the Sunset Runner Bean, with its gentle pink blossoms, is a lovely alternative. Impressively, Scarlett Runner Beans can prosper for about seven years.

In the right climate, Scarlett Runner Beans yield beans during summer and autumn. They then enter a dormant phase in winter, reemerging in spring.

Like other bean plants, regular picking encourages more bean production. The Scarlett Runner Bean also develops a tuberous root that is edible, although I haven’t tried it myself.

4. Swap English Spinach for Malabar Spinach

I’ve already expressed my immense fondness for Malabar Spinach, and I highly recommend it, particularly for those living in a dry, hot climate like mine. It effortlessly surpasses the high-maintenance, water-reliant English Spinach.

5. Swap Basil for Water Basil

Who doesn’t adore basil? Its delightful flavor makes it a must-have in my garden for pestos, salads, and sauces. I’m lucky to be able to cultivate it almost all year round, though it does tend to bolt to seed swiftly in the warmer months. In cooler weather, it becomes a favorite snack for snails and slugs.

A few years back, I discovered an excellent alternative to traditional basil: water basil! Although technically a mint, water basil flourishes as long as it receives plenty of water. I took some cuttings to the school’s hydroponics garden, and they thrived wonderfully!

6. Swap Peas for Pigeon Peas

Peas freshly picked from the garden are a delightful treat, but in my garden, their season is quite brief, often leaving me yearning for more. One week there’s an abundance, and the next, none at all!

This year, I’m growing pigeon peas again, using them as a windbreak hedge in my front garden beds. Pigeon peas are not only practical but also visually appealing with their striking yellow flowers and small pea pods, and they have a lifespan of about five years. Nutritious and high in protein, these peas are a great addition to my garden.

One of the best things about pigeon peas is that they don’t need any trellising, making them an ideal nurse plant for fragile annuals. They develop a deep taproot which, once established, allows them to thrive in warm, dry conditions with minimal watering. The peas can be harvested young like baby peas for immediate cooking. Alternatively, they can be dried for use in dishes like dhals and soups, or even sprouted like mung beans for salads.

7. Swap Rocket for Sorrel or Watercress

Rocket is wonderfully easy to cultivate, and its peppery leaves add a fantastic flavor to salads, risottos, and pestos. However, in my garden, its presence is fleeting due to its tendency to wilt and rapidly go to seed in hot weather.

As a hardier substitute, I turn to sorrel. It copes well with a bit of shade and appreciates water, standing out as a dependable salad green in the summer when other greens have succumbed to the heat.

For watercress, I’ve adopted a unique approach: growing it in a pot within my cooler, shaded greenhouse, submerged in a tub of water. It’s essential to thoroughly rinse watercress leaves before consumption, as they seem to attract grit and dirt quite easily!