I would love to be lazy, but first I have to finish all the chores that need to be done right now, in the middle of vegetable gardening season.

From early April until the end of May, we slightly deranged people who think the vegetables we grow ourselves are either tastier or less expensive than those we could buy at farm stands or farmers markets are busy. Very busy. Sometimes it seems like we have to be in the field every minute that it isn’t freezing, a gale isn’t blowing or the rain – welcome when it has been dry for a while but irritating when it rains for eight straight days – isn’t falling. Everything has to be done right now!

One thing that saves us is perennial crops. You plant them once, and you can harvest for decades. More food for less effort.

Asparagus growing in Tom and Nancy Atwell’s garden. Photo by Tom Atwell

My favorite is asparagus. We ate our first home-grown asparagus this year on May 10, earlier than the required serving on my May 15 birthday. Having it earlier did not diminish the pleasure one jot.

According to what I have read, an asparagus bed lasts about 15 years. Asparagus can be planted from seed – we have some that have self-seeded in our garden, so it pays to be not especially judicious about weeding. But most people plant crowns, which are another name for the plant’s roots.

You dig a trench 6 to 12 inches deep, place small hills of composted manure about a foot apart, drape the crowns over the manure, and just barely cover the crowns. (Some people use just good soil or compost for the hills, but I’m telling you the instructions I followed decades ago.)


Cover the crowns so that the soil level is about an inch higher than the top of the crowns, and keep covering until your trench is up to ground level. Don’t harvest any asparagus the first year, and no more than one shoot per crown the second year. The third year, you can start harvesting for real.

You’ll know the bed has run its course when the asparagus spears are skinnier than a pencil. If you haven’t already started another bed, do so immediately. We plant new beds every eight or so years, so their production overlaps.

Rhubarb grows in the Atwell’s garden (and they don’t even like rhubarb). Photo by Tom Atwell

Rhubarb is another perennial vegetable, but neither my wife Nancy nor I like it much. We transplanted ours from Nancy’s grandmother’s house around 1980, and it is still going strong. We give away most of our harvest.

Other favorite perennial foods we grow are strawberries, raspberries and blueberries.

Strawberry beds last about five years if you keep them weed-free and fertilize them. Don’t pick any the first year you plant them – you want their energy going into the plants, not the berries – but they produce well after that. We now have three separate strawberry plantings – one bed that still produces after six years, one that is four years old, and one that is two years old, which we will harvest this year for the first time. I will admit, they require more work than rhubarb or asparagus, in large part because violets love to self-seed themselves beside the strawberry plants.

Our raspberry bed, though, has lasted for about 25 years. Admittedly, maintenance requires some work – weeding every spring. Also, raspberries produce fruit on canes that are two years old. Either after harvest or the following spring, remove the canes that produced fruit the previous summer. (The spring following harvest, the spent ones look dead, so it is easier to know which to remove.)


A blueberry bush is ready to flower in Tom and Nancy Atwell’s garden. Photo by Tom Atwell

Blueberries produce fruit every year, if you can get to them before the birds and chipmunks do. We used netting with some success last year.

Being a faithful reader as well as writer for this paper, I am going to add a new perennial vegetable this year: Sorrel. Peggy Grodinsky, who in addition to writing food articles is tasked with editing this column, wrote a story on sorrel in mid-May. For some reason, I had never considered growing it before.

I found sorrel seeds for sale in the three Maine-based seed catalogs, and instructions are to plant seeds in the spring – although plant divisions can be planted in the fall. I’ll have to move quickly to get seeds planted before summer arrives. Otherwise, I will have to wait until next spring for my planting.

I am pretty sure that if I grow it successfully, it will be first time I’ve eaten sorrel.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at: tomatwell@me.com.

Comments are no longer available on this story

filed under: