The Case for a Perennial-Based Diet: Avoiding Ecological and Physiological Collapse
Recently at the 2017 International Permaculture Convergence Permaculture Design Course near Hyderabad, India, I shared my integration of permaculture and diet as an evening course for our 77 international participants. As a permaculture designer and nutritional therapist, I’ve long considered how I can shift my diet to benefit both my body and the planet. This goes beyond choosing vegetarian versus vegan, versus local meat, versus all the diets [and especially fads] that exist; what I want is to dive into a way of consumption that represents long-term health of the Earth and goes beyond avoiding harm or disease, instead working towards creating a beneficial and regenerative impact.
Permaculture literally means “permanent agriculture.” If we consider our existing agricultural strategies, organic or not, we are relying on plants that are harvested and die, requiring new planting, each year and each season.
Specifically, I am referring to annual plants or plants that perform their entire life cycle from seed to flower in one year; all parts of the plant die annually. Cultivating annuals is an exhausting process that demands a large amount of energy, time, and physical resources. If considering conventional agricultural methods as it relates to farming annual fruits and vegetables, these plants require even more inputs, stirring up trouble with agrochemicals, monocultures and GMOs. After harvests, soil is often tilled, which releases a tremendous amount of carbon that the plants have worked to sequester into the earth during their short lives. Additionally, the top three staple crops grown around the world are annuals: corn, rice and wheat. Not only do these plants require maximum input, but they also output minimal nutritional value. More so, we have lost the traditional ways to prepare these grains that increase their bioavailability, or opportunity for the body to absorb the maximum amount of nutrients from the crop, such as soaking, sprouting and fermenting. These staple crops are nutritionally poor for both humans and animals, and they take from both the land and our bodies. Here we have a clear case for an alternative to our less-than-sustainable agricultural and nutritional methods.
Enter perennials: perennials are plants that live for a minimum of three years and up to hundreds of years. Above ground, they may die back during parts of the year that are inhospitable to their ideal climate, but their living root system thrives beneath the soil, from which the plant regrows each year. Most herbs, shrubs and trees are perennials. Some perennials may act like annuals if you plant them outside of their zone or ideal climate (such as growing tropical varieties in temperate zones that need a greenhouse to thrive or would otherwise die in the winter time).
Between the two (annuals and perennials) are biennials. These are plants that require two years to complete their complete lifecycle from seed to flower. These plants are often considered edible the first year, flowering the second year. Most common root vegetables are biennials such as carrots, beets, turnips, onions and many varieties of the brassicas such as broccoli, cabbage and collards.
As a permaculturalist, I believe that perennials are a choice source of nourishment, one, because they “maximize hammock time.” In permie, that means less work on the daily. With these fruits and vegetables, you spend the most time on your thoughtful planning process, a brief period of time implementing the design and plants, and very little time caring for the plants. Perennials tend to be less dependent year-round and also are less susceptible to pests, disease, drought and weeds.
The deep roots of perennials scavenge nutrients and water, unlike annuals that require large quantities of nutrients in their quick growth cycles. While these perennial plants are driving down into the earth, they are also sequestering carbon back into the soil, where it will stay unless there is a deep land disturbance in the area. The vast root systems improve overall soil structure, porosity and water holding capacity while building soil simultaneously; these plants build soil slowly and steadily like a forest, dropping their leaves that become mulch and eventually topsoil.
Perennials serve many functions in the landscape. In addition to preventing erosion, they provide shade and habitat for beneficial insects and other crops. Under fruit trees, perennials are also more commonly adapted to shadier environments, eliminating the need for full sun and allowing for more potential for plants to grow in guilds to support one another and take up less horizontal space. They serve as an aesthetic landscape component and a living hedge or even a fence.
(Photo Credit: Bealtaine Cottage, Ireland)
So what’s the catch? What is the downside to perennials? If you are impatient (like me), perennials can be frustrating in the way that they are slower to establish. Additionally, because of their resiliency, you may encounter issues with rampancy, or invasive tendencies. Furthermore, when a perennial becomes diseased, this disease is often specialized to the crop and can be harder to extinguish, which may result in the need to remove the plant entirely since crop rotation is not an option. Finally, converting to a more perennial-based diet could require a change in taste preferences; many of the flavors are more bitter and astringent (meaning they often have greater medicinal and nutritional properties), and the taste for these have been lost over time.
If you want a full download on how to integrate perennials into a landscape as a whole systems design, I suggest taking a look at my Resources Page, researching various fruit tree guilds, diving into a Permaculture Design Course or personally reaching out to see how I can help you incorporate them into your surroundings. For now, I’ll provide a generous list of tasty perennials that you (and your animals) can begin growing and eating. Here, I have segregated these into fruits, vegetables, starches, legumes, fats, and herbs:
Strawberries (Ever-bearing varieties can be maintained as perennials in colder climates)
Broccoli (nine star, purple cape)
Ramps or wild leeks
Good King Henry
Acorns and Hickory (flour)
Indian Millet, Indian Ricegrass
Pig nut or earth-nut
Manchurian wild rice (protein) – stem bases
Scarlet Runner Bean
Earthnut pea, tuberous sweet pea
East Indian Basil
African Blue Basil
By strategically combining these foods, you can create a nutritionally-complete, flavorful meal. Begin with the leafy green vegetables for at least half of your plate to gather essential minerals and protein. Divide the other half of your plate equally between plants that fall under legumes and starches to feed your body more vitamins and minerals, fiber, protein, and carbohydrates for your basic metabolic functions and energy. Then add half a handful of what can be categorized as fats for essential fatty acids, fiber, vitamin E, and some additional protein. Generously add herbs and spices for a condensed delivery of antioxidants and flavor.
Imagine a day’s worth of abundant, delicious perennial dishes:
Breakfast: Amaranth porridge with bananas and berries, with soaked tiger nut crumble topping
(Photo credit: Naturally Ella)
Morning Tea: Chestnut flour macadamia muffins with raspberry jam
(Photo Credit: Creme de la Creme)
Lunch: Kernza or Indian Millet with roasted apricots, olives, sage and parsley; creamy artichoke sauce; scarlet runner beans, lovage and onions
(Photo credit: Choosy Beggars)
Afternoon Snack: Figs and walnuts with fresh lavender
(Photo Credit: Olives & Lucinda)
Dinner: Roasted sweet potatoes with pistachios and garlic, asparagus and mushrooms, sautéed horseradish spinach
(Photo Credit: CookRepublic)
Dessert: Apple rhubarb pie with acorn flour crust and maple syrup drizzle
(Photo Credit: Gourmet Traveller)
It’s clearly possible to create dishes entirely out of perennials, but I encourage you to incorporate them as often as possible in any quantity. If you purchase your perennial foods instead of growing them, first buy from a familiar local farm and eat in season, then buy organic and consider the distance your food had to travel to get on your plate.
I would love to hear from you in the comments – what are your favorite perennial foods? Any creative recipes you would like to share with me??
… Further food for thought: “perennializing” annuals
Perennializing annuals means cultivating your annual crops in a way such that they behave like perennials. This involves allowing plants to go to seed and self-seed. Next, allow the flowering crop (mutually benefitting hungry pollinators) to produce seeds or clusters of seeds, which can fall naturally or be shaken about and spread in a more spontaneous manner (or let chickens and ducks do the work). Some of the easiest plants to perennialize are those that bolt (or go to flower and seed) easily:
New Zealand Spinach
Resources for further exploration:
Perennial Vegetables by Eric Toensmeier
Plants for a Future Database
Midwest Permaculture Guild Fruit Tree Guilds
Check out more of Allie’s work on her website: