Choosing perennial crops to grow is a much cleaner, more sustainable choice when it comes to cultivating food, which is why it’s also wise to choose dishes that feature more perennial foods from hotel and restaurant menus when we travel – most especially when they’re in season and locally grown. So what are perennial crops, and why are they healthier for the planet?
Perennial crops are crops that live longer than two years without needing to be replanted, unlike annual crops. Fruit trees and nut trees are perennials – everything from almonds and cashews to apples and oranges. So are berries, including blueberries, raspberries and strawberries, sweet fruits such as kiwis, and tomatoes, which are classed by growers as a fruit rather than a vegetable.
Also on the list are favourite herbs such as oregano, rosemary and basil, and more vegetables than you might imagine, including aubergine (aka eggplant), okra, chayote squash, peppers, horseradish, watercress, kale, wild leeks and asparagus. Tubers such as Jerusalem Artichokes and rhubarb are also perennials, while bulbs which are usually grown as annuals but can be grown as perennials include radicchio, onions, fennel, shallots, chives and garlic.
All these foods are not only delicious, but noticeably healthy too. They’re also far kinder to the planet than annual crops such as corn, peas, lettuce, watermelons, rice, spelt, wheat and other grains. Whilst annual crops such as these need rich soil, specific conditions, and to be replanted each year, perennials, once established, keep on providing for a much longer time. Annual crops are grown in large batches and usually in rows, which sucks the nutrients out of the soil, so that producers need to rely more on fertilisers to help them grow, as well as more time, attention and fuel to run machines, all of which furthers their carbon footprint. It’s our reliance on annual crops that has helped mass deforestation all over the world, which has in turn helped increase the temperature of our planet.
By contrast, perennials help keep the soil healthy by providing lots of leaves to replenish the nutrients they are taking, which in turn help encourage the healthy bacterial and fungal growth needed for good soil health. Perennials also store carbon – most particularly trees, which use photosynthesis to turn carbon dioxide into sugars and other carbohydrates instead of allowing it to be in the atmosphere and speed up global warming. Forests do release some carbon into the atmosphere through decomposition and respiration, but they trap much more than they release.
With this in mind, it stands to reason that if we rely more on food from trees and the hunter gatherer diet of fruits and nuts, alongside other perennial shrubs and plants, we’re strengthening the planet as well as ourselves. There are healthy, sustainable ways to produce annual crops too, of course – but the more we shift our staple foods to perennials, and make annual crops our sides, the greener our eating habits are going to be.
So next time you’re at a hotel or B&B, ask them where they source their food, and how many perennial versus annual crops they use in their menus. It will be telling to see which chefs and waiters know the difference. And do start growing more of your own too, so you can continue your perennial habit easily once back home. It’s when our wheat and corn fields are turned into organic orchards, our hotel gardens into micro allotments, and our own back yards into gardens to feast off, that we will really know we are making progress.