Overstory #25 - Fast Food (Part 1)
Aloha and Happy New Year!
If your New Year's Resolution was to create more food abundance for your family, your enthusiasm may already be flagging when you look at the work involved in creating a garden of annual plants. Well, take heart! This issue of The Overstory is the first in a two-part series on creating food abundance quickly with perennial plants in the tropics. Unlike annuals, you can plant perennial plants just once, and they will continue producing for you year after year, some for 10-20 years! By using perennials to provide a large portion of your food supply, you can save yourself the work of having to seed and establish large garden beds every few months. Once you have your perennials in place and producing, then you will have the time for annual crops to supplement your food.
Past editions of The Overstory showed how pioneering species (#22) can be used to quickly revegetate and how perennial leaf vegetables (#12) can be the foundation for food abundance in a low-input, high production system. Here we look at those concepts and additional species for abundant and enduring food production. In this issue, vining species which make use of horizontal space (ground covers) and vertical space (trellises) around dwellings or in orchards are the focus. The next issue will cover abundant food-producing shrubs, bushes, and trees for hedges and living fences.
The purpose of gardening with perennials is to get the highest return from the least amount of effort. When choosing species to serve this purpose, use plants that:
- Have multiple edible parts such as leaves, fruits, flowers and/or tubers
- Contribute substantial nutrients to diet
- Provide multiple functions in the landscape such as ground cover, hedge, animal fodder, etc.
- Are highly productive even in poor conditions
- Are competitive with weeds
- Are pest and disease resistant
- Require minimal care
- Enhance other parts of your landscape
- Can make use of wasted, low-fertility, or unproductive spaces
- Can begin producing for you within 2-12 months
- Will continue producing for more than a year (perennial)
- Are easy to propagate and are widely adapted to a range of climates and soils.
There are a number of food-producing vines that fit the above description. Vines have the ability to root in one fertile place and spread horizontally or vertically to other, less favorable areas. This makes vines particularly useful for waste space in the garden and landscape, like rocky embankments or areas that are difficult to access regularly. Vines can also increase productivity in limited spaces because they can make use of vertical space, climbing up walls or trellis. Some vines can also take over large areas or climb over other plants--so be careful which species you use, and where you put them!
The example species below are appropriate for a range of tropical and subtropical conditions. As with any new plantings, consult with others who have experience in your area to help you select the best species and varieties for your area. There are thousands of edible and useful plants--these are just a selection to inspire you to seek out the best for your situation and tastes.
Some Perennial Vines for Fast Food
Vines for use of horizontal space (ground cover):
Tropical pumpkin (Curcurbita moschata) will form a cover over a very large area if you let it, and is an excellent choice for pioneering a newly cleared area. It produces large quantities of fruits and has little trouble with fruit flies or other pests. The stem tips and flowers are also edible.
Sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas) can be managed as a ground cover in which case it will be used for its delicious young leaves and stem tips, rather than for the tuber. While most varieties can be grown for edible leaves, certain varieties may have been selected for leaf production. A patch of sweet potato managed for leaf production will also serve as a perennial source of propagative material for future tuber or leaf plantings.
Chayote (Sechium edule) is a vigorous vine that produces large quantities of fruits and stem tips, edible cooked or raw. It thrives especially well on embankments that are difficult to cultivate intensively.
Vines for use of vertical space (trellis):
Lablab bean (Dolicos lablab) Red lablab is a very vigorous nitrogen fixing vine which produces abundant edible pods that can be eaten young as a vegetable. Mature seeds can also be dried and stored for later use as a grain legume.
Perennial lima bean (Phaseolus lunatus) produces large quantities of lima beans that are eaten cooked at immature or mature stages.
Winged bean (Psophocarpus tetragonolobus) has almost all edible parts: pod, beans, tubers, young leaves, flowers and stem tips. Requires heat and good moisture to produce well. Once established, winged bean is extremely productive.
Passionfruit (Passiflora spp.) is a vigorous twining plant that can produce large amounts of fruit after a year. Many species of passionfruit can tolerate a large amount of neglect, while producing 2-3 crops per year. A beautiful addition to the landscape!
Malabar (Ceylon) spinach (Basella rubra) is grown for its leaves and stem tips, which are valued for their mucilaginous texture when cooked. Although this vine tends to die back annually, the plant persists well through self-seeding.
Martin, Franklin W. and , Ruth M. Ruberté. 1978. Survival and Subsistence in the Tropics. Contact Agroforester at if interested in this title.
Martin, Franklin W.. 1994. Plants for Use in Permaculture in the Tropics, Yankee Permaculture, P.O. Box 672, Dahlonega, GA 30533-0672
Facciola, Stephen. 1990. Cornucopia: A Source Book of Edible Plants, Kampong Publications, Vista, California.
About the Authors
Kim M. Wilkinson is the Education Director for Permanent Agriculture Resources and editor of The Overstory. She has B.A. degrees in Anthropology and Ecology from Emory University.
Craig R. Elevitch is an agroforestry specialist with more than ten years of public and private sector experience in tropical agroforest and forest management. He has a M.S. degree in Electrical Engineering (Dynamical Systems) from Cornell University.
Related Editions to The Overstory
- The Overstory #64--Homegardens
- The Overstory #54--The Agroforester's Library Part Two-Species References
- The Overstory #26--Fast Food (Part 2 of 2)
- The Overstory #22--Pioneering Difficult Sites
- The Overstory #12--Perennial Leaf Vegetables
- The Overstory #3--Weeds as a Resource