Grow a Better Veggie Garden


by Donna Torrey

Vegetable gardening is still popular, but I am sensing that some folks have become a little discouraged, realizing the large amount of time and effort that goes into a good harvest. Even I must admit that it is a lot of work to prepare the site each year, replant, and deal with the ever present pests and diseases that come with this type of gardening. I have a secret: there is a better idea — an easier, more permanent, and abundant way.


The vegetables most of us are familiar with come from temperate, European type climates and are annuals, which need to be replanted each year, completing their life cycle in one season. However, in South Florida, we are privileged to be able to grow Tropical Perennial Vegetables: plant once, and harvest forever! Yes, really, and that’s what I call true sustainability.

Tropical perennial vegetables come mostly from the Caribbean area, parts of Asia and Africa — places like ours, where the climate is mild during the winter and hot and wet during the summer. The vegetables have names like Chaya, Katuk, Okinawa Spinach, Callaloo, Moringa, Pigeon Pea, Papaya, Cassava, and many others. They may be unusual and odd sounding, but once you get to know them, you may never want to plant anything else. I have been collecting and experimenting with these plants for a few years, and am amazed at their productivity and survivability. Once established, they almost reproduce themselves, and throughout the year provide an abundance of food.

One of my favorite customers, Jackie Minett, a teacher at Lighthouse Christian School, wanted to teach the kids about vegetable gardening and was open to trying some of these in her own garden as an experiment. After her own success, she decided to take a small section of the school garden to plant these tropical vegetables. Minett stated, “I want to show the children where their food comes from, and to try new things. If kids grow it, they are much more likely to eat it! Also, the idea that this garden would require much less maintenance is very appealing.”

Thanks to Minett, Lighthouse Christian School is going to have a vegetable garden that is a model of sustainability, and as of now, the only one like it of which I know. So far, they have planted Moringa, Katuk, Pigeon Pea, Papaya, Okinawa Spinach, Amaranth, and Ethiopian Kale, which reseeds profusely (I haven’t had to plant more in over two years).

Plants in areas with harsh conditions such as drought, extreme heat, poor soils and hurricanes, develop amazing traits of endurance. That sounds like South Florida to me! Sure, you can still plant tomatoes, but also incorporate some of these tropical perennial vegetables. If you like to cook, you will soon learn how delicious these truly sustainable dooryard veggies are.

So, don’t give up on vegetable gardening just yet! Get to know these plants. Most of them can be researched on the internet, and many are available at The Garden Gate. If you are looking for a good book on the subject, Perennial Vegetables by Eric Toensmeier is fantastic.

For more information on gardening in South Florida, visit See ad page 57.

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