Planting perennial foods offers rewards beyond those of an annual vegetable garden. Discover the many benefits of growing your sustenance with nature as your mentor and some tips to get you started.
Growing a garden typically conjures the image of a tidy plot of soil planted with rows of neatly tended veggies, pulled up in the fall and sown anew each spring. But there’s another way to raise food, one that more closely mimics a natural community of plants growing year after year without tilling or tending: a perennial food garden.
Whether it replaces or simply complements that annual veggie patch, a perennial food garden can hold both dietary and ecological rewards.
If you have so much as a raspberry cane or a tuft of chives, you’re already acquainted with edibles that reappear every year. Expand that into a mixed berry patch or collection of herbs and you’re getting closer to a perennial food garden. Integrate plants that complement one another through a diversity of sizes and functions and you build something that resembles how nature gardens, something you could call a “food forest.”
But why diverge from the familiar and well-loved plot of tilled loam to grow food? It turns out nature is something of an expert, and when we emulate her more closely, the benefits are many.
Perennials endure for years, if not decades, so rather than planting every spring, we need only plant them once. And because we’re not digging into the soil each year, stirring up the weed seeds, there’s far less need for tedious pulling of those unwanted plants. Mulch and ground cover are allies in weed suppression, too.
Further, the annual chore of replenishing garden fertility can instead happen the same way it does in a forest, through plant-animal-fungi synergies and nutrient cycling.
Greater soil integrity
We’re just beginning to fully grasp the hidden workings of all the life forms in our soil and how crucial they are to everything above ground, including plant health. When soil is tilled, fungal networks and earthworm aerations can be damaged, plus valuable carbon can be lost to the air. And when earth is left bare, as it is after tilling or between rows in an annual garden, its structure and biology suffer under the direct blaze of the sun.
But in a perennial garden, the soil and microbes are left largely undisturbed and covered. Topsoil is actually built through the continual layering and decomposition of mulch and debris from plants left in place.
With sufficient diversity, a perennial food patch can be well equipped to bounce back from shocks in the environment and adapt to long-term shifts, just as natural ecosystems do. With several species serving overlapping functions (such as food, pollination, nitrogen fixing, or pest deterrence) the web will still function, and food can still be reaped if one or two members succumb to something like hail or insects.
Not only does that make for a resilient garden, but it also contributes a degree of food security to your neighbourhood.
Perennial gardening offers so much more than just food for our efforts. It produces habitat for everything from bees to birds and, of course, all those happy soil micro-organisms. Water, whether from the hose or the sky, is captured, retained, and put to productive use through the network of roots and healthy, intact soil.
Plus, a patch of perennial edibles can easily become a space of beauty in your yard—the backdrop for a bench or hammock and a place to observe nature’s processes. It may even garner you a new friend or two in the form of a curious neighbour or berry-hungry youngster!
If you inherit a home from previous owners who gardened, you might be pleased to find yourself with a swath of yard cleared for planting. But if they had the foresight to populate the space with perennial foods, you will have really hit the jackpot.
By investing in long-lived edibles, we serve not only ourselves but also those who come after us, leaving a wake of ecological deliciousness within our lifetime and beyond.
Give these a try
Perennial edibles range from the utterly familiar to the forgotten and the novel. The options are vast, and the ones you choose will depend on your climate, space, goals, and preference.
fruit trees (apple, pear, cherry, plum, mulberry …)
perennial green onion
Good King Henry
|nut trees (hazelnut, walnut, chestnut …) groundnut
mushrooms (oyster, shiitake, Garden Giant …)
Form a guild
Not a medieval club for craftsmen, a guild is a deliberate grouping of plants that form a complementary web, working together for their ongoing health and productivity.
Members of a guild can and should fill more than one role. For example, sea buckthorn will grip erosion-prone soil, fix nitrogen for surrounding plants, yield nutritious food, and produce oil for body care. Strawberries provide ground cover, food, beauty as leaves turn red in the fall, and mulch as leaves are dropped in place.
A guild can be a simple grouping of plants or a more in-depth layering of relationships from root to canopy. We can draw inspiration through observation—if ferns tend to thrive in the understory, we would do well to pair them with trees or shrubs that can provide that shade.
Guild planting is a chance to have fun while being creative and flexible. There’s no rule that says you can’t add some annuals to the mix or relocate a plant that isn’t prospering at any point. Perennial plantings will evolve over time; trees and shrubs extending their reach and herbaceous plants expanding or losing territory. This leaves us the choice to heavily prune and manage or let things unfold as they will.
Here are some guild ideas
|Fruit and veggie guild:
scarlet runner beans
Books and online resources can serve as useful guides to choosing and placing perennials.
Here are few of the best:
- Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture by Toby Hemenway (Chelsea Green, 2009)
- Perennial Vegetables by Eric Toensmeier (Chelsea Green, 2007)
- Plants for a Future database: pfaf.org