This week I was asked about whether we could incorporate perennials into GrowVeg.com garden plans, so that they stayed in position for the next year. It’s definitely something we would like to do and it set me thinking about the value of these plants on a vegetable plot. It turns out that there is a growing movement extolling the benefits of growing perennial plants for food. After all, perennials were once a much greater part of our ancestors’ diets and they are great for the land since they don’t involve all the soil disturbance (and hence erosion) associated with agriculture. But are they really that viable for the home gardener?
Most of the popular vegetables that we grow are annuals or biennials. Annuals germinate, grow and produce ‘fruit’ or edible leaves within one growing season. Biennials, such as carrots, have a natural lifecycle of two years – they put down good roots in the first year and then produce flowers and seed the next. In most cases we want the edible roots, not the seeds, so we harvest them at the end of the first year.
There are a few perennials that are commonly eaten – asparagus, globe artichokes and rhubarb are good examples. Others, such as tomato plants, can be perennial in nature if given a mild enough climate. Many more examples exist when it comes to fruit – indeed most fruit comes from trees and bushes which are naturally perennial plants. In order to supply a good range of food however, it’s necessary to think a bit wider. Here the hunter-gatherer analogy comes in again – what about growing hazelnuts or chestnuts?
I’m certainly not in any hurry to throw out all my regular vegetables but I can see some distinct advantages in looking at perennials. They may take more effort, time and expense to establish but they will pay back handsomely in all these areas after a few years. With flooding and high winds an increasing reality of life for many people, perennials offer a more robust crop. And they usually require less maintenance than annual crops which are constantly struggling to beat the weeds growing up around them.
In fact the more I consider it, the more sense it makes. One of the main reasons that annuals are favoured over perennials in commercial production is that they are easier to mass-harvest. But that’s not half as much of an issue for home gardeners. In fact, time spent harvesting is often one of the most enjoyable parts of what we do and fruit bushes give some of the most valuable produce when measured by grocery store prices. Commercial producers may want uniformity of crop but on our plots a variety of perennial bushes and plants encourages wildlife, spreads the harvest and deters pests. (If you want a really radical justification then check out an organisation called Plants for a Future)
So, I’ve decided to give perennials a much higher priority. This week I used the excellent advice on the RHS site about taking cuttings from fruit bushes, together with a nice blog post on Landscape Juice about how not to stake trees and bushes. I now have blackcurrant and raspberry cuttings to go with my cordon apples. Next season I fancy trying globe artichokes. The results may take a while but I’m sure in a few years I’ll be smiling and reaping the benefits.