What's So Special About Perennial Vegetables For Your Garden?
Perennials offer something that annual gardening can't, your efforts in planting them only happen once, and after that very little care is required, so you just sit back and relax and collect the bountiful harvest.
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Combine permaculture gardening techniques and edible landscaping ingenuity in your garden by growing perennial vegetables. You’ll be surprised by how little work garden perennials require when compared with the work you expend growing annuals. Plus, our list of best perennials and resources guide will get you started with this sustainable, practical gardening technique.
Suppose a new agricultural breakthrough promised higher yields, a longer growing season and much less work. These claims can become real benefits for those willing to make a change to a way of gardening that more closely mimics nature.
Nature’s ecosystems always include not only annual vegetables, but also perennials — edible roots, shoots, leaves, flowers and fruits that produce year after year. Besides fruit-bearing trees and shrubs, more than 100 species of perennial vegetables grow well in North America.
By growing perennials, you’ll create a more diverse garden that ultimately needs less from you: You’ll spend less time working and more time harvesting.
“It’s as close to zero-work gardening as you can get,” says Eric Toensmeier, author of Perennial Vegetables. “Our perennial vegetable beds planted 11 years ago still bear food, and all we do is add compost and mulch once a year.”
What’s more, growing perennials extends the harvest season without a greenhouse, cold frame or other device. You can harvest Jerusalem artichokes all winter as long as you mulch enough to keep the ground from freezing.
“Some perennial crops, such as sorrel, are up and ready to eat in March when the snow is melting,” says Toensmeier, who gardens in Massachusetts. “Most of our springtime food harvest comes from perennials. By the time they’re finished, the annual vegetables are coming in.”
Growing perennial vegetables doesn’t mean giving up tomatoes, peppers and other annual crops. You can experience the amazing benefits of perennial edibles simply by rethinking your existing garden plan and pioneering new, unused areas of your landscape.
3 Ways to Incorporate Garden Perennials
Design and planning are critical parts of “perennializing” your food garden: After your new perennial edibles have put down roots, they’ll be set for years to come. There are three basic design approaches:
1. Push the Envelope. “One method to begin perennial edible gardening is to expand the edges of an already established garden,” says Bethann Weick, garden educator at D Acres, an organic permaculture farm and educational homestead in Dorchester, N.H. Perennial vegetables do well in beds devoted only to perennials because their extensive root systems grow undisturbed by digging and cultivating. However, interplanting with annuals can also be a successful strategy and one way to control erosion in your perennial garden.
To expand your garden’s edges, hand-dig or till a 3- to 4-foot-wide perimeter bed on one or more sides. Or, if you’re willing to wait a year to plant, follow Weick’s easy sheet mulch method to prepare the site: “Cover your lawn with four layers of cardboard, and top that with a thick layer of wood chips,” she says. “Place compost beneath the cardboard layers for additional fertility. Within a year, the grass will die and the mulch will become rich organic matter ready for planting.” Other locally available mulch materials work equally well, Weick says. For instance, thick layers of newspaper could be topped with shredded leaves or grass clippings.
If space or conditions won’t allow you to expand your garden’s edges, you can experiment and create a perennial vegetable border within the bounds of your existing vegetable garden.
2. Dive into Edible Landscaping. If you already grow a perennial ornamental border or foundation shrubs, consider integrating some perennial vegetables, such as sea kale or sorrel. Many have attractive leaves or flowers, and they won’t become so aggressive that they overtake ornamentals. If your gardening space is limited, try growing perennial vegetables — especially greens — in containers.
Take advantage of currently unused areas of your landscape, matching the conditions to the appropriate perennial edibles.
“One of the things I love about growing these foods is that there are different ones for different niches,” says Toensmeier. “Not all require full sun and loamy soil the way most annual vegetables do. You can grow many perennial greens and herbs — such as wild leeks — on the shady north side of the house, below trees, in a wet site or in other unused areas of your property.”