Monday, January 25, 2010

On Perennials

When we began gardening with the aim of supplying a significant portion of our own food, something became apparent very quickly. Gardening is a lot of work, and the workload is not evenly distributed through the year. The most physically demanding and the most time-critical tasks must be done in the spring - especially when you are breaking ground for a new garden bed. It also becomes obvious that the majority of plants that people add to their gardens only give returns for a very short time. Most are annuals; a few are biennials that can be coaxed to actually yield in two calendar years. The perennials though - the perennials are golden treasures. Who wouldn't want to get many years of harvest for the effort of planting once?

Obviously, the nature of perennials is to be planted once and then harvested for many years. This is a good return on the gardener's investment of labor. Perennials range from fruit and nut trees, to flowers, to culinary and medicinal herbs, to sundry types of berries, and also include a few vegetables. I see some perennials as a sort of "natural" season extension. Because perennials store a lot of their energy in root systems, some of them are among the first plants to emerge in the spring, without the help of cold frames or hoop houses. The downsides to perennials include that many are purchased as rootstock or seedlings, and these can be quite a bit more expensive than seeds for annual garden plants, that most do not give yields immediately, and that you must be more deliberative in choosing a site for them, since they will remain there for many years. Granted, fruit and nut trees (as well as berries) take up quite a bit more space than a small patch of lettuce. They also create shade as they grow. But there are plenty of perennial food plants with small footprints on the ground. Grapes and other vines, for instance, take well to trellising and can occupy very little horizontal space if given nutrient-dense soil to grow in. Though most nut trees become very large as they reach maturity, hazelnuts and filberts (and hybrids of these two species) remain small enough for a pair to fit on a subacre lot without shading most of the property.

For the space devoted to a dwarf pear or dwarf apple tree, you could expect to harvest one hundred pounds of fruit in a good year, once the tree is mature. Permaculture also includes many techniques for maximizing the production of useful plants under and around fruit and nut trees.

On the balance the benefits seemed to us to outweigh the downsides. In 2008 and 2009 we planted many types of perennials on our property, and we'll put in a few more this year. Below I've listed the perennials we either inherited with the property, have already put in, or plan to put in this year.

Trees and shrubs
  • Cherry - standard may bear for 15-20 years, dwarf varieties probably less, best to have two types for pollination
  • Pear - reaches full bearing capacity in 8-10 years, may bear for 50-75 years, best to have two types for pollination
  • Fig - will be container grown in my zone (6a) and kept in unheated garage during winter, should bear for 15-20 years, new trees can be grown from cuttings
  • Lemon - will be container grown in my zone and kept indoors during winter, susceptible to scale and other citrus diseases
  • Lime - container grown, 3-year-old plant has not yet borne, kept indoors during winter, susceptible to scale and other citrus diseases
  • Apple - consider a very late season apple if yellow jackets on groundfalls are a concern, dwarf varieties may bear for 30 years, standard for 50-100 years
  • Hazelbert - (hazelnut/filbert cross) most growth in first three years is in root system, 8 years to maximum production, can bear for 30-50 years
  • Black Currant - best to have two types for pollination, can tolerate significant but not total shade, produces best fruit in full sun, bears for 10-20 years
  • Elderberry - two types needed for good pollination, (eventually) grows large enough for a privacy screen, reaches full bearing capacity in 3-4 years
  • Various thymes
  • Various sages
  • Chives
  • Chinese chives
  • Oregano - can be invasive, but can also be controlled by pruning or grown in containers
  • Lemon balm - both culinary and medicinal, can be invasive, but can also be controlled by timely pruning, important nectar source for honey bees
  • Various comfreys - multi-purpose, grows exuberantly but spreads only a certain amount unless roots are disturbed
  • Echinacea - medicinal, grows slowly, can be divided every three years
  • Spearmint - culinary, extremely invasive, best planted in a container
  • Anise hyssop - lovely sweet taste, pretty blooms are a favorite of the honey bee
  • Yarrow - multi-purpose, fast growing and spreads indefinitely - somewhat invasive
  • Ramps - onion relative, very shade tolerant, emerges very early, propagate by seed or division
  • Asparagus - needs 2-3 years to reach maximum production, can produce for up to 20 years, heavy feeder needing good soil
  • Ostrich ferns - emerge very early as edible fiddleheads, tolerant of significant shade
  • Jerusalem artichoke - edible tubers harvested fall/winter, spreads easily, difficult to eradicate once established, late season food source for bees
Cane and vine fruits
  • wineberries - wild volunteers in our area, appearance/flavor resembling raspberries, lovely sweet-tart taste, plants are of no interest to Japanese beetles
  • raspberries - purchased rootstock will bear by the 2nd year at latest, reaches full bearing capacity in 3-4 years, may bear for 10 years
  • blueberries - can bear lightly in "1st" year if 3-year-old plants are used, pinching off blossoms in first few years helps the plant grow larger sooner, reaches full bearing capacity in 8 years, may bear for 50+ years
  • blackberries - purchased rootstock will bear by the 2nd year at latest, reaches full bearing capacity in 3-4 years, may bear for 25 years
  • grapes - purchased rootstock may bear in 2nd or 3rd year, may bear for 50 years

I have listed here only the perennials that we already have on our property or will plant this year. There are many other perennials to choose among, especially if you live in a warmer zone than I do. We are right on the line of feasibility for peach trees. Just a few miles north of here, and there's no chance of a peach harvest without the protection of a good microclimate. In our area peaches succeed in some years and are wiped out by frost in others. We like peaches, but not those odds, so peach trees were off our list.

Many reseeding or "self-sowing" annuals function like perennial plants in some ways. These plants grow, reproduce, and die every year, but their offspring grow in the same place without human intervention. Consider this sub-set of annual plants if you can't find a true perennial for the purpose you desire.

Much of the information listed above comes from my own observation. I've also drawn on charts in Edible Forest Gardensby Dave Jacke, a dense but invaluable reference book on perennial plants of use in permaculture design.


Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree with you more that when planting a garden/yard it's best to mix in edible perrenials. We have 5 cherry trees lining our driveway, 3 blueberries and an artichoke as part of our backyard landscape as well as an apple tree and a Cot N Candy aprium we just planted in two cut out planting beds in our deck. We have grapes on the arbor in the front yard and parsley growing as an accent plant in our rock garden. We try and think of something we can plant that's edible (and pretty) when landscaping now.

The Mom said...

I'm working on adding perrenials as well. This year the plan is to add strawberries and asparagus to the mix of fruit trees and bushes.

Wendy said...

Edible perennials are an important part of permaculture, and really, if I had to chose (which I may in the very near future), I'd rather have an established perennial garden than all of the annuals put together ... except maybe potatoes (and maybe we could actually sub Jerusalem artichokes for potatoes - although they don't keep as well once harvested ;).

mamafitz said...

i live in zone 5 and i have a peach tree. i planted it, oh, i think 3 years ago. this past summer was my first harvest, and i got a lot of peaches. i can't remember what kind it is (silly me did not save the tag). i gave away SO many peaches and made jam. next fall i am going to try peach wine.

Aimee said...

Great list!
I must say I was surprised by the short life span you give many trees. Having grown up on an old farmstead, I know firsthand that 80 year old apples and pears can still bear heavily; and of course grapes are famously long lived. I certainly hope cherries will bear for more than 20 years! I have a fifteen year old cherry that still appears very youthful and slim, I expect heavy harvests for many years to come.
In addition to fruit trees, we have filberts and raspberries, and all the wild blackberries a person could want (and then some). In the past, I have been very happy with artichokes as a perennial crop: my plants bore respectably for almost ten years.
Asparagus of course, but how about rhubarb?

Kate said...

Anon, sounds like you have the same approach to using your property as we do. Bit by bit, I'm turning every square foot into productive use.

The Mom, good for you. Keep at it, and remember you don't have to get it all done in a single year.

Wendy, until I track down some seeds for perennial kale, I couldn't give up the annuals/biennials. Too many favorite vegetables in that category. From what I've seen of Jerusalem artichokes, I won't be trading the spuds for them anytime soon. But more power to you if you do.

Mamafitz, well, either you've got an exceptionally hardy peach variety, or you've put it in a suitable microclimate. These crop up in many places, if one knows where to look.

Aimee, the productive span data was mostly drawn from the book I mentioned in the post. Keep in mind that a) these spans are averages across a species with many hundreds of varieties in some cases, and b) the span refers to the *productive* years of each tree or bush, not the total lifetime. Not only are there exceptional varieties and specimens, but performance varies by soil, climate, care and other factors. Also, research into these data are ongoing.

As for rhubarb, it's not mentioned here because I've not yet considered planting it since we are not fans of the vegetable. That said, I am going to work on that by buying some at market and seeing if I can prepare it in ways we enjoy. Perhaps next year.

Tamar@StarvingofftheLand said...

Kate -- Were you listening at the keyhole when my husband and I were discussing our spring garden plans? I've been a huge fan of perennials ever since my childhood mint garden, and we're doing asparagus, blueberries, and apple trees, at the very least, this year. But I had no idea that ramps were perennial, and they're now going on my list. And a nut tree! Everyone should have a nut tree. Thanks for a great list.

thesimplepoppy said...

This is something I haven't ever thought of, and not just because I don't have anything to plant perennials on, but that I've never thought of gardening in those terms before. I mean I've thought about having a grape arbor or fruit trees, but somehow it didn't strike me that one could PLAN an entire edible perennial garden. It's kind of awesome to think that large part of your produce would simply be coming back year after year. Your list is impressive, I'm definitely going to think about this more, especially if we ever get a little property. I actually thought this post was going to be about flowers, which I thought was kind of weird!

Kate said...

Tamar, yes, I have in fact been listening at your keyhole. A mysterious sense of propriety has however kept me from *looking* through your keyhole. So your secrets are relatively safe. I'm impressed with your wrapped up fig tree. I've heard there are folks willing to do that here. I'd rather drag the thing inside the garage for the winter, though if I'm honest I'm not sure dragging a 100-200# container is going to be any easier than wrapping up an increasingly large tree. But I guess I'll find out.

SimplePoppy, this post was expressly meant for you, then. I too was a bit thunderstruck when the idea of edible food forests struck me. I *strongly* recommend you explore the concept of permaculture, starting with googling for Geoff Lawton videos and also reading the unfortunately titled book, Gaia's Garden. It's better than it sounds, I promise. It's a pretty exciting idea.

Siegfried said...

Kate: I am reading Gaia's Garden right now, quite interesting (even for me, and believe me, I am not a gardener at all). I will watch videos you suggested as well, cheers.

Kate said...

Siegfried, glad to hear you are enjoying Gaia's Garden. Perhaps we'll make a gardener of you yet. If you like the book, I'm sure you will enjoy any of the Geoff Lawton videos you come across as well.