Perennial Gardening means using plants that regrow every spring, instead of having only annual plants that live for one growing season, then die off. Perennials have a shorter blooming period, in comparison with annuals; on average, gardeners tend to use a combination of both plants in the growing space.
An Edible Perennial Garden includes as many perennial plants as possible, aiming to reduce work and inputs from year to year, while producing a yield of different types. The term “perennial” is also used to distinguish plants with little (or no) woody growth from trees and shrubs, which are also technically perennials.
While we want to state it’s important to move in the direction of perennials, we’ll look into a few situations so as to give you as many arguments as possible to make your own decisions.
What is your situation?
If this is your first time gardening, keep in mind that you can learn what works for you, as you go along.
Perennials provide you with more secure harvests and allow you to spend less time on maintenance. They are also able to withstand extreme weather, or other events, better than annuals.
Since they have a longer lifespan than annual plants, they require fewer inputs and less attention, beyond the establishment phase.
What options do you have in terms of plant availability?
When starting out, you might find your choices to be somewhat limited. Annual plants have the advantage of reproducing by seed, so they’re easier to “transport”; at the same time, perennials growing from root divisions, from cuttings, or from seeds, are harder to relocate. So at first glance, it’s easier to work with annuals if you’re looking to start from 0.
Also depending on your situation, some perennials might be difficult to come by. You can probably find edible perennials at some nurseries, and experienced gardeners might also be growing them. So this is why it is advisable to get in contact with community gardeners around you, for finding the plants and also for advice.
So a plausible scenario is you can start with annuals, and as you learn what you like to eat and what is successful in your setting, you replace annuals with the more stable perennials. But if you have the opportunity to include more perennials in your garden from the very beginning, don’t hesitate. The plants overall are much hardier, and if there’s dieback (late frost, snow, storms, etc), they can grow back from roots. The resilience will in turn allow you to focus on other plants, which might not be “available” as perennials, but only as annuals.
How much time are you available?
If you’re a beginner, time is of the most importance; it’s not only a question of how much total time you can dedicate to gardening, but also the frequency, and being able to constantly check the well-being of plants. This is the argument that strongly supports the choice of perennials.
Their root systems are capable of finding water and exchanging nutrients better than annuals; being that annuals need more Nitrogen for growth, that also puts pressure on the gardener to constantly provide inputs.
On average, harvesting perennials is also easier to manage than annuals, with a few exceptions, of course.
If you’re a more advanced gardener, you might already be using perennials; evolving towards even more will either allow you to have less work to do or free you up enough time that you can either grow more diverse crops.
Read more about how to start in Permaculture by clicking here.
What type of inputs do perennials need?
In comparison to annuals, perennials need the same basic nutrients, but in lesser quantities, especially nitrogen. As they live from one year to the next, they actually perform photosynthesis and exchange nutrients at the root level for a longer period, if not the full year (depending on the climate). Therefore, a perennial is more in tune with the environment; perennial plants exchange nutrients through symbiosis with bacteria and fungi. That means they are less demanding of you, the gardener, and also provide intrinsic inputs and functions for other plants.
Over the course of their life, perennials perform additional functions. They attract pollinators and other insects, the leaves provide nutrients for animals and the soil; their root systems can stop the advancement of weeds, and some are also medicinal.
Read more about function stacking here.
Varied Yields, Spread Over Time
Even the most hated edible perennial, such as blackberry, has so many yields that it’s impossible not to include it in gardens and emerging food forests: the fruit ripen gradually, so you can harvest over 2-4 weeks, even up to 6 weeks in certain cases. The leaves can be used for infusions, the new growth can be cut to infuse the growth hormone for sprouting seeds, and even the dead stems can provide valuable protection for young trees.
Compatibility With Animal Systems
Small domestic animals are great companions for perennial gardens, after the establishment period. Chickens will eat weeds, accelerate compost, and keeps pests under control; ducks eat slugs and snails, and their manure diluted in water can be used as fertilizer in the garden; rabbits will eat a lot of leaf material and help cycle nutrients, as will guinea pigs or other small animals; pigs turn over the soil and consume even weed roots and organic materials that would otherwise take longer to decompose.
Learn how to integrate Animal systems into your Perennial Garden, from Huw Richards: