This article was originally published in Permaculture Design Magazine.
By Chris Smith
Perennial based food systems. This is one of those terms that is easily thrown around in casual permaculture conversations, conjuring up utopic images of lounging in the sun eating grapes (muscadines, where I live) or plucking ripe pears from laden branches. This is a lovely dream, but our current model of energy intensive annual systems is pretty entrenched. I understand the importance of goal setting and envisioning, but we also need to know how to get there. This is where transitional strategies come in.
On one side of a chasm is our current annual based food system, on the other is a perennial based food system. If we try jumping from one side to the other it is likely we will fall and be eaten by crocodiles (or whatever other sinister creature lives at the bottom of your imaginary chasm of failure). What we need is a bridge. A bridge is a transitional strategy to get us from one place to another without failing or falling. A bridge shows us the way. This article offers some simple ideas on how to incorporate perennials into annual systems as we collectively shift from majority annual to majority perennial foods. The ideas can be applied in the home garden, the community garden and even scaled to the farm system (especially if no till methods, as described by John Wages in the last edition of Permaculture Design Magazine, are employed).
Opportunities for Perennial’s in the Annual Garden
In the annual garden there are always prime planting spots. The areas of wonderful loose soil, easy to access beds or full sun exposure. If it’s a good site with a well designed system then a majority of the garden may be considered prime. But there will always be nooks and crannies. The corners and edges that are hard to seed and harvest, the useless gaps, the wasted spaces. This is the first level where perennials can be utilized.
Below is a simple breakdown of some ways to get more perennials into your annual garden area, with a few specific perennial options. When you start looking for perennials you will realize that there are a lot of options, which will vary depending on your location. You’ll often read the statement: Perennials grown as annuals, for example peppers can overwinter in southern California, but not in the mountains of Western North Carolina (I have to overwinter my pepper plants in pots in my basement, or start from seed each year).
COMFREY, to my mind, is a wonder plant. I started with one comfrey plant. The second year I dug it up and hacked off some root chunks and potted them on. I obliterated the rest of the root system with a spade and dug those small chunks into a long fence line shallow trench. The year after I had a dense comfrey hedge. Comfrey has beautiful early pink-purple flowers that the bees love, and the deep tap roots mine nutrients and bring them into the leaves. I have a comfrey plant at the end of each raised bed and chop the larger leaves throughout the season to throw on the beds as a green manure. I also soak bunches of the leaves in buckets of water and use the (diluted) green-black liquid to water my heavy feeding annuals.
SOCHAN is another flowering plant that can be easily incorporated into an annual garden. I plant sochan on northern corners or edges as it can get quite tall once established. The edible leaves arrive early and last all summer and the multi-headed flowers are great pollinator attractors (Sochan is a coneflower, species: Rudbeckia hirata). I’ve found sochan growing in shaded understories and woodland edges, so it could be a good contender for any shaded areas in the annual garden. Once you’ve experienced sochan, you’ll certainly want more of it. While fairly easy to start from seed (it requires cold stratification), sochan can also be propagated by root division.
CREEPING THYME is a wonderful herb to work with because it can grow as a living path. You’ll have weed suppression, soil stabilization and a heavenly fragrance with every step (How about that? Utopian dream). Another perennial I love to use for similar purposes is DUTCH WHITE CLOVER. Dutch White Clover makes a good living mulch between my raised beds. It requires some level of control to prevent unwanted spread, but the bees love the flowers, it fixes nitrogen and suppresses weeds. Note: Dutch White Clover fits into many guilds as a groundcover. I use it between rows of blackberries and as understory for fruit trees.
Perennial herbs offers up some small woody shrubs, which can add structure and dimension to an annual garden. My mum roots out LAVENDER cuttings and lines her main pathways with them. When they flower, walking down a lavender bordered path can be like entering a wind tunnel with all the buzzing of pollinators. ROSEMARY can achieve a similar effect. I used these shrubs to mark entrances; a rosemary gateway to welcome me to my garden.
Then there are the classic beneficial relationships between herbs and vegetables, many of which are perennial. Bee Balm for tomatoes (thought to improve growth and flavor). Catnip to control aphids (or rather, control the ants that are farming the aphids!). Chives for carrots (thought to improve growth and flavor). Oregano with broccoli (to repel the cabbage moth). Instead of having a dedicated herb garden, intermix herbs throughout your vegetable plot for the flowers, the fragrance and the farmacy!
A quick shout out to SORREL. There are some good variety options for this perennial green. I love the way it tastes - especially cooked up with scrambled eggs! I’ll sneak sorrel into the garden wherever I can, and it’s another good candidate for semi-shaded areas.
Most people who grow perennial vegetables cultivate a separate bed or separate garden area for their perennials. I encourage you to diversify AND integrate. There is nothing that makes me happier than great stalks of red RHUBARB sprouting at the end of my cabbage row. Crop rotation and row cultivation is still an option, but an leaving an end block on each row or a corner in each bed is an easy way to incorporate perennials.
ASPARAGUS needn’t have it’s own patch. The crowns prefer wide spacing, which offers the opportunity to interplant quick growing early spring edibles like radish, beets and greens. Think of this as a miniature form of alley cropping (a technique where farms can slowly transition from annual production to perennial by sowing annual rows between tree crop rows until the trees grow to fill the space). Later in the season asparagus benefits from tomato and basil companionship, which will ward off asparagus beetles. Asparagus in turn can deter nematodes.
Asparagus and Rhubarb are long lived perennials. When I was 9 months old my family moved to a house with an established patch of rhubarb. It's still productive over 3 decades later.
HORSERADISH has a bad reputation for taking over garden spaces, but I don’t mind it. The leaves are edible and medicinal and the root makes the best vinegar for fiery salad dressings. The plant is quite stunning with long tropical-esque leaves. If the unwanted spread is a major concern, or you are operating in a tight space, then horseradish will grow in containers. I have an edgeline that is being invaded by bermudagrass and I decided to fight fire with fire by planting horseradish against that edge - I’m in the second season and it seems to be working.
YACON (aka Bolivian Sunroot) and JERUSALEM ARTICHOKE (aka Sunchoke) - both grow edible tubers below ground and beautiful foliage and flowers above ground. Sunchokes can spread quite rapidly and are a good option for pioneer cropping in poor soil. Bolivian Sunroot requires a little more care (in Western North Carolina I have to overwinter the crowns in buckets of sand in my basement). Both these plants produce winter storage tubers, which make them a strong candidate for any edible landscape.
I’ve saved my favorite for last: EGYPTIAN WALKING ONIONS. Everything about this plant is edible and it just keeps growing. The green shoots are harvested as scallions through fall and winter. The flowering heads produce small onion bulbs, which then send up more scallion like shoots, which then produce more little bulbs (eventually falling to the ground under the weight and putting down roots to start a new plant). The main bulbs can be harvested much like shallots or perennial onions. Being an alium they make good companions to most of the brassicaceae family. I tend to border one or two edges of a growing bed with Egyptian Walking Onions and plant my brassicas inside.
Trellised plants like grapes and blackberries make good use of garden fence lines and don’t normally get so tall that they’d block the high summer sun. I like to plant micro strawberry patches everywhere instead of maintaining a whole bed - they put out new runners so readily that I find this an easy way to keep a fresh productive population.
Opportunities for Annuals in the Perennial Garden
There are some great advantages to this:
- Perennials often require multiple years to become productive, whereas annuals will produce in the year the seed is sown.
- Perennials often start off small and dramatically increase in size at full maturity. Appropriate spacing for mature growth will offer large areas of growing land in the interim.
- Perennials often have deeper root networks, tapping into different nutrient and water layers than annuals.
I have a variety of tomato called, MATT'S WILD CHERRY. It was so aggressive and self seeded so readily that I knew it would be a good candidate to truly return to the wild. I now let it do it’s thing between by berry plants as they grow to fill the space. We had this variety in our Sow True Seed gardens where it scaled a nearby dogwood tree (we actually had to climb the tree to harvest the fruit). In the Southeast I see GROUND CHERRIES growing wild along roadsides, another good self-seeding annual to incorporate into transitional areas.
Annual cover crops make good additions for soil building areas. I like using daikon (good eating) or NITRO RADISH for compacted soil areas. There are some great cover crop mixes that I sometimes let flower (I’m using a SUMMER COVER CROP MIX this year from Sow True Seed that has Cowpea, Sunn Hemp, Pearl Millet, Flax, Oats, Sunflower and Radish).
Long season roaming crops like SWEET POTATOES (technically a perennial in warmer climates) make great pioneer crops for in between spaces. I’ve found that sweet potatoes will produce quite respectfully in poor soil (and even compacted soil) and the roaming vines help with weed pressure.
I’m all about being creative with plants and space in the garden. Over time, what we we should see is a blurring of the distinction between annual and perennial garden spaces, between farmland and forest. And with any luck, perhaps one day we’ll find ourselves eating muscadines in Utopia.