When you think about growing food in your home garden, which plants come to mind first? Do you think of tomatoes, peas, green beans, cucumbers, and other veggies, or do you think of strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, and fruit trees?
Here’s a question to consider: If you could put in a little more planning up front to get a harvest with less effort later, would you?
Today I’m going to talk about the benefits of adding perennial food crops to your edible landscape.
What are perennial food crops?
Perennial food crops are plants that come back year after year. They can be anything from veggies like rhubarb and asparagus, some culinary and medicinal herbs, berry bushes like blueberries, gooseberries, and currants, and fruit trees like apples, citrus, pears, and figs. Of course, the cold hardiness of each plant will determine whether or not they are perennial food crops in your specific location.
What benefits do perennial plants offer home gardeners?
Low maintenance food source
Low input food source
Low maintenance garden
Year-round interest in your home garden
Adds structure and depth to your home landscape
Increased diversity (which means less chance of disease and pest damage)
Ability to provide multiple functions in your landscape (food +):
Privacy border or screen
Food for pollinators
Let’s take a closer look at each of these benefits:
Low Maintenance Food Source
Perennial plants generally require less maintenance than annual plants. Why? Once perennial plants are established, they often don’t need too much additional care. They require less water because of their deep, well established root systems. This means less time watering (and less expense) for you. Perennials don’t need to be planted each year, so you skip the whole process of starting seeds indoors, preparing the soil in your garden beds, planting, mulching, watering, and regular weeding. Instead, perennial plant care looks more like this:
determine where to plant your trees, shrubs, and perennials (a high quality edible landscape design is highly recommended to avoid wasted time, money, amateur mistakes, and tons of frustration)
create your bed lines
plant your trees, shrubs, perennials
sheet mulch the surrounding garden area
water regularly to establish new plants
prune every year or two as needed (this varies depending on the type of plant)
add more mulch as needed (every year or two)
weed occasionally (deep mulch prevents most weeds and will also reduce the need for irrigation)
harvest each year! (perennial plants and berry bushes often begin producing sooner than fruit trees)
Low Input Food Source
After the initial design, garden prep, planting, and establishment of edible perennial plants, there isn’t much more your plants will need. They will simply continue to grow over time and fill in their designated space in your edible landscape. Other occasional inputs might include fertilizer (or simply the addition of compost), water during long periods of draught, and pruning as necessary for each particular plant. All of your work up front will quickly pay off as your harvests increase every year afterwards.
Low Maintenance Garden
Picture a huge vegetable garden. This can be a really gorgeous sight, right? Now, picture a mature landscape filled with fruit trees, berry bushes, perennial herbs and food crops, and nooks and crannies for relaxing and socializing. Designed well, this is also a really appealing sight too, right?
Now, picture yourself in charge of planting, maintaining, and harvesting each of these landscapes. Which one would need more daily care and constant maintenance? Which one would allow you to relax more and simply enjoy your surroundings as you casually harvest food?
Now can you more easily picture the maintenance differences between annual and perennial edible gardens? The landscape with fruit trees, berry bushes, and perennial herbs and food crops will require less maintenance once it is planted. The large veggie garden will require a lot of energy at the beginning of each season, plus it also requires regular watering and weeding throughout every growing season.
Really well designed edible landscapes will include BOTH perennial and annual food crops. They are designed in such a way that the higher maintenance crops are super easy to access and maintain. Meanwhile, the lower maintenance perennial foods are placed in lower traffic areas and used to create structure and depth, plus a variety of other functions within your landscape.
Year-Round Interest in Your Home Garden
Although your fruit trees and berry bushes may have bare branches in cold winter climates, they still keep their structure and hold their space in the overall flow of the landscape all year. Winter landscapes with a variety of trees and shrubs offer an incredible amount of visual interest compared to only vegetable gardens which typically die back to the ground in winter.
Adds Structure and Depth to Your Home Landscape
With the addition of fruit trees and berry bushes in your landscape, you will automatically create a more visually interesting space. Designed with deep (wide) tree and shrub borders, your landscape will take on a new level of depth while the trees and shrubs add structure to your landscape. The variety of plant heights and shapes increases the visual interest in any yard. Landscapes with depth and structure create a sense of intrigue that draws people outside to explore and see what’s around the next corner.
Landscapes that lack plant diversity are more susceptible to plant disease and pest damage. Why? If you have a monoculture (large planting of a single plant species), it’s easy for diseases or pests to spread quickly through your crop. A wider variety of plants in your landscape will encourage a more diverse community of insects, animals, fungi, etc. This community will help maintain a balance in the landscape so that diseases and pests are less of a problem. Additionally, if there is an issue with a plant disease or pest, you are less likely to lose the majority of your harvest if you have a wide variety of plants since the disease or pest will typically focus on one specific type of plant. The rest of your harvest will likely be free of that disease or pest damage.
Multiple Functions Within Your Landscape
Like ornamental landscapes, edible landscapes can also be extremely beautiful and highly functional. Planting some (or the majority) of your edible landscape with perennial foods will provide you with so many more benefits that just a low maintenance food source. Designed well, your edible landscape can meet all of your landscape goals, from creating privacy and helping manage stormwater runoff to increasing shade in the summer. Whatever your landscaping goals are, they can almost always be addressed with a high quality design and edible plants.
These added functions within the landscape, plus the addition of a manageable-sized vegetable garden, will create the edible landscape of your dreams. This landscape will requires less maintenance and will yield more food than an annual veggie garden alone could ever produce.
I’d love to hear from you! Add your comments and questions below or tell us all about your gardening experience. Which plants do you love to grow? What problems have you run into? Do you prefer to grow perennials, annuals, or both?