Perennial plants and plantings (by definition, those living for more than two years) can be daunting. For starters, there is the extra cost. For many plants you’ll be buying bulbs, potted plants or even trees, all of which cost more than seeds.
There is also the necessity for careful planning. True, the best annual gardens emerge when you know your soil’s texture, fertility and drainage and what each of your plants prefers. But with perennial plantings, it’s essential.
Lastly, perennials of various kinds bring with them the need to develop new and special skills sets. Pruning woody growth, dividing crowns—these are things you will want to learn for maintaining your perennial areas.
So is adding perennials to your homestead truly worth it? You bet!
There are many advantages to perennial crops, whether fruits, flowers, vegetables or herbs. Because of their multiseasonal, established nature, they greatly contribute to the organic matter, porosity and water-holding capacity of the soil, meaning that over time, they’ll be able to produce increasingly better crop outcomes.
Root systems, having years in which to grow, will reach to lower-level soil minerals and moisture and establish beneficial relationships with mycorrhizal fungi. This will also enhance their ability to reach these resources. The result is increased drought resistance as well as a measure of disease and pest resistance and a more mineral-rich foodstuff in the case of edibles.
Perennials kept in good shape will pay for themselves and more, not requiring the repeated outlay of money annuals do. Consistent mulching will help with this maintenance by suppressing weeds as well as conserving moisture, which also helps to diminish the need for intensive watering routines required with annuals.
Perennials remove the pressure for speedy yet well-timed soil bed preparation in the changeable spring weather as well. The planting of crops can often be delayed until conditions are more ideal.
Perennials will extend your fresh food eating throughout the year. Many of the herbs and vegetables are harvested in spring in advance of the annuals found in a typical outdoor garden. Others offer foodstuffs throughout the season and into the autumn months as the annual garden is ending. This includes some leaf and shoot crops but also many roots and nuts.
And if you raise enough variety of fruits, you can establish a constant supply of food for the entire growing season. Additionally, many perennial crops offer rather high yields, especially when considered in terms of “per footage of plants.”
Many perennials are such beautiful plants that they will ornament your homestead in addition to their other benefits. Plus, they’re advantageous in sales and marketing terms. Many are rare and pricey when sold, yet the higher cost, space and specialized skills growing them requires often makes them less attractive for growing to potential customers of yours who may be dabbling with an annual garden.
Before you plant all your garden space to perennials, let’s acknowledge their drawbacks. To begin with, many perennial edibles are simply foreign to the American diet. This could be a great opportunity to try something new, but not everyone likes the unfamiliar.
Some have strong or unique flavors.
Though (as perennials) their plants are always present and growing. They aren’t always at the edible stage and do have to be managed/cut back to encourage the proper growth. Some perennials are slow to establish (certainly all are slower than annuals). It may be several years before it’s time to harvest from them.
If they do develop pest or disease issues, you won’t be able to move them away from it as crop rotation can achieve in the annual garden.
Perennial areas can foster the growth of perennial weeds, which are tenacious by nature and, given the lack of tilling, doubly difficult to be rid of. Some perennials (especially flowers and herbaceous and caning fruits) will grow so thickly that they must thinned to be kept in productive shape. Lastly, there are perennials which are so hardy, adaptable and prolific that they can become “weeds” and expand into areas not intended for them.
Read more: Grow these perennial herbs for tasty tea.
Perennial plants need to be carefully placed on your homestead as they’ll be more or less permanent. You must take their light level, moisture and soil preferences into account and consider their future size and shape (particularly with bushes and trees). If tillage is part of your annual garden maintenance, you’ll need to keep your perennials somewhat removed from annual areas so that damage isn’t done to their roots.
Permaculture designs are an increasingly popular way to build perennials into your landscape and garden. This is done by layering plants to construct a plant guild in which above and below ground spaces are all occupied with different plants at each level.
This allows for the addition of many different species in a relatively small space, and by imitating natural ecosystems (as permaculture is meant to), it fosters greatly beneficial relationships between plants, soil/soil organisms and insects. Typically, fruit or nut trees form the anchors of the plantings, with herbaceous and vining plants, fruiting canes and shrubs filling in their understories.
Plant guilds are based on more than sharing space effectively. Nitrogen-fixing plants will benefit their closest neighbors, as will those that produce quantities of aboveground biomass and/or mobilize soil minerals. Taller members of the guild can act as trellises for vining plants and/or offer shade to those which thrive with some protection from the sun. Managed herbaceous plants in the understory will function as weed barriers. Also, any plants especially attractive to beneficial insects will be to the betterment of the whole guild.
A plant will only be a perennial in your area if it’s hardy enough (and your winter is mild enough) for it to survive. I live in hardiness zone 5, where perennial herbs are numerous and include garlic and onion chives, oregano, thyme, lemon balm, winter savory and many mints, to name a few.
Flowering perennials with marketing value (and general beauty) include daffodil, delphinium, dianthus, foxglove, hydrangea, lavender, lupine, narcissus, peony and pussy willow.
Most fruits come from perennial plants, whether they’re herbaceous (e.g., rhubarb and strawberries), caning (raspberries and blackberries), bushing (currants and blueberries), or trees (pears and apples). There are so many fruits that’ll grow in the temperate areas (not to mention varieties of the same); it would take too much space to name them all.
But given the variety of forms, it’s clear they’ll fill many niches in a perennial area.
Perennial vegetables are particularly interesting to the homesteader for various reasons. Asparagus is probably of chief commercial interest and an excellent crop for selling your excess to make good money. Sea kale and sorrel are apt examples of crops that “travel” poorly and so will be missing from your plate if you don’t grow them yourself.
If you have never made your own horseradish, then you have never had good horseradish. The homemade quality is incredible.
And bunching onions define convenience. They lack the rigid scheduling of annual scallions for planting and harvest but offer a phenomenal end result of which you can pick as much or little as you want at your leisure.
Here are more details of some of the most common perennial vegetables.
The popular spring favorite is one of the best-known perennial vegetables. Fully mature beds, kept fertile, can produce an almost daily harvest for more than a month.
Bunching or Egyptian Walking Onion
This allium is planted in late summer and can be harvested and used as a scallion later that year or the following spring. Their seed stalks produce small bulbils which can serve as tiny onions and/or be allowed to “walk” down to the ground to plant themselves again!
The tangy, almost lemony taste of these leaves is usually used to add flavor to soups, stews, salads and sauces. Common sorrel (Rumex acetosa) grows up in the spring. It will eventually go to seed, but cutting mature leaves down to just above ground level will cause the plant to send up new, young leaves once more.
Note: It’s usually used in moderate quantities and/or cooked to avoid an excess of the oxalic acids present in the leaves.
Horseradish root makes an incomparable condiment and fermentation ingredient. It is best to harvest the roots when the plants are dormant. Having done their most substantial sizing up in late summer and early autumn, the two ideal harvest times are autumn after a killing frost or early spring as green shoots are just beginning to show.
Often used as a celery substitute, it is the lovage leaves that are harvested. Its more assertive flavor (than celery) means fewer leaves are required to impart their terrific taste. Young leaves should be harvested. Growing plants can be cut back two or even three times during the summer (prior to flowering) to encourage regrow and another crop!
Sea Kale or Crambe
Crambe maritima has edible shoots, roots, leaves, florets, flowers and seed pods (which look like green peas). It also has a bushy growth habit and, yes, tastes like kale. Exceptional for its tolerance of salty soils, it can be grown almost anywhere with decent drainage and loose soil (to at least a 12-inch depth). Once established (after three years), it can be managed around harvests, though it tends to peak in spring and early summer.
Jerusalem Artichoke or Sunchokes
Helianthus tuberosus—the underground tubers of this plant can be eaten raw or cooked. Allow plants to die back and begin harvesting after the first frost. Tubers don’t store well, so dig as needed before the soil freezes (and the residual tubers will produce next year’s harvest).
Watercress should be continuously cut back to encourage the leafy, young, tender growth that is best for eating. Not surprisingly, it must be grown in soil that is continuously damp-to-wet. But when kept happy, it will be back year after year.
Though garlic, shallot, radicchio, kale, kai-lan/gailan (Chinese broccoli/kale), early purple sprouting broccoli, scarlet runner bean and even Irish potato are commonly grown as annuals, they can be managed as perennials—particularly if you’re only interested in household-scale production.
Depending on the crop, the use of hard cutting back, harvesting/leaving residuals, preserved growth/regrowth, self-seeding and, in all cases, heavy protective winter mulching can be used to produce perennial beds of these crops—with a little bit of practice!
The Truly Unique
In addition to the more commonplace perennial edibles, many plants which aren’t yet widely embraced in the Western diet are well worth a look!
- Bronze Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare ‘purpureum’ and F. vulgare ‘rubrum’), also called smokey fennel. Possessing the same licorice flavor, its feathery leaves can be used as a culinary herb interchangeably with the fennel found in annual gardens (but don’t harvest the bulb, as this will kill the plant).
- Cornelian Cherry (Cornus mas), a member of the dogwood family with fruits that resemble coffee berries in appearance and a cranberry/sour cherry hybrid in taste.
- Daylily (Hemerocallis spp.), commonly grown here as yard ornamentation and not for their edible flower buds which are used as green bean substitutes or battered and fried in other parts of the world.
- Good King Henry (Chenopodium bonus-henricus), a spinach relative whose shoots, leaves and flower buds are much valued in Europe.
- Groundnut (Apios americana), a vining, nitrogen-fixing plant with protein-rich, potatolike tubers for autumn eating.
- Honeyberry (Lonicera caerulea), also called haskap, is ready to harvest in June. Its sweetly tart or tartly sweet taste defies definition, having been likened to grapefruit, grapes, kiwi and tart cherries, or as an amalgamation of blueberry and raspberry with either strawberry, rhubarb or black currant and elderberry undertones.
- Ostrich Fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris), again grown as ornamentals when you should be eating their fiddleheads.
- Salad Burnet (Sanguisorba minor), an uncommon herb whose leaves have a decorative appearance and cucumber-
Perennial plants have more to offer than simply dependable crops. They perform a variety of functions which will benefit the environment at large as well as your homestead, including:
- atmospheric carbon sequestering
- building topsoil
- reducing water dependency
- fostering a healthy (tillage-free) soil food web
- erosion control (as ground covers or hedges)
- providing habitat and food sources for beneficial insects and pollinators
- providing habitat and food sources for wildlife
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2023 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.