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Growing your own food is one of the best ways to ensure a steady supply of healthy, fresh vegetables, fruits, and herbs all year round. While embarking on the journey to produce your own food is admirable, it is much more difficult than simply grabbing a pack of seeds and throwing them in some dirt. One of the most important things to learn is when to plant certain crops to ensure that they will thrive – and you’ll get to reap the awesome benefits. The basics of this learning process starts with differentiating between annuals and perennials.
Most of the modern diet is based on annual crops. Basic staples like corn, wheat and rice all have to be planted every year, as does most of our typical run of supermarket vegetables. And, while this is no condemnation of these foods, there is a different way to go about eating and plenty of good reasons — for the garden and the gardener — for doing it a little differently: cultivate and eat more perennial plants.
Perennial Versus Annual in the Garden
For those who get the terms mixed up or never quite understood, annual crops are those which must be grown from seed each season and die away after the harvest, and perennial are those which have longer life spans, sometimes a few years and often several decades. Perennial plants can include many varieties of fruits, veggies, legumes and nuts. Even so, nearly 80 percent of the plants we eat come from annual sources.
Unfortunately, annual plants are, ecologically speaking, the lesser of the two choices. Because they need to mature and produce seeds in a matter of months, they ask for much more of the soil, stripping it quickly of nutrients, especially in monocultures, where specific crops gobble up specific minerals. Annuals also demand plenty of drink to boot. Also, due to the brief lifespan, annual crops fail to develop a naturally functioning ecosystem, where plants and animals reach a healthy equilibrium. This is why fertilizers, intensive irrigation, and pesticides feature so prominently in contemporary farming.
On the other hand, perennial plants grow less intensively and produce much more in the long haul. They slowly establish a deeper root system, which, unlike annual, allows them to retrieve nutrients and water from for below the earth surface. This also helps a great deal with erosion issues, which are only escalated each time annual plants are uprooted. Having a longer life, perennial gardens also make an actual ecosystem, where plants and birds and bugs and fungi and other animals can find their appropriate niches and balance out. In other words, like a forest, a polyculture (more than one type of plant) perennial garden eventually, more or less, takes care of itself: no fertilizer necessary, no pesticide sprays, no watering system.
Perennial Versus Annual for the Gardener
There are many reasons why mixed perennials are good for the garden. They can eliminate the constant need for fertilizing and chemicals because, designed appropriately, the interplay between plants and animals will constantly revitalize the soil. Perennials also make sense for gardeners.
Annual crops, in addition to being hard for the environment, are also labor and cost intensive. Every year farmers go out to toil the soil, turning it for another go round, and plant a whole new collection of seeds for the next harvest. This process takes hours upon hour work, as well as requires loads of gas to run the tractors, usually buying in pounds upon pounds of new seeds (patented, thanks to Big Ag), and the cash to revitalize the constantly depleted soil.
Perennial plants, though, are more efficient. Once they are there, they are there for a while, continually providing a harvest. The soil is left alone, fed with fallen leaves and dropped branches (either through natural means or via pruning), and able to establish all of the life and microorganisms necessary. Each year the system becomes stronger, bigger and more productive rather than in constant need of rebooting. In other words, while being better for the planet, it requires much less work and much less money to plant perennials.
What Are Some Edible Perennial Plants
So, then, for those budding gardeners out there who have taken this information to heart and are looking to change things up, the big question is what plants are available. Luckily, there are loads of online lists to help, and of course, each climate will have its own variations and possibilities. But, to ride this wave of change right here and now, here are some plants to consider.
- Vegetables: asparagus, rhubarb, garlic, ginger, kale, radicchio, globe artichokes, watercress, bunching onions, Jerusalem artichoke, sorrel and several herb varieties
- Fruit and nuts: If it grows on a tree, then it’s going to be a perennial. Additionally, there are long-standing fruit, berry and nut bushes and vines of almost incalculable variety.
- Legumes: Scarlet runner, pigeon pea, ground nut, honey locust, redbud, Siberian pea shrub, Russian pea shrub, Pygmy pea shrub, moringa
Lead image source: Randy Robertson/Flickr