“Throughout the autumn, look out for wild strawberries and autumn raspberries, fuchsia berries, fresh new parsley, chervil, lambs lettuce, leaf celery, coriander, land cress, claytonia and more, plus established sorrel, wild rocket, salad burnet, sea beet and many perennial herbs…We are delighted to introduce this fascinating guest blog this week from Naomi Distill, the inspiration behind Incredible Edible St Albans, a project of FoodSmiles St Albans – and the winners of Environmental Champions in the St Albans Mayor’s Pride Awards 2019.
Permaculture Planting with Perennials and Self-Seeders
As a big believer in the value and reward of growing your own, I’ve been delighted to see the uptick in people turning their hands to veg gardening this year, whether due to a desire for more self-reliance, to boost their health, or simply because at last they had the time.
Perhaps you’re coming to the end of a glorious growing season in your garden or allotment, or maybe it didn’t go so well and you’re wondering how to do better next year. Maybe you’ve yet to try it and it all looks a bit too much like hard work.
Well, autumn is the time of year when we growers naturally start looking towards next season and wondering what we might do differently, and if you’re looking for a way to grow more food with less effort and resources (and who wouldn’t?), you might like to consider growing a few perennial edibles. After all, living an environmentally-friendly life is very often about using less energy, isn’t it?
What is Permaculture?
Permaculture is a set of design principles and techniques aimed at creating a self-regenerating and productive ecosystem. It begins with observing the plot, preserving what is good and enhancing what is already there, and works to obtain a useful yield by imitating natural systems.
In a permaculture garden, plants are chosen according to the conditions available, natural resources are captured onsite, all waste is reused or recycled, and interplanting and companion planting are used in ways that create beneficial associations, make the most of the space and keep pests in balance.
In a nutshell, it’s all about making the most of what nature has to offer within a space and getting the maximum benefit with the minimum input – all sustainably, in harmony with the environment.
Advantages of Perennials
Perennial plants are those that live for many years. Most popular vegetables are annuals – they live for one year, produce flowers and seeds thus completing their life cycle, and die – or biennials, which are typically harvested in their first year before they get the chance to flower and die in the second.
Perennials flower each year and keep coming back the next for another go. Some are short-lived and may last 3-5 years, others survive for hundreds. By growing more long-lasting perennial food plants in our gardens, we can create a harvest we can rely on year after year, in good times and bad, without buying new seeds, digging and preparing the soil, sowing and planting anew. Perennials are much used in permaculture for these reasons, and also because avoiding annual digging allows soil life and wildlife to thrive better undisturbed.
Perennials also tend to have bigger, deeper root systems than shorter-lived crops, sequestering more carbon in the soil for longer and making use of deeper soil nutrition and moisture – meaning that they need less feeding and less watering (once established). And perennials and self-seeders offer a bigger range of crops through the colder months and the ‘hungry gap’ too, when the courgette glut of summer is but a distant memory.
Most of our popular berries grow on perennial bushes, so those are a great place to start, and so is rhubarb, which can live for decades in the right spot. Autumn is a great time to plant these, so that they’re settled in ready for next season; why wait? Tree fruits are a great option too if you have the space!
Many herbs, of course, are familiar perennials too, such as rosemary, thyme, mint, sage, tarragon, bay, oregano and chives. For best results, remember to plant them in a suitable spot for their needs: mint and chives prefer a bit of damp, for example, while rosemary and thyme like a really dry, sandy soil in the sunniest place you’ve got. This is a great example of how traditional garden planting – typically putting all the herbs together in a dedicated bed – differs from permaculture planting, where plants are chosen according to the conditions!
A few common allotment veggies are perennial, including asparagus, artichokes and cardoons, and so are traditional root veg Jerusalem artichokes, skirret, salsify, and scorzonera – so long as you remember to put a few tubers or root sections back after digging, to regrow next year.
I think many of the most useful perennial crops are leafy greens: lettuces and spinach and suchlike can be quick to bolt and require a lot of successional sowing for consistent results, but perennial greens just look after themselves and sit there waiting to be picked. Sorrel, Good King Henry, sea beet, Caucasian vining spinach, salad burnet, pink purslane, common brighteyes, many types of chicory, wild rocket and wall rocket provide perennial alternatives for the salad bowl or spinach dishes for much of the year, with minimal input. Each has its season and many of them are best in the cold months, before you’ve even thought about sowing lettuce seeds yet! There are several perennial kales – try Daubenton’s, Taunton Deane or Pentland Brigg – though keeping the pigeons and butterflies off is as much of a challenge as with annual varieties!
There are many perennial leaf onions, so if you’re bored of trying to persuade spring onion seeds to germinate each year (is it just me that always finds those tricky??) then try Welsh onions, Hooker’s onions, everlasting onions or Babington’s leeks. Actually, some spring onion varieties (those called bunching onions) are perennial too – just snip them off at soil level and let them regrow, or dig up a few and leave the rest of the clump to multiply.
Wild garlic makes for a special perennial treat in spring. For small bulb onions, try Egyptian walking onions, which produce new tiny bulbs at the top after flowering, and then topple over and plant them nearby for you!
Lovage deserves a special mention; this little-grown perennial herb is a delight in spring, with leaves and stems similar to celery but a stronger, more aromatic flavour. Celery is a lot of bother to grow well, but low-maintenance lovage provides a very decent and nutritious alternative in many dishes!
Edible Wild Plants
Lots of edible wild plants – things you might forage in a woodland or meadow, if that’s your sort of thing – are also welcome in the permaculture garden: try dead nettles, garlic mustard (‘Jack-by-the-hedge’), red valerian, bladder campion, stinging nettles, common brighteyes, (one of my favourites!) dandelions, common mallow and oxeye daisy leaves for a start. Wild plants – undomesticated by humans – often have higher levels of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients than common veg, so it’s well worth incorporating them into your diet once in a while.
These are annual (or biennial) plants which resow themselves freely after flowering and thus come back year after year without intervention. They tend to have their season and then disappear for a while, but return as soon as conditions are right again. Of course, you must never harvest every plant, but always leave a few to drop their seeds and restart the cycle!
Some great edible self-seeders are claytonia (another personal favourite!), purslane, chervil, parsley, coriander, lambs lettuce, land cress, nasturtium, orache and leaf celery (aka cutting celery or par-cel). Most are low groundcover plants which can provide a lovely edible carpet under fruit bushes and trees, and generally fill in the gaps between other plants.
Low-maintenance isn’t no-maintenance, and for best results even a plot packed with the plants above will still benefit from occasional pruning, cutting back of faded leaves and flower heads, weeding out of intruders and thinning of self-seeders, not to mention supplementary watering in very hot dry weather. But it will also survive without you when it has to, and still have food to offer when you return, and most plants mentioned are much more resilient to pests than annual veggies tend to be.
One tip well worth remembering is that many greens become bitter-tasting after flowering or in hot or dry weather, but if you cut them right back and give them a drenching they’ll usually provide much tastier fresh growth.
Permaculture Planting in Action
You can see many of the plants mentioned above – and permaculture in action – at the two Incredible Edible gardens run by FoodSmiles in St Albans town centre. (Incredible Edible Civic Centre is more established in this regard.) The gardens are tended to only once a month (with some additional watering when conditions are extreme) and provide a range of herbs, leaves and berries all year round for you to pick your own free food. Throughout the autumn, look out for wild strawberries and autumn raspberries, fuchsia berries, fresh new parsley, chervil, lambs lettuce, leaf celery, coriander, land cress, claytonia and more, plus established sorrel, wild rocket, salad burnet, sea beet and many perennial herbs. Lots of these edibles can be picked right through winter! A full plant index is available on the FoodSmiles website.
Give it a Grow!
So whether you’re a seasoned allotmenteer or a total gardening novice – whether you’re imagining a diverse permaculture paradise right now or simply a few blackberry bushes with a groundcover of claytonia – I encourage you to plant a few perennial edibles before next spring, and reap easy rewards!
How to grow Perennial Vegetables by Martin Crawford
Edible Perennial Gardening by Anni Kelsey
How to make a Forest Garden by Patrick Whitefield
https://permacultureprinciples.com/ – an in-depth permaculture information resource
https://www.incrediblevegetables.co.uk/ – an organisation researching, promoting and supplying perennial vegetable plants (just one of many small online suppliers of unusual perennial edibles)
https://ethical.net/climate-crisis/carbon-farming-sequestering-carbon-in-plants-and-soil/ – on carbon sequestration and how gardeners can help
PFAF – Plants for a Future database; a huge catalogue information on useful plants including hundreds of unusual edibles