Often when we are thinking about sustainable food production, we can become focused on the annual vegetable garden, and although I believe it is an integral part of any productive backyard, I also feel that we should not neglect those perennial plants that will produce year after year.
Do you like the sound of planting something once, spending a few hours a year on maintaining that plant and it rewarding you with produce year after year?
If the answer is yes, then perennial food plants are what you need to cultivate.
Though I would never forsake my annual vegetable garden, as I love the taste of home-grown carrots, beans, potatoes and all the other annual plants I can grow, I do love the practicality and reduced workload of growing perennial food producers.
Plant once, harvest every year, year after year, with truly little input. Nothing is more sustainable than that.
So whether you want to pick a lemon to add the juice to a salad dressing, grab an apple to eat raw or experience the joyful anticipation of picking fresh asparagus in spring, the inclusion of perennial food-producing plants in your productive backyard is a must.
Perennial plants are those that live for more than 2 years and generally produce a harvest each year.
Some of these perennials may be short-lived such as Tamarillo, which often needs to be replaced after 5 or 6 years or Thyme which will become woody and unproductive after a few years. However, there are some plants like nut trees that will go on producing for hundreds of years.
Many perennials are very easy to grow once established, they are more tolerant of drought and need less fertilising, as they have larger well-developed root systems. They generally need little more than a yearly mulching of compost and some supplementary water occasionally. Some perennials will need a bit more time and maintenance but are generally less work than the annual vegetable garden.
The greatest advantage is that they are purchased/propagated once, planted, and will produce a food crop year after year.
They can be expensive to purchase, but given a lifetime of produce, the initial expense is worth it.
The most important thing to consider when you are looking at planting perennial food plants is to plan. Remember they may (depending on the species) live and produce for 20 or 30 years – so consider where they will grow best, ensure it is space that won’t be needed for something else in the future and allow enough space for the plant to mature.
Consider, plan then plant.
The other great thing about most perennials is that they can be incorporated into your garden in an aesthetically pleasing way. They can become part of the landscape, regardless of what type of garden you have.
With the diminishing size of backyards, it is important to have plants that look good as well as being productive.
There is a food producing plant for every landscaping situation:
Need a small deciduous shade tree? Why not plant an almond or an apple tree!
Need an evergreen flowing tree? Take your pick of the citrus varieties – lush green foliage, beautifully perfumed flowers, and bright coloured fruit.
Need a deciduous climber? What about grapes!
Need a ground cover? Consider delicious strawberries!
The possibilities are endless.
Perennial food producers can be trees, shrubs, climbers, herbaceous perennials or ground covers and we can eat the fruit, the nut, the berry, the stems, leaves, flowers or tubers.
These include perennial vegetables, herbs (both medicinal and culinary), berry-producing plants, fruit and nut trees from temperate climates such as apples. They can be from Mediterranean climates such as citrus, figs and olives; or from tropical and subtropical climates, such as Bananas and avocado; and lets not forget to include Australian native bush tucker foods.
What and how many perennial food producing plants you plant in your backyard is a personal thing based on what food you like to eat and how you want your backyard to look.
Imagine a pergola dripping with crisp, ripe grapes or groaning under the weight of a fully laden Kiwifruit or passionfruit vine. Imagine hanging baskets full of luscious strawberries or a screening hedge of pomegranates.
For the purposes of this blog, I am going to concentrate on fruiting plants as I have covered vegetables and herbs in other blogs.
Growing Perennial vegetables
Here are some hints for maximising the number of perennial fruiting plants you can have in your backyard.
- Espalier fruit trees along your fence or other vertical spaces.
- Grow dwarf and multi-grafted varieties of fruit trees.
- Grow things in pots so they can be moved to favourable conditions ie to get more sun at different times of the year. Able to be moved under cover to prevent frost damage. etc
- Hedge your avocado or hazel nuts, many plants can be hedged, it is a great way to reduce the height and size of something that would otherwise be too big or shade something else.
- Grow vines on pergolas, up fences and over sheds.
- Grow things in hanging baskets from the eaves or on frames on the sides of sheds or off the house walls.
- Try vertical gardens.
- Plant your trees close together.
- Try a different growing system like a “Layered food producing system”, that not only uses space efficiently but also effectively uses available sunlight, water and nutrients.
- Extend your harvest by planting a selection of varieties –early, mid and late season ripening-a navel orange for winter harvest and a Valencia for summer harvest.
Planning your plant selection.
Fruit and nut trees and berry plants are often expensive so a little bit of planning can save you a lot of time, money, and effort. By working out exactly what you want to grow and what you can grow in your space is the first step in planning.
Here is an activity to go through to help you work out exactly what fruit, nut and berries you could grow.
Activity: Deciding what plants to grow.
Make a list of all the fruit, nut and berries you purchase/eat each week and those you want to grow.
Bananas, Lemons, oranges, mandarins, apples, pears, nashi pear, peaches, nectarines, strawberries, blueberries, bramble berries (blackberry, loganberry etc) and raspberries.
Now consider the following points and tick or cross out plants as you go.
- Do some research to find out what will grow well in your soil and climate.
Use the internet, books and magazines. Try and find information specific to your local area. Walk around your local neighbourhood and see what is growing well, talk to your neighbours, they will be more than happy to share their gardening knowledge with you. See if there is a local community garden, again they are always happy to share information.
- Which of these plants could you not do without ie lemons- I use at least one a day and grow have several varieties (Myer, Eureka and Lisbon) so I have fruit all year long?
Find a space for these! This is where you will save money and really feel you are contributing to your food production in a big way.
- Are there plants on the list that you would normally purchase every week? – these are also the plants you need to concentrate on and find a space for. Ie strawberries These are much better grown organically. Commercially grown fruit can have loads of chemical residue. In a temperate climate, by planting a range of varieties, you should be able to produce some fruit most of the year and gluts at other times which can be preserved into jams and sauces.
- Which of these plants do you enjoy eating or would eat? No point in planting a passionfruit vine if you do not like them.
- Which of these plants do you have the space for? Whilst you may be able to grow a Walnut tree, they can reach 18 to 20 meters in height and spread, not many backyards can accommodate this.
- Prioritise your list so that you have plants cropping at different times of the year. If you only have space for 6-7 trees don’t make them all apples or you will have excess fruit in the autumn but nothing for the rest of the year. By planting a peach, a nectarine, a couple of apples, a mandarin and a couple of oranges you could be harvesting fresh fruit all year.
- Which of these plants can occupy otherwise unused spaces? ie Espalier in narrow areas, blueberries in cool semi-shaded areas, strawberries in hanging baskets etc
- Do you have any particular microclimates that can be used for specific fruits? ie Paw Paw will do best in a warm moist situation- North easterly aspect. Whereas olives and citrus need as much heat as they can get, a north westerly aspect against a brick wall.
After considering all these things you should have a list of plants that:
- Will grow well in your area.
- That you have the space and situation (microclimate) to grow them in.
- That you will eat.
Now put all these plants into a rough plan of your backyard.
Then prioritise your purchases, taking into consideration initial purchase cost and any costs for structures needed to support the plants.
- Build structure if necessary.
- Buy and Plant your plants.
- Plan a maintenance schedule – which can be as simple as fertilise spring and autumn and water during extended dry periods.
- Then sit back and enjoy a lifetime of delicious home-grown fruit.
Here are some further references that you might find interesting:
I have found the following books useful:
‘Organic Fruit Growing’ by Annette McFarlane
Organic Gardener ‘Essential Guide to Fruit’
‘Growing Fruit in Australia’ by Paul Baxter