September 2015
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Why Are Perennials Important?

What is a perennial? A perennial plant is one that lives more than 2 years. With an annual garden, we start over every year. By planting perennials, we create something that with proper care can provide a productive output for years. Perennials are cornerstone elements of a permaculture food forest. One of the goals of permaculture is to create sustainable systems that regenerate themselves. We can do this through the use of perennials. We will explore permaculture techniques including zones, edges, guilds, and food forests in more details in later posts.

Here are some interesting facts about perennials:

Peppers are actually perennials. They are semi-tropical and just can’t handle cold temperatures. If you could keep a pepper plant warm, it would grow right into the next year.

Asparagus, rhubarb, and artichoke are also perennials.

Fruit salad trees can produce as many as 6 different types of fruits on one tree through the use of grafting techniques.

The California bristlecone pine is believed to be the oldest tree on the Earth at over 5,000 years old. By contrast, the oldest known redwood is a mere 3200 years old.

Why Grow Perennials?
An annual garden has a place, but it should not be your only source of produce. Perennials take longer to bear fruit, but once established they will bear for many years. Think of it like an investment in nature. You put the work in at the beginning, and it gives you production for a long time. It requires more patience which is a challenge in today’s world of instant gratification. The effort is worth it. My early efforts on our property were all about annual vegetables like tomatoes. The results were quick and they sure tasted good. Then a friend told me about an asparagus bed his mother had planted years ago that was still producing. Another friend brought me 3 blueberry bushes. Yet another friend told me about shitake mushroom logs behind his house that bore fruit every year. It started to click that I needed to be focusing on more perennials. I started an asparagus bed, planted fruit trees, and some kiwi vines. As promised, it was more work in the beginning with planting, watering, and other care. This year we got our first pear. It was the best pear I’ve ever eaten. Maybe because I grew it, but I really think it tasted that good. We got a couple apples and a plum too. It is a small start, but I expect to see more fruit next year and more the year after that.

Too Many People Have It Backward
The Bradford pear tree has become a symbol of what’s wrong with modern suburban landscaping. Someone had the bright idea to breed the fruit-bearing capability out of a pear tree, and then plant them all over the place as an ornamental tree. You see the HOAs didn’t want their beautiful neighborhood devalued with all that unsightly yard trash. Pears would fall onto the lawn and someone would have to clean that up. We wouldn’t want to get a letter from the HOA, would we? If you sense some sarcasm, I’m not a fan of HOAs. I moved to get away from it. Back to the Bradford pear. To avoid the problems of fruit in the yard, landscapers plant Bradford pears all over the place. They have a nice shape, grow fast, and have pretty flowers in the spring. They also smell bad, don’t live very long, and split easily in storms. Yard trash? The Bradford pear tree is the real yard trash in my opinion. If you live in a neighborhood with an HOA, consider planting a tree that bears fruit. Express some civil disobedience. When they start to ripen and fall, pick them up and eat them. If your neighbor says something, share some fruit with them. If they don’t get it, maybe it’s time to move.

Another interesting plant that is often used in suburban landscaping is sweet potatoes. They produce an attractive vine with colorful leaves and flowers. Of course, right below the surface is the good part. In late fall, the vines die and landscapers will remove them. See if you can’t dig some of those sweet potatoes before the landscaper gets them.

Plants that don’t produce fruit have a place. It is important to pick the right ones. I have wildflowers around my fruit trees because they attract pollinators, but they don’t take up much space. Some trees perform the function of fixing nitrogen. These are examples of support species. The Bradford pear is not. It is an example of wasting too much space where something productive should be.

It Takes Patience
There is an old Greek proverb that goes “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” That conveys so well the attitude of permaculture. When I started planting fruit trees, I also planted a couple pecan trees. I might not see the day when those trees bear pecans, but my children and grandchildren will. It might seem a daunting task to grow things like nut trees that take so long to produce. It you do a little at a time, you can accomplish so much before you know it. Another saying I like is “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”

When is the best time to plant a tree? The answer is 20 years ago. The next best answer is today. We can’t go back – only forward. Don’t waste another day waiting. Before you know it, you’ll be eating the best fruit you’ve ever had – because you grew it.

Please share your thoughts and opinions in the Comments.
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