I am currently implementing a design of a perennial edible and wildlife friendly garden that I did for a client and it made me reflect on why perennial edible gardens are really no-brainers.
Whilst I love growing annual fruit, vegetables and herbs, it is my perennial edible borders that are a constant source of food year-on-year and they look attractive too - year round. What I mean by this is that no matter how busy I get during the year, especially in spring and early summer when most annual crops are sown and nurtured, my perennial food plants just get on with what they do best. They grow, produce flowers, fruit, leaves and seed with only a little input from me.
Whilst temperatures prevent me sowing annual seed at this time of the year as they will just not germinate, my perennials are growing. Most of this growth is going on below ground as the root systems extend, getting ready to transfer energy into leaf production as soon as the time is right.
And all this is happening with the very littlest of care from me mostly over the winter months: some annual pruning for fruit shrubs, or in the case of the trained apple trees biannual pruning, cut back dead herbaceous material, feed with compost, weed where the previous years mulch has got a little thin, and reapply the mulch where needed in the form of leaf mould or shredded bark. Every few years, my herbaceous perennials are divided to renew their vigour, but this is a simple winter task that provides me with new plants. Old strawberry plants are replaced with their own offspring, which are sent out on runners in late summer.
So despite relatively little care, my perennial edibles provide kilos of fruit (blueberries, blackcurrants, red currants, gooseberries, strawberries, plums and apples), endless supplies of leaves for soups, salads and stews (such as a variety of sorrel, perennial kale, garlic and onion-flavoured leaves, sweet cicely, mitsuba, leaf celery), tasty herbs (rosemary, oregano, thyme, sage, fennel), and attractive edible flowers, which are good to eat as well as support wildlife. They also provide good ground cover reducing the need to weed and in terms of the shrubs and evergreen herbaceous edibles, they provide structure and winter interest to the borders.
So all in all, growing perennial fruit, vegetables, and herbs requires less time and energy than annual varieties, they can provide an abundance of produce, which compliment annual veg by adding diversity to the menu, provide year-round structure and interest to borders and can be good for wildlife.
As gardeners, we are manipulating nature to a greater or lesser degree, creating our perfect space to live and play in. Some do this with a plan on paper others do it as they go along. But once created, no garden is static - it changes from month to month, season to season, year on year. We are working with living organisms that grow, reproduce, and die.
And with these changes we see seedlings appear, self seeded from one parent or another, borders fill out and dappled shade cast as the canopies of shrubs and trees grow.
For some, this creates a plethora of interest and opportunity. Unexpected, but pleasant planting combinations may arise from self-seeders moving into a gap in a border or existing plants vegetatively moving around the garden; new planting conditions may arise that allow for different plants to thrive; and spaces may open up for the inclusion of yet more plants!
For others, this change creates a mountain of stress because the garden is changing beyond the original plan. Of course, no amount of planning and designing will halt the tide of change, and trying to keep it to plan will result in a lot of work.
Nevertheless, we should, no need, to delicately tweak our gardens through seasonal maintenance to prevent our gardens returning to their native form - in this country it would be woodland, to increase vigour of the plants in our care, and to keep with some kind of plan, even if it is a naturalistic one.
I feel we should embrace the expected as well as unexpected changes in our garden and see them as opportunities to create new experiences rather than hindrances to our original ideas. By doing this, we will feel more connected to our gardens and to nature around us.
Rachel Bailey, a garden designer and gardener in Scotland.