If the term perennial, annual or biennial is a new term to you then I want to let you know you are not alone. Most people start their gardening journey with nary a clue what all the terms mean and to be totally open, I still get stuck on some of the terms.

Let me give a simple explanation of each of these terms.

Perennial is a plant that you plant once and it produces for 2 or more years. Like oranges, asparagus or strawberries.
Annual is a plant that you plant this season and you get a harvest once or maybe twice in a year. Things like watermelon, green beans or tomatoes.
Biennial. This one confused me at first. Biennial refers to plants that complete their full lifecycle over 2 growing seasons like brussels sprouts, carrot and parsley. You may be thinking but carrots are planted and harvested that year. Notice the definition of biennial is the completion of a full lifecycle. Carrots are harvested when the roots are developed. If left in the ground the roots would go woody and the plant would produce flowers and seeds. This takes 2 growing cycles. 

Perennials come in all forms. Fruiting trees, root vegetables, tubers and bulbs and herbs. And of course to confuse the issue some perennials are grown as annuals. Such as potatoes.

To keep it simple use this as a rule of thumb ask yourself  ‘do I need to replace the plant I grow in 1 year, 2 years or many years, maybe never?’ This will help you work out what you want to grow.

 Benefits of perennials

There are multiple benefits for growing perennial food plants in your garden. The most obvious one and the one that time poor people should take note of is perennials are low maintenance. No annual replanting or sowing seeds. The only maintenance is a feed once or twice a year depending on the plant and keeping it weed-free. 

 

Other benefits include

  •  Extended harvest. Many types of perennials will ripen over a period of time and this means you can continue to harvest for a period of time. Also early, mid and late harvest varieties of the same perennial will give you a longer harvest window. Sometimes you can get a crop all year round!
  • They are multitaskers. Many perennials have extra benefits for your garden. Some are loved by bees and other beneficial insects. Some are just beautiful to look at or when in bloom. Some like citrus blossoms have the most divine scent. Climbing perennials can be grown over a structure to provide shade for more sun tender plants or even provide shade for you. Come late autumn we will be planting table grapes to grow over a new pergola. This will provide protection from the harsh sun from the west in summer while in winter it will go dormant and be pruned allowing for the warm winter sun to shine through. 
  • The other huge benefit of perennials is that they help to build good soil. Because the soil doesn’t need to be tilled or disturbed perennials help maintain a healthy balanced soil life. They put nutrients back into the ground through a few different ways. They drop leaves that decompose back into your garden bed. Some perennials are nitrogen-fixing plants. They take nitrogen from the air and put it back into the soil for other plants to use. It also has a deep root system so it helps to bring nutrients up closer to the surface and this becomes accessible for the shallow-rooted plants.

Drawbacks of perennials 

I don’t want to focus on the downside but there are few things to consider when choosing what perennials to grow. 

  • Some perennial vegetables are slow to establish and may take several years to grow before they begin to yield well, such as asparagus.
  • Some perennials are so low-maintenance that they can quickly become weeds and overtake your garden if left unattended.
  • Like many annuals, some perennial greens become bitter once they flower, therefore they are only available very early in the season.
  • Perennials vegetables need to be careful placed into a permanent place in your garden and will have to be maintained separately from your annual crops.
  •  Perennials have special pest and disease challenges. You can’t use crop rotation to minimize problems. Once some perennials catch a disease, they often have it forever and will need to be managed each year or even need to be replaced

 

Now you have an understanding of the perennial world let me share with you my top 10 favourite perennials to grow. I live in the Hunter Valley NSW Australia and this zone is considered warm temperate. We do get some light frosts in winter and can have crazy hot summers of 45+deg c some days.  Choose what you grow based on your growing zone and your location within that zone. 

My top 10 perennials to grow

  1. Berries – All types!! I love fresh berries so I choose to grow blackberries, raspberries, youngberries, gooseberries, boysenberries, strawberries, blueberries, mulberry and newly planted black currants. There are loads of varieties that are suitable for all zones. Some are considered invasive in some areas like blackberries and some can get away super fast like raspberries if not controlled. 
  2. Fruit trees – Even the smallest backyard can grow fresh fruit. There are dwarf varieties that grow small in a pot but produce the same amount and quality of fruit that their full size cousins do. We currently have several citrus varieties, figs, apples, pears, various stone fruit, pomegranate and guava to name a few. 
  3. Asparagus – This is definitely a long term relationship. This fern can take over the garden so it’s best given its own contained location. Plant from seed, seedlings or mature crowns.  It can take 2-3 years to start harvesting but once you do you will have juicy spears for years and years to come. 
  4. Lemongrass – This makes my top 10 because I use it so much. I have neglected this clumping grass so much but it keeps on giving. It has doubled in a year and can be divided and replanted which will be happening in the coming months. I use this in cooking, tea and making our own air/fabric fresh spray. 
  5. Passion Fruit – Is it even a garden without one of these? I remember as a kid that every backyard had a vine on their back fence.  Grafted or non-grafted give them both a go. Just make sure you don’t allow anything under the graft to grow or you will get a pretty vine with no flowers and no fruit. 
  6. Sweet potato – This is a perennial in warmer climates but can be grown as an annual in cooler locations. Some winters it dies back here but we just wait for the sunshine to warm up the soil and away they go again. 
  7. Rhubarb – This is a new one to our garden. Planted in 2019 we are yet to harvest as we wanted to give it all the time it needs to establish. Only the stems of rhubarb are edible. The leaves are high in oxalic acid and other toxins and can make you very ill. Use rhubarb stalks with other fruits like apples or berries. 
  8. Onion chives and Garlic chives – Same same but different? They grow the same way and are both perennials. Onion chives are tubular, generally produce a light purple flower and taste mildly oniony. Whereas garlic chives have flat leaves and usually produce a white flower. And I am sure you can work out they taste like mild garlic. Both are hardy and easy to grow. 
  9. Perennial leeks – most leeks you see in the supermarket are grown as annuals. Perennial leeks are a clumping variety specifically known for their clumping habit and baby offshoots. They are propagated by dividing and replanting the small offsets that shoot around the main clump. They can be harvested and used at any stage of growth. 
  10. Wild rocket – A great alternative to annual rocket. They are slightly more peppery in flavour and for this reason the young tender leaves are best to eat. They are slower growing but hardy and will tolerate poor conditions once established. 

I encourage you to add a few perennial food plants into your garden and enjoy all they have to offer. 

More Information

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