September 21, 2012

Perennial Food Plants

Sometimes when we talk about growing food we get focused on the crops we can grow and harvest in one year, or a season or two (the annuals) and forget about the food plants that can supply us with food over and over again for many years (the perennials). Not all perennials will last forever but all will give a number of crops. Many regrow easily and have minimal needs, others will continue to grow (trees and shrubs) and will need to be pruned to maintain shape, ease of harvest and productivity. There are many perennial food crops that should be a large part of any productive garden system and many of them will reward us with a bountiful harvest year after year with a minimum of effort on our part.

Fruit trees are the first to spring to mind as there are so many well known varieties of fruits available and a huge range of species that can be grown in a wide range of climates. A few well-grown fruit trees can produce tons of produce, literally. It will take some time for trees to develop and produce a fair return and there is a fair amount of maintenance required to keep trees in good condition and pest free but thinking ahead and planning for the future, investing for the future, is something we all need to do. A few of my favourite fruit trees, for their productivity and nutritional values would include:
  • Apricots (very versatile and very nutritious, even the kernels can be eaten)
  • Peaches (limited shelf life as fresh fruit, can be dried, bottled or made into jam)
  • Satsuma plums (dried satsuma plums are prunes)
  • Lemons (some varieties, such as Lisbon, will produce fruit year round when managed well)
  • Oranges (there are dwarf varieties available that still produce well but are easier to manage)
  • Pears (pears need to cross-pollinate, you can graft a second variety onto a young tree)
  • Apples (trees can be kept small but still productive with correct pruning)
  • Olives (aren't edible raw but can be pickled or used for oil extraction)
  • Dates (this arid zone palm is somewhat difficult to manage but the fruit is nutritionally dense)
  • Avocados (a savoury fruit that keeps well after harvest if picked while still firm)
  • Mangoes ( a tropical fruit, that is loved by many people, drought resistant but frost tender)
  • Papaya (papaya, or paw-paw are fast growing tropical plants that can produce huge fruit)

The list could go on and on for pages, there are many wonderful fruit trees. Another group of perennial, fruit producing plants are vines. This group includes most of the berry crops such as raspberry, blackberry and grapes. It also includes plants such as passion-fruit, chokos and kiwi fruit. Chokos (Sechium edule) are something that used to be grown in many backyards in Australia, usually on a trellis along a fence. They are somewhat bland and are usually eaten as a vegetable. Vine fruits tend to fit into spaces that aren't suitable for other plants in a diverse garden, so they can utilise spaces that might otherwise remain unproductive.

 Choko vines will grow up and over a fence, so your neighbours can share the abundance.

Nut trees need to be considered as well. The biggest drawback with some types of nut trees is the time it will take before they reach full production. Even so I would still urge people to think seriously about getting a couple of nut trees into the garden as nuts are a rich source of protein and good oils. Some nut trees, such as walnut or macadamia can look very good in the most formal settings. The hard shells of nuts enhance the storage life greatly.

There are other trees and shrubs that can produce crops that make up a part of our diet, such as carob, cocoa, coffee and camelia sinensis (tea) and there are even some succulents with edible fruits that may be worth considering, it all depends on needs, climate and location.

Getting closer to ground level, there is still a range of perennial plants that offer substantial food resources, both sweet and savoury:
  • Rhubarb (Leaves are toxic, only the stems are eaten)
  • Strawberries (plants will last some years and runners can produce new plants that fruit well)
  • Jerusalem Artichokes (edible tuber, somewhat invasive)
  • Oca (oxalis tuberosa) (edible tuber, quite invasive)
  • Horseradish (root crop, very invasive)
  • Scarlet Runner Beans (a.k.a. Seven Year Beans)
  • Asparagus (will crop for 20 years or more if well maintained)
  • Tree Onions
  • Welsh onions
  • Warrigul Greens (warrigul spinach) (native to Australia and New Zealand)
  • Sorrel
  • Lovage
  • Radicchio
  • Sea Kale
  • Perennial herbs (i.e. Rosemary, Sage, Marjoram, Oregano, Thymes, etc.)

Tree onions, or Egyptian onions produce the usual root crop of onions and also produce
bulbils on stems that can be planted for the next crop. Left to their own devices the stem
will eventually flop over and the bulbils will take root on new ground, which is why they
are also known as Walking onions

This is only a partial list of perennial food plants, there are many, many more that can increase productivity in a diverse garden or farm. By utilising different spaces or niches and offering crops at different times of year, perennial plants help to increase our personal food security overall, as well as giving variety to the diet. Many permaculturalists like to create food forests that require only minimal maintenance. You might like to try it too but beware of falling food.


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