Perennial Vegetable and Fruits in a Permaculture Garden
I recently saw a guest post on Rethinksurvival.com about survival gardening and how a garden may not feed you all that much compared to the work you put into it. True, but it does help! Given that I have been homesteading in the mountains of Montana, Idaho, British Columbia, Kentucky and the bluff country of southeastern Minnesota for over 40 years, and have lots of memories of my grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ farms in southeastern Minnesota, I thought maybe I could shed some light on vegetables and fruits you can plant once and harvest from for years to come—just call me a lazy gardener.
ASPARAGUS is a wonderful perennial vegetable crop. It flushes in the spring with delicious green stalks and will continue to produce a bit here and there through August. Never pick a stalk that is smaller than your little finger or you may kill the plant. I like to layer on the compost lightly in the fall and mulch with woodchips year around, keeps down the weeds. I have now “confined” my asparagus bed in a raised bed and that helps with the weeding. Asparagus can live for 15 to 25 years and cannot be moved once established, so place your bed carefully. It is my favorite vegetable because I can plant it once every quarter century; snap, steam and eat! And it is as close to no-fail as a crop can be! Impervious to deer and rabbits too!
RHUBARB is another great perennial crop. Again, pretty much deer and rabbit proof. You can multiply it easily by heaping it with well-rotted manure in the fall. And you can plant it in the horse pasture and they won’t touch it! Rhubarb comes up in the spring, but is useable all summer if you have enough. It can be snapped and eaten fresh, but most people prefer rhubarb pie, bars, cake, sauce, etc. I currently have mine planted under and around my dwarf apple trees as both a living mulch and ornament to my mini-orchard. They don’t like to be moved, but they can be. I have never seen an established rhubarb plant die or quit producing, so they are long lived and drought proof once established. I mulch mine to suppress weeds.
STRAWBERRIES are another great perennial garden workhorse. Some people will say that they are biennial, lot of different opinions etc. Here is my experience, take it with a grain of salt. A strawberry plant can produce nice big berries for years; it just seems to produce less over time—rather like chickens. They send out runners, so five plants will become at least fifteen by next year, and it goes exponentially from there! Now, lots of people will grow them in rows and set the runners over, start them, and plow up the old plants the next year. Sounds like a lot of work to me! If some of the older plants are getting too big and not producing so well, I pull them and let the new runners fill in. June bearing, everbearing (one big crop in June and another later in the year), or day-neutral (a larger crop spring or fall and berries throughout the growing season) is the big question. If you want to can and make jam, and just get it over with, go for June bearing. Big, one-time crop, juicy and delicious! Everbearing are nice if you want two specific crops. If you want to “graze” your way through the summer and have fresh strawberries until frost, go with day-neutral (many of which are labeled everbearing). They do not bear as much, nor are they quite as juicy, but still the burst of flavor in your mouth from a fresh picked garden strawberry is akin to heaven! If you have children or grandchildren around, have at least one small bed of day-neutral strawberries. Again, they seem pretty deer and rabbit resistant, but I do cover them with deer netting (yes, deer netting is the same as bird netting just a lot less expensive). Again, compost is a great fertilizer. I have never covered mine in the winter and they do just fine, but it is recommended. I do mulch with wood chips in the spring to help retain moisture and decrease weeding.
RASPBERRIES and BLACKBERRIES should be separated by at least 300 feet to keep them from cross pollinating. Horses will eat them; however deer and rabbits seem to leave them alone. I like to plant them in rows along a fence so I can tie them up and drape them with netting (so I get more berries than the birds!). There is a whole intimidating science to pruning them etc. I just ignore all that and if a stalk is dead, I cut it out. They will have many baby berry plants, just dig them up and transplant along the row or where another plant has died. June bearing or everbearing, same as the strawberries. Check for insect resistant varieties. I hardly ever have bugs on mine, but my neighbor has black “picnic” bugs all over his all the time! Compost for fertilizer and mulch with wood chips, straw or even tag wool from the sheep! Poor one-by boards, used OSB, even cardboard or newspapers laid along the plants will make it easy to mow and provide an attractive border to the raspberry bed.
GRAPES are a wonderful perennial to get started along the horse fence as horses do not eat them. You can have an entire vineyard along the horse fence! Attractive, sturdy and pretty much maintenance free! I say that because again I do not get into the science of pruning. I whack them back occasionally when I feel like it or want the grapevines for something, but they pretty much produce constantly and are very drought resistant once established. I have Worden grapes, but there are so many varieties it is mind boggling. If you are fencing in cattle panels (16’x52”) they are absolutely perfect for grapevines. The vines are extremely heavy and will pull down most other fencing except for wood. A top wood rail with woven sheep fencing under it, and tied to it, is also good for most critters and grapevines. I have never heard of a grapevine dying, nor being bothered by deer or rabbits once established. They are absolutely great over pergolas and metal gazebos as the grapes will hang down into the structure for easy picking—I like that. Plus they shade you from the sun when leafed out. Grapes ripen in the fall and are wonderful for fruit leathers, juice, jam and jelly and wine! Years ago wine was the normal drink on a homestead as opposed to water because often water was contaminated. Something we may be going back to in the years ahead.
APPLE, CHERRY, PLUM, MULBERRY AND PEAR TREES are often grown on the northern homestead. Look for dwarf varieties (yes, I know they only live for 15 to 20 years, but you can actually reach your fruit and they start bearing more quickly. Bev’s rule of thumb for pruning fruit trees—If you can IMAGINE throwing a cat through the branches you are doing it right—I’m a cat lover, DO NOT throw a can through the tree to see if you have pruned it correctly! I like to plant rhubarb around the trunks for self-mulching or at least mulch around them for easy mowing. A ring of cardboard, then mulch is wonderful to kill and keep down weeds and for holding valuable moisture in the ground for the tree. I plant a selection of apple trees so that I have apples coming in for about 10 weeks. But that is just me… Try theUniversityofMinnesotavarieties.
NUT TREES such as walnut and hazelnut are also valuable on the homestead. But beware! Walnut trees will attract squirrels and squirrels will plant them every place! And boy do they grow! Plant walnut trees out of the way because very few plants want to grow under them and they will shed tannin and “hail” your car with nuts!
FRUITING BUSHES are wonderful around the homestead. They can be decorative and provide valuable fruits as well. Consider elderberry, blueberry, cranberry, red and white currents, gooseberries, and loganberries. Jellies, jams, fruit leathers, and additions to muffins are their most common uses. Most are fairly deer and rabbit resistant. Most bushes take four to eight years to bear a significant crop so plant them as soon as possible.
HOPS VINES, if you are into making homemade beer or just want a very prolific vine that covers an area quickly, try a hops vine. Boy, do they grow! Very hard to kill once established!
Nearly all of these plants will bear for years without human interference, so I consider them almost maintenance free. They are absolutely ideal for a survival garden. Planted with a little thoughtfulness, they are also ornamental!