Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Benefits of Perennials in the Home Garden

People often associate gardening with a lot of work. I suppose it is unless you enjoy it and recognize that it's a way to get great quality food. Then, it becomes a pleasant outdoor activity that yields food. I've grown a lot of food in my home gardens over the years, and I apply permaculture principles as best I can.

One tenet of permaculture is to use perennial plants. 

Perennials are plants that come back year after year, like a grape vine. Plants that only live for one season are called annuals. Many popular garden vegetables fall into the annual category.

Many tasty fruits, however, are perennial plants like apple trees and raspberries. I'm writing about raspberries today because they illustrate the benefits of perennial crops, such as:

  • Plant it once. You don't have to spend energy planting them every year. You don't have to dig holes and plant new seeds. Perennials grow back. This is a great energy saver.
  • Increasing yields over time. As the perennial matures, it produces an increasing yield -- all while you aren't doing much. 
  • Most plants in the wild are perennials because it is a successful botanical strategy. The plant can put energy into more growth instead of a mad dash to reproduce in a single season. 
  • Perennials form large, deep, and far-ranging root systems. This makes them more resilient and self sufficient. Translation: You don't have to rush out there to water them if it hasn't rained for 3 days.  Their large root systems also stabilize soil and improve its ability to soak up water.
  • They pull nutrients from deep in the soil that annual plants never have a chance to get to. They don't require frequent or intense applications of fertilizers to perform. Except for a few shovel fulls of composted manure and garden compost, I haven't personally given any nutrients to my raspberry patch this year or last year.

Raspberries Are Easy to Grow

I love raspberries, so they pass the "I'm going to eat them" test for inclusion in the garden. They are also darned easy to grow. The picture at the top shows my raspberry patch as it looks this year.  Although the picture does not offer any points of reference, the patch is occupying a space that is approximately 12 feet by 8 feet.

This patch started as two canes less than 2 feet in height. I bought them on clearance in July 2012 and stuck them in the ground. This is not a recommended method for growing anything, but I saw the sale and took a chance. As you might recall, 2012 was a historic drought in the Midwest. I had never seen it so dry and hot in the Great Lakes. Diligently, I watered the pathetic sticks, and they struggled to remain green and put out a few new leaves. Even under good circumstances, you would need to water them the first year they are planted because roots are still small and need time to establish.

Over the summers of 2013 and 2014, I watered the raspberries less and less. They grew more vigorously and put up more canes without seeming to need anything from me. They also, thus far, have endured two Polar Vortexes, which are absolute butt-kickers of winters. The winter of 2013/2014 was the worst I had ever experienced. It was followed by a nonexistent spring and a cold disgrace of a summer. But I got raspberries last summer. We ate fresh ones for snacks, and I squirreled away enough to make 3 half pints of jam.

Last year's crop would have been better, but the long six-foot canes that had grown had been killed by the severe winter except for where they were covered by snow. This meant I only got fruit off about 2 to 3 feet of cane. Raspberries produce fruit on second-year growth. The canes that are coming up this year will make berries next summer. So always let new canes grow. In the fall, cutting out the old canes that have completed fruiting will clear up the patch for the next season.

During the winter of 2014/2015, another Polar Vortex descended. Although it was somewhat less horrible than the first one, we still experienced bitter subzero temperatures for weeks upon weeks. This is the bottom range of Zone 5 for which most of my plants are rated. Because we did not get as much snow last winter, I went out and shoveled snow around my canes to protect them from the cold. I must have looked weird shoveling snow in my yard.

The canes came through very well, however, even the portions that were above the snow line. 

So far this summer, I've been picking raspberries for weeks. I have four quarts in the freezer that I will thaw and cook into jam in the coming days. We've also been eating fresh raspberries at will during this time.

There you have it. Raspberries are not much work, and they give me delicious berries year after year. They're also a fruit that is kind of pricey at the store because of its poor shelf life. Another great reason to grow them. I get them at the peak of freshness every time.  

And the most dazzling reward of all....

This lovely raspberry pie.

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