It seems the traditional garden landscape has long been a wide green lawn, bordered with a few shrubs and some tasteful annual flowers that bloom most of the season before dying back in the fall. The spring and fall cleanups are the bulk of the work and bookmarking a long season of relatively simple weekly maintenance.
Does this sound familiar? Do you immediately hear the hum of lawnmowers as the background music of your time outdoors? I would love to challenge anyone with a small plot of green space to try another approach.
A neighbor stopped by the other day to exchange plants, as we are all a bit geeky about unusual varieties and was commenting on this very topic. He was lamenting the fact that there are so many beautiful and interesting plants that never seem to make it into the hands of many gardeners because they tend to focus on annual varieties.
For me, annuals are way to introduce varieties that likely don’t grow in our region but add a pop of color or texture that I can’t easily find elsewhere. They are far from the mainstay. I adore the variety and changeable nature of our gardens as a result, with the added benefit of less heavy work in the spring and fall months.
With the long term goal of minimal garden maintenance and sustainability, we have focused on planting perennials with a particular focus on those plants that cater to our local insect and wildlife populations. We may only see a certain plant bloom for a week or two before it evolves yet again or dies back and another plant grabs our attention. This constant ebb and flow provides food and cover for our wild critters and also draws us out of the house to explore something new that has appeared, seemingly overnight.
In winter, much of our garden dies off but in their wake the plants leave tall seed heads, bristly mounds of foliage, and all sorts of food and cover for the wild beings. Despite common practice, we do our best to leave all of this in place until the spring growth advances. The benefit of this, is the myriad insects that laid eggs or hid beneath the cover will live on for another generation, adding to the diversity of our insects. This provides food for our burgeoning bird population and helps balance the pests in our food crops as many of these beneficial insects help to control the less desirable species. In addition, the winter landscape still has interest even when it takes on a more monotone color scheme.
Seemingly bare, but everything is just getting ready to burst into action…
A riot of color, just overflowing with energy and bounty…
When spring comes around again, many perennials are the first to begin to add to the haze of green that creeps across the landscape. New leaves push up from the earth, peeping between the dried, dead foliage from the previous year. Once danger of frost has largely passed, we’ll push aside some of the dead leaves, if necessary, and allow them to create a mulch layer that will add their nutrients back to the soil.
With a bit of compost and mulch to cover over any bare soil, with the goal of suppressing unwanted plants (weeds) from taking hold, perhaps a bit of pruning and you’re well on your way to a full spring and summer garden with almost no interference. You may also be surprised how many perennial food crops you can find. A few you’ll easily recognize are your culinary herbs, various berries, quince, peach and apples, along with rhubarb, asparagus. There are even greens such as sorrel, perennial spinach, kale, broccoli, artichokes, and more. There are likely a fair few flowers that are generally considered ornamental that are also edible, though you’d do well to consult a local wild foraging handbook.
That said, there can be a bit of work with perennial plants that differs from an annual garden. In the spring, you may notice some of your more fertile species will litter the ground with little seedlings. You can choose to let them form a thicket of the same plant, which can be absolutely stunning when the come into bloom. Or, if you feel that particular spot can’t handle more of the same plant, simply pluck them out and plant elsewhere. At the costs of a bit of soil, a label, and some repurposed containers or gardening pots, you could put them out for neighbors to plant and enjoy.
It is also worth your while to ask local nurseries, seed companies, or neighborly gardeners, what plants do best in your area. You’ll want to select ones that are native or perennial to your climate and add on from there. It’s amazing how quickly you start noticing plants in the “wild” and find ways to add them to your own garden.
Home and food for beneficial garden insects and wildlife. We need pollinators to survive, no question. Why not support that delicate balance in your own backyard?
Planting a variety of perennials is an amazing way to add more nutrients back into your soil, creating better growing conditions for future plants. This brings in more pests, which brings in more predators, which brings in yet more variety as the insects, birds, and other critters find a safe haven in your garden.
Having plants that come back year after year means you can ensure there is continuity. Happy plants mean more of the same! If something dies off, you can do a little research and figure out what may have gone wrong. Healthy plants give back to the ecosystem and building a strong cycle of life is amazing to watch.
Weeds are simply plants growing where you don’t want them. Some people abhor the fact that they cannot control what grows where, so orderly, tidy beds are their happy place. If you cannot embrace a little chaos and spontaneity in your gardens, then perennial gardens may not be quite what you’re looking for. On the flip side, you can take “weeds” as an opportunity to learn more about the plants taking up space in your garden, many are often used by herbalists or things we can eat as food!
Work is required in any garden space, but when you have a more simple, annual style garden it can be much easier to use a landscaping service, or create a simple routine for your household to take care of things. This often isn’t true in a perennial style garden as things often change, and we often have to let a plant grow fairly big before we determine if it belongs where it is.
Shorter bloom times
Many perennial plants tend to have shorter bloom times, while annuals can go for weeks and weeks. Personally, I love this because we get a ton of variety. However, when you’re starting out this can seem daunting because you have to think about what to plant close together so you get a gradual ebb and flow as plants bloom and die back.