Perennials are plants that endure year after year, as opposed to annuals, who live and die in one year. Perennial = Dahlia, Hebe or Sage for example. Annual = Lettuce, Coriander or Zucchini. This different lifeline brings about another difference – the soil around perennials is undisturbed, whereas in the annual vegetable patch, everyday is moving day. Pull a carrot or a weed, sow a greencrop, harvest potatoes – even in a no dig garden there’s shuffling going on. Steady the ship, with stable perennials planted around the edges or dotted throughout. Beneath them, in the quiet, undisturbed earth is where soil life will set up home, spreading ever outward.
This oasis is important because we need soil life – as big of a diversity of it as possible. These tiny organisms convert nutrients, bring mineral balance, bio remediate harmful chemicals, detox soils, build immunity and on and on the goodness comes. The more life in your soils, the stronger your garden and the less fertilising you need do.
Reap the Perennial Advantage
Group perennial companions together around the edges of the vegetable patch.
Use taller stuff on the south, south-east or south-west sides so as not to block the sun. Citrus fit here beautifully as they have high fertility needs like vegies. Fruiting shrubs like black, red or white currants and two dimensional espalier fruit trees are another good fit. So too rambunctious perennial shrubs like pineapple sage, japanese anenomes, globe artichokes, golden rod and lemon verbena.
Along the northern edges use lower growing perennials – dont block the all important light!
Aim to have something flowering year round to entice beneficial insects in for pest control and pollination. Choose easy care, long flowering plants like dahlias, hebes, salvias or Mexican marigold. Include plenty of mineral rich herbs like lemon balm or yarrow, add a few pest repellents like welsh bunching onions, perennial leeks, wormwood or rosemary. Add rhubarb, NZ spinach, the herbs you use and some joy with your fav picking flowers + fragrances. Put them altogether and you’ve got your own personalised perennial companion guild.
In small gardens, reap the perennial advantage by locating annual vegetable beds on the north side of a fruit tree or dot them along the front edge of perennial herbs. In large gardens add a strip of perennials up the centre of the garden or every three or so beds for example.
Whereas food plants (on the whole), need due space to gather the nutrients they need, perennial companions can be jammed in together. Plant them close, to jostle for space and trip over each other leaving no room for weeds and a glorious, constant show of flowers.
The Key to Success
There are heaps and heaps of perennials to choose from – plenty for every situation. Its fun finding the ones that match your location – heavy clay, sandy, windy, wet, dry… Herein lies the key to your success.
When plants match where they’re planted theres a heap less fussing about and fertilising required. Then when the shows over, crunch the dry brown tops down at the end of season and pile all the dry brown stuff on top. Does it get any easier?!
A few of my favs
There isnt room for me to list all my favs, so many! Heres a handful to get you started.
If you’ve got lemon balm you’ve always got mulch at hand! – a generous supply of cut and come again mulch pretty much year round. though shes plain, shes awesome. Lemonbalm has a wonderful dense mat at the base that helps exclude all but runner grasses from entering your garden. Bees love the heady flowers (which is why its also called Bee Balm) that come summer through autumn. You’ll love the endless cups of headache soothing tea when ever you need.
Dahlias are cool. I do nothing to mine apart from crunch the tops down when they finish and dollop some mulch on top and round they go again. They flower on and on and on. For the bees, butterflies and me.
The rock star of the winter garden! Hearty enough to act as a wind shelter and nectar rich for the bees during colder months when there’s not much else about. Cut it back to ground around the edges to stop it advancing into the vegie patch and use the prunings as mulch for other perennials. An awesome barrier plant to slow the advance of grass.
Year round, sweet little orangey yellow, star bursts that require nothing more than a spot in the sun. A good bee and butterfly flower + pest repellent. Brings a lovely flavour to water – just pop a flowering stem in your water glass or jug.
Wormwood is another pest repellent and also fabbo for beating back the grass. It looks blimmin handsome as a foil for dark dahlias or roses, both in the garden or in a posie. Plant some in the chookyard to help prevent lice.
Yarrow is the cat’s pjs. Long flowering, easy as and such a cool picking flower. A dense groundcover to beat out grass (though not kikuyu or twitch sadly). Parasitic wasps and hoverflies love the big flat landing pads.
Golden Rod is a stunner – I grow it in the orchard amongst the comfrey and chicory. The bees and butterflies absolutely cover it. It forms a wonderfully dense mat making a good grass barrier.
Perennial cornflower is low growing, so needs to be along the front edge. Another dense, mat forming groundcover to beat out grass. Its spiky flowers are always popular.
Daylillies are an awesome edge plant where gardens border lawn – simply run the mower beneath! Edible too, though I must confess I’ve never tried.
More Good Reads
For more extensive plant lists check out these 2 blogs: