Garden 101: Perennials

Last year I pulled apart an old deck and used the lumber to make a couple raised garden beds in my backyard. I filled them with various plantings to see what would take and, well, year one was a disaster. At the same time I planted several other things around the yard in various beds and had varying levels of success. I’m still learning and although we’re way past spring planting season and deep into the heat of the summer, I thought I’d share some of my key learnings with you so that you can begin to plan your garden now. Because the more you learn and plan before you plant, the more successful you will be.

Okay, first of all, why a garden? For me, I’ve always liked the idea of having beneficial plants growing in my yard. First of all, fresh herbs are delicious. Homegrown is also generally going to be more healthful and taste better than store-bought. In addition, decorative plants require maintenance and water and I figure if I’m giving the inputs, I should be rewarded with something more than just not pissing off my HOA. And finally, I think it’s important for the kids. So much of our lives is spent disconnected from nature. I think it’s important to reconnect every now and then.

So, where to start?

My goal for this yard is to have 70-90% of everything that grows be somehow beneficial, even if the only benefit is shade. The best way to do this without having to replant every year is to go heavy into perennials. (Perennials are long-lived and come back every year after a period of dormancy.)

Go on down to the Home Depot and you will notice that they are making a killing each and every season selling pretty stuff that dies. And people spend lots and lots of money on pretty stuff that dies. A lot of this is because annuals are going to die after a while anyway so they don’t match plants to the proper zones where they belong. And unfortunately, they do the same thing with perennials. So you get this sweet apple tree, for example, then bring it home and find out that it needs weeks on end of sub-freezing temperatures to thrive. It may live but it will never fruit. Or, the heat will kill it because apple trees don’t like the south. So you just wasted $40 on a useless plant that probably won’t survive the summer.

Ah, what did we ever do in the days before the internet? Now, with just a quick Google search, you can see if something is acclimated to your area before you buy it. This little trick has saved me hundreds of dollars.

What are some easy perennials? 

Most of your popular herbs, including: parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme (you’re welcome for having Scarborough Fair stuck in your head), chives, mint, oregano, lemongrass, lavender, & garlic chives. Most berries and fruits are also perennials, including strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, boysenberries, grapes, kiwis, lemons, & oranges.

Each of the plants listed above are growing in my yard and aren’t even taking up space in the dedicated garden beds, which are used primarily for vegetables. They’re just tucked away in various spots around the house. When winter comes, some of them die back or go dormant, while others are evergreen and just keep going. But we always have either fresh herbs, or very recently harvested and dried herbs. Last year we seasoned the Christmas turkey with garden-fresh herbs and it was truly one of the better ones I’ve tasted.

Most of these plants cost little to nothing at nurseries and grocery stores in the spring, and if you are interested, you can find various varieties online as well. They typically require little maintenance and will last for years.

So next time you’re at the big box store about to sink a bunch of cash and a Saturday afternoon into sweating in your yard, ask yourself, “Would this taste good on a steak?” or “Can I make wine out of this?”

If the answer is no, you may consider the possibility that you aren’t doing it right.

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