Why planting perennials makes such good sense

 
Not only can perennials grow through the winter and survive for many seasons, they also require little fuss or tending to. 

Not only can perennials grow through the winter and survive for many seasons, they also require little fuss or tending to. 

My dark winter nights are generally spent curled next to a fire devouring every seed catalog that can fit into my mailbox. Dreaming of the tomatoes, peas, and corn I’ll plant in the spring helps me survive the blistering cold winter here in New Hampshire.

"While I’m planting seeds and waiting for that first tender head of lettuce, I have glorious asparagus spears pushing through the still chilled soil, screaming to be eaten."

When the weather warms and my dreaming about garden-fresh food turns into full blown spring planting frenzy, I’m grateful for my perennials. Because while I’m planting the tiny seeds I’ve saved up over the winter and waiting for that first tender head of lettuce to appear, I already have glorious asparagus spears pushing through the still chilled soil, screaming to be steamed and eaten with butter and lemon.

There are so many reasons to praise perennial foods. Not only can they
grow through the winter and survive for many seasons, but they require
little fuss or tending to. In late winter when my chili plants wither
away in the compost pile, I can dig up fresh horseradish roots to
spice up any dish. I keep thyme outside my kitchen door so when the
weather is bad, I can lean out without taking off my slippers and snip a few sprigs for my roasted
potatoes. After the first frost, I
always bring a few cuttings of spearmint inside to grow so I am
never without a fresh cup of mint tea. You’ll always have a fresh
harvest with perennials in the garden.

The deep root structure of a perennial grass (left) compared to an annual grass (right). Photo credit: Scott Bontz

The deep root structure of a perennial grass (left) compared to an annual grass (right). Photo credit: Scott Bontz

Deep-rooted resilience

A primary reason for the sturdiness of these plants is the deep network of roots that allows them to anchor firmly into the ground. This extensive root system lets the plants find water as well as nutrients deep in the subsoil where annuals can’t reach. Deep roots also give perennials resilience during climate extremes like drought, wind and flooding. While I’ve lost plenty of tomatoes to strong northeasterly rain and winds but I’ve never gone a season without fresh strawberries.

Another reason to love perennials is that they do a better job of feeding the soil than annuals. And feeding the soil is a critically important part of gardening and farming.

Feed the soil, reverse global warming

One of the best things about perennials is they stay put as the winter bears down on them, feeding the soil with large amounts of organic matter as their leaves decompose. The decomposition of plants releases nutrients back into the soil and produces humus, a carbon-rich molecule that makes up the dark topsoil in your garden. The creation of humus increases soil fertility and stores carbon underground. It is so stable it can stay  in the soil for hundreds of years.

I plant lavender or thyme on my sunny garden slopes to avoid winter washouts because dormant winter roots also add organic matter deep underground and help to reduce soil erosion, preventing carbon-rich topsoil from washing away in the winter rains and wind.

Erosion strips the soil of nutrients and exposes soil carbon to the air where it oxidizes into carbon dioxide (C02), a powerful greenhouse gas. Planting perennials creates a positive feedback loop that enhances soil fertility while reducing greenhouse gases in our atmosphere.

In short, the fresh rosemary, mint, artichokes, and more that I grow in my garden makes my community greener by actually helping reverse global warming. Amazing, right? It's why growing perennials can be among the most powerful steps each of us can take to build a better world, and another reason to love them.


Acadia Tucker has had a life-long love affair with plants. She received her BA in Environmental Science from Pitzer College and a Masters in Land and Water Systems from the University of British Columbia. Currently based in New Hampshire, she grows hops to support locally sourced craft beer in New England.

This is the first in our series of radical gardening, or how to grow food to help the planet. To find out more about growing your own perennials. Check out our Perennial Profiles.