So far in this series, all the plants we’ve dealt with are annuals. An ‘annual’ is a plant like a pea or tomato that comes from a planted seed, which germinates, grows to maturity, flowers, gets pollinated, and produces seeds – all in one growing season.
Most ornamental flowers are like that too. You’ve probably heard people say they’re going to a nursery to get ‘annuals’ to put in their flower beds. This has to be done every spring, because in the fall all those plants will die.
These annual flowers, grown to beautify our properties, differ from our food plants only in our reason for growing them. We grow flowers because they have attractive blossoms, and they continue blooming all summer. Food plants, on the other hand, we grow to eat. These don’t flower all summer, and their flowers aren’t so showy. But they’re all annuals.
If you’re scratching your head right now about food plants producing seeds, remember that in the case of vegetables, we harvest and eat the plant before it can get to the flowering stage. Broccoli, carrot, beet, radish, lettuce – a whole lot of our food plants get eaten before they ‘go to seed’. If you’ve never seen these plants at the seeding stage, you just haven’t gone as far in neglecting a garden as I sometimes have.
In the case of fruits, we allow them to finish their life cycle because it’s the fruit we want to eat. A fruit is just a fleshy container for seeds, as in the case of tomatoes, pumpkin, squash, zucchini, and so on. In some cases, like peas and beans, it’s the actual seeds that we want for food.
(Before you go on the warpath about pumpkins and such not being fruits, be advised that there is wide disagreement about what is a fruit and what is a vegetable. There aren’t any simple rules. In fact, there are several conflicting sets of them. I use Bruce’s rules, which are – if we eat what grows from a pollinated flower, it’s a fruit. If we eat some other part of the plant, like the bulbous root of a turnip, then it’s a vegetable. I’m well aware that in the botanical world, it’s way, way more complicated than that. I’m a gardener, not a biologist.)
There’s a whole other set of plants grown by gardeners for the food they provide, and these are perennials – plants that only go dormant in the fall, surviving the rigours of winter, and reawakening in the spring to do their summer’s work of producing fruit. Year after year. Score!
Most half-serious gardeners have some perennials, at least rhubarb and strawberries. The more adventurous will also have currants, blackberries, gooseberries, raspberries, blueberries, asparagus, not to mention the fruit trees like apple, plum, and pear. All of these will grow in Newfoundland.
Wide open spaces
There are some requirements, of course. First and foremost, you need space. The deck won’t cut it, because perennials can’t be grown in containers. The reason is that in the winter, the soil ball in a container will freeze solid, throughout, and this kills the plant. So you need enough space on your property to have your plants in the ground. A nice bit of space. A perennial that’s doing well will get big. I’ve got rhubarb plants five or six feet across, and currants that are six feet tall and four-ish feet across.
But apart from the need for space, perennials are pretty easy. They need the same thing your other plants do – decent soil, moisture, sunlight, annual feeding, and weeding and mulching if you can possibly manage them.
In the case of upright, bushy plants like currants and gooseberries, you’ll have to get used to pruning the plants, to get rid of dead, misshapen, or diseased branches. Every spring, you’ll find a number of branches, broken by snow load, that have to be pruned off. And you’ll also prune to control the shape of the bush, to keep it from sprawling too much, and to keep it from getting so dense in the middle that no light reaches inside.
Management through pruning is important in the raising of all the berries, but each has its own requirements. It would take more words than I’m allowed to go over each one, and some I’m not familiar with. If you need detailed information, there’s tons on the ‘net.
Shrubs like currants can generally be propagated from cuttings from a friend’s patch, or you can buy them from a garden centre. There are always new varieties coming along, which produce more and better fruit, so spending a little money to buy your perennials might pay off handsomely.
Rhubarb has to be the easiest thing to grow in all of nature. It requires nothing but a good heavy feeding once a year, and watering if it’s a really dry summer. Rhubarb produces a phenomenal amount of foliage and stalk, so it’s a heavy feeder. In the old days, after the plant had gone dormant in the fall, farmers used to put a bushel basket of manure over each plant. That rotted down through the fall and winter, and provided nutrition for the plant all next summer. I use a top dressing of compost, which works great. Every few years, you need to dig up the unbelievably ugly, tumour-like root, split it, and replant a piece of it. If you don’t, the plant produces huge numbers of spindly stalks instead of a goodly number of thick ones.
The good news is that you can get your rhubarb from a gardener who’s splitting his or her plants. No need to spend money. Unless you don’t know anybody who can spare you some, in which case you can get it at a garden centre.
Blueberry plants have to be bought, and if my experience is anything to go by, maybe it’s just as well to pick the wild ones from the countryside. I haven’t had much luck. The ones I harvested last year were really big and really tasty. But there were only six of them.
Asparagus, you have to buy also, and it requires quite good soil to grow in. Like rhubarb, they’re heavy feeders. If you know where to get manure, that’ll help. I planted asparagus for the first time last summer. Next summer, I get to harvest for the first time. Patience required.
Strawberries are a staple for many gardeners, easy to grow, aromatic and delicious beyond description. You’ll have to protect your fruit from the birds, who love them, and from all manner of crawling insect, who also love them. If you mulch your patch with straw, like the commercial people do, that will help greatly, but who’s got ready access to hay or straw? I’ve made do with grass clippings, and that’s a help, but does nothing about bird poaching. The other problem with strawberries is they send out large numbers of runners, in all directions, dropping a new little plant every six inches or so. If you don’t religiously cut these little devils out, your strawberry patch will be completely out of control by next spring. Diligence required.
Strawberries plants are much shorter-lived than most perennials. After three or four years, you’ll notice a long, woody-looking stem at the ground, which is easily broken, and a general decline in the vigour of the plant. Time to dig them out and plant anew. You can use the little plants on the runners as new plants, but I’m told you’ll get much better results by buying new plants from a nursery, which are propagated through tissue culture (a form of cloning, I think). They’re not really expensive.
Any plant that produces fruit, whether annual or perennial, depends on bees to pollinate its flowers. If the weather is cold or wet or both when your strawberries or currants or whatever are in flower, pollination rates will be poor, and the yield from your plants will drop for that year. There are a lot of flowers to pollinate – each individual berry comes from an individual flower that had to have a bee drop by and do its job. Nevertheless, nature works surprisingly well. My currants flowered in the middle of that disastrous stretch of rain, drizzle, and fog that we had earlier in the summer. I figured my currant crop was done for, but I was wrong. The bushes are heavily laden. The bees must have been wearing scuba gear.
This is not the case with rhubarb, of course, because we eat the leaf stalks of the plant. In fact, if you see a seed stalk pushing up towards heaven in the middle of a rhubarb plant, pull it off right away. The plant mustn’t be allowed to go to seed.
Pollination isn’t an issue with asparagus either, since what we eat are the tender young plant stalks, harvested just after they emerge from the soil.
Years of enjoyment
Apart from strawberries, most perennials, if looked after properly, will last for decades, and produce surprising amounts of food year after year. And they don’t take a lot of work. There’s a special thrill to getting a bottle of your own currant jelly down off a shelf, or taking your own frozen strawberries out of the freezer, in February, when last summer and next summer both seem eons away.