Why do we love perennials?



Mostly because it’s less work.  Perennials are low maintenance compared to the labor that annuals require.   Not that perennials can be completely neglected – they must be tended to periodically – but the process of cultivation and soil prep, planting and tenuous “babying” as the plant gets established happens only once.  Perennials are often hardier and more drought tolerant due their woodier stems and extensive root systems that continue deepening in search of water and nutrients year after year.  The hardy nature of many perennials food crops can also extend the growing season, widening our choices for year-round food.  They need less fuss, less water, less fertilizer, less fossil fuel, and fewer trips to the chiropractor.  We like that.  

Our favorite and best-selling perennial food crop for the Bay Area – tree collards Brassica oleracea.

Artichoke leaf – food, medicine, and year-round beauty.

The perennial love fest doesn’t stop there.  Not only can perennial crops give us food, fiber, dye, medicine, building materials and beauty, but they can also simultaneously provide an array of ecological services for the health of the garden system as a whole, which makes our work even easier.  When non-invasive perennials are inter-planted with annuals, the garden mimics the kinds of interdependent plant communities present in wild eco-systems.   A diverse polyculture of annuals and perennials that flower at different times of the year attract an array of beneficial insects that pollinate crops.  The bushy protective cover of perennial border plants provides habitat for birds and wildlife that prey upon pests and in turn fertilize the soil with their droppings.   Shrubs and trees moderate the garden microclimate by providing shade in the summer and insulation and wind protection in the winter, not to mention improving carbon sequestration and oxygen production.  Permanent root systems encourage the growth of soil microbes and prevent the kind of erosion and depletion that frequently tilled soil is vulnerable to between annual crops.  The overall effect is a healthy, resilient garden with nature doing the work for us.  What’s not to love?


perennialsolutions.org Author, friend and OAEC guest instructor, Eric Toensmeir has written extensively on “food forests” and the myriad climate benefits of perennial agriculture, including his groundbreaking book The Carbon Farming Solution: A Global Toolkit of Perennial Crops and Regenerative Agricultural Practices for Climate Change Mitigation and Food Security  It is no exaggeration to say that we carry the majority of the multi-purpose plants he recommends in his Perennial Vegetables book at the OAEC Nursery.  Geek out on his booklists and tons of practical info.

California Native Plant Society Native plants are, hands down, the best choice for locally adapted, water saving landscaping and habitat creation. The CNPS website has an incredible searchable database that is useful both as a field guide and landscape plant list builder.  We are always expanding our selection of California natives.

The Land Institute – Kansas-based research center breeding new varieties of perennial grain crops for commercial scale use.  Science-based articles about how and why transitioning to more perennial plant based agriculture is a promising climate solution.

Lost Crops of the Incas – Classic guide booklet to perennial food crops – mostly tubers – of the Andean mountain region whose climate parallels ours in Northern coastal California.  OAEC’s Mother Garden Biodiversity Program began experimenting with these easy-to-grow crops in the early 1990’s and is pleased to see their popularity flourish.  Among our favorite Andean tubers: yacon (crisp, juicy, reminiscent of jicama), oca (dense, multi-colored, potato-like – we grow 8+ varieties here in the Nursery “tuber room”) and mashua (piquant, radish-like, unusual shape).

Permaculture The use of multi-function perennial plants is a popular aspect of permaculture design. There is a wealth of information out there on plant selection and placement, including this recommended reading list for OAEC’s Permaculture Design Certification course:

Learn more about Permaculture at OAEC