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Using Perennials

By Meylin Muniz

The Benefits of Perennials

Apples, pecans, asparagus, and blackberries- what do these delicious foods have in common? Depending on your climate zone, each of these can be planted once and with a little patience are the gifts that keep on giving (bonus: no seed-starting or tilling necessary!).

Perennials are Hardier and Require Less Care

As members of a more mature successionary stage, perennial crops are in it for the long haul. Their roots run deeper and thicker, allowing them to subsist with fewer water and fertilizer inputs. Annuals, on the other hand, demand more intensive inputs which are easily lost from their shallow and delicate root systems. This is where water pollution can become a common reality. The extensive roots of perennials also work to enrich the soil with organic matter and microbial life. The difference is so dramatic that conversion of land from perennial to annual agriculture has been shown to cut the soil organic carbon content in half over a 30-year period. Finally, the no-till-necessary perennial system reduces the erosion and soil disturbance weeds crave so much. Compare this with short-lived annuals which keep the land at the earliest stage of succession, making fast-growing annual weeds a persistent issue.

Why Are Perennials Less Prevalent?

Still, the elephant in the room remains- if perennials are so great, why are they so heavily outnumbered by annuals in food production? Over 90% of plants in nature’s reservoir are perennials, so the issue wouldn’t be a lack of options. Ironically, however, perennial crops- especially improved varieties- are difficult for farmers to come across. Up to now, scientists have worked almost exclusively on breeding and making specialized equipment for annual varieties.

Then there is the issue of wait time which doesn’t feel worthwhile for growers on rented land (slow and steady output is the perennial motto). A mix of annuals for immediate income and perennials for a value-added investment may be best. For some of the more quicker growing perennials, check out this page:

Using Perennial Alternatives

Finally, not every annual has an identical perennial counterpart. Sure, fruits nuts, herbs, and flowers are easy enough additions. However, many perennial alternatives (particularly vegetables) are unfamiliar to consumers even if they are just as delicious! If you are still feeling adventurous after reading, feast your eyes on some of the perennial vegetables growing in your climate zone:

Or consider picking up a copy of Perennial Vegetables by Eric Toensmeier.

Integration of perennials may take the shape of agroforestry. Trees can be mixed with annuals, pasture, or both depending on the goals of the farmer. Typically, perennials are planted in fall to promote strong root growth through the winter, but this is only a general rule.

Use of Perennials is Expanding

Many institutions have taken notice of the benefits of perennial crop production such as increased landscape and financial resilience. For example, organizations like the Land Institute are working to “perennialize” existing annuals that make up the bulk of human nutrition like grains, legumes, and oilseed crops. Helping in this mission are scientists that look at the perennial food crops we do have in production. An interesting finding is that perennial crops have much fewer genetic bottlenecks than annuals despite being domesticated over thousands of years and showing differentiation from their wild counterparts. 

This suggests that trait selection doesn’t have to be at the cost of great losses in genetic diversity. With some of these exciting developments already in their final stages, we can expect to see foods like rice and wheat make their debut onto the perennial scene soon- part of a growing movement to give these tough plants a well-deserved chance in the field and on our plates.

Meylin Muniz

Meylin Muniz

I’m a Plant Science student at the University of Florida specializing in Sustainable Crop Production with a deep interest in closed-loop systems and regenerating soil fertility. If I’m not studying, I can also be found writing, running, and taking pictures of critters in the garden. During the summers, I spend time in Miami with family. I think food is a great way for people to connect; some of my favorites are mangoes, peanuts, and oats.

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