Plant a Perennial ‘Backbone’ for Your Vegetable Garden

A perennial “backbone” will not only increase the aesthetic qualities of your vegetable garden landscape, but it will also welcome all kinds of beneficial insects and animals to your garden.

Berries

Elderberries, gooseberries, blueberries, raspberries, black currants, boysenberries and rose hips are great, colorful fruits to grow in your garden.

Illustration by Holly Ward Bimba

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Enhance your relationship with nature. In The Wildlife-Friendly Vegetable Gardener (Storey Publishing, 2014), author Tammi Hartung provides all of the tips and tricks to making a garden a peaceful place where perennials attract pollinators, ponds house slug-eating bullfrogs and hedgerows shelter and feed many kinds of wildlife. This excerpt, which is from Chapter 3, “Garden Elements That Welcome Wildlife,” discusses the benefits of adding perennials to your garden landscape.

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A great many trees, shrubs, vines, hedgerows, vegetables, and herbs can serve the garden landscape as backbone plants, establishing a multistory environment that creates microclimates and habitats. They set the stage by welcoming birds, beneficial insects, earthworms, garter snakes, and toads to make their homes and raise their young in and near the food garden.

Trees and shrubs flower before yielding their delicious harvest of nuts, fruits, and berries; the flowers provide fodder for many types of pollinators, including mason bees, honeybees, butterflies, and moths. Berry bushes and asparagus can provide wind protection for more tender plants such as tomatoes and peppers, or midsummer shade for lettuces. The list of perennial food plants is quite long, so you have great variety of choice in what to include in your garden. Keep in mind that you must choose your perennial plants — and their place in the garden — with care. Although you can relocate a rhubarb plant or asparagus patch, it’s a lot more work than planting tomatoes in a different spot.

Create a Perennial “Backbone” for Your Vegetable Garden

Establishing the backbone of your garden requires a bit of careful thought. Select varieties of plants that match your growing conditions; seek out local advice for what grows well in your particular area. County extension services and local nurseries can provide invaluable help for which varieties of fruit or nut trees and bushes will do best with your conditions. You will need to consider hardiness to make sure trees, shrubs, and perennial crops will survive your cold seasons. For example, as much as I would love to have a pecan tree, I know it is too cold and dry here in Colorado for such a tree to thrive. Choose plants that tolerate the typical levels of moisture your region receives from rain or snow. It is important to do a bit of research to make sure you’re not selecting varieties that have pest or disease problems that are common in your area. In Colorado, for example, it’s important to choose varieties of apples, plums, pears, and cherries that are resistant to fire blight. Do your research before you purchase any plants so they stand a good chance of thriving where you live.

The perennial food plants that form the permanent backbone of my garden provide me with an ongoing supply of food to fill my pantry each year and, at the same time, have become a crucial part of my total landscape. They add beauty and a sense of peacefulness. They create the flow pattern that inspires where I plant my annual vegetable plants each gardening season. Every year is slightly different from the year before, as I practice crop rotation in the vegetable garden, but those always-present fruit trees, berry bushes, and horseradish provide a sense of consistency. Most important, the same permanent garden community members that provide food to fill my pantry also create a habitat for the wildlife that shares this land. The animals are a critical part of the natural cycles here. Each contributes an important piece to the process of a thriving, healthy garden and to the larger picture of good earth stewardship.

Trees for Food and Habitat

If your yard is large enough, selecting trees is a great place to begin. While nut trees can take up a huge amount of space, hazelnut and semidwarf fruit trees fit in most suburban yards. If all you have is a sunny patio or porch, you may still be able to grow a dwarf fruit tree in a container. In southern Colorado, black walnuts and piñon pines are two possibilities. In other parts of North America the choices might include English walnuts, pecans, almonds, and filberts (hazelnuts).

The list of fruit-tree possibilities is very long, depending on where you live. In Colorado options include apples, peaches, pears, nectarines, apricots, cherries, plums, and the humble yet delicious mulberry. Friends in southern Arizona have lemons, limes, grapefruits, and oranges growing in their gardens. Another friend, in Hawaii, grows papayas, mangoes, avocados, and bananas. (The banana plant is not officially a tree, and is not even considered a true perennial, but most people think of it as a tree.)

Consider carefully the best location for any trees before you purchase or plant them. Make sure you plant them far enough apart to allow for their mature size. Also remember that trees will cast shade. In climates with hot summers, this may be an advantage. Many salad greens grow better with a bit of shade. Even green beans benefit from some afternoon shade where summers are very hot; plant them on the east side of trees or shrubs so they’ll get good morning sun.

Fruiting Shrubbery

Once you’ve made your tree choices, the next step is to consider which bushes to include in and around your food garden. Berry bushes produce a lot of fruit in relatively little space, plus they are easier to harvest from than fruit trees are. I can’t imagine a food garden without a generous raspberry patch. Red and black currants are also permanent residents in my garden. Blueberries are some of the easiest fruits to grow, if you can give them the acid soils they require. Other fruiting bushes include elderberry, blackberry, boysenberry, and gooseberry. Roses are an ornamental addition for their edible hips and flowers; some types produce larger hips than others. Gardeners in tropical and subtropical climates can grow figs if they have enough space in their garden. A row of berry bushes can provide a bit of a windbreak for a vegetable garden, but be careful to locate it far enough away to avoid shading vegetables. 

Vines Are Fine

It is quite nice to incorporate perennial vines such as grapes, passionflower, and hops as part of your garden’s perennial backbone. Kiwi vines are an option for some climates. Vines are especially appropriate for screening to create privacy for the garden’s humans or to cover an unattractive wire fence. A vine-covered arbor or pergola adds a decorative element to a food-producing landscape; in hot climates it can also be designed to provide much-needed shading for plants that are a little less tolerant of hot sun.

Hedgerows Welcome Wildlife

Hedgerows are informal plantings, typically of shrubs, trees, and vines, that supply food and habitat for many kinds of wildlife. They are permanent plantings that will foster beneficial insects, many types of pollinators, and wild birds. They may also provide homes to larger animals. Such plantings are excellent partners for traditional food gardens, whether planted along the perimeter or nearby. If strategically located, hedgerows can double as windbreaks or even as dust screens in arid regions, offering extra protection to tender vegetables such as greens, tomatoes, and beans. Another gift they offer is simple privacy from the outlying world.

Hedgerows can easily contain berry bushes, rosebushes, nut trees, or other plants that provide tasty treats for humans. Nontraditional fruits such as mulberries, serviceberries (also called Juneberries or saskatoons), and wild plums may fit in best as part of a wildlife hedgerow. Hazelnuts, piñon pines, and hawthorn trees make wonderful additions.

We planted a hedgerow along the north side of our home, very near the primary food garden and running parallel to a row of wine grapes. Our hedgerow includes Angel Wing roses, which have tiny hips that finches, pine siskins, and other small birds like to feast on in winter. I’ve also seen some pinyon jays interested in those rose hips during the cold months. There is a maple tree and a seed-grown apple tree. Seed-grown apples are always unpredictable, as one is never sure if their fruit will be large and delicious, small and sour, or something in between. Still, I like to grow apples from seed. Even if this seedling never produces good eating apples, it will still be an excellent addition to our north hedgerow because whatever kind of fruit it does produce will be a useful source of food for wildlife.

Our hedgerow also contains a Manchurian apricot tree, which yields smaller fruit than a typical fresh-eating variety of apricot. The apricots are somewhat tart but still very tasty, and we enjoy eating them fresh. We also dehydrate a bunch of these little apricots, sprinkled with cinnamon and vanilla-infused sugar, to be used as hiking snacks. Chris and I are not big jam eaters, but we have friends who love to make apricot jelly and preserves from Manchurian apricots. These cute and tangy little apricots also make wonderful wildlife food, so much so that I am planting more of these trees in the windbreaks on the perimeter of the farm.

My hedgerows are great gathering places for wild critters. They seek out these plantings because they know there’s a source of food there. Wild birds build nests in hedgerows, and squirrels also make their homes there. Animals also use the hedgerows for protection from weather and predators, like the mother deer that leave their fawns hidden away for several hours in the heat of the day. I have placed water sources near some of the hedgerows to make them a one-stop food-and-drink station.

Perennial Vegetables and Fruits

Other important pieces of the backbone of the food garden are the smaller but equally critical perennial vegetables and fruits. These provide a predictable food harvest for the pantry, but do not need to be planted each gardening season, the way annuals like beets and eggplants do. In addition, they’re important anchors for many beneficial insects and pollinators, especially the ground and wood-nesting pollinators. Bumblebees use strawberry blossoms as an early source of nectar when temperatures are still too cold for tomatoes or peppers to be flowering. Asparagus, artichokes, sorrel, and fiddlehead ferns are delicious perennial vegetables, so you will enjoy them year after year. Strawberries, rhubarb, and blueberries are tasty additions to the garden space, as they contribute to your dessert menu.

Perennial Herbs

Planting herbs in a food garden is a natural thing to do. It’s an efficient use of space to have herbs, fruits, and vegetables growing in among one another. Herbs offer flavoring for the kitchen, tasty teas, and remedies for the medicine cupboard, with the added advantage that they attract many kinds of pollinators and beneficial insects. For example, mint attracts lady bugs, which hunt aphids on your broccoli; at the same time, the mint will repel flea beetles from your kale. Planting a lot of different herbs, such as sage, mint, and fennel, will attract many insect helpers to your garden. The herbs also have lots of volatile oils, which give them great taste and fragrance, but they also repel some kinds of larger wildlife, such as deer and elk, which cannot abide the strong smell. These animals will avoid areas of the garden where herbs like lavender and rosemary are growing. Both perennial and annual herbs are wonderful companion plants to fruits and vegetables for these reasons.

Two herbs are well worth growing in your garden landscape for the benefit they provide to your compost pile: common nettles (Urtica diocia) and comfrey. Nettle, which is in fact both a vegetable and an herb, is quite important as a backbone member of the garden. I use nettles in my soups and casseroles, as well as for health supportive teas and tinctures, but nettles also provide nutrition for the soil. (Wear gloves when you handle fresh nettles, which can sting when they come in contact with the skin.) Nettles will act as a companion to fruit trees when planted nearby, helping to supply good nutrition to the soil. Comfrey exhibits similar behavior. Both of these herbs work by supplying nitrogen and minerals to the soil, whether they’re growing in the ground near other plants or being added to the garden soil as compost. They serve as activators in my compost barrel too, so I am sure to add chopped up nettles and comfrey leaves to the compost barrel on a regular basis during the gardening season.

Herbs That Attract and Repel Insects and Animals

• Catnip will attract lady bugs, which are great predators of aphids and whiteflies.
• Chamomile attracts parasitic wasps, which help control worms and caterpillars.
• Comfrey creates wonderful habitat for beneficial spiders.
• Dill and fennel both attract predator wasps.
• Horseradish repels potato bugs, and is excellent habitat for beneficial spiders.
• Garlic repels aphids, tree borers, snails, flea beetles, and squash bugs.
• Mints attract lacewings and lady bugs, which are great general predators. They also repel flea beetles, cabbage flies, and mosquitoes.
• Oregano repels aphids and attracts lady bugs and lacewings.
• Rosemary repels bean beetles and cabbage moths.
• Thyme repels whiteflies.


This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from The Wildlife-Friendly Vegetable Gardener by Tammi Hartung, published by Storey Publishing, 2014.