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.

| April 2015

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.

Buy this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: The Wildlife-Friendly Vegetable Gardener.

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.

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