Perennial vegetable growing is a bit of a buzzword for permaculture types and very often the question is asked – why are annual veggies grown when perennial ones are just so much easier and sustainable?. Take rhubarb and asparagus, frinstance, very traditional perennial veg that everyone knows about – big yields and very popular on allotments everywhere. Why have we not replaced all our annuals with such fine perennial equivalents?
Well, the answer for me (IMHO) is yield per square foot over time. I think growing annual veg is entirely logical if you want more produce for your pence. Of course there are other costs apart from money, particularly ecological ones: annual veggies use up more fertilizer, depleting fossil fuels and the environment. Even if we are organic but our gardens aren’t substantially self sustaining we will deplete other peoples fields growing composts for us or the plants needed to feed animals to give us manure (and thus wasting more good land on horsey-culture). But there are also budgetary considerations. If I spend £20 on seeds, £20 on manure and £60 on allotment rent to grow vegetables that would cost me £90 in the supermarket, by conventional standards I would be an idiot.
Of course I sound like a man who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing. The intangibles such as happiness, ecological land use, chemical free food aren’t intangible at all to those who garden and experience them. Let’s also add honest sweat in the endeavour to achieve something good in a barbaric and soulless corporate world. But even though I value these things I still want to make a “profit”.
It is of course impossible to outcompete on pure monetary terms an exploited third world peasantry and worldwide mass agribusiness. The amount of kidney beans found in a 20p tin from the supermarket uses up about 50p worth of my allotment rent growing French beans for drying. And that’s before seed and fertiliser costs. I take some comfort, however, from knowing that the cost to me of growing fresh green beans is less than the cost of buying in the supermarket – if – and that’s a big if – I have a decent crop and don’t have to fork out on some emergency soluble fertilisers. or somesuch. Plus, I can grow something else in the spring before I sow the green beans in summer, perhaps a green manure, thus reducing my fertiliser costs.
Let’s talk about garlic, very often an expensive thing to buy, but at the moment it is about 4 bulbs for £1. I can grow about 5 on a square foot costing me about 8p in land rent for those 5 – now we are getting somewhere! But what about seed costs and fertiliser, I hear you say? Well, garlic is a perennial – if you leave it to grow on year after year it will expand – so once you have your seed cloves you wont need any again. Each year at harvest select the best cloves from the bulbs and replant them for next year in the autumn or spring. Your “seed” each year will cost you, say, 10% of your harvest. You could grow a quick green manure between summer harvest and autumn planting reducing your fertiliser costs, but as a rule of thumb I set aside 50% of my plot to plants that I am growing mainly for composting. Therefore to fertilise the garlic crop I would basically need to double that 8p cost to 16p for 4 and a half bulbs (remember 10% of my crop goes for seed) of large (I’m selecting for size), organic, chemical free garlic.
So, I can save money on posh veg like garlic, that’s all very middle class, you might say, but what about saving on food for the toiling masses? Well for a start garlic is loaded with calories for the area it takes up, but leaving that aside lets take a look at the humble cauliflower. An annual, you might say. I can’t win with you, I might say back. There is a perennial version called Nine Star Perennial Broccoli. Now I know it says broccoli but it is really a cauliflower with more than one head and it lasts for more than two years. A cauli in the supermarket costs £1 – on my allotment it will take up about 4 square foot, so 32p. Double it for land needed to put aside for compost and we get 64p. I take cuttings from side shoots for propagation so I don’t know how to factor that in, but lets call it 70p.
Now the problem with perennials for the gardener who wants to improve yields is that perennials must, by their very nature, be in the ground permanently. For your conventional veg gardener it is an easy matter to sow seed, harvest the produce, sow more seed and harvest again, all in one year. Once you have harvested your perennial, say rhubarb, finishing in June you have to leave the rhubarb taking up space for the rest of the year if you want more next year. Bed blocking you might say. The same goes for nine star broccoli and asparagus. Not, however, for such perennial crops as French sorrel, welsh onions, chives and wild rocket, which, using cut and come again, you can keep grazing on for most of the year.
I don’t know, I was expecting to argue in this article that it was futile fighting against annual veg but I seem to have reached an impasse!
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