Perennial Food Gardening Methods – What Are the Differences?

Perennial Food Gardening Methods – What Are the Differences?

If you are interested in growing perennial vegetables and fruits sustainably, without using toxic chemicals at home, there are lots of great ways to do that. Edible landscaping, permaculture, food forests, and organic gardening are all wonderful methods to consider.  

However, how do you know which of these systems is right for you? Though there are some commonalities between these various forms of gardening, there are also key differences. Understanding those differences can help you figure out the method that will work best to meet your goals.

Let’s take a quick look at some definitional differences. Then we’ll get into a few details to help you decide which type of perennial food gardening is right for you.

What are Edible Landscapes?

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Image via Tasha Greer

Edible landscapes are ornamental landscapes that contain a fair amount of food-producing plants. Similar to the landscaping around the front door of a typical suburban home, an edible landscape usually has a mix of trees, shrubs, seasonal flowering plants, and ground cover. However, many of those plants will be edible as well as beautiful.

– Choose Ornamental Edibles

For example, rather than planting a decorative redbud or Japanese maple, you might plant a dwarf peach tree or black lace elderberry. Instead of a boxwood hedge, you might plant rosemary or lavender hedge. For ground cover, rather than ajuga or phlox, variegated thyme or strawberries could fill that niche.

– Focus on Beauty

The thing that really differentiates the idea of an edible landscape from the other food-growing options that follow is that the collection of plants used are chosen for their ornamental beauty and edibility. Those plants are also arranged in such a way as to mimic traditional landscapes.  

Because this method focuses on beauty and decorative elements, you can do it in a front yard (even in cities where things like vegetable gardens are outlawed). It’s a great way to hide your food supply in plain sight!

What is Permaculture?

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Image via Tasha Greer

Permaculture is a term that was coined by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. It comes from the joining of the words permanent and agriculture.  

– Start with a Comprehensive Plan

Permaculture is about supplying as many of the necessities of human life as possible with your available space – while mimicking or utilizing natural systems. It starts with observation and making a comprehensive plan for integrating permanent agricultural practices into your entire life scape – not just your landscape.

– Embrace your Environment

Permaculture based gardens will look different depending on where you live. They also often involve livestock such as chickens, ducks, or goats to help cycle nutrients.

For example, if you live near the ocean, then your permaculture garden might include shrimp as your livestock. You’d also likely focus on salt-tolerant perennial edible plants like sea kale and loquats rather salt intolerant rhubarb or apples.  

If you live in a desert, then your permaculture landscape will include lots of drought-tolerant plants. It will also have an aggressive program for capturing every drop of rain that falls on your land and circulating that to plants. Your livestock might be goats or chickens rather than high water needy ducks and pigs.

What are Food Forests?

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Image via Tasha Greer

Food forests are often associated with permaculture landscapes. Even so, you can also have a food forest without having a permaculture landscape.

– Mimic the Natural Woodlands

Food forests are based on the same principles as natural forests. In my natural woods, there are tall trees (oak, maple, tulip poplar). There are understory trees like witch hazel, holly, and sourwood.

In the mid-level, there are rhododendrons, mountain laurel, and wild blueberry. Interspersed with those plants are briars and some vining plants. Plus, there are a few ground cover plants and mosses. Additionally, there are lots of fungi.

When you create a food forest type landscape, you start by looking at the way the forests in your area grow naturally. Then you try to reproduce those layers using preferred edible plants.

– Select Edible Alternatives

For me, I have chestnut as a large tree replacement. Then, I use pawpaws and hazelnuts as my understory trees. I have honeyberries and aronias as my shrub element. Blackberries and grapes are my briars and vines.  

Strawberries and groundnuts are ground cover. Shiitake mushroom logs and winecaps grown in mulch make up the fungi element.

When these landscapes develop, they attract lots of wildlife and begin to function as the natural forest would. So, they take a lot less maintenance than something like an organic fruit orchard.  

You can grow food forests on a small plot of land by using fewer layers than a traditional forest. Generally, though, these tend to be used on larger lots.

What is Organic Gardening?

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Managing a vineyard organically is an example of organic gardening. Image via Tasha Greer.

The last option, organic gardening, is generally used in all three of the previous options. However, it can also be applied to your vegetable garden and the handful of fruit trees you plant on your back lawn.

– Avoid Synthetics

Organic gardening doesn’t require any particular planning regiment. You just have to avoid using non-organic pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides. You also have to avoid using synthetic fertilizers.

– Opt for Organic Tools

Organic gardens generally require regular applications of aged compost. They also rely heavily on mulch to reduce weeds. Fertilizers made from natural materials such as chicken manure, feather meal, alfalfa meal, and bat guano are the go-tos.

For pest control, things like neem, soapy water, and hand squishing are used. Or, even better, many organic gardeners just create lots of beneficial insect habitat such as pollinator gardens. Then, they allow nature to create a balance between pests and pest predators.

– Continuous Care

Whether you are planting a few perennial edibles such as fruit trees or a vegetable garden, organic gardening methods are perfect. The one downside of straight-up organic gardening versus creating a well-planned permaculture landscape or a food forest is that you’ll need to do more work long-term.

That’s because stand-alone perennials tend to require more care than plants that are part of an ecosystem strategically designed to promote plant health. They are often more prone to disease. Plus, they require more work to ensure the right nutrients are delivered to the plant’s roots at the right time of year.  

Which Perennial Food Gardening Method is Right for You?

So now the big question remains… which of these various forms of perennial food gardening is right for you? Or would you like to apply them all?

First, you’ll need to study your landscape and choose the ideal location for planting what you want to grow. Then, you’ll need to choose the right plants for your conditions.

Next, you’ll need to prepare the soil for whatever you have chosen to plant. For example, you may need to adjust your soil pH. Most likely you’ll need to add compost. You may also need to address drainage issues before planting. 

Finally, once you plant, then you still need to take care of those plants for their entire lifespans. That will include things like watering, fertilizing, weeding, pruning, and addressing pest or pathogen problems.

Where these different systems really diverge isn’t in those basics. It’s in your long-term goals for growing perennial food. Let’s take a look at each:

Organic Gardening Applications

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If you just want to add a couple of fruit trees for your traditional, non-edible landscape – then just using organic gardening methods is probably the way to go.

Focus on feeding your soil with compost. Use things like aerated or passive compost tea to nurture plants. Avoid any synthetic products or non-organic problem solvers.

The goal of this method is to promote soil life by choosing more environmentally sound options at every stage of plant care. However, it doesn’t require the creation of a self-sustaining food system or the level of active gardening that comes with edible landscaping.

Edible Landscape Applications

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If you want to create beautiful garden designs and wow your friends and family while producing food organically, then edible landscaping might be perfect for you.

For this, you’ll choose some long-term plantings such as fruit trees, berries, and perennial herbs and vegetables as your core backdrop. However, you’ll also work in crop rotations to add color and beauty throughout the season such as peas flowering, tomatoes ripening, vertically grown squash blossoms popping, and chards in full color for continuous interest.

This is great for the gardener who wants to garden several times per week, but maybe not every day (like you do in a vegetable garden). Ideally, you’ll still use organic gardening methods. However, you’ll also bring in elements of design to make your food supply part of an ornamental garden display.

Food Forest Applications

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If your focus is on lots of food production from a self-sustaining system that looks like a lush, natural woodland, food forests are for you. 

They do take a little work to get going. Yet, once these systems become productive, though, you’ll mostly harvest food in season. Also, because you are taking food from the system, you’ll need to periodically make up what you took out with applications of compost or mulch.

Though most people find food forests beautiful, they aren’t as cultivated in appearance as an edible landscape. The evolution of plantings is less showy than in an edible landscape. You also have less control over your harvests than in a traditional garden managed organically.

Still, these are ultimately less work than edible landscaping. They also tend to attract wildlife much like a natural forest would. 

So, you get that added benefit of supporting your local ecosystem too. (Of course, that means you’ll have to share some of your harvest with wildlife.)

Permaculture Applications

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If you want to radically alter your approach to provisioning your food and other human necessities, then permaculture is for you. This is a system you adopt for the long-term. In fact, most permaculture programs recommend you spend a year studying your landscape before you create your master design plan.

Of course, permaculture also offers some short-term solutions to keep you fed in the meantime. Creating a keyhole bed or a hugelculture can be done in an afternoon. Sheet-mulching a small vegetable patch will get you a vegetable crop in just a few months.

For bigger decisions though like where to put your pond, what trees to plant where, what kind of livestock will work best where on your landscape – it takes time to create a master plan. You also have to figure out things like nutrient cycling (e.g. composting toilets, worm bins). Plus, you need to catch and store energy from the sun and rain.

If greater self-sufficiency is your goal, then permaculture might be your answer.

Which is Best? It’s Up to You!

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All four of these methods of growing perennial food are good for the environment and good for you. They can all help you provide some of your nutritional and other needs at home while making your landscape more beautiful.  

To some extent, you can also mix and match. For example, your backyard might be a permaculture paradise or a food forest. However, your front yard may need to use traditional organic gardening or edible landscaping practices to appease your neighbors or homeowners’ association.

Just remember, whichever method you choose, soil preparation, and proper planning are always critical to your gardening success!

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