Perennial Spirit

This week, while spring started nudging colours up from the ground, and as cherry and plum blossoms unfurled overhead and sounded the timid first notes of what will grow to be a symphony of pinks and whites in the city, we sat down at the farm to learn about perennial plants.

Solara, our instructor for this course, is from the local design and edible landscaping firm Hatchet & Seed. She began the day by asking us to think about memories from childhood that involve perennial food. Easy, right? Food is evocative – carrying deep cultural meaning, playing to all five of our senses, a kind of interior lodestar marking the ritual and rhythm of life. The smell of food, in particular, is closely associated with autobiographical memory, as our olfactory bulb has direct connections to the brain’s amygdala and hippocampus. And so food bridges that space between the personal and the communal, a form imbued with a shared universal meaning.

Curious goats and a taciturn dog at Ravenhill Herb Farm.

I’m of Mennonite extraction on my mom’s side, and so I was already mentally licking my lips in anticipation of the exercise. I jotted some historical context into my notebook. Winnipeg, where I grew up, has a sizeable Mennonite population – in the 1870s, ethnic and socio-political pressures in the former Russian Empire sent a third of that country’s Mennonite population fleeing to Canada, many of them to Southern Manitoba. Later waves arrived in the Canadian prairies in the 1920s, in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution, and again during the Second World War.

Many of these settlers began farming the fertile soil of Manitoba’s Red River Valley and elsewhere. But farming what? Perennials? I realized that I didn’t know enough about farming, or perennials, or, I guess, that part of my family history to say for sure. And Sam, sitting next to me, was almost finished answering.

Growing up, I remembered eating traditional Mennonite food: vareniki (perogies), or else cottage cheese pancakes, both tasting vaguely like yummy contraband as they were served when my dad wasn’t home for dinner (he didn’t like them). But no perennials in there. What else? Borscht? Scalloped potatoes? I chewed on my pen cap. Then I hit on it.

“Dill!” I said, triumphantly.

“Dill is an annual.”

Lunch around the fireplace at Ravenhill Herb Farm.

Eventually, plumbing the depths of my childhood mind, I remembered watching a rhubarb eating contest at a “pioneer” festival in rural Manitoba. The stalks were burly and bright, eaten raw – no sugar allowed. It was tense. A baby won. And I realized a couple of things, as I think Solara intended.

One is that I hadn’t thought about food in these terms before, that is, as being annual or perennial. I had lots of other mental systems of classification, for use at the grocery store or farmer’s market: if it was local, if it was in season, if it appeared on the “dirty dozen” list for conventional produce. If it tasted good. But obviously I was at some remove from the cycles of the food I was eating.

My other realization was that, outside of fruits and nuts, we don’t have a whole lot of common perennial crops here. Early Eurasian agriculture centered around livestock, annual grains and legumes – in Guns, Germs and Steel Jared Diamond traces its regional development through the winter rains and summer droughts of the Mediterranean, to its subsequent spread northward, where cooler temperatures and a shorter growing season privileged the quick rewards of annual production. Settlers to the prairies brought along these annual seeds and draft animals for tilling.

But perennials have their advantages: whereas tilling releases carbon stores in the soil, perennial plants sequester it in the ground. Perennials generally possess greater nutrient density and drought resistance, provide stable yields, and require low energy inputs. Farming culture in Central and South America is more oriented towards perennial crops, but the North American palate is not well-accustomed to the assertiveness of many of these tastes.

(L-R: A ladder in the orchard, poised for pruning “watersprouts” – vertical shoots that grow from latent buds on the tree’s branches; hunting for perennial vegetables in one of the gardens at Ravenhill Herb Farm; a wheelbarrow filled with willow for making willow water, a natural rooting hormone for plant propagation.)

We took a walk around the farm to scout for some perennial plants. Solara pointed out a hops vine snaking up the side of the classroom – its flowers here in the Pacific Northwest lend the uniquely fruity, resinous character to many craft beers, and its young shoots are edible, a bit like asparagus. Creeping thyme and hanging rosemary hung pendulously over the rock wall on the side of our path.

We walked past a quince tree and came to kneel at a garden patch thick with cardoon, a wild cousin of artichoke and a “dynamic accumulator” that mines minerals from deep in the soil and makes them available to more shallow-rooted plants. Nearby was some tousled-looking lovage, a medicinal herb that’s prized for getting rid of tent caterpillars in the garden and that also serves as an excellent compost accelerant. On the garden’s edge was allium, wild onion, the whole plant edible and delicious. It attracts pollinators and is supposed to be a great performer on green roofs, acting as a fire suppressant and cooling the house in summer. As we walked, Solara took some cuttings of these plants for us to propagate at the end of the day.

Having a wide variety of species in the garden helps to mitigate the effects of weather and pests, and safeguards from the unforeseen – as Toby Hemenway phrases it, “redundancy protects when one or more elements fail”. Taken further, the idea of a permaculture guild asks that this diversity be mutually supportive: more than the plant pairs and trios of companion planting, a guild seeks to develop gardens as self-sustaining polycultures.

(L-R: Pruning back a hops vine on the side of the classroom to avoid problems with winter damp; looking westward over the Saanich Inlet, with a mature Arbutus menzeisii in the foreground; clipping the head of a rosemary cutting during propagation to encourage growth.)

So let’s envision native perennials centered in this equation – the result might look something like an edible forest garden. One of the challenges of perennial growing is the need to adjust to longer-term thinking. Since perennial plants will be sticking around awhile, decisions about their spacing and location take on more weight. Toby Hemenway sees trees, the “aristocrats of the plant world” as major actors in this system, one that admittedly begins to look less like the sort of “garden” that we’re mostly used to. It is instead one that is regenerative, that would be continually building soil, plant, and ecosystem health. Working to fold my cuttings into the soil under the slanting late-afternoon sun, this vision seems some distance away. But even though the cuttings are small, they are vibrant, and I know we’re on the way.

Cuttings taken during our Perennial Plants class. The plant produced from a cutting has the same genetic maturity does the parent plant. If a plant takes several years to produce fruit when grown from seed, a plant grown from a mature cutting can fruit that same year. We planted some hardwood cuttings an adjacent planter – propagating fruit trees such as figs, mulberries, and quince.

Words and photos by Dylan Roberts, a student in the Permaculture Design and Resilient Ecosystems Diploma at Pacific Rim College.