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Perennials for the Veggie Garden

The concept of perennials for the veggie garden is not the frivolous whim of someone who is not taking spinach or tomatoes seriously. Rather, it is elevating the food garden to a higher level of pleasure and land management…

Including perennials for the veggie garden by intermingling vegetables, fruits, herbs and flowers is as old as yonks, as you will see if you read up about potager gardens or cottage gardens – the French potagers are more formal, while English cottage gardens have a more informal exuberance. In both cases, I would guess that ‘living off the land’ was interpreted by some to also include the enjoyment and beauty of pretty blooms – whether edible, useful or not. In simple terms, a deciduous flowering perennial can be defined as a plant that will return year after year after a spell of winter dormancy.

The evergreen flowering perennial, on the other hand, sticks around through winter, asks very little of you and will flower again whenever its seasonal clock tells it to. Some are relatively short-lived and have to be replaced every few years (not a bad thing, since becoming bored of the same plants does happen!), but others will naturally clump and bush out until they need division and replanting, giving you fresh stock every few years.

Friendly bed mates

You might ask why go to the effort of planting perennials for the veggie garden or giving up valuable soil space that could rather have been used for planting more food? The fact is that most of the perennials recommended here are actually herbs and have more uses than just being eye-pleasing space-fillers:

  • Their blooms attract pollinators like bees and butterflies as well as nectar-feeding birds, and if left to go to seed over winter, they offer another food source for urban wildlife in the colder months.
  • They have been chosen because they offer pretty cut flowers and will give you an abundance of blooms on modern, hybridised plants of manageable sizes that will fit into small, modern gardens.
  • Since they are not toxic (most of the blooms or leaves are edible), you can do culinary experiments with them to create your own ‘garden cuisine’.
  • Most have medicinal, cosmetic or other garden uses, such as being compost activators or pest repellents.

Bee balm or bergamot

Fragrant foliage and shaggy flowers from midsummer to late autumn make this a real bee magnet! Monarda didyma ‘Balmy’ is a compact range that includes intense hues of rose, lilac and purple. Great powdery mildew resistance. Size: 30 x 25cm.

Hummingbird mint or hyssop

Tough, long-blooming perennial with long flower spikes and aromatic leaves. A wonderful pollinating plant and also great for flower harvesting. Pretty hybrids include the Agastache ‘Kudos’ series, which has a compact growth habit and sweet honeyscented flower spikes in glowing colours. Height 50cm and spread 40cm.

Yarrow

Fragrant, ferny foliage with an abundance of huge flat clusters of small flowers on tall stems. A must for butterflies as well as being a great cut flower and also a super compost fermenter! Achillea millefolium ‘New Vintage’ is a range of compact plants (36cm high) with either white, violet and red flowers.

Daylily

Hemerocallis hybrids will never lose their popularity as a blooming jewel in any garden, even though each individual flower only lasts for one day. This peculiarity must be forgiven, since just one plant can produce more than fifty flowers in a flowering season, which lasts from October to May. The lovely lily-like flowers are edible, and colour-conscious garnishers of drinks, salads and puddings can pick from a number of hybrids in different hues.

Coneflower

Echinaceas or coneflowers are perfect flowering perennials to include in a food garden, and they complement virtually all other plants. They are valued for their medicinal uses as an immune booster, the flowers on sturdy stems last for ages in the vase, and their petals are edible. Echinacea ‘Cheyenne Spirit’ is a champion selection with large flowers in bright shades of purple, red, pink, orange, yellow, white and cream. Size: 75 x 50cm.

Shasta daisy

Shasta daisies are easy to grow and very floriferous, rewarding you with armfuls of long-lasting flowers for the vase. A great hybrid to plant is Leucanthemum ‘Daisy Mae’, which forms dense clumps with tall upright stems topped with large, snow-white daisy flowers with bright yellow centres. Size: 30 x 50cm.

Mullein

This biennial has been loved and used since ancient times for medicinal purposes. Whereas the old-fashioned Verbascum thapsus produced yellow flowers on stalks of over 1m in height, Verbascum hybrida ‘Southern Charm’ is less lofty, with a height of 75cm and a spread of 45cm, and a unique blend of creamy yellow, soft lavender or peachy rose shades. The graceful flower stems carried above a low-growing rosette of leaves are perfect for cutting. The plant blooms in early spring, goes dormant in high temperatures and re-blooms in autumn. The florets, arranged in pairs along the stalks, are edible.

Russian sage

Plant lavender and rosemary in your food garden, but also include Russian sage, which is part of the same family and offers aromatic silvery foliage and clouds of small blue flowers on strong silver stems. This deciduous plant is perfect as a backdrop plant and will be enthusiastically visited by bees. The sprays of dainty flowers are lovely to include in mixed bouquets.

Perovskia atriplicifolia ‘Blue Steel’ is the hybrid to look for, with a height of about 90cm and a spread of 70cm.

Obedience plant

This is another great exotic wild flower to include in a food garden where pollinators such as butterflies and bees are welcome. The obedience plant is easy to grow and will supply colour throughout summer in the form of upright terminal spikes. Physostegia ‘Crystal Peak White’ is a dense, well-branched hybrid that continuously produces many flower spikes of snow-white blooms that do not fade or brown as they age. Size: 40 x 40cm.

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