Perennial Food: What and How to Keep It

Cherry Tree

Perennial food can make a wonderful addition to any yard or landscape; invest in them once, plant them with care, and they will often produce food for years to come with little management or concern. Perennial food comes in many shapes and sizes; offers a variety of produce; and, best of all, is probably edible on a repeating annual basis! We can grow perennial food in the shape of ground covers, short forbs, shrubs, trees, hedges, and even fencing to a degree. Some perennial food will take a few years to begin producing, but some are much faster than that. From snacking to canning, the ways in which we keep or store homegrown produce is greatly varied and will often grow on us as we learn to appreciate perennial food at an even deeper level.

The long list of perennial food for Wisconsin is made up of many berries, nuts, and herbs. Paying close attention to light, soil, and rodent-chewing conditions is key in the establishment of these foods. With a bit of work on the front end, you’ll literally reap the bounty for many years to come. You can often stack these gems to create luscious snacking stations in every garden, small yard, and even in some deep patio planters. Most of these are available in more dwarf varieties or can be pruned to maintain a more columnar or vase-like shape. Some varieties have a spring or fall production, so you can stage your harvest. Perennial food trees and shrubs do like to be pruned every other year or two, so becoming comfortable with your hand pruners or loppers will be essential. Without proper pruning care, fruit rot can develop, fruit won’t ripen, and breakage of branches can occur. But there are loads of reference tools, and you can learn along the way or hire a professional for assistance. Many of the shrub and tree varieties offer multiseason interest as they flower to fruit and then turn a lovely autumn color.

Let’s start the list from the ground up. There are many more perennial food varieties that will grow here, but for reasons of disease, establishment, or gastrointestinal activity, this list is condensed so you can plant and eat without much concern.

Ground covers: Strawberries, Wintergreen, creeping Thyme, Lingonberry
Forbs and herbs: Chives, Ramps, Oregano, Thyme, Sage, Mint, Fiddleheads of ferns, Rhubarb, Asparagus
Vines: Grapes, Gogi berries, Hardy Kiwi
Shrubs: Blueberries, Raspberries, Blackberries, Currants, Josta berries, Elderberries, Aronia, Cornelian or Nanking cherries, Quince, Hazelnuts—many of these stand alone well or can be grown to act as hedges along a property line or yard border.
Small trees: Service Berry, Plum, Peach, Cherry, Apple, Medlar—these can often be manipulated into espalier form, which can create a fencing-like effect.
Medium Trees: Paw Paw, Red Mulberry, White Mulberry
Large Trees: Maple (sap and leaves), Walnut (sap and nuts), Hackberry (the fruits are oh so small), Oak (acorns), Hickory (nuts)

Some of the aforementioned shrubs or trees need more than one to pollinate, so be sure to check sources when purchasing for a successful venture.

Now that you’ve found some space, identified you have enough sun, conditioned the soil with good amendments (compost and leaves), purchased your species, planted, mulched, and watered them well the first few years…whew…a couple fruits, a few more, and then suddenly your harvest has gone way beyond snacking! If feeding your neighbors isn’t your plan, it’s time to preserve your bounty. There are many ways of keeping your food stored, some tried and true, others new and emerging. You may find that you rotate or grow into some of them as you age with your perennial treasures.

Dehydrating is simple and easy even if you don’t have a dehydrator. Using your oven on a low setting works great, or even air drying can suffice sometimes. Consistent slicing is helpful. Herbs can also be hung to air dry or placed in paper bags to shake them (daily) dry. Dried herbs and berries make fantastic winter teas.

Canning or making jellies or spreads is wonderful! A lot like Grandma and Grandpa used to do, and some amount of work as well, but there’s nothing quite like summer peaches in November or rhubarb preserves on ice cream in February.

Freezing can be pretty quick and easy as long as you follow some preparation directions first. Vacuum sealing can help these items last longer, but isn’t always necessary.

Cold storage is a great option for some fruit, if packed well, or your canned items. Nuts prefer to be dried and stored away from moisture.

Some herbs and berries can be set in alcohol to make tinctures or medicines (heavy on the herb, fruit, or root). Brandy or vodka work well. This idea can also be similarly applied with a good booze soak; nothing wrong with preserving those last raspberries in some bourbon, resulting in quite a delicious holiday cognac to offer. Some fruits are better soaked without the pits, stems, or skin, so a little research can go a long way.

For the more adventurous, there are fermentable options—tej, mead, wine, and melomel to name a few.

There are also some interesting and fun things to try eating, like tulip and lily petals (sans the stamen), inoculated mushroom logs, and self-seeding herbs (dill, feverfew, cilantro, garlic). Also try planting the eyes of your potatoes.

Perennial foods offer enrichment to any landscape and leave behind a multigenerational gift. They can often provide bounty for upwards of 20 years easily, so a little investment can really be worth its weight in produce.

Karina Mae is the designer and team leader at Garden Search & Rescue.

Garden Search & Rescue
Madison, WI