How to create a low-maintenance kitchen garden

Lettuce, tomatoes and other annuals need plenty of TLC, but there are steps you can take to reduce the workload.

Annuals, such as lettuces, beans and tomatoes, which dominate most traditional kitchen gardens and allotments, are a demanding bunch. They require frequent input from us, of water and nutrients, to allow them to germinate, grow, flower and set seed in their short lifetime. This “live fast, die young” attribute is what many gardeners enjoy because they can see the impact of their efforts unfolding in front of their eyes, but it can create a lot of work.

The speedy growth cycle of annuals gives plants very little time to establish themselves before their life is over, so it’s a race to the finish to mature and produce seeds (and crops) before their season is up. As such, they require a helping hand from us, because they often cannot get all the water and nutrients they need directly from the soil. The crop rotation system can help to provide some of the resources greedy annuals require. Here are my tips for creating a low-maintenance kitchen garden, rather than having to replant one each season.

Plant more perennials
Reduce the workload by incorporating more perennial plants. These create a permanent ecosystem that is largely self-sustaining and reduces the job list for the gardener. Perennials grow much more slowly, sending out deep roots that can seek out water and nutrients in the soil that cannot be reached by annuals. They create a permanent network of roots that improve the soil structure without the need for digging so, once established, the seasonal chores of digging and planting seeds are no longer a concern.

You don’t have to be militant with this approach and exclude all annuals from your allotment, but a preference for perennials will create a lower-maintenance plot.

Create layers of crops
Many gardeners will grow a few perennials already — shrubby herbs, such as rosemary, sage and thyme — but these are often grown on the horizontal plane, which means very few plants can be squeezed into each square metre of garden.

A productive, low-maintenance kitchen garden can be created by planting in layers, or stacking crops, to imitate the natural ecosystem of a forest without replanting each season. The top layer, or canopy, could include fruiting trees such as apple, pear, plum, fig, crab apple, nut or mulberry. These need to stretch out in bright sunshine to thrive.

Underneath this, a layer of vines and shrubs will grow well with their feet in the shade, but scrambling up to put their heads in the sun. You might grow hardy berries, such as gooseberries, redcurrants, Japanese wineberry or the tasty and robust Oregon thornless blackberry. Climbing vines, such as hops, will also thrive here.

A mixture of wildflowers and herbs are often used to form a weed-suppressing groundcover. Here you can grow some of the more exuberant herbs that are often too well established in an annual patch: lovage, rosemary, mint, wild garlic, comfrey, dill and fennel are excellent choices.

Perennial crops such as rhubarb, Jerusalem artichoke, garlic, chives and horseradish will also be happy in this environment, with flowers such as love-in-a-mist and daylilies threaded throughout.

Do I need a lot of space?
These principles of productive perennial gardens, or edible forest gardens, can be applied to a garden of any size. Even on a miniature scale, you could try underplanting a dwarf rootstock apple tree with gooseberry, comfrey, mint and strawberries.

Alice’s favourite perennial edibles

Oregon thornless blackberry (Rubus fruticosus ‘Oregon Thornless’)
This fast-growing blackberry has thornless stems and ornamental foliage. It will happily clamber 3m into the canopy of a small tree and will thrive in partial shade. Plant now for fruit next August and
September.

Japanese wineberry (Rubus phoenicolasius)
This 3m climbing, self-fertile berry is a must for the edible perennial garden. Orange summer berries ripen to a rich red for a sweet and juicy fruit that can be picked in late August. In winter the bare stems remain ornamental, with bright red, almost furry stems. Plant in semi-shade and allow to scramble up into the canopy.

Gooseberry (Ribes uva-crispa ‘Careless’)
This reliable variety will grow in almost any conditions, so it is perfect for understorey planting. Growing up to 1.5m, with a spread of less than 1m, it produces heavy crops of tart green fruit in mid-July. If you get the gooseberry bug, look out for other pretty, red-skinned varieties.

Japanese leek (Allium fistulosum)
This perennial member of the allium family is known as “Welsh onion” or “Japanese leek” and will produce a 60cm-tall perennial crop. As the main crop matures, it will produce lots of offsets, so when you pull up the harvest you can simply replant the baby offsets and allow the cycle to continue. Although hardy, this plant prefers sunshine.

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