Growing a Food Forest with Perennials

When you hear the terms “perennials” and “annuals”, do you think of garden flowers? Most of us do! By definition, annuals are plants that live for one season or a year, biennials live for 2 years, and perennials live for 3 or more years. Do you know what else are perennials? Trees! Along with shrubs, many vines, and most herbs and vegetables (a few good examples in each category are blueberry shrubs, muscadine vines, mountain mint, and wild ramps).

Perennial trees produce flowers that are ecologically crucial and aesthetically stunning for decades. Most trees will bloom hundreds or thousands of flowers each year, practically an entire wildflower meadow’s worth of blossoms! One notable blooming tree genus is Quercus or oaks, which support over 500 species including moths and butterflies. Many trees also bear fruit and nuts, including some of our native trees that humans love such as pawpaw, Chickasaw plum, serviceberry, and pecan.


Photo: The Conservation Fund


Different categories of plants and trees can be visualized as layers in the forest. Canopy trees, lower trees, shrubs, herbs/vegetables, roots, mushrooms, and vines make up the seven layers of a perennial food forest system. A food forest, also called a forest garden, is a diverse planting of edible plants that attempts to mimic the ecosystems and patterns found in nature.

Along with several nonprofit partners and community volunteers, Trees Atlanta manages one of the largest publicly-owned forest gardens in the country at 7.1 acres, the Urban Food Forest at Browns Mill. The site is an excellent example of how the seven layers of a food forest work in harmony to produce food (and medicine!) year after year thanks to perennials.



There are many benefits to incorporating more perennials into your landscape. For instance, instead of changing out annual flower beds each year, shifting to perennial flower beds will save you time and money. Only one installation is required and once established, perennials need less water, fertilization, and maintenance. Native perennial flowers feed the area’s native bee populations, increasing the pollination rates for fruit and berry trees/shrubs. They also feed beneficial predators such as wasps, which perform natural pest control in your vegetable garden.

If you’re interested in incorporating more perennials into your landscape, stay tuned for our annual Tree Sale (launching virtually in August) where we’ll offer an extensive selection of trees and plants. If you’d like to get hands-on at the Urban Food Forest at Browns Mill and learn about its many perennials, sign up for an upcoming volunteer project on Wednesdays. We also host monthly education programs on the second Saturday of each month, and the site is also open to visitors daily before dusk.



Published June 30, 2020

Written by Mike McCord