High value perennials.
May 7, 2014 6:22 PM   Subscribe

I have a long term garden for the first time. What should I plant to pay off over the long run?

I bought a house in St Louis with a nice back yard with good sun exposure. Up till now I've been container gardening with mostly annuals and a few herbs that I bring in for the winter. I'm going to be here for at least 5 years. What are some perennial plant investments that I should consider? I don't have a ton of space, and would prefer to grow things that substantially benefit from being grown at home versus the store. I would prefer plants which are not especially difficult. Definitely a variety of herbs. Berry bushes? Asparagus? What are your high-value perennial garden plants?
posted by a robot made out of meat to Home & Garden (30 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Asparagus is a good choice, but be aware that 1) you won't get a harvest for 2-3 years, and 2) asparagus in the off-season is basically a tall and ugly fern-y thing. But, it's delicious, and novel, and a lot of fun to grow.

I'd stay away from berry bushes, because they can easily become invasive. Strawberries, though, can make a good ground cover.

Don't just focus on perennials, though. Set aside a space for a good summer/winter garden: Tomatoes, peppers, squashes in the warm months; peas, greens/lettuces, radishes and carrots in the fall and spring.

Also think about a fruit tree or two, if you have space.
posted by mudpuppie at 6:28 PM on May 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

You are in hardiness zone 6a, so incorporate that in your searches.

Here is a list of herbs with hardiness zones listed in the right hand column; here is a list of fruit trees for your zone. You could probably get away with Zone 5 plants as well given your location. The fruit trees in particular will benefit from several years in the ground!
posted by Joey Buttafoucault at 6:33 PM on May 7, 2014

Rosemary is great if your microclimate is right (i.e., if you can place it in a very sunny wind-sheltered spot).

Are you only interested in food plants? For flowers, hydrangeas are easy and make nice big long-lasting flowers. And bulbs like tulips or daffodils are a very welcome thing in springtime.
posted by LobsterMitten at 6:36 PM on May 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Asparagus, berries, woody herbs that make nice bushes (sage and rosemary). Are you interested in fruit tries?
posted by peachfuzz at 6:47 PM on May 7, 2014

Why don't you visit a good gardening center in St. Louis and pose this question to them? They'll show you the plants they think would be good choices so you can decide which ones appeal to you. Gardening is so much more pleasurable when you really like your plants.
posted by DrGail at 6:48 PM on May 7, 2014

Fruit trees & berry bushes. Nothing beats the taste of fruit straight from the tree and it is easy to grow. If you're thinking asparagus you might want to think about a rhubarb pant or 2 and maybe a grape vine, just hack it back at the end of the season and it comes back next year.
posted by wwax at 6:51 PM on May 7, 2014

The leaves of blueberry bushes turn brilliant red in the Fall, plus berries! They prefer acidic soil.
posted by bricksNmortar at 6:57 PM on May 7, 2014

Berries will give you a lot of bang-for-your-buck compared to the cost of buying them at the grocery store.
posted by Jacqueline at 7:00 PM on May 7, 2014

I've probably gotten the most bang for my buck from currants. The bushes get big and start producing quickly, and I've got one that started from a seed (from a dropped fruit) clear across the yard from the original plant. I have never seen currants in a store. You need a lot of them to make preserves and such, though.

Mint, chives, rosemary, tarragon, thyme, oregano and sage are nice to have. I love it when I can just walk out and get recipe ingredients from my herb garden.

Strawberries are great, too, but they do spread (which is also nice) so put them somewhere you don't want to plant something else. Mine are taking over one of my raised beds. I also have an elderberry (for making extract, and it's also pretty).

Other than these, my garden is all annuals, but they're all easy. Tomatoes, peas, corn, cucumbers, peppers, lettuce, squash, arugula, beets, kale, chard, cilantro, dill, basil, parsley. Of these, tomatoes are the ones that are lightyears better than you can find in any store. There is nothing like a home-grown tomato.
posted by caryatid at 7:10 PM on May 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Chives -- they're delicious and require little attention from you. Lovage is also low-maintenance, and +1 on all berry recommendations. If you spot wild strawberries, just weed out everything that isn't strawberries and your wild strawberry patches will get bigger every year.
posted by kmennie at 7:12 PM on May 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

Asparagus, chives, rhubarb, oregano, mint (container it), raspberries and blueberries. My asparagus is just starting to come up now. It is so good.
posted by Cuke at 7:18 PM on May 7, 2014

if you want regular chives or chinese chives, i have plenty of both and you're welcome to starts. i also have walking onions, but they, you know, walk all over, so maybe not for a small back yard. i also have candy mint and sage which you are welcome to some of. oh, and i'm in st. louis! so you can just swing by and pick some up.
posted by miss patrish at 7:29 PM on May 7, 2014

I like eating raspberries but my landlord planted some beside my veggie garden. They are really invasive and the yields are pretty disappointing for the amount of space they take up. I also find the thorns irritating and hard to pull out of the skin when they are small. They also need pruning and care to get the best yields and they're constantly sending out shoots underground.
posted by glip at 7:32 PM on May 7, 2014

i live in stl and garden in my backyard and we grow: asparagus (1st harvest this year after letting it go to seed for 3 years), strawberries (2nd harvest coming up next month), butternut squash (harvested over 25 from just 2 plants!), cucumbers (not my fave b/c they're not easy to preserve if you're not into pickles, which i'm not), cherry tomatoes (harvested easily 15 lbs from 3 plants last year), and some less successful veg in the past (carrots, onions, garlic, sweet potatoes). we have a tiny narrow city lot and still wind up w/a shit ton of veg. my father-in-law grew a ridiculous amount of brussels sprouts and jalapeƱos last summer, plus tons of herbs. i always kill herbs for some reason, or forget about them and they go to seed.

ps, even though i live in the city, i often go to garden heights nursery in richmond heights for advice. thr botanical garden is also a great resource!
posted by oh really at 7:34 PM on May 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

DrGail: Why don't you visit a good gardening center in St. Louis and pose this question to them?

This is an excellent point. The Missouri Botanical Garden has Master Gardeners who volunteer at the Garden to help with things just such as this. (My grandmother used to volunteer doing that.) They would love to help you out and it's a good excuse to visit the garden. :-)
posted by jferg at 7:36 PM on May 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

garden heights nursery is where i shop for good-quality plants, too! hooray! it's just right up the street from me.
posted by miss patrish at 7:39 PM on May 7, 2014

I also would do cherry tomatoes - you get a good yield, but earlier in the year, and you don't have the possibility of having to pick all your full size ones while green due to a frost warning. Skip the short-height bush varieties due to lower yield and the generic salad-accompaniment cherry tomatoes due to boringness.

Raspberries are nice.
posted by sebastienbailard at 9:02 PM on May 7, 2014

Raspberries are a perennial vine.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:04 PM on May 7, 2014

Chives can get a little out-of-control in the midwest if you don't stay after them (just so you know), and blueberries are a DISAPPOINTING JERK in most of the midwest. They need not just unusually acidic soil, but also a cooler summer than you'll have in St. Louis and probably better-draining soil than you're likely to have. They can grow really well in containers, but unless you've got just perfect soil (in which nothing else wants to grow!), they're going to be obnoxious.

You can grow kiwi fruit in St. Louis, which is kinda fun. They're a bit tetchy but it's unusual and cool. They're viney-bush type things. Grapes are actually pretty easy to grow, and you can train them along ugly fences to disguise them, so they don't take up a lot of space. They'll produce for you a little quicker than most fruit tress. I don't know that the grapes are BETTER than in the store, but people are always amazed that I have GRAPES in my yard.

You could look at growing some more unusual American fruit trees with fruits that don't get sold in stores -- paw paws are delicious but don't survive transit. They take several years to bear, but they're cool trees and also they're pollinated by flies so their flowers smell like rotting meat for a day or two (I mean you have to stick your nose right up in there, it's not like wafting about your yard, but they do!). Paw paws have very long taproots, making them hard to transplant, so that's a really good one for the home gardener since you have to baby the tree from babyhood and the fruits don't travel well.

Mulberries are pretty easy. I think you can grow mayhaw in zone 6 which I've never grown but I know people make jelly out of. (You can also grow roses for their hips and make those into jellies and things -- they're not very good raw.) Heirloom apples are cool because you can get different apple tastes and types that you can't get otherwise, and they're less prone to apple diseases. Currants and gooseberries are growing in popularity again, they're pretty decent landscaping bushes that will also give you lots of berries, but they're not allowed in some states (they can serve as a reservoir for a disease that affects pines) so check first.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:05 PM on May 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

I love perennial flowers. Clematis is a nice climber, and there are many varieties and they are beautiful. Climbing hydrangea is slow to get started but it seems to me to be a great investment in something that looks awesome in three years. Black eyed susans are delightful and make wonderful cut flowers. Irises are surprisingly easy to deal with and gorgeous.

Herbs are huge -- it's pointless to get a little plastic thing of rosemary, chop up a quarter of it, and toss the rest out.

And while they aren't perennials, everyone who grows anything needs to grow a tomato plant somewhere if they can.

I've been shopping for perennials since we bought our house. I'd recommend r/gardening and r/landscaping at Reddit and a slow afternoon at Barnes and Noble looking through books for inspiration so you can buy within a strategy, not like me, who got sad in February and ordered five hundred dollars worth of various perennials due to a depressive episode. Although, I guess there's worse things to do. Anyway: yeah, get some colored pencils, draw your yard, pick your favorites, have a strategy, or you're walking around in May going 'What the hell do I do seven containers of ornamental grass?'

Oh, another one: ornamental grasses! ;)

For all perennials, keep an eye on spread. Some things, like chives and mint and some types of ivies, will take over your house and you will have to let them live in your guest room.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 2:33 AM on May 8, 2014

Definitely herbs: in your zone I'd do chives, thyme, oregano and sage.
For berries, blackberries/raspberries grow natively in your region and will thrive: of the two, raspberries are smaller and a little easier to keep in control, although both tend to spread. If you have room for a dwarf fruit tree, I'd personally make it a dwarf peach or apricot, which I think are fruits where the difference between a fresh-picked tree ripened fruit and store fruit is especially noticeable.
posted by drlith at 5:52 AM on May 8, 2014

My strategy was to plant things that I can't buy in the store. I have gooseberries, seviceberries (aka Juneberries), tart cherries (bush cherry), and tiny sweet blueberries as functioning shrubs, alpine strawberries and wintergreen as cover plants, and an herb garden in which I kill them off over winter every other year by accident, not to mention the muscat grapes and goji berries that I killed (all these deaths are cold temperatures plus pot that I didn't sufficiently insulate or bring in in time).

It's a lot of fun, and it's delicious, but wouldn't say it's a return on investment - my two $25 blueberry plants have produced about a pint of blueberries each for the last 2-3 years, so that's about $10/pint (not counting the pots, soil, soil acidifiers, loving care, watering and pruning time).
posted by aimedwander at 6:48 AM on May 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Perennial herbs that have done well in my STL garden include sage, oregano, mint, catnip, coneflower, rue and lemon balm. (Actually the lemon balm and the rue are doing a little TOO well. Do you want some?) All of these plants have been going strong in my yard for 5 years or more and even survived last winter's extreme cold. The catnip is awesome because it attracts American Goldfinches which are amazingly fun to watch. The rue attracts black swallowtail butterflies which is really the only reason to put up with it (Did I mention it spreads? IT SPREADS.) But it's a good reason. And the coneflower attracts all manner of birds and beneficial insects.

Even though basil is an annual, I've discovered that if I plant enough of it in one spot and let it go to seed at the end of the season, it will actually replant itself most years.

Lilies really like this climate -- and did you know they are edible? The rabbits sure do, so plant a lot if you're going to.

I've had better luck with daffodils than tulips, but that may be because I stupidly insist on planting my bulbs on the northeast side of my house.

I have an apple tree I planted several years ago that is doing well despite a few bouts of animal damage and storm damage, but it has been a lot of work, because apples and other fruit trees are susceptible to a couple of different types of fungus that are abundant around here, so keep that in mind. I've started spraying my tree with neem oil on the regular and that seems to help a lot.

Tomatoes are annuals as I'm sure you know, so you'll have to replant every year, but they love love LOVE the St. Louis climate and if you've never grown them in the ground before here you'll be astonished at how large they get, and how much easier they are to care for than tomatoes in a container. Just make sure you get a type that resists cracking in the heat since we get a lot of very hot days here. Cherries are a good suggestion for that reason, but if you want something a bit larger that will stand up well to the heat, I suggest Juliets (a sort of cherry/Roma hybrid)-- they are super producers, the fruit is crack-resistant and basically NOTHING can kill the plant. I also had great luck with Cherokee Purple tomatoes last year.
posted by BlueJae at 7:27 AM on May 8, 2014

Oh, also, in addition to the already mentioned Garden Heights Nursery, other cool places to buy plants, seeds and gardening supplies include Bayer's Garden Shop in South City, Rolling Ridge Nursery in Webster Groves and the gift shop at the Missouri Botanical Garden. Worm's Way is a good place to get soil amendments and organic pesticides. And I recommend checking out the Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds catalog; the company is based in Missouri so they sell a lot of seeds for plants that do well here.
posted by BlueJae at 7:40 AM on May 8, 2014

Peonies are lovely and do not want to be disturbed once they are established. They would be a good choice for spring blooms and then lovely foliage through the summer and fall.
posted by janell at 8:12 AM on May 8, 2014

in regard to the paw paw tree recommendation, i would be hesitant to plant one in a small back yard as they are clump-forming, so if you plant one, you will soon have a grove. also, here in st. lou, if you wait a few minutes you will have a damned mulberry tree sprouting somewhere on your property, probably right up against your foundation or maybe in the middle of the best sunny spot in your garden. no, let me take that back: you will have dozens of mulberry trees sprouting up in all the places! they grow into a very large tree if left unhindered, which would pretty much take over any small back yard.

as far as places to shop for plants/seeds/soil amendments/advice, another excellent choice is okay hatchery in kirkwood.

variety of apple probably has a lot to do with how much grief they will give you; i have an arkansas black tree that bears pretty much every other year, sometimes spectacularly so, and i have had little problem with it. in the past, i had a lodi, and would still have a lodi had the graft not been weak and the whole tree blown away in a storm. sigh. it never gave me any problems, either and produced multiple bushels per year right up until The Incident.

oh, and here's a second vote for checking out baker creek; they're out near springfield MO, and actually have spring and fall events if you have a burning desire for a road trip.

maybe st. louis mefites who garden should get together for lght and lively adult libations and plant exchange, as i am now jonesing for some of BlueJae's rue and lemon balm.
posted by miss patrish at 10:22 AM on May 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Lilies really like this climate -- and did you know they are edible? The rabbits sure do, so plant a lot if you're going to.

Reflexively: Lilies are poisonous to cats and dogs.

It looks like some varieties are edible for humans. I'd want a positive ID and a few confirmations of edibility from other sources.
posted by sebastienbailard at 1:45 PM on May 8, 2014

Oh, you're right, sebastienbailard-- I should have mentioned the poisonous to cats and dogs part regarding lilies. Chocolate is also poisonous to cats and dogs, though. There are a number of things humans can eat that other animals can't.

Edibility does depend on the variety, but daylily flower buds are widely eaten in Asia and you can find a ton of recipes for cooking them online.
posted by BlueJae at 7:15 PM on May 8, 2014

(You should definitely double check to make sure that ANY edible flower you are eating is the right one, though. Many toxic varieties of plants can be hard to tell apart from the tasty ones. So thanks for noting that, stebastienbailard.)
posted by BlueJae at 7:21 PM on May 8, 2014

Thanks so much everyone. I already have (thyme, oregano, sage, rosemary, mex tarragon, lemon verbena, mint) in the ground or containers. The previous owners actually had asparagus, strawberry, and blackberry in the ground for several years, and we just didn't notice when looking! Of course the critical annuals (basil, tomatoes, peppers) have a bed. I am thinking about the paw paw tree as a semi-novelty (I am 100% not going to hand pollinate) versus a dwarf peach or currant bush for the remaining spot. I'm going to look around to see if I can find paw-paw fruit since it would be a shame to plant it, wait a few years, and then discover than I don't really like it.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 3:43 PM on June 7, 2014

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