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Annual Plants

Annual plants are plants that will mature, flower and set seed over a single growing season, completing their lifecycle in a single year. Many annual plants are sown anew each year – but some, that can be very useful in permaculture systems, can self-seed to pop up anew the following year.

Annual gardening is, for many, the gateway to home growing. This is gardening that allows us to grow many of the common fruits and vegetables most of us are used to eating on a regular basis. 

What are Annual Vegetables?

When we refer to annual vegetables, in the colloquial sense, we are talking non-botanically. We are talking about a range of (botanical) fruits and vegetables that complete their lifecycle over a single growing season. 

Annual plants are those plants that we have to sow or plant anew each growing season, rather than perennials that will remain in place to grow in your garden over a number of years.

Things are somewhat muddled, however, because many of the crops commonly grown as annuals in temperate climate gardens are technically biennial (complete their lifecycle over a couple of years). And some can actually be perennial in warmer climates, though they won't survive winter outdoors where we live.  

But since they are commonly treated as annuals we informally refer to them as annual vegetable crops. 

Where To Grow Annual Vegetables

Most annual crops in temperate climates require a moderate to high amount of sunlight each day, and will not thrive in deeper shade. They typically do best in a reasonably sheltered position and require a reasonably to highly nutrient-rich growing medium. 

Beyond these most basic of needs, of course, we need to consider that different crops do have different growing needs. And as always in a garden, when growing annual crops it is important to match up specific plant needs and growing conditions.

The position of an annual vegetable garden should always be considered in relation to the design of the garden or property as a whole, as well as in relation to the needs of the plants you wish to grow. 

Permaculture zoning helps us to think about where different elements should be placed within the design. In permaculture zoning, those elements that we will visit most frequently are positioned closest to the home, or centre of operations. 

Annual crops are higher maintenance than most perennial systems, and are almost always positioned within zone one of a domestic garden design, as the kitchen garden. On larger properties, however, it is worth noting that annual crops might also be grown on a larger scale – perhaps as a commercial enterprise, in zone 3, in larger fields for a farm or market garden. 

In the process of systems analysis, permaculture designers also look at where to position an annual vegetable garden by thinking about its inputs, outputs and characteristics. 

Inputs typically include: water, organic matter/compost. 

Outputs include: diverse edible crop yields, secondary crop yields, and compostable plant material. 

Characteristics: sunny, sheltered, fertile ground...

Looking at these, we can see that it would be beneficial to have water sources and a composting system close by. And also that we can save time by placing the vegetable garden as close to our kitchen as possible. 

Since the vegetable garden will typically be positioned in a sunny and sheltered position, we might also consider incorporating some seating into the design for the area, so that people can enjoy the space as well as just working in it. (Though in warmer climates, a shaded seating area might be preferred.)

Choosing a Growing Method

Deciding on a growing method for cultivating annual vegetables will also be crucial when determining the design for your property. 

You might grow annual fruits and vegetables:

  • In containers, or a vertical garden structure. 
  • In raised beds.
  • In larger areas in the soil (market gardening or farming). 
  • In water rather than soil, in a hydroponic or aquaponic system. 
  • As annual additions or self-seeders within perennial growing systems. 

Of course, the method that you choose will depend on a range of factors, including the climate and microclimate of the site, characteristics of the soil, water availability, space/ land availability and your own individual goals. 

Remember, as well as growing outdoors, those in cooler climates might also consider creating an undercover growing area such as a greenhouse or polytunnel to facilitate year-round growing and allow a wider range of crops to be grown. 

Creating An Annual Vegetable Garden

Once you have chosen a growing method that you believe is well suited to your needs and location, you can begin to think about the process of actually creating your vegetable garden. 

Before You Begin

Before you start to create an annual vegetable growing area, I always think that it is a good idea to begin by making sure you have the basics in place to ensure the longevity of the systems you create. Foremost among the things to consider are water, access and long-term fertility. 

When it comes to water, it is very important to make sure that you have considered how you will water or irrigate your system, and where the water will come from. 

Make sure you think about harvesting rainwater wherever possible. And take steps to catch, store and slow water on your property as a whole. Creating integrated water management systems will help you to avoid many of the pitfalls experienced by new annual gardeners. 

When it comes to access, make sure that you think about pathways. It will be important to be able to reach and move around and through your garden or growing areas easily. Consider where wider pathways or tracks may be required to move wheelbarrows or even farming equipment around, and where narrower walkways will be sufficient. 

Before you create your growing areas and start growing your annual crops, it is a great idea to make sure that you have a composting system in place. I highly recommend that you make sure a composting system is up and running before you create your garden. Since compost will often  be a crucial element in creating your new growing areas. 

Growing Annual Vegetables in Containers or Vertical Gardens

If you have limited growing space available then you may well have chosen to grow annual vegetables in containers, or certain leafy and smaller crops within vertical garden structures. 

Creating your new growing areas in this instance then will simply involve purchasing or creating your containers or vertical gardens, then choosing the appropriate growing medium with which to fill them. 

A few general recommendations for gardens of this type:

  • Remember that the materials from which containers are made make a difference. Thinking about not only size, but also the weight, sturdiness, water-retention and drainage a container provides, and even its colour (which impacts how much sun it absorbs and how warm it gets) can help you meet with success. 
  • With vertical gardens and containers, considering how your will water/ irrigate from the beginning is especially important. 
  • You can create your own potting mix to save money and make a more eco-friendly choice. Always avoid peat use in your garden for environmental reasons, and opt for a peat-free mix instead. Homemade compost will likely be an important component of that mix. 

No-Dig Raised Bed Annual Vegetable Gardens

Raised beds are a popular choice for vegetable gardens, and there are great no-dig methods that allow you to successfully build on top of the soil and protect the crucial soil web below. 

When creating raised beds to grow annual vegetables, you need to think about:

  • The size and shape of your growing areas.
  • Whether you need bed edging and if so, what you will use. 
  • Which materials you will use to fill your growing areas.

There are plenty of different permaculture ideas that you might gainfully incorporate when creating your annual vegetable garden, including lasagna beds, hugelkultur, straw-bale gardening, keyhole beds, hot beds, wicking beds... and more...

No-Till Market Garden Beds or Farm Fields

If you are growing annual crops on a larger scale in market garden beds or in farm fields, then you can incorporate many of the same ideas employed in a no dig garden. Primarily, it is just the scale of the enterprise and how precisely you implement it that is different. 

Rather than creating a wood-edged raised bed and filling it with layers of organic matter, for example, you might simply sheet mulch with organic materials over a larger area. 

Again, when growing on a larger scale, especially in drier climates, water is a key consideration. And you will also have to think about how you will be able to generate enough biomass and create enough organic material for mulching etc. to maintain soil fertility over time. 

Ideally, your end goal should be to be able to create a closed-loop system and make your market garden or farm self-sustaining, without having to bring in materials or other inputs each year. 

Aquaponic Annual Vegetable Gardening

In something of a departure from better-known methods, annual vegetable cultivation might involve setting up a water-based growing system. 

In aquaponics, systems are established that provide yields of both fish and plants. The idea is that fish fertilize the water in which plants are grown, and plants (along with micro-organisms) work to clean the water for the fish. 

Aquaponics systems can be simple and rustic, or extremely complex. They can be created on a range of scales. Especially in drier climates with low water availability, and where land is limited, it could be interesting to look into creating a system of this kind. 

At its simplest, an aquaponics system might be a pond, tank or barrel for fish with grow beds or platforms for plants placed on top. But there are a number of different types of system to choose from including deep water culture, ebb and flow media bed systems, nutrient film technique systems etc... 

Deciding on the scale, method, fish and plants for your system will be the first steps if you are interested in setting up a system of this kind. 

Annual Vegetables in Perennial Systems

Another thing worth remembering is that it can often also be beneficial to incorporate annual vegetables into more ecologically resilient and biodiverse perennial growing systems. 

For example, it may sometimes be possible to incorporate some annual vegetables into perennial beds or borders, or the sunny fringes of a  food forest or forest garden. 

Annual vegetables might be sown between perennial plants each year. Or, in certain situations, some annual crops might self-seed and become a valuable part of a relatively low-maintenance system of food production. 

On a larger scale, annual vegetables might be grown as alley crops between tree rows in a silvo-arable system. A well designed system can allow you to obtain quick annual yields while you are waiting for longer-term tree yields to arise. 

The Annual Vegetable Garden Calendar

Whenever and however you choose to grow annual vegetables, it is important to think about the various stages of the gardening year. 

Your gardening calendar will depend on where you are located and the conditions on your property. But it is important for you to understand the timing and duration of your main growing season, or growing seasons, in order to grow crops successfully where you live. 

In cooler temperate climates, the garden calendar for an annual garden typically begins in spring. Outdoors, it often begins after, or sometimes shortly before,  the last frost date in your area. Seeds are often sown indoors to prolong the growing season and to get a jump start on the annual crop year. 

In warmer temperate climes, there may often be a second growing season. Starting in late summer or autumn/fall, gardeners will be able to start the clock for cool-season crops. 

Key things to consider when working out a garden calendar are when you will sow seeds, and when you will plant. And, of course, when you can expect to harvest key crops. Remember, successional sowing and other strategies can help you make sure you make the most of your garden areas, and (usually)  keep a living root in the soil over as much of the year as possible. 

Once you have these basic pieces of information, you can fill in other parts of the puzzle and work out which jobs you might have to do in your annual vegetable garden each month. 

Choosing Which Annual Vegetables To Grow

Choosing which annual vegetables to grow is not just a case of working out which crops will grow well in the environmental conditions where you live. 

It can also be very important to consider which annual vegetables you and your family actually like to eat. 

Commercial growers will of course also have other considerations, such as market conditions and, perhaps,  which crops can provide the greatest profit where you live. 

One important aspect to consider when deciding which specific varieties of fruits and vegetables to grow is whether you want to grow hybrid F1, or heritage varieties. 

If you want to preserve cultural links to the past, enjoy the best variety, flavour and nutrient content, and save seeds for next year, I would argue that choosing organic, heritage varieties is always the best option. 

Companion Planting in Annual Vegetable Gardening

Remember, in addition to choosing annual crops to grow, you should also think about which companion plants you will grow alongside them. Many aromatic herbs and flowering plants make wonderful companions in a vegetable garden. 

Wherever and however you grow the crops, whenever they are growing in plant communities rather than on their own as a mono-crop you will see numerous benefits. Creating polycultures of plants boost yields, increases resilience, and makes for a more successful and healthy growing system in a huge range of different ways. 

Cover Crops/ Green Manures in Annual Vegetable Gardening

Whenever you do not have annual crops in active growth, you should avoid areas of bare soil whenever possible. Keep a living root in the soil whenever you can, and keep soil covered throughout the year to protect, preserve and enhance soil ecology. 

Cover crops and green manures are important elements when it comes to growing annual crops in a sustainable way. So you should also be sure to choose the right plants when it comes to these elements too. 

Crop Rotation in Annual Vegetable Gardening

To maintain the health of soil and plants in an annual vegetable garden, it is also important to consider how you will implement crop rotation between different growing areas each year. 

With certain plant families, it can be detrimental to grow them in the same area over consecutive years. So these should be rotated around three or four different growing areas. Legumes and other nitrogen fixers should also be rotated, to help maintain fertility in each of your zones. 

There is, of course, a lot more to learn about annual vegetable gardening. But above, we have tried to introduce you to some of the most important issues and concepts. Before you get designing, creating and growing, it is a great idea to look into some of the things mentioned above in a little more depth.