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I'm looking for hardy (USDA Z4/Z5; -15F winter lows) perennials (or low maintenance reseeding annuals) that are easy/reliable to propagate either via cuttings, division, or seed. The growing season is short, about 100 days.

Edibles are preferred. Deer resistance is awesome. Biomass production is pretty nifty too.

Elderberry wins a platinum star: edible, hardy, produces suckers (and, as far as I can tell from research, is easy to propagate from cuttings), and apparently doesn't much mind getting mowed to the crown by deer in the winter. (As a special bonus, not invasive in this area either.)

Lupine wins a gold star: easy to grow from seed (even self-reseeds freely), very hardy, fixes nitrogen, deer don't seem to bother them (and they reseed anyway). Not edible (at least not without processing that I'm unwilling to perform). Might have the potential to become invasive, but relatively easy to control.

Peas and oats (part of my favorite cover crop mix) are relatively easy to harvest seed from. Together they produce a lot of biomass and peas fix nitrogen. Peas have the bonus of being edible (more or less; depending on variety); oats are technically edible, but processing is non-trivial. Vetch is nice in this mix, but I've never had luck harvesting much seed; the season may be too short.

Marigolds, cosmos, and calendula are interesting from the perspective that they produce a lot of seed and I could potentially create my own seed mix to broadcast over an area. They're also inviting to beneficials. They're not perennials but are likely to self-reseed once established. (Same story with a lot of flowering annuals; I'm just most familiar with saving seed from these.)

I'm looking for more like these. (Especially if I'm overlooking something that's likely to be present at a friend/neighbor's house where I can take cuttings.)

My goal is to plant an area approx 1.4 ac (62500 sqft, 5800 m2) with a mix of plants -- biomass, N-fixers, edibles, etc -- on a limited budget, over the next couple of years.

(Note that this is the same general location as my stone fruit guild question, but this project is unrelated.)

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Hardy northern climes usually gets me thinking of the UK (so invasive might be a problem for your application). How would things like heather, gorse, and hawthorn do? I think hawthorn fruit can be used in jellies. Heather is harvested but more for decoration - however, also good for bees. And when I really think of edibles in such climates I think of annuals (things like cabbages do well in Alaska; turnips and swedes in the UK, etc). –  winwaed Jan 2 '12 at 14:05
    
@winwaed: I'll have to take a look at heather, gorse, and hawthorn. Cabbages etc are too high maintenance for what I'm looking at, and I think deer will be a problem. –  bstpierre Jan 2 '12 at 17:42
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4 Answers

Consider blueberries, raspberries, blackberries. Blueberries need acid soil, and probably are good deer browse, so I'd do raspberries or blackberries first. I particularly like the "gold" or "yellow" varieties, because birds don't recognize them as food.

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Good call, and thanks for the note on gold/yellow, I never knew that. (Cultivated) Blackberries aren't much use here, it's one of the main weeds I'm trying to eradicate. We manage to "forage" enough in the summer to fill up a few freezer bags and put together a couple of batches of jam. Though I suppose if the wild blackberries do well in what passes for soil out there, survive the deer, etc, I might as well think about using the momentum I've already got ;) –  bstpierre Jan 2 '12 at 21:41
    
I heard that about pink lemonade blueberries. –  jmusser Jan 4 '12 at 2:58
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(This answer is a summary of my own research and other answers to my question. Thanks for the help.)

A few notes:

  • All plants listed below are perennial unless otherwise noted. Interestingly (I guess it should have been obvious) a number of "weeds" fit the criteria quite well...
  • I've noted "forage" below for some items because there will be sheep, chickens, and guineas grazing this area at some future time (after everything is established well enough that the chickens won't destroy it).
  • I've listed "edible" where my research has indicated they can be eaten. Do your own research -- make sure the thing you're about to eat really is edible!
  • "Common weed" translates as "Hey! Free seed".
  • I've noted "medicinal" for some plants that are commonly used in herbal medicine. I'm not into that, so it's no benefit for me, but noted here anyway.

In no particular order:

  • Lupine: N-fixer, reseeding, deer resistant.
  • Raspberries: edible, sucker and spread quickly, easy to propagate, deer resistant.
  • Elderberry: edible, suckering, easy to propagate, deer resistant.
  • Oats: biomass, seed producing, nitrogen scavenger [annual]
  • Peas, beans: edible, N-fixer, seed producing. (And the pair has complementary growing seasons: peas early, beans late.) [annual]
  • Burdock: common weed (biennial so it is controllable), biomass, dynamic nutrient accumulator (deep taproot), seed producing, edible root [biennial]
  • Bamboo: biomass, spreading, edible, useful products, deer resistant.
  • annual flowers (e.g. cosmos, calendula, marigold, sunflower): insect attracting, visually interesting, heavy seed production, some are edible (seeds, flowers, and/or leaves) [annual]
  • Dandelion: common weed, edible, seed producing (which is a downside too), dynamic nutrient accumulator, visually interesting
  • Comfrey: biomass, easy to propagate, dynamic nutrient accumulator, medicinal
  • Jerusalem Artichoke: edible, "seed" producing (propagate by replanting tubers), visually interesting, insect attracting
  • Bee balm: insect attracting, visually interesting, spreading
  • Sweet clover: N-fixer, insect attracting, biomass, forage?
  • Horseradish: edible (but how much horseradish can you actually eat?), biomass, spreading
  • Daffodil: medicinal, spreading, visually interesting, blooms early
  • Dill: edible, insect attracting, seed producing
  • Coriander (aka Cilantro): edible, insect attracting, seed producing

The following are candidates that I may use, but need to do more research -- possibly a test grow for some of these. These may be too high maintenance for the payoff.

  • Alfalfa: N-fixer, biomass, forage
  • Heather: insect attracting
  • Chicory: common weed, edible, forage?, (I suspect, but don't know for sure that seed will be plentiful and easy to harvest)
  • Plantain: common weed, forage, medicinal
  • Fennel: edible, seed producing? (I have no experience with fennel -- no idea how much seed can be harvested and/or how easy it is)
  • Yarrow: forage, insect attracting?, nutrient accumulator, drought tolerant
  • Stinging nettle: edible, insect attracting? , nutrient accumulator, common weed
  • Blackberry: common weed, edible, deer resistant, drought tolerant. (Hesitant to propagate these on purpose since they're something I'm trying to remove from much of this area.)
  • Buckwheat: edible, biomass, insect attracting, forage?, seed producer

I'm also planning on planting widely planted trees, but except for the fact that most of them are "common weeds" on the property and some parts of pine trees might qualify as "edible", none of them are "hardy edible perennials that are easy to propagate"...

Unfortunately I couldn't find anything beneficial about ragweed...

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Jerusalem artichokes have these assets:

  • winter hardiness in your area
  • edible tubers that produce up to 5 times more per plant than potatoes
  • good disease resistance
  • extreme vigor
  • adds huge amounts of biomass
  • easy to propagate from cut up tubers
  • grows tall (4-8') and can support climbers like peas
  • draws nutrients out of the subsoil
  • thrives in poor rocky soil
  • very drought tolerant
  • covered in bright yellow flowers in summer, attracting butterflies and huge amounts of bees
  • no maintenance perennial

This sunflower family plant has these liabilities:

  • It takes work to dig a whole field of these
  • tops may fall during summer, especially during the flowering period.
  • it will regrow in spring from tubers that were missed
  • can shade out shorter plants (including regular sunflowers)

You could also consider horseradish, another root crop. This plant has:

  • winter hardiness in your area
  • edible roots
  • very good disease resistant
  • good vigor
  • adds biomass
  • easy to propagate from division
  • stays under 3'
  • draws nutrients out of subsoil
  • thrives in the worst soil imaginable
  • very drought tolerant
  • attractive gray green foliage
  • no maintenance perennial
  • out grows superweeds
  • deer resistant

But it also has liabilities:

  • may croud out other varieties
  • it is hard to get rid of once established
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Thanks! I thought of Jerusalem artichoke last night; didn't realize it outperformed potatoes that much. I'll consider horseradish too, I've heard that they're very vigorous "crowders". Not too worried about getting rid of them once they're established, they'll be in beds that can be bulldozed when the time comes. –  bstpierre Jan 3 '12 at 14:14
    
Follow-up: I planted jerusalem artichoke last summer in this area. They were easy to plant in hugel mounds, and managed to come up and flower even in what turned out to be a very dry summer. And then the deer struck; they chewed the tops off every single plant, came back for seconds when they tried to regrow, and then for the final blow: something dug up most (all?) of the tubers before I could get to them... we'll see if anything was left to regrow this spring. I should have tried the horseradish! –  bstpierre Feb 9 '13 at 21:48
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Monkshood is very hardy, and it is a nice late bloomer. It is deadly poisonous, so the deer won't touch it.

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Thanks for the "deadly poisonous" remark... makes it not so attractive for a place where kids might play and sheep or chickens might graze. –  bstpierre Jan 3 '12 at 1:30
    
Unless you kids are into eating some very bitter stuff.... –  ncmathsadist Jan 3 '12 at 2:33
    
wiki: Poisoning may also occur following picking the leaves without wearing gloves. Yeah, I think I'm going to pass. –  bstpierre Jan 3 '12 at 14:22
    
This sounds like dangerous advice (given how poisonous the plant is). It seems like the harm outweighs the benefit... you might want to reconsider your answer :) –  Lorem Ipsum Jan 5 '12 at 15:46
    
My father spent summers in Maine where Monkshood is plentiful. Apparently the taste is so repellant, browsing animals will spit it out. Just be sensible when working around it. –  ncmathsadist Jan 6 '12 at 16:03
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