So much good, productive agricultural land is wasted these days on the cultivation of lawns and shrubs. Beauty and bounty can thrive together if you take the time to design a multifunctional edible landscape.
The edible landscape in action: instead of a flowering vine, garden writer Mary-Kate Mackey planted grapevines at the corners of this pergola in her Oregon backyard retreat. It gives her outdoor dining area fresh fruit AND a European feel.
PHOTO: ROBIN BACHTLER CUSHMAN
The edible landscape concept strikes a deep chord with me; I've been exploring its many options and variations for more than 40 years. Americans cover millions of acres of valuable agricultural land around their homes with lawn, marigold and azalea beds, wisteria, and an occasional privet or maple. Yet as a landscape designer, I know most edible plants are beautiful and that homeowners could grow a meaningful amount of food in their yards — a much more noble use of the soil.
Instead of the typical landscape, we could minimize lawn areas and put in decorative borders of herbs, rainbow chard, and striking paprika peppers. Instead of the fleeting color of spring azaleas, we could grow blueberries that are decorative year-round — or pear and plum trees that put on a spring show of flowers, have decorative fruits, and yellow fall foliage. These plants aren’t just pretty, they provide scrumptious fruit and can save you money.
I’m convinced that, in addition to being a viable design option, an edible landscape (if maintained using organic methods) is the most compelling landscape concept for the future. Edible landscapes offer incredible benefits:
Energy Savings. Food from your yard requires no shipping, little refrigeration, and less energy to plow, plant, spray, and harvest the produce.
Food Safety. You know which chemicals (if any) you use, and huge batches of vegetables won’t be combined and therefore can’t contaminate each other.
Water Savings. Tests show that most home gardeners use less than half of the water agricultural production needs to produce a crop. Drip irrigation saves even more. And unlike in agriculture, fields aren’t flooded and huge vats of water aren’t needed to cool down the harvest.
Better Nutrition. Fully ripe, just-picked, homegrown fruits and vegetables, if eaten soon after picking, have more vitamins than supermarket produce that was usually picked under-ripe and is days or weeks old when you eat it.
Any landscape design begins with choosing the location of the paths, patios, fences, hedges, arbors, and garden beds — establishing the “bones” of your garden. This is critically important in an edible garden because the beds are more apt to have plants with a wide array of textures, sizes, and shapes, such as frilly carrot leaves, mounding peppers, and climbing beans. Edible garden beds may be filled with young seedlings or even be empty at times. That’s when paths, arbors, fences, hedges and even a birdbath are vital for keeping things attractive.
Next, plan your style by asking some questions: Do you want a formal or informal garden? Do you prefer a theme — maybe early Colonial or Spanish? How about whimsical areas with a scarecrow or whirligigs? Have you always dreamed of a bright yellow gate welcoming folks into your garden?
After you’ve determined the setup of the landscape, it’s time to choose the plants. Herein lies the true subtlety of the landscaper’s art. First, make a list of edibles you like most and that grow well in your climate, noting their cultural needs. Be aware of their size, shape, and the color of their foliage and flowers or fruit they produce (if any). Do you crave lots of hot reds and oranges, or do you prefer a cooler scene with lavenders, grays, and shades of blue? If fragrance is important, consider the scent of apple and plum blossoms, or heady basils and lavenders.
With your list of plants in hand, create areas of interest. You could create a curved line of frilly-leafed chartreuse lettuces or a row of blueberry shrubs whose blazing fall color can lead your eye down a brick path and to your entry. Instead of the predictable row of lilacs along the driveway, imagine a mixed hedge of currants, gooseberries, and blueberries. The possibilities are limited only by your imagination.
Not everything in your landscape has to be edible. Consider these colorful combos (*inedible plants):
As we all try to do our part to protect the planet and our own health, finding ways to grow more of our own food is a worthy goal. So how do you start your edible landscape? You could replace a few shrubs with easily grown culinary herbs and salad greens. The next step may be to add a few strawberry or rhubarb plants to your flower border. And maybe this is the time to finally take out a few hundred square feet of sunny lawn in your front yard to create a decorative edible border instead.
If you’d like to try a fun, helpful garden planning tool as you get started on your edible landscape, check out the new MOTHER EARTH NEWS Vegetable Garden Planner.
Rosalind Creasy has been growing edibles in her beautiful northern California garden for 40 years. The expanded second edition of her landmark book, Edible Landscaping (Sierra Club Books/Counterpoint Press), will be released in November 2010. This definitive book on designing with edible plants has detailed advice and more than 300 gorgeous, inspiring photos.