Create an Edible Landscape

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.

| October/November 2010

  • arbor with grape vines
    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.
  • edible garden bed
    A close-up look at the author’s street-side border reveals 12 edible plants. On the bottom, from left to right: society garlic, nepitella (an oreganolike herb with a hint of mint), a cluster of sculptural collards, and thyme and winter savory spilling out of the bed. Middle tier: upright rosemary, purple basils, chartreuse pineapple sages, bronze fennel and a kumquat. Roma tomatoes grow behind the fence and scarlet runner beans grow over the entry arbor. The purple verbena, yellow lantanas and roses, and red zinnias, geraniums and dahlias compete for guests’ attention.
  • Black Satin blackberry bush
    A ‘Black Satin’ thornless blackberry bush grows on wires supported by 3-foot-long pieces of rebar drilled into the posts on a low wall. Lavender flowers cover the vine for most of May, and blackberries produce from late June through mid-August. The author grows many edibles in her northern California yard, but few give such delight as this one plant. It stretches 12 to 15 feet, and bears at least 8 quarts of berries every summer. You can let your dinner guests harvest their own berries. In fall, the leaves are a vibrant yellow.
  • peppers and grapes
    Even in a limited space, you can use containers to create an edible landscape. Use bright colors to add excitement and visual appeal, such as these eye-popping red containers, which bring style to entry steps. ‘Hungarian Wax’ peppers and a geranium underscore the red theme and help unify the design. ‘Red Flame’ grapes and cilantro grow in the other pots.
  • birdbath in garden
    Two spring vegetable beds invite you to stroll by and harvest the makings of a delicious salad. The edibles featured here are sculptural red cabbages, frilly ‘Salad Bowl’ lettuces, mizuna, collards, mustards and even the flowers of a broccoli plant. The cook has many choices!
  • scarecrow and hedges
    The charming structure of designer Linda Vater’s Oklahoma City vegetable garden is extremely effective. The flagstone paths, clipped boxwood hedge, scarecrow, arbor and bench area draw you in. Long after Vater has harvested the basil, parsley, peppers and tomatoes, this garden remains wonderfully inviting.
  • orange sea berries
    Sea berry is one of a number of nutritious berries that will enhance an edible landscape. It is a tall, upright and deciduous shrub with silver foliage. The plant has a graceful weeping form and dramatic, highly nutritious gold berries that make great juices. You need male and female plants for pollination. Perhaps plant sea berry in a hedgerow along a property line with other hardy, edible shrubs, such as elderberries, ‘Nanking’ cherries and highbush cranberries.
  • romaine lettuces
    Who would think humble romaine lettuces could form the centerpiece of a decorative patio garden bed? To create this design, purchase an inexpensive, vertical wood trellis, cut off the two legs, then paint it an inviting color, such as this soft purple. After laying it on the prepared soil, plant a single lettuce in each square. As the lettuce grows, continually harvest a few outer leaves from each plant to maintain the design. Oregano, cilantro, mustard, flax and nonedible hens-and-chicks frame the vignette.

  • arbor with grape vines
  • edible garden bed
  • Black Satin blackberry bush
  • peppers and grapes
  • birdbath in garden
  • scarecrow and hedges
  • orange sea berries
  • romaine lettuces

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.

The Future Is Now

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.

Money Savings. You can grow an unbelievable amount of food in a small, beautiful space. See Grow $700 of Food in 100 Square Feet and my website for exact figures for some popular crops.

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.

Designing Your Edible Landscape 

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.

Plant Combinations to Inspire You

Not everything in your landscape has to be edible. Consider these colorful combos (*inedible plants):

  • A geometric design of orange tulips underplanted with mesclun salad mix and bordered with parsley or frilly lettuces
  • Red or orange cherry tomatoes growing over an arbor interplanted with blue or purple morning glories*
  • Cucumbers climbing a trellis to form a backdrop for a splash of coral gladiolus*
  • Gold zucchini and yellow dahlias* bordered by red zinnias* and purple basil
  • A bed of fernlike carrots surrounded by dwarf nasturtiums
  • A path bordered with dwarf red runner beans backed with giant, red-and-white-striped peppermint zinnias*
  • A wooden planter overflowing with strawberries and burgundy-leaved cannas*

Get Started!

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. 

2/19/2015 8:57:57 AM

I am also curious about fruit attracting insects, how do you manage that?

6/21/2013 4:12:46 PM

dont forget Asparagus, its a beautiful fern which gives the garden a soft look, plus it comes back year after year

1/7/2011 8:32:12 AM

I love edible landscapes. But about that grape arbor-grapes draw yellowjacks & wasps, as do figs that have openings at the end of their fruit. Be aware of what beneficials your plantings attract. You might not want to sit untder a grape arbor with wasps above you and on the fallen fruit at your feet. Also, I LOVE morning glories. But they spread their seeds everywhere in my other plantings, strangling and covering them, cutting off sunlight and pulling tall perennials down to the ground. Be aware of how much weeding you want to do in later years when you plant such a vine.



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