Beautiful Enough to Eat: Edible Landscaping

If the sun shines on your outdoor space—whether a tiny balcony or a large yard—you can have an edible landscape.

| March/April 2010

cucumbers and bunching onions at chicago botanic garden

Cucumbers and bunching onions shine at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

Photo Courtesy Chicago Botanic Garden

If I told you that one activity could make you healthier, improve the quality of your food, conserve fossil fuels, strengthen your community, increase biodiversity, help children understand that food does grow on trees, and restore your sense of connection with the natural world, would you be interested? I have two words: edible landscaping.

Edible landscaping means using attractive, food-producing plants in a well-designed garden, rather than using solely ornamental plants or planting food crops in utilitarian layouts. An edible landscape can be created in any style, and it can incorporate a mix of edible and ornamental plants.

The standard American “lawn, shrubs and shade tree” yard may provide a certain visual satisfaction, but it does virtually nothing to feed people or to provide a habitat for other critters. By contrast, an edible landscape offers fresh, affordable food, a variety of blooming plants, ever-changing seasonal surroundings, plus provides a home and sustenance for bees, butterflies and birds.

An ancient idea

Ancient Persian gardens celebrated plants’ edible and ornamental virtues. Medieval monasteries supported a rich array of vegetables, flowers, fruits and medicinal herbs and, until the 19th century, suburban English yards combined edible and decorative elements.

But as agriculture developed, food production became a working-class practice. In Edible Estates, Fritz Haeg writes that purely ornamental landscapes came to symbolize wealth and nobility, while food plants were relegated to unseen areas. “To grow food plants around your house 150 years ago implied that you didn’t have the means to pay someone to do it for you,” says Charlie Nardozzi, senior horticulturist for the National Gardening Association.

In the early 1970s, the nascent environmental movement—combined with a fuel crisis and a surge of interest in self-sufficiency—gave rise to a new interest in growing food at home. With the help of Rodale Press, an organic gardening movement began to gain traction. In the 1980s, two seminal books on edible landscaping—Rosalind Creasy’s The Complete Book of Edible Landscaping and Robert Kourik’s Designing and Maintaining Your Edible Landscape Naturally—launched a new trend. Today, kitchen gardens are seeing a renaissance. Within that, edible landscaping is tapping deep roots. “The whole atmosphere around edible landscaping is different now,” Creasy says. “There’s tremendous momentum.”

Why we love edibles

Whether to save money or provide better-quality food for their families, Americans are more interested than ever in growing their own food, Creasy says. “People want to reduce their carbon footprint, get unhooked from industrial farming and eat food that didn’t travel 1,500 miles to the table. And they value vegetables now, which wasn’t always the case.”

At the same time, we have more varieties of attractive edible plants available than ever before. “Twenty years ago, you couldn’t obtain heirloom plants unless you were a member of the Seed Savers Exchange,” Creasy says. “Now we have heirloom apples, tomatoes, melons—varieties that the public is realizing they’ve been denied for decades.” Inspired by this surge of interest, Creasy is thoroughly revising Edible Landscaping for re-release this spring.

Newer and unusual fruits and vegetables allow you to choose plants specifically suited to your site and needs, Nardozzi says. “Some of the variety comes from breeding, some from heirloom seeds, and some by the introduction of species from other continents,” he says. He’s intrigued by newly available dwarf fruit trees that let you “fit a lot of stuff in a small yard.”

elderberry, echinacea, bee hive


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