Design the perfect edible front yard with a few principles: structure, repetition, form, texture and color.
A small espaliered apple tree is nestled in this colorful border.
Photo By Ann Summa/Courtesy Timber Press
The following is an excerpt from The Edible Front Yard: The Mow-Less, Grow-More Plan for a Beautiful, Bountiful Garden by Ivette Soler (Timber Press, 2011). The excerpt is from Chapter 4: Design Primer and Garden Planner.
I am an unabashed plant maniac. When I design, everything is in service of the plantings and the enjoyment of those plantings. I create relationships between plants based on color, shape, texture, mood, and how the plants in question grow together. The result is a complex planting scheme that engages us on many different levels: the visual, the tactile, and the emotional. Successful gardens grab us by the heart, and there is no reason an edible garden can’t do the same thing.
Why not make our edible gardens extra pretty by applying the same techniques garden designers use to make fancy gardens look great? Smart, decisive plant combination takes the kitchen garden beyond a utilitarian planting of food crops. It becomes an edible landscape. Don’t be afraid to think of your edibles as pure ornament when designing your planting beds. The architectural value of artichokes and rhubarb are clear, but don’t stop there. Take a look at other edibles with a fresh eye: the vertical stalks of corn draw the eye up and give drama to your garden (or if you live in a more tropical zone, why not try sugarcane?). Think of vegetables as flowers—they will be ripening on the vine and adding interest to your garden for as long as most flowers would. In my front yard I have a ‘Sungold’ tomato that uses a blue pole cactus as a trellis. The little golden globes ripening next to the cool, spiny tower makes me as happy as any flower would. Happier, maybe, because I get to enjoy their sweet sunny taste as well as their visual appeal.
This chapter gives an overview of the basic design principles—structure, repetition, form, texture, and color—before diving into a few specific elements of edible front yard design, such as herbal groundcovers and traditional companion planting.
Structure can be built into a garden through hardscape that gives strength and focus. But by using the right plants in the same purposeful way, you give the softscape of your edible garden a backbone. Most of our edibles will be planted, bloom, set fruit, and the remains composted all in one season. It is the planted structure that keeps your front yard looking well put together for the entire year.
Planted structure refers to plants that shine in a landscape from season to season. Their strong shapes, interesting foliage, and endurance give the eye something to hold onto when other plants with more fleeting lives are waning. Structural plants are often dramatic architectural accents but quieter plants can also be used in structural ways (by repeating them in clumps or ribboning them through the landscape). The important factor is their ability to command interest in the garden throughout the seasons, whether as a standout diva or a supporting player.
In areas of the country that put their gardens to sleep for the winter, paying special attention to planted structure adds an extra layer of stability to an edible garden and extends its seasonal appeal. Even when the sky is gray and the ground is fallow and covered with snow, your edible front yard must always have something going on.
Ten structural plants
1. Acanthus mollis (bear’s britches). The large, deeply cut leaves, and 3 ft. flower spikes of this classic plant are frequently used to create structure in dappled shade. (The deep green leaves will be scorched in strong sun). It has a long season in zones 7–11, retiring only in the hottest days of late summer. Once cut back, the leaves quickly return to hold center stage.
2. Acer palmatum (Japanese maples). These elegant, deciduous trees for all seasons can’t be beat. The foliage unfurls brightly in spring, summer brings fresh, palmshaped leaves, the fall color is glorious, and interesting branching patterns stand out against a winter sky.
3. Colocasia esculenta (taro). In tropical gardens, this plant bestows specimen and structure in one fell swoop. Repeat throughout your garden to direct the eye, or mass them in one area to create a visual full-stop.
4. Cotinus coggygria ‘Purple Robe’ (smoke tree). Just one of these glorious trees can anchor a space and provide a grounding point for the rest of the garden. The velvety purple foliage glows as it emerges, followed by puffy panicles of tiny flowers—hence the common name. The season ends with a bang of orange fall leaves but the pale branches still hold court while bare during the winter months.
5. Grevillea ‘ Robyn Gordon’. This Australian import is a doozy: deeply incised, evergreen leaves, and flowers that look like a toothbrush and a shrimp had a baby. Use this shrub where you want attention—it will draw it there and keep it there.
6. Juniperus scopulorum ‘Gray Gleam’. This upright juniper grows slowly to its eventual 15 × 5 ft. size. It is a slender silver and gray column that can be repeated for an elegant, formal, stabilizing effect.
7. Miscanthus spp. Choose any miscanthus that works in your area and you’ll have proof that a plant needn’t be stiff and evergreen to provide effective structure. The strength of these grasses is obvious in the growing season but their winter interest is also very appreciated.
8. Nandina domestica ‘ Compacta’. Not all plants need to be drama queens in order to be structural powerhouses. The small shrub’s bright foliage that flushes red with the onset of fall, distinctive crimson berries, and graceful form make it a perfect structural player.
9. Phormium spp. Another group of plants that will give you countless choices for structural elements. You won’t want to use just one—repeat a single variety or mix and match—their power is in the broad evergreen leaves.
10. Yucca spp. It’s a little easy being evergreen, but yuccas don’t take their perpetual presence for granted. They remain sharp and distinctly focal throughout the seasons. This is plant architecture of the highest order.
Borders and Beds
Borders and beds are the places your garden can run free, and where you can delight in the sheer pleasure of plants and the interesting combinations they can make. Sweeps of related plants in thoughtful combinations express the delight we take in gardening and the passion we have for our gardens. Thinking in terms of borders and beds can be a helpful way to turn your vision into a garden design.
A border is a long, in-ground planting that is part of a boundary of some sort. It defines either the edges of an outdoor space or helps divide large spaces with drifts of plants. Often, the border is viewed from one side, and is arranged with taller plants in the back, medium-sized plants in the middle, and small plants and groundcovers in the front.
In smaller gardens, borders are often up against a fence or a bank of trees but they can also be the boundaries themselves when planted between one yard and another. Well-placed borders of trees, shrubs, and perennials will enhance the appeal of your garden while creating a zone of privacy that can be important when growing food in a semi-public space.
A bed is a smaller planted area, often used as an accent. Beds can float in the middle of spaces, like islands, and be viewed from all sides. Arrange plants by putting the largest plants in the middle and staggering down in height all around the bed. Raised beds are often built to make growing edibles easier, and are accessible on all sides for ease of care and harvest.
Structural plants anchor the borders and beds, and then we put together the planting relationships that please us and create either a backdrop for our edible garden, or a friendly home for edibles to be mixed into. Even traditional farm-style rows will benefit from being surrounded by beds and borders of structural plantings that can help keep your garden beautiful when many edibles are out of season.
Repetition, Repetition, Repetition
There is something garden designers are very wary of. It goes against our nature as designers. When we see it, we recoil in horror, even though we are looking at plants, the things we love most. This gardening faux pas goes by different names: crazy quilt, patchwork, or onesies. Whatever you call it, this is the practice of buying and using one of each plant within a single garden setting. Usually, this means that many different plants are deployed in a haphazard fashion, with little thought to the overall look or cohesiveness of the space. The eye sees so many different shapes, colors, and textures crashing up against one another that no sense can be made. Quite a bit of love often goes into these plantings— they can be energetic and enjoyable—but with a little more contemplation, these plant collections can also have focus. The tool that some of the best designers wield is simple and it starts at the nursery. It involves numbers. It is the rule of repetition.
When we repeat plants, we create structure. While structure can come from plants with strong individual forms, it can also come from using one plant with a softer form in larger quantities. You can create either a massing of one plant (such as lavender placed in a group of three or more), or a ribboning of it (lavender threaded throughout the garden so the eye can follow the line of color and texture). Both ways work to bring focus and weight to what could otherwise be an overly pixilated scheme.
Within a front yard landscape, where our eyes are used to seeing swaths of green foundation plantings that are basically identical from house to house, using repetition will help make our edible gardens subtly blend in while simultaneously standing out. A word of caution: don’t veer too far into the direction of repetition and create a monoculture. After getting rid of one monoculture (the front lawn), the last thing we want is an entire cornfield or a tomato-only extravaganza. Be thoughtful while designing and your front yard will win praises for its looks and its bounty.
Garden designers tend to almost superstitiously avoid even numbers, while threes, fives, sevens, and nines are imbued with some kind of horticultural design magic. Gardeners should be very deliberate when using two of the same plant as it has a powerful effect; this quantity conveys a sense of strength and formality. I often use two matching plants as “sentinels” to highlight a significant change by flanking an entryway, opening, or gateway. The number four tends to be too stable and boring, especially when repeating plants with strong shapes. As for the rest of the numbers—go for it. Six and eight are even numbers that can be repeated over the space of a garden, just try not to just line them up so the arrangement doesn’t feel overly rigid.
The urge to test the waters before you jump in with both feet will keep you from making a statement. Don’t be tentative: you can just as easily try out three plants as you can one. Repetition is your friend, especially when working within an edible landscape. One basil plant will give you a few leaves for a pasta pomodoro or a margherita pizza, but you can’t make pesto with one basil plant. Plant five! Then add another variety to the mix and plant three of an exotic Thai or cinnamon basil.
There really aren’t any hard and fast rules in the world of repetition, only suggestions. Play—but play with big numbers.
At the risk of sounding like a horticultural hypocrite, I must explain the exception to the “no onesies” principle. Using certain special, focal plants to accent an area or to create a visual moment is using a plant as a specimen. To qualify as a specimen, a plant should have enough power to hold the space and attract the eye. In your edible garden, a specimen could be an unusual fruiting tree, like a weeping mulberry or Buddha’s hand citron. Likewise, a specimen may be an important non-edible helper, like a giant agave or blowsy Spiraea ×vanhouttei—anything that captures your imagination and strikes a dramatic, individual note in the landscape. Too many specimens make a garden look chaotic, but none at all can be a missed opportunity. Often it is that one special moment in a garden that transforms the space from the everyday into the extraordinary.
Let Me Repeat Myself
Certain edibles are natural repeaters. Corn, for instance, needs to be planted in groups in order to pollinate properly—the tassel (the male flowering structure) must shed and fall on the silk (the female flowering structure). Without adequate pollination, the corn will “cob” which means it will only produce a few large or misshapen kernels. This works to our advantage when planting edibles in an ornamental way. We can use a grouping of corn plants (ten or more) and repeat that grouping three times. This will become a strong, defined moment in the front yard. Yes, it is corn, but it could easily be clumps of giant miscanthus. Corn has the same verticality, the lovely green color, and the elegantly arching leaves that make the large grass so lovely.
While corn needs to be repeated because of the specifics of its pollination, other plants are simply extra social and repeat by sowing and spreading themselves around the garden. I always allow some of my edible flowers, lettuces, and herbs (arugula and chamomile are favorites) to flower and go to seed; then the wind and birds take the seeds for rides to other parts of my garden. Later on in the season, surprise plants turn up in unexpected places. You can take advantage of this promiscuity by transplanting seedlings you find in unwanted places to spots that can benefit from a little rhythmic repetition. However, more often than not, you’ll find these “volunteers” in nooks and crevices that could use a bit of fun. Nature is a wonderful gardener, and annual seeds are a perfect way to permit a little freedom and playfulness within your design scheme.
Form in the Garden
The outline of a plant, its silhouette, is the form. When designing a garden it’s important to be able to identify the forms of your edibles as well as those of the trees, shrubs, and perennials that will round out your front yard.
Arching. A fountain-shaped silhouette; these plants start out narrow at the bottom, then widen at the top and “spill.” Phormiums, daylilies, chives, and most grasses have an arching form.
Mounding. Many plants display this round, shrubby, billowing form, and are approximately as wide as they are tall. Sages, lavenders, St. John’s wort, and roses are all mounding.
Prostrate or scandent. Flat, mat-forming plants, such as thyme, oregano, groundcover junipers, and sweet woodruff, spread out horizontally and are wider than they are tall.
Vertical. These upright plants have a tall and slender outline. Examples would be columnar junipers (such as Juniperus scopulorum ‘Skyrocket’), pole cactus, and corn.
Vining. Plants with lax stems that need supplemental support are considered to have vining forms, even if they don’t twist and twine. Melons are vining, as are peas, beans, passionflowers, and when indeterminate, tomatoes.
Every garden needs a variety of plants with diverse silhouettes to keep it interesting. Vertical forms are always arresting; they connect the lower levels of the garden to the tree layer and carry the eyes upward. But a garden containing only vertical elements—think of desert gardens full of upright cactus in a sea of pebbles—will look stark. Furthermore, arching and mounding plants make our gardens lush by conveying a sense of fullness and density, but unless you have that variation of form the garden can lack distinction.
The varying forms of plants can also help one another perform better ornamentally. The classic example is lavender and roses. Roses have skinny, somewhat ungainly lower stems, but lavender is just the right size and shape to cover up the rose’s bony ankles with its billowing mound. Some edibles have skinny ankles as well. Artichokes, for instance, lose their lower leaves as the season progresses—a mound of marjoram would help conceal those naked stems.
If the form of a plant is its general outline, the texture is the size, shape, and tactile qualities of the leaves, bark, and flowers that are inside that outline. Texture is key to successful and dynamic plant combinations, and the smart use of it can turn a good garden into a great one.
Fine. Fine-textured plants, such as juniper, rosemary, and box, have tiny, often needle-like leaves.
Medium. Most of the leafy plants in edible gardens, like pelargoniums, sages, beans, and chili peppers, are a medium texture.
Large or coarse. This texture is associated with plants that have thicker leaves. Rhubarb, artichokes, and corn are examples.
Rubbery. Often overlooked in edible gardens, large, rubbery textures are valuable when thinking ornamentally. Inherently dramatic, they can be tropical plants like bananas and taro, or dry plants like aloes and agaves.
Grassy. Grassy plants are essential when injecting a garden with textural variation. The leaves capture the breeze like nothing else, tickling neighboring plants and activating the space. Grassy edibles such as chives, lemongrass, and fennel are textural powerhouses.
Like form, one always wants to work with multiple textures within a planting scheme. If every leaf is too similar in size and shape, a planting can look mushy or indistinct. Too many fine-textured plants can start to look fuzzy. And too much big, brassy foliage can lack subtlety. An issue particular to edible gardens is that many plants that provide us with food are of a similar medium leafy texture. Contrasting textures brings balance and excitement to a garden.
Texture also affects the way light is reflected in the garden. Plants with large, glossy leaves are more reflective and stand out, whereas plants with fine, needle-like leaves can absorb light and appear more static. Play around and see how these issues of leaf shape, surface, and light change the look of your front yard. Every choice that brings more variety into our edible plantings helps to transition them into gardens that steal the show from that former king out front: the lawn.
Exciting textural combos
• ‘Imperial Star’ artichoke, ‘Apple Tart’ daylily, mizuna, nasturtiums
• Lemongrass, catmint, ‘Siam Queen’ basil, coconut thyme
• Corn, bronze fennel, leeks, marjoram
• ‘Berggarten’ sage, red shiso, golden feverfew
Texture isn’t always visual—don’t forget the tactile, our sense of touch. Gardening requires us to touch our plants all the time so we should take the opportunity to imbue our gardens with as much sensual pleasure as possible: the smooth flesh of tomatoes and eggplant, the nubby flowers of chamomile, the grassy coolness of chives. Salvias and peppermint-scented pelargoniums are so soft to the touch that they almost invite petting; once you stroke these plants your fingers will retain the lingering scent of the garden. Gardeners are sensualists at heart. Bask in it.
It's a Colorful World
Almost nothing makes people happier than color. This holds especially true in gardens where we stand in awe of the saturated, rich, triumphant colors of flowers, foliage, bark, and berries. This attraction is biological: when we swoon over a gorgeous flower, we are being caught up in the mating dance between plants and their pollinators.
I like to consider foliage color first when combining plants for visual interest. Don’t think of leaves as the ugly stepsisters of flowers. They are no less enticing, especially these days, when plant growers and hybridizers are feeding our desire for more interesting foliage. Since the majority of the leaves in any garden (but especially an edible one) will most likely be green, it’s important to bring other colors to the table in a big way. When you are designing, make certain that your edible garden will have enough color in its leaves alone to make any flower garden jealous. Choose colorful sages and basils, chard with multihued stems, red mustard, ‘Bull’s Blood’ beets, and start playing with the kind of zeal you had when you were a child opening a new box of crayons.
What colors do you just love together? Purple and red? Beautiful. Just imagine how fantastic red chard would look next to a swath of purple sage. Throw in a little zest with ‘Mahogany’ nasturtium and you have an electric combination that will satisfy your red and purple desires. See? That wasn’t so hard. But maybe you want more. Lucky for you there are so many reds and purples in the edible palette that you can create countless combinations. Try Japanese eggplant planted next to red shiso, then add something bright—like golden oregano whose vivid leaves verge on yellow—to contrast with the dusky eggplant and the ruddy herb. Any ornamental garden would be proud to have that vibrant threesome in its ranks.
Once you are happy playing with foliage color, bring the flowers and vegetables to the party. Echo the red foliage in the red chard and purple sage combination with a red vegetable—maybe a dramatic ‘Thai Red Dragon’ pepper? Then go a little taller and add some deep crimson sunflowers to the mix. When you start thinking of the associations you can make with your favorite colors, playing designer in the garden is pure fun.
Exciting colorful combos
• Red chard, orange bell peppers, purple sage, lemon variegated thyme
• Scarlet runner beans, ‘Green Globe’ artichokes, ‘Purple Ruffles’ basil, silver thyme
• ‘Chianti’ sunflowers, ‘Sungold’ tomatoes, ‘Red Rubin’ basil, golden oregano
Sometimes the combinations you want to make don’t quite go together seasonally. In the chard-pepper-sagethyme grouping, for example, the chard will want to bolt (go to seed) when the weather gets hot, but hot weather is essential for peppers to start setting fruit. Keeping your chard harvested will encourage fresh leaves to continue growing. It will maintain its position in your garden (and on your plate), and give you the pleasure of seeing the combination you planned coexist in your garden. If your chard gives up the ghost, replace it with a more seasonal companion, like red-leaved basil. These are changes we make in our edible gardens anyway, it just takes a little extra thought to incorporate the ornamental aspects of your plantings into their seasonality.
Not all gardens need to scream: some can whisper, or speak in a clear, quiet way. I am a fan of high contrast, but I also love the monochromatic garden—the elegantly edited, serene, specific use of colors within the same range. Many people have seen images of the White Garden at Sissinghurst, in England, or have been lucky enough to see it in person. This world-renowned, monochromatic garden plays exclusively with the paler end of the spectrum: cream, white, and bone-colored flowers, and leaves in every shade of gray. It is truly breathtaking.
Holding onto the edible thought, we can further the ornamental appeal of the front yard through focused use of color. A monochromatic edible garden will be a little more difficult because our palette is limited to start with, but why not begin by embracing the first color that comes to mind—green! Doing a meditation on the freshest color, the color that means gardens, nature, and the growing spirit of ecological awareness is a wonderful place to start playing with a simple color range. Think about using yard-long beans and ‘Neopolitano’ basil, jalapeno peppers and marjoram, zucchini and ‘Black Seeded Simpson’ lettuce, cutting celery and white-flowered alliums. Bring in select ornamentals that catch your eye and reinforce the fresh, cool scheme, like Nicotiana alata ‘Lime Green and whimsical Asparagus densiflorus ‘Meyersii’. Maybe you’d like to use box hedge as an organizing principle. A formal edible front yard garden celebrating all shades of green would be spectacular.
The monochromatic principles can be applied to all colors. A theme of purple leaves and flowers could create a beautifully moody vibe in your edible garden. Or let brightness and light reign supreme by spotlighting variegation and chartreuse and golden leaves. If done well, a monochromatic garden can be just as interesting as one that uses the full-spectrum of colors.
Exciting monochromatic combos
• Yard-long beans, flowering tobacco, marjoram, lime thyme
• Yellow-stemmed chard, lemon basil, lemon variegated thyme
• ‘Violette di Firenze’ eggplant, garlic, chives, cinnamon basil
Be Your Own Color Guru
Some very learned people will tell you all about the color wheel and complementary colors and contrast and hots and cools and tones and hue. That’s all wonderful; color theory is important, but this isn’t rocket science or brain surgery. We are opening our box of crayons and finding out what we like to put together, what looks good to our eye. Who cares if the arbiters of color say that orange and pink don’t go together? If you have a desire to see your orange bell peppers tickled by the pinky-purple powder puffs of chive flowers, then go for it. In fact, go further and bring in an ornamental orange accent, like Tagetes lucida, and carpet the ground with a pink-flowering Mother-of-Thyme. For an extra ornamental feat, throw in Sedum nussbaumerianum, a succulent whose rubbery leaves (a glowing orange when grown in full sun) add a strong foliar echo to all those fantastic flower colors.
Taken from The Edible Front Yard: The Mow-Less, Grow-More Plan for a Beautiful, Bountiful Garden (c) Copyright 2011, by Ivette Soler. Published by Timber Press, Portland, OR. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.
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