Eat Your Yard! How to Design an Edible Landscape
Many of us are lucky enough to have at least a small plot of land surrounding our homes. Yet we often choose to occupy that land with grass, marigold and azalea beds, wisteria, and the occasional privet or maple–plants that look nice, but don’t give us anything in the way of food or value. Edible plants are equally beautiful, and nearly any homeowner could grow a meaningful amount of food in her yard–a much more noble use of the soil. Consider replacing the typical landscape with decorative borders of herbs, rainbow chard and striking paprika peppers. Instead of the fleeting color of spring azaleas, try the year-round beauty of blueberries–or pear and plum trees, which put on a spring show of flowers, have colorful summer fruits and produce yellow fall foliage. These plants aren’t just pretty–they provide healthy food and save money and resources.
In addition to being a viable design option, an edible landscape (if maintained organically) is the most compelling landscape concept for the future.
Edible landscapes offer these incredible benefits:
Energy Savings: Food from your yard requires no shipping and little refrigeration. Plus, conventional farms use a large amount of energy to plow, plant, spray and harvest produce–planting and picking tomatoes in your front yard requires a miniscule amount by comparison.
Food Safety: You know which chemicals (if any) you use.
Water Savings: Tests show that most home gardeners use less than half the water to produce the same crop compared with large-scale agricultural production. Drip irrigation saves even more.
Money Savings: You can grow an unbelievable amount of food in a small, beautiful space. When I meticulously calculated the value of a 100-square-foot edible landscape I grew a couple of summers ago, I was amazed to find it had saved me more than $700! (Visit rosalindcreasy.com for exact figures for some popular crops.)
Better Nutrition: Fully ripe, just-picked, homegrown fruits and vegetables provide more vitamins and nutrients than supermarket produce, which is usually picked under-ripe and is days or weeks old when you eat it.
Designing Your Edible Landscape
Any landscape design begins with establishing the “bones” of your garden–choosing the location of the paths, patios, fences, hedges, arbors and garden beds. 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 curly 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.
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. Find out which ones grow well in your climate, and note their cultural needs. Our sister publication Mother Earth News offers a searchable list of plant recommendations and planting times, organized by region.
With your list of plants in hand, create special areas of interest. You could plant 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 to your entry. Instead of the predictable row of lilacs along the driveway, imagine a mixed hedge of currants and gooseberries. The possibilities are limited only by your imagination.
Edible Plant Selection
Your choice of plants is determined by local growing conditions. When choosing the plants, ask yourself: First, will this plant grow well in my region and yard? Second, does the plant produce something I want to eat? And, last, what does the plant look like (size, form, leaf texture and color)?
Size: The single biggest mistake all garden designers make–professionals and amateurs alike–is underestimating the eventual size of plants, especially in foundation plantings. Large plants can quickly cover windows or look out of scale for the space. Conversely, a fully grown plant might prove too small to serve its intended purpose. Consider the probable end height and width before making your final selections.
Form: Form (or shape) is usually a plant’s mostobvious characteristic. Many woody edible plants, such as apple and peach trees, are rounded. Another typical shape is upright, as seen in raspberries and bamboos. Some plants, such as pomegranates and highbush blueberries, are vase- or fountain-shaped, while others, including thyme and cranberries, have a matlike form. Plants such as gnarled fig trees or grapevines are considered accent plants for their striking form alone. Such forms dominate the area where they grow; give them ample space so they can be enjoyed as the focal points they deserve to be.
Texture: Texture describes the size and shape of the leaves and the spacing between them. Bold banana leaves, which can grow 6 feet long, and the dainty leaves of asparagus exemplify two texture extremes. Fine-textured plants work well in small gardens. Coarse plants, which give a bold look and substance, make a superb foil for large structures.
Color: Color is the most versatile design tool for an edible landscape. Unlike patios or arbors, adding color doesn’t require a large commitment of time, money and labor. If you don’t like the look of lots of red peppers and yellow containers, simply change the dominant colors next season.
Plants add color to the landscape in a variety of ways–multihued flowers, showy fruit or vivid seasonal foliage–but only for a relatively short period. The leaves, in every hue and intensity of green, help tie the design together, from the rich deep green of strawberry leaves to the bright light green of lettuce to the gray-green of sage. Green becomes the neutral color against which you see all the other colors in a landscape.
After choosing the basic foliage hues, add colors with trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants that bloom at different times of the year. I limit myself to two or three basic colors in simultaneous bloom; other gardeners like a full palette, a riot of many colors. It’s all about individual taste.
If you’ve never grown produce before, it’s wise to invest in a classic book such as The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible by Edward C. Smith or How to Grow More Vegetables by John Jeavons. Follow these tips for prize-winning plants:
• Make sure your yard has rich, organic, well-drained, fluffy soil with a pH between 6.0 and 7.0; it’s critical for growing healthy vegetables. You can test your soil pH with an at-home kit, available at nurseries and garden centers. The next step is to correct the pH if necessary. For acidic soil, raise the pH by liming the soil (some call it “sweetening”) with pelletized calcitic or dolomitic limestone. For alkaline soil, add sulfur. In both cases, follow the directions that come with the test results.
• Position plants so tall ones such as corn and staked cherry tomatoes are in the northernmost part of the yard, where they won’t shade shorter plants.
• Interplant long-lived tomatoes, peppers and other such plants with fast growers such as spinach, lettuce and radishes; harvest them before the larger plants fill in.
• Provide support for sprawling plants–including most tomatoes, cucumbers, pole beans and peas–to save space, prevent diseases and make vegetables more accessible for harvesting.
• Allow ample room between plants so they can grow to their full size without rubbing elbows with their neighbors. Good air circulation prevents many diseases.
• Determine the first and last frost dates for your area and plan your landscape accordingly. Planting recommendations on seed packets, in plant catalogs and in garden books are based on those dates.
Finding ways to grow more of our own food and reduce our homes’ resource use is a worthy goal. Start your edible landscape simply. Try replacing 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. Or maybe this is the time to 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 handy Vegetable Garden Planner from Mother Earth News.
Inspiring Plant Pairings
Combining edibles and ornamentals can lead to a harmonious, productive garden. Consider these colorful combinations:
• 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 planted with blue or purple morning glories
• Cucumbers climbing a trellis as 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-leafed cannas
The Real Cost of Lawns
An organic lawn area can be wonderful for frolicking children, but those large, “well-maintained” areas of verdure generally are the landscaping equivalents of gas guzzlers parked in the driveway. Consider the following:
• Lawn mowing uses 300 million gallons of gas and takes about 1 billion hours annually.
• SafeLawns.org estimates that Americans spend $5.25 billion on petroleum-based lawn fertilizers and $700 million on lawn pesticides annually.
• According to the EPA, running the average gas-powered lawn mower for 1 hour can create the same amount of pollution as driving a car 340 miles.
• Nationwide, home landscape irrigation accounts for almost one-third of all residential water use–more than 7 billion gallons a day. Lawns gulp more than half of that.
High-Yield Tips for Beginners
Apply techniques experienced gardeners use to make their efforts more productive. To get the most food from a small garden area:
• Plant mesclun salad and stir-fry green mixes; they produce a lot in a short time.
• Choose plants that produce over a long period of time such as eggplants, chile peppers, chard and kale, which yield a large total harvest for the space they take.
• Grow indeterminate tomato varieties, which produce more fruit over a longer period than determinate varieties.
• Plant pole beans, peas and vining cucumbers, which grow vertically and for a longer season. They are more productive than bush types.
• Choose day-neutral strawberries, which bear from early summer through fall and outproduce spring-bearing types.
• Include plants that are in and out of the garden quickly–radishes, lettuce, arugula and green onions–among your other edibles.
Rosalind Creasy has been growing edibles in her northern California garden for 40 years. The expanded second edition of her landmark book, Edible Landscaping, is available at naturalhome andgarden.com/shopping. This definitive book on designing with edible plants provides detailed advice and more than 300 inspiring photos.
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