Plant herbal ground covers, edible vines, and fruit-bearing trees and shrubs around your home for a hardworking yard that does more than look pretty.
Traditional yards with manicured grass and a smattering of ornamental flowers might look nice, but they don’t give us anything back in the way of food. Rather than dedicating the valuable land around your home (or even your patio or roof space) to ornamentals, consider growing beautiful and functional food plants. Multipurpose edibles bring a fusion of food, usefulness, beauty and dimensional interest that you can personalize to your own tastes. From double-duty trees and shrubs to vines that produce plenty of fruits and veggies, you can spice up your yard with tasty options that are as pretty as they are practical. Plus, you can cash in on a cornucopia of savings that will yield big returns on your investment of time and space.
Low-maintenance herbal ground covers provide the dual visual interests of color and texture. Not only does this group of problem-solving plants perform a significant role in any landscape, but they are all delicious and healthful additions to the kitchen.
The following herbs, whose flowers and foliage are edible, all prefer a sunny area and light garden soil that is well-drained. As ground covers, these perennial performers can also be used on slopes, to cover bare areas, to soften the effects of walkways and stone walls, and sometimes to spill over rocks. Once these low-maintenance plants are established they will grow quickly to block out weeds and fill in empty spaces.
■ Oreganos have the most consistent flavor if you grow plants that have been propagated from cuttings, division or layering, rather than from seed. Flavorful types to try, ranging from mild to wild, include ‘Greek’, ‘Golden’, ‘Kaliteri’ and ‘Hot & Spicy’. Oregano livens up the flavor of sauces, salsas, marinades, soups and pizza.
■ Rosemary’s dwarf and creeping forms—such as ‘Prostratus’, ‘Blue Boy’, ‘Ken Taylor’, ‘Collingwood Ingram’ and ‘Huntington Carpet’—drape beautifully over low walls, but as a group they are less hardy (Zone 7) than upright forms (Zones 5 to 6). The key to keeping rosemary thriving is to never let the soil dry completely and to provide winter protection if needed. Rosemary enhances lamb, beef, pork and poultry; winter squash, potatoes and beans; soups and stews; marinades and vinaigrettes.
■ Sage comes in many varieties, but the green-leafed varieties such as common garden sage, ‘Holt’s Mammoth’ and ‘Berggarten’ are the easiest to grow and the hardiest choice for cold winter weather. ‘Dwarf’ and ‘Berggarten’ work well as ground covers. Sage pairs well with meats and meat pies, egg and cheese dishes, stuffings, breads and anything featuring tomato, rice, beans, potatoes or cabbage.
■ Thyme is a favorite among chefs and gardeners. Its range of low-growing and creeping edible varieties excel as ground covers. Try ‘German Winter’ or one of the specialty varieties such as ‘Caraway’, ‘Lemon’, ‘Golden Lemon’ or ‘Oregano’. To keep thymes from becoming woody, snip foliage frequently during the growing season, harvesting two-thirds of the foliage in midsummer. Thyme is versatile in the kitchen and on the grill, lending pizzazz to a wide range of foods.
Vines maximize growing space by climbing vertically up structures such as trellises, arbors, archways or fences. Any vining or sprawling plant with fruits smaller than a bowling ball can be trellised as long as there is a sturdy, tall structure that is strong enough to support the weight of the mature plant and resulting fruits.
■ Pole beans only need lightweight support. They are easy to grow in full sun and moderately fertile soil. Many have attractive and edible spring flowers. Great-tasting varieties include ‘Musica’, ‘Kentucky Wonder’, ‘Scarlet Runner’, ‘Red Noodle’ and ‘Blue Lake’. Harvest frequently for perpetual production.
■ Squash prefers fertile soil and plenty of sunshine. Summer squash requires a sturdier support than beans, and a heavy-duty trellis is essential for heavy winter squash. Trellisworthy summer squash varieties include ‘Partenon’ and ‘Tromboncino’. Delicious winter squash varieties include ‘Spaghetti’, ‘Sweet Dumpling’, ‘Waltham Butternut’, ‘Buttercup’ and ‘Fairy’.
■ Passionflowers climb quickly from 20 to 30 feet and have breathtakingly complex and beautiful flowers. The hardiest of the group that bears an edible fruit is ‘Maypop’, a vigorous deciduous vine that freezes to the ground in autumn and comes back in late spring. The incredibly tasty 2-inch fruits are egg-shaped and greenish-yellow.
■ Hardy kiwis grow fast and furious and therefore need a strong support, as mature plants can produce 100 pounds of fruit or more. Fruit-bearing plants are female and require a male to set fruit. ‘Arctic Beauty’ kiwis are self-fertile. Hardy ‘Issai’ are less vigorous and can be grown up a trellis or fence of moderate support. For best fruit production, grow hardy kiwis in half-day to full sun; ‘Arctic Beauty’ prefers some shade.
Trees are prominent features in yards that provide the landscape with its basic structure. Shrubs make their contribution by serving as effective backdrops and foundation plantings. By growing varieties that are both edible and ornamental you multiply their value and double the attraction.
■ Jostaberry is a unique cross between black currant and gooseberry. The ornamental disease-resistant bush grows 4 to 6 feet tall, is thornless and is hardy down to 40 degrees below zero. The real treasure is the shimmering purple-black berries, combining the sweeter notes of gooseberries with the richer notes of black currant. The berries are great for fresh eating and excellent in preserves, sauces, pies, puddings, juice, jelly and wine.
■ Pineapple guava is a beautiful evergreen shrub growing from 6 to 15 feet tall. It can be pruned to shape as espalier, screen or hedge, or left to grow naturally. Showy flowers bloom in spring and the guavalike fruit ripens in fall. Flower petals or fruit can be added to fruit salads or in jams and chutneys; and the fruit’s fleshy interior can be eaten with a spoon, added to smoothies or made into a sauce for desserts. Particularly tasty varieties include ‘Apollo’, ‘Coolidge’, ‘Mammoth’ and ‘Nazemetz’.
■ Elderberry is a quick-growing deciduous shrub or tree that reaches 6 to 20 feet tall, depending on the cultivar. All types prefer full sun to light shade but are not fussy about soil type. Fragrant spring flowers and delicious fall fruits are edible, with ‘Adams’, ‘Johns’, ‘York’ and ‘Nova’ among the best for fruit. Use the aromatic flowers in pancakes and fritters, or dry them for tea. The blue or purple berries can be made into pies, jams, syrup, wine and desserts. (Read more about elderberries and their benefits.)
■ Pawpaw is a small tree that grows slowly and reaches 10 to 30 feet tall. The fruit is rich and creamy, combining the flavors of banana, mango and pineapple in a custardlike texture. They produce best in full sun and rich, well-drained soil. (Give these high-nitrogen feeders a dose of aged manure in spring.) Some of the best varieties for fruit are ‘Mango’, ‘Overleese’, ‘Shenandoah’, ‘Susquehanna’, ‘Potomac’ and ‘Sunflower’. Enjoy the fruit fresh, or use it in pies, custards, cookies, cakes, muffins and smoothies.
Looking for more reasons to make over your yard? These benefits are sure to whet your appetite for homegrown food.
■ According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, every $100 spent on growing your own food yields $1,000 to $1,700 worth of produce.
■ Fresh produce is more flavorful and nutritious than produce at the supermarket, which on average travels more than 1,000 miles before reaching the store.
■ Homegrown food is healthier when you use sustainable and organic methods to control pests rather than the toxic pesticides and herbicides used on most commercial farms.
■ You can grow heirlooms, unusual foods and other specialty varieties not typically available in stores.
■ The connection with nature and added exercise can help reduce stress and increase energy.
Kris Wetherbee is a writer and award-winning recipe developer specializing in the areas of garden, food, natural health and outdoor living.