One of the hallmarks of the suburban landscape is the manicured grass lawn. Walk down any suburban street and you’ll see one lawn after another, sprinkled with occasional shade trees and flowerbeds. In fact, this type of landscaping is so common that many homeowners take it completely for granted – it never even occurs to them that it’s possible to do anything else with their yards.
But here and there throughout the landscape, you’ll find homeowners bucking this trend. Instead of lawns and shrubbery, their yards hold berry bushes, herb borders, and trellises covered in climbing bean and squash vines. Rather than waste their yard space on grass that takes a lot of maintenance and produces nothing in return, these homeowners are putting it to good use by growing food for their families.
What they’re doing is called edible landscaping: using food plants as part of a decorative landscape. Edible landscapes can involve anything from fruit trees to ornamental lettuces, and they can range in size from a window box filled with herbs to a whole orchard. When you landscape your yard with fruits and vegetables, every hour you spend on yard work becomes twice as valuable, as you’re making your yard beautiful and putting food on your table at the same time.
Benefits of Edible Landscaping
Edible landscaping offers a variety of benefits. Replacing grass and ornamental plants with fruits, vegetables, and herbs allows you to do the following:
- Enjoy Home-Grown Flavor. Most foods taste best when they’re fresh, and they don’t get much fresher than blueberries eaten right off the bush or asparagus that goes from the ground to your plate in 10 minutes. In addition to tasting better, fresh veggies and fruits also retain more of their nutrients than produce that has been trucked halfway across the country or has spent weeks sitting in storage.
- Save Money on Groceries. Food and garden writer Rosalind Creasy says that when researching her book “Edible Landscaping,” she set aside 100 square feet of space in her garden to see how much produce she could grow. In its first year, her experimental garden produced more than 230 pounds of fresh, organic vegetables, which would have cost her close to $750 at the grocery store. Even after subtracting the money she spent on seeds, plants, and compost, she still saved more than $680.
- Save Time on Yard Work. A grass lawn needs regular mowing, watering, and fertilizing to look its best. Edible plants need care too, but mostly when they’re just getting started. For example, planting a plum tree requires a lot of work to dig the hole, put in the tree, mix compost into the soil, add mulch, and keep the sapling well watered over its first year in the ground. However, afterward it requires only a few hours a year to tend – mostly in the summer when you harvest all those juicy plums.
- Control Your Food Supply. Most supermarkets carry only a limited number of fruit and vegetable varieties – for example, Red Delicious and Macintosh apples, or iceberg and romaine lettuce. Growing your own food gives you a chance to try all kinds of interesting varieties that your local grocer doesn’t have. It also lets you control the amount and type of chemicals used on the produce you feed to your family.
- Protect the Environment. Growing your own food eliminates the need to ship your food from the farm that grew it to your home. In turn, this cuts down on fuel use and the pollution that goes with it. It also gives you the ability to cut back on the use of agricultural chemicals such as pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizer. Many of these chemicals are harmful to soil, water, animals, and plants, and they also use large amounts of energy to produce, ship, and apply, increasing your food’s carbon footprint.
- Expose Your Family to Nature. Food plants are a lot more fun to grow than grass, because you can watch them turn from seedlings to edible crops before your eyes. This kind of gardening gives your whole family a reason to get outdoors and enjoy nature. It also provides healthy open-air exercise, reduces stress, and helps educate kids about plant life.
Plants for Edible Landscaping
There are lots of ways to incorporate food plants into your landscape. It doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing process either – edible plants can easily live side-by-side with ornamental ones. In fact, Creasy says that filling an entire yard with edible plants would produce “too much food for most families, not to mention time and work.” So when seeking edible plants for your landscape, you should usually think about ways to combine them with ornamental ones.
Plants that can work in an edible landscape include the following:
- Herbs. You can grow rosemary, thyme, or oregano in an herb bed near your house or in pots on a patio. You can also intersperse herbs such as basil or oregano with flowers in a planter, or plant chives around the base of a mailbox.
- Greens. Lettuce, radishes, and other salad greens can look nice growing in between the blossoms in a flower bed. Some “greens” also come in more colorful varieties (such as yellow and rainbow chard or red-jewel cabbage) that look beautiful all on their own.
- Perennial Vegetables. Some vegetables, including rhubarb, asparagus, and Jerusalem artichoke, are perennial – once they’ve been planted, they keep coming back year after year. Adding some of these to your edible landscape saves you the trouble of replanting the space in future years.
- Edible Flowers. Nasturtiums, violas, pansies, borage, and calendula all have edible blossoms that are delicious in salads. You can also cook and eat the buds, blossoms, and tender shoots of daylily plants, or dig them up to harvest the edible tubers.
- Strawberries. A well-tended strawberry patch in a sunny spot can produce berries for years. The smaller Alpine strawberries grow well in shade and make a pretty, tasty ground cover in wooded areas.
- Vining Plants. Any kind of vining plant can be grown on a decorative trellis. Scarlet runner beans are popular because they’re as good to look at as they are to eat, but you can grow any variety of vine-type bean, as well as peas, squash, tomatoes, and grapes. Smaller cherry tomatoes can also grow in window boxes or hanging baskets.
- Fruit and Nut Trees. Fruit and nut trees provide shade just like the more common oaks and maples, but they also provide food. In addition to well-known fruits such as apples, peaches, and pears, you can grow unusual varieties like pawpaws, medlars, and serviceberries, which produce fruits you can’t find in stores.
- Fruit-Bearing Shrubs. You can replace ornamental shrubs with fruit-bearing varieties, such as blueberries, currants, gooseberries, or bush cherries. Shrub varieties range from “creeping” types that stay within a foot of the ground to tall bushes five or six feet in height.
Building an Edible Landscape
Of course, a beautiful edible landscape doesn’t spring up overnight. It takes hard work and careful planning to figure out which plants you want in your landscape, where to put them, and how to combine food plants with ornamental ones. The first step in the process is to take a good look at your yard and determine what you have to work with. Once you know that, you can move on to choosing plants, arranging them, and putting them in the ground.
1. Evaluate your Site
Different types of plants have different needs for water, sunlight, soil type, and so on. To build an edible landscape, it’s best to choose plants that are well suited to the conditions in your yard. It’s possible to alter those conditions somewhat – for instance, adding amendments to the soil to make it lighter or more acidic – but it’s much easier to choose plants that can thrive in the soil you already have.
This means that the first step in creating an edible landscape is to evaluate your site and its conditions. Factors to consider include:
- Climate. Some plants prefer a hot climate, while others like it cold. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) divides the country into 26 different “plant hardiness zones” based on how low the temperature typically falls on the coldest winter days. To find your climate zone, click on the link above, then click on your state on the USDA map. Once you know which zone you live in, you can choose plants that are recommended for that part of the country.
- Sunlight. Most edible plants need at least six hours of sun in the middle of the day to grow well and produce a good crop. When deciding where to add fruits, vegetables, and herbs to your landscape, start by looking for the parts of the yard that receive substantial daytime sunlight. If most of your yard is in shade, that limits your options. You can try removing trees and large shrubs to increase the sunny area, or you can look for edible plants that grow well in shade.
- Soil Type. Nearly all edible plants prefer fast-draining soil with plenty of organic matter, but they vary in their preferences regarding pH (how acidic or alkaline the soil is). To figure out which plants will do the best in your yard, you need to check both the texture and the acidity of your soil. You can buy soil testing kits online, at garden centers, or through a local Cooperative Extension System office. Alternatively, the website of the National Gardening Association lists some simple at-home tests you can do to evaluate your soil’s type, its pH, and how well it holds moisture.
2. Choose Plants
Once you know the basic facts about the conditions in your yard, you can look for plants that will thrive in it. Rosalind Creasy offers recommendations for edible plants that grow well in different USDA climate zones. She lists suggestions for annual vegetables, edible flowers, fruit and nut trees and shrubs, perennial vegetables, and herbs. For some zones, she also names good places to shop for plants and seeds.
Once you have found plants that are good choices for your climate zone, you need to determine whether they are compatible with your yard’s soil and sunlight. For instance, my yard has very heavy clay soil, and most fruit trees require well-drained soil. So when seeking fruit trees, I chose plum trees, since gardening books said they stand up to dense soil better than most other kinds. Two years later, the trees are healthy and have already produced their first plums.
To find plants that work with your site, look up each plant you’re considering in a garden guide, such as the National Gardening Association Food Gardening Guide. See what it says about the plant’s needs for soil texture, pH, and sunlight. Also, pay attention to information about which pests and diseases pose most danger to the plant. Whenever possible, choose plants that are resistant to whichever pests and diseases are big problems in your area.
3. Plan Your Design
After you’ve figured out which edible plants you want to include in your landscape, you need to decide where to put them. This is the most complicated part of the edible landscaping process. There are many factors to consider, including the growing conditions in different parts of the yard, how to pair edible plants with ornamental ones, and how the garden will look at different times of year.
To avoid being completely overwhelmed, take your time with the process. Here’s a step-by-step list for planning an edible landscape design:
- Brainstorm. Start by brainstorming ideas for things you’d like in your garden – without worrying about whether they’re practical. Jot down these ideas in a notebook. You can also paste clippings of magazine pictures that inspire you. That way, when you’re shopping, you can show your notebook to the salespeople so they know exactly what you’re looking for.
- Plan Placement. Once you have a good collection of ideas, start determining where they can fit into your yard. Walk all around the yard, looking at it from all directions, considering what might look good. Try placing physical “mock-ups” of the different garden elements in the yard to help you visualize the finished product. For example, you can lay out a rectangle with stakes and string to show where you want a flowerbed to go, or simulate the shape of a curved bed by laying out a garden hose.
- Consider Conditions. As you plan the placement for your garden elements, remember to consider how the growing conditions in each part of your yard will work for the plants you have in mind. Most fruits and vegetables grow best in full sunlight and in well-drained soil, but few yards have conditions like that everywhere. Creasy recommends saving the “choicest” spots in your yard for fruit trees and annual vegetables, which need good conditions to thrive. Areas with poor or rocky soil can be good spots for herbs, while certain perennial plants, such as taro and watercress, can grow well in damp soil.
- Put it on Paper. When you’re satisfied with the layout of your edible landscape, make a permanent copy. Draw a small-scale map of your yard on graph paper, measuring the exact dimensions of the yard and its features with a tape measure to ensure accuracy. Then, still working to scale, sketch the locations of the new features you want to add.
- Draw in the Details. If you really want to be thorough, tape your map to a table and lay sheets of tracing paper over it. Shade in different areas on each sheet to show additional features that your two-dimensional map doesn’t include, such as the patterns of sun and shade or the slope of the ground. Each tracing-paper overlay adds more detail to your map, but you can also remove them to get an uncluttered view of the basic map.
If this seems overwhelming, remember that an edible landscape doesn’t have to happen all at once. Instead, you can gradually add edible plants to your existing landscape. Each year, you can bring in one or two new features, replacing a forsythia hedge with blueberry bushes, or adding some colorful peppers to a flowerbed. In this way, you can build up to a fully edible landscape over a period of years.
4. Buy Plants
Now that you have a complete garden plan on paper, you need plants and seeds to bring it to life. In the springtime, you can find seeds or seedlings for many vegetables and herbs at your local garden center. However, shopping from a seed catalog – printed or online – gives you even more choices.
In a catalog, you can find varieties with unusual colors, unique flavors, or resistance to particular diseases. Catalogs are also more likely to offer heirloom varieties, organic seeds, and seeds guaranteed to be free from genetic modification. As a bonus, seed catalogs typically offer better prices than the seed racks at a garden center.
If you’re planning to add fruit trees and berry bushes to your edible landscape, catalogs are even more useful. Nurseries and garden centers in many areas tend to focus on ornamental plants, so shopping online or from a printed catalog is your best bet for finding a good selection of fruit-bearing plants.
Be sure to order these plants early though – nurseries often run out of popular fruit tree and bush varieties by the time spring comes around. With any catalogs, you can order trees and shrubs as early as January. However, the nursery won’t ship them out until the last frost date for your region has passed, so you can plant them as soon as they arrive.
Trees and bushes are a much bigger investment, both in terms of money and time, than annual plants. To make sure you get what you’re paying for, look for a nursery that offers a one-year guarantee on its fruit trees and berry bushes. Check reviews on gardening sites to make sure that the company actually honors its guarantees and is easy to work with.
Some recommended sources for seeds and plants include Fedco Seeds in Waterville, Maine; Edible Landscaping in Afton, Virginia; and the Gurney Seed & Nursery Company in Greendale, Indiana. Just make sure to limit the number of different catalogs you order from to keep your shipping costs down.
Dreaming up an edible landscape, and even putting that plan down on paper, is the fun part of the job. However, making that plan a reality takes serious work. You can’t create an edible landscape without putting in many hours of digging, sowing, weeding, and watering.
Of course, you could say the same thing about a purely ornamental landscape. Both kinds take plenty of work, but with an edible landscape, there’s an extra job at the end of the season: harvesting. Picking fruit off your own trees, or running out to the vegetable garden to pick some salad greens for dinner, makes all that effort worthwhile.
What would you like to grow in your yard or garden?