Vegetable gardens are commonplace in suburbia; however, edible landscaping is a relatively new trend. What’s the difference? Instead of planting vegetables in neat rows, the recent trend is to use edibles in landscape design by intermingling them with ornamentals and even using edibles as ornamentals. The practice of edible landscaping is not new, as it dates back to the ancient Egyptians and was also used in the medieval monasteries by the monks in designing their gardens. The recent rise in the popularity of edible landscaping began in the early 1980s and is credited, by many, to Rosalind Creasy. She is the author of several popular books on the subject.
The homeowner who is interested in creating an edible landscape, ideally, would completely redesign their existing landscape or a section of it. However, if you only want to experiment with edible landscaping, Martin F. Quigley, director of the Chester M Alter Arboretum at the University of Denver, suggests you use a one-for-one substitution. For example, replace a shade tree with a fruit tree, or swap a groundcover with creeping thyme or strawberries. Dr. Quigley is also coauthor of The Ohio State University Factsheet on Edible Gardening (HYG-1255-02).
Don’t limit edibles to the backyard. According to Quigley, “it is most important to go where the sun is. If the front is the sunny side of your yard, it is possible to have an edible landscape there by not leaving any gaps between plants.” Rudy Moyer, a Stark County Master Gardener, suggests mixing in showstoppers, such as eggplant, red cabbage and “rainbow” swiss chard in groups of three. Curly parsley, tricolored sage and different types of leaf lettuce can be used as interesting perennial garden borders. Cherry tomatoes and strawberries can be grown in hanging baskets. Raspberries and blackberries can be trained into a hedge. Asparagus and rhubarb also are attractive additions to the garden. The pawpaw tree is native to Ohio and has a beautiful (although smelly) flower and a custard-like fruit. If you decide to grow fruit trees, such as apple, peach or plum, be sure to plant varieties that are resistant to common diseases.
Edible landscapes are not necessarily comprised entirely of edibles. For example, you can intermingle colorful vegetables, such as hot peppers or red cabbage, with flowers. Or, you can surround a tomato plant with flowers in a large container planting. Be sure to group your plants according to their needs, including soil type, amount of sun or shade and water requirements.
The Franklin Park Conservatory Community Garden Campus is a great source of ideas for edible landscaping. The 4-acre campus is divided into many small gardens, each one designed around a central theme. There is a grape arbor terrace, a berry yard, several international cuisine gardens (including Italian, Indian, Somali and Chinese), herb gardens, formal culinary parterre gardens and potager (ornamental kitchen) gardens. Liz Coverdale, horticulturist at Franklin Park Conservatory, leads the effort to plant and maintain the beds. A portion of the food that is harvested from these gardens is used in the Conservatory Cafe and the rest is donated to a food bank and a soup kitchen.
Moyer started his edible landscaping by planting things he wanted to eat, but didn’t want to buy. Now, he grows most of his edibles from seed, since it is less expensive, and he is not limited to the varieties sold in the local nursery. He cautions against growing edibles in foundation plantings outside an old house, since the house was probably painted with lead paint.
The experts I talked with suggest that you do not use pesticides on edibles. Dr. Laura Burchfield, OSU Dept. of Hort. & Crop Science, reminds us that a fence will help prevent damage from wildlife, and fruit-bearing shrubs can be covered with netting when they are in full fruit to protect them from the birds. Quigley suggests using companion planting — interspersing your plantings with marigolds, onions and garlic — to help keep the pests away. As an alternative to pesticides, Moyer pulls weeds and uses the “smash and smear method” to get rid of insects. He also suggests planting enough to keep the deer and rabbits happy.
While an edible landscape is designed to look beautiful, it offers the homeowner other benefits. You can have fresh home-grown fruits and vegetables. You can grow varieties that are not available in local stores. You can control the quantity and type of pesticides used on the foods you consume. And, you can save on grocery bills.
Nancy F. Traub is an OSU Extension Delaware County Master Gardener Volunteer.