Sometimes its OK to play with your food

Gardeners tend to see the world around them in two different ways, either as a landscape or as a practical/utilitarian food-producing spot.

Some gardeners only enjoy landscape gardening, growing roses, shrubs and perennials that provide beauty. Other gardeners only grow vegetables and fruit, seeing produce as the ultimate goal of gardening.

Even those gardeners who do both still treat their landscape and food gardens discretely, as if they were separate tasks that should be done separately.

But what if we blurred the lines a bit? What if we started to see the beauty in the foods that we eat? What if we saw the food in the plants that we admire for beauty? The result is called edible landscaping.

I’ve been “lecturing” and writing about edible landscaping for a while now. I decided when I bought my house that has a tiny yard (25 by 120 feet) that I wouldn’t grow anything that I couldn’t eat.

That’s when I discovered edible landscaping — I mix the best of both worlds. You get beautiful plants that also produce delicious food. It can be fun to find new and interesting things to grow too.

So mom was wrong — you can play with your food.

Getting started

As spring rolls around and you get ready to plan new garden projects, take a moment to consider using edible plants as part of the landscape.

If you are considering a shrub, consider a fruiting shrub that will provide both beautiful flowers and colorful fruit. If you need a vine for a fence or trellis, think about vines that can serve that purpose while producing tasty treats.

And these substitutions don’t necessarily need to be perennials or trees and shrubs — pretty leafy annuals, such as spotted lettuces or colorful Swiss chard make wonderful additions to beds and borders. The trick is not to be timid — and not to be afraid of success and, shall we say, “nonsuccess.”

Keep in mind that some of the plants you already have in your landscape may be edible as well. While they aren’t as tasty as fresh fruit, the berries that form on dogwood trees are good for making jams and jellies (the species called cornelian cherry, or Cornus mas, is the best).

The flowers and shoots of daylilies are edible, as are the flowers of violas and pansies. You can add them as a colorful pop to salads or delicate decorations for desserts.

Don’t feel like all the fun is just for the landscape either. Many edible plants make great additions to ornamental container plantings.

Those leafy greens are great for foliage, and herbs can provide both foliage and flowers. Vegetables can also make an appearance.

On a recent trip to California, I spotted a large street planter featuring an artichoke plant as the centerpiece and red cabbages for foliage.

And if you are wondering, yes, we can grow artichokes here — either as annuals or as perennials if you protect them over winter. I’ve been seeing them crop up in those Bonnie’s Plants displays at box stores and local centers alike.

Pick the right plant

Like I said, the trick is to pick a plant that serves the purpose you want in the landscape. I’ll provide some details on my favorite edible landscaping plant picks, but there are so many more plants to choose from. A book list below may help you find some ideas.

The National Gardening Association has an edible landscaping page at garden.org/ediblelandscaping and provides a monthly e-newsletter.

I also find inspiration from an edible landscaping nursery called Edible Landscaping (should be easy to remember) in Afton, Va., near Monticello and Charlottesville, that has a catalog and online store at ediblelandscaping.com.

My favorite edible shrub has to be the blueberry. Not only does it produce delicious berries revered as a superfood, but it also sports attractive, whitish-pink flowers in the spring, red foliage in the fall, and sometimes colorful new-growth twigs in the winter.

Sand cherry is a shrubby relative of cherry trees that produces cherrylike fruits after beautiful spring blooms
Sand cherry is a shrubby relative of cherry trees that produces cherrylike fruits after beautiful spring blooms

Sand cherry is a species related to cherries that produces cherrylike fruits on a 3- to 5-foot round bush. It also has attractive white flowers early in the spring.

Another favorite is hardy fig (yes, they grow here too). Interesting leaves are a feature of this plant, along with its delicious fruit — one of my favorites.

Fruit trees such as apple, peach and cherry make attractive additions to the landscape. One native fruit that’s growing in popularity is the pawpaw. It has big, oval leaves and yield the creamy, bananalike fruits prized by some and reviled by others.

There are several options for vines as well. Of course, grapes are a favorite of mine, but I also grow hardy kiwi (yes, we can grow those too). These big, sometimes colorful plants (the variety Arctic Beauty has splotches of bright pink on the leaves) produce small, grapelike kiwis that don’t have fuzz on them. If you add them, you’ll need a male and a female though.

Not all vines have to be perennial. For an annual, try pole beans or scarlet runner beans that produce bright red flowers.

For perennial plants, look at trying rhubarb with its red stalks and big, showy leaves. Remember: Don’t eat the leaves; they are poisonous!

Asparagus grows out to be a nice, fluffy fern like plant when you are done harvesting it. I would also suggest those artichokes I talked about earlier, along with any number of herbs.

Just remember to have fun and use the beauty of these plants to enhance your landscape. It doesn’t have to be complicated to start growing tasty food in unexpected places. Maybe you can have your landscape and eat it too.

Books on edible landscaping

Here are some great books that I like and that will help with your edible landscaping project:

“Edible Landscaping” by Rosalind Creasy (Sierra Club Books, 2010)

“Landscaping with Fruit” by Lee Reich (Sierra Club Books, 2010)

“The Edible Front Yard” by Ivette Soler (Timber Press, 2011)

 Read at the Charleston Gazette-Mail site

 

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