Eat Your Landscape

By Steffie Littlefield

[This article was first published in The Gateway Gardener January/February 2011 issue]
An image of lettuce, chard, and tatsoi in an ornamental garden

A formal Victorian ornamental garden features lettuce, chard and tatsoi. Photo courtesy Tamara Palmier, Missouri Botanical Garden.

Creating a garden or landscape that is more than a park but a place that produces food for your family is not just a trend, it is a style of gardening that has been documented since ancient times. From earliest recorded history there is evidence of kitchen gardens or enclosed spaces open to the sky, where plants were cultivated for their edible and herbal properties. Throughout history families and communities would organize a protected area of land where special produce, more than just the grains of the field or roots from the woods, could be propagated and grown to provide superior flavors for their meals. Modern gardeners have the same desires to grown their own special vegetables, fruits and greens to enhance the family’s table. And no longer are those plants consigned strictly to a defined vegetable garden or fruit orchard. More and more gardeners are mixing them right into their ornamental beds and borders to create their own edible landscapes!

Every garden and landscape can be revived with the addition of vegetables,

A photo of Malabar spinach, gombrena, hemigraphis, ornamental pineapple around a mailbox

Malabar spinach, gombrena, hemigraphis, and ornamental pineapple in an ornamental planting around a mailbox. Photo courtesy Tamara Palmier, Missouri Botanical Garden.

shrubs bearing berries, vines with grapes or trees producing fruits or even nuts. Wherever there is a sunny corner, an opening in a border or even in a pot or window box, there is an opportunity to add something edible. The choices are limitless but the most popular vegetables are tomatoes, peppers, beans and greens like lettuces and spinach. These can be found in the form of seeds that you grow yourself indoors in preparation for planting outside in spring or as starter plants that simple can be planted in beds in your garden.

Most vegetables prefer bright sunny spots with access to water. The soil should be loosened and some type of organic matter added to improve soil nutrients and water retention. Fruits can be found in the form of small plants such as strawberries that form a groundcover in a sunny bed, vines to grow on a fence or arbor, as shrubs small or large that produce berries and as trees that have flowers that transform themselves into sweet apples, pears, peaches and more. Blueberry or raspberry bushes can be added to landscape borders and fruit trees used in the landscape rather than other ornamental trees to provide flowers and shade as well as fruit.

Adding edibles to a landscape may require the removal of older overgrown plant material. Here is the perfect reason to finally eliminate invasive bush honeysuckle from the garden or cut out those overgrown yews that have overwhelmed the house and garden after years of neglect. Give your home a facelift and create a garden that is not only beautiful but is fruitful as well. Your family will enjoy the benefits of your efforts at the dinner table with healthy, fresh vegetables and exciting seasonable fruits and berries.

When reassessing your garden you may find that you already have some unappreciated yet delicious edibles like serviceberry, walnuts or ornamental sweet potatoes that can also be harvested and eaten. Do your research before harvesting and eating your ornamental plants since some may be poisonous, but you will be surprised at how many are considered delicacies in other cultures. Talk to your local garden center and learn more ways you can add plants with a purpose to your home landscape and enjoy the fruits of your labor in the garden and on your table.

5 Easy Steps To An Edible Landscape

1)        Plant fruit-bearing trees and shrubs.

“Our espaliered 4-in-1 trees have been very popular, with four different varieties of pears, apples or cherries on one tree. They are free-standing or you can put them against a wall, and they’re self pollinating, so one tree is all you need.” Babette Frisella Briagas, Frisella Nursery

“Try blueberries for a great shrub alternative.”—David Sherwood, Sherwood’s Forest Nursery & Garden Center

2)        Mix veggies into ornamental flower beds.

“I like mixing colorful leafy vegetables like mescalin, red-leaf lettuces, chards and kales in flower borders, plus rhubarb makes a striking accent in an ornamental garden.”—Cindy Collins, Hartke Nursery

Pick out a few tough herbs to scatter throughout your existing beds.  Rosemary, for example, provides wonderful texture with silvery green foliage and light purple flowers on upright stems. Other honorable herb mentions would be basil, Greek myrtle, chamomile and chives!—Jamie Sunfield, Hillermann Florist & Nursery.

3)        Grow vegetables and herbs in containers.
“At home, my husband and I grow our favorite herbs in containers so we can control the vigorous growth of things like mint and oregano.  We can also extend the harvest season by moving the containers indoors if we have an unexpected freeze or frost.”—Jennifer Schamber, Greenscape Gardens & Gifts

4)        Use plants with edible flowers and other plant parts in ornamental plants.
“The pansies and violas are our favorites! Plant them in the fall and they last long into the winter, then return beautifully in the spring! We really like the Delta orange blotch and blue combination.” –Sandy Richter, Sandy’s Back Porch

5)        Be careful with herbicides and other pesticides, read labels carefully or avoid use altogether.

Steffie Littlefield is a horticulturist and garden designer at Garden Heights Nursery. She has degrees from St. Louis Community College-Meramec and Southeast Missouri State, and is a member of Gateway Professional Horticultural Association and Past President of the Horticulture Co-op of Metro St. Louis.

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