Edible Landscaping; A Ripe Idea
Often times the most brilliant and practical of ideas are put on the back burner, or simply ignored. This is the case for edible landscaping — a timely idea that certainly deserves more widespread attention, and thankfully it's beginning to receive just that. But, what exactly does edible landscaping mean? It is NOT eating your bark mulch (sounds crazy but someone once asked me this).
In the broadest sense, as you may have guessed, edible landscaping is the integration of edible plants into the landscape. Lets examine this more acutely and gain some much-needed clarity. In this context 'landscape' means the surface of the earth-- the hills, valleys, and soil beneath your feet, not necessarily just the neat planting beds which formally line the sidewalk to your door stoop. However, these areas are not to be excluded by any means. The point is that edible landscaping is not limited to the traditional idea of 'landscaping'. With that being said, one may refer to a raised bed vegetable plot, an herb garden, or a food forest as an edible landscape, or being part of one. This brings up another important point. Edible landscaping is not solely about growing edible plants, but any plant with direct or indirect use to humans-- this could mean growing plants for tea, dye, fiber, or medicine, or growing plants for their intrinsic characteristics, like the ability to attract predatory & beneficial insects, fix nitrogen into the soil, control erosion, or provide water filtration. So, even though we refer to this practice as 'edible' landscaping, it can more accurately be thought of as 'utilitarian' landscaping. The aim is to bring value to the landscape in the form of useable products AKA yields. After all we mustn't forget that the landscape is portrait of us all, and if the landscape is productive, useful, and in a healthy state, then it is likely that we will be too. And in today's world, where millions of dollars are spent annually on landscaping, it only makes logical and economical sense to get a tasty return from your landscaping investment(s).
Why Edible Landscaping?
There are a multitude of reasons why one may choose to landscape with edibles. First and foremost, as previously mentioned, it simply makes sense to get a return from your investment in the form of delicious and nutrient-dense fresh produce, as well as happiness and well-being. The ability to grow rare and unique varieties which you wouldn't find at the supermarket is also a major incentive. There is an environmental and ecological aspect of growing your own produce, whether it be a small or large amount. By not supporting the industrial food system and utilizing ecological land-use practices you can help to build topsoil, eliminate pollution, recharge aquifers, provide habitat for wildlife and much more! Lastly, we cannot forget the primary reason for modern landscaping, that is the aesthetic value. Fortunately many of the common and uncommon yielding plants are coincidentally very beautiful, whether it be crimson fall foliage, gnarled winter bark, or the cheerful color of spring flowers. However we shall not forget that form follows function. That is to say, the functions and uses of plants shall be of primary focus followed by the form and visual interest. Deep down we all agree that the majority of modern landscapes are all shine and no substance(sometimes at the expense of healthy biologoical systems)... meaning that aside from being appealing to the eyes they provide little, if any value. Unfortunately the landscaping industry has been polluted with a multitude of misconceptions-- like that Arborvitae, Hyrdrangea,and Hosta are worthy of widespread cultivation, and that mulch should be piled knee deep around the base of trees, or that dyed bark mulches are preferable over natural hardwood chips. Creating an edible landscape allows you to step away from this rather dull and misinformed approach to planting, and do something more interesting, worthwhile, and fun!
Methods, Models, & Inspiration
Edible Landscapes take many forms, whether it be a certain type of garden, i.e. traditional vegetable & herb garden, food forest, cottage garden, etc. Or it may entail incorporating fruiting trees and shrubs into the planting scheme of your yard. Apartment dwellers and land owners with minimal space may take the route of growing in containers. Vegetables, herbs, and berry bushes are particularly suited to container growing. To maximize productivity-- try utilizing vertical space such as walls, pergolas, and arbors, for growing fruiting vines like Grape (Vitis spp.) or Hardy Kiwi (Actinidia arguta). Special space-saving techniques can be used to train trees and shrubs against walls or fences. For those with larger acreage, it would be wise to include nut trees like Chestnuts, Walnuts, and Pecans in your edible landscape. Gourmet and medicinal mushrooms can be grown on woodchips, straw, logs, or stumps. Mixing useful plants in with existing landscape beds works well, too. The short bushy stature of Alpine Strawberry (Fragaria vesca) fits right in along the edge of a landscaping bed. Some common vegetables that grow nicely mixed with ornamentals include: Kale, Swiss Chard, 'Black Pearl' Peppers, and Tomatoes. It can be as simple or complex as you'd like-- ranging from growing some edible flowers in pots to putting in an acre of mixed fruit trees.
It turns out that some of the species used in the landscaping industry merit special attention as edibles. This is the case for Serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.), Nanking Cherry (Prunus tomentosa), and Kousa Dogwood (Cornus kousa). Strategic planning can provide solutions for major site challenges. For instance, if the neighbors yard creates an eyesore, then planting a hedgerow of Hazelnuts (Corylus spp.), Autumnberries (Elaeagnus umbellata), or Bamboo would provide an effective visual barrier. Or, if the slope of your backyard is conducive to erosion, then planting a ground-cover like Yarrow (Achillea millofolium) will stabilize the hillside and eliminate erosion. Another approach is to create ornamental landscape analogs by substituting traditional plant selections with similar, but more useful species. For example, Fortsynthia can (and should!) be replaced with Cornelian Cherry (Cornus mas) which sports attractive yellow flowers in early spring and produces an abundance of tart, cherry-like fruits. Likewise the far too common Burning Bush can be replaced with Blackhaw (Viburnum prunifolium) which has almost identical fall foliage but is a prolific producer of small, extremely sweet blue fruits. These are just a few ideas to give you ‘food for thought’!
History & Development
Incorporating edible and useful plants into the landscape is far from a new idea. Indigenous cultures around the world have been cultivating small scale food plots for millennia. Ancient persian gardens often included edible plants mixed with ornamentals. French potager or ‘kitchen gardens’ were comprised of diverse mixtures of fruits, vegetables, herbs, and ornamentals. Even in the earlier half of the twentieth century it was very common to find fruits and vegetables growing in backyards throughout America. The Victory Garden movement symbolized a period in American history where the idea of producing your own food was very prevalent. Unfortunately as industrial agriculture gained momentum Americans gave up on growing food and instead began focusing on lawns and ornamentals plants. The advent of the lawn in America was perhaps one of the most downward leading paths this country has ever taken. With over 20 million acres of lawn in America and over 580 million gallons of gasoline used annually to maintain them– we’ve got a serious addiction problem if you ask me! Fortunately there is a growing interest in edible landscaping and home gardening is seeing a serious resurgence in the countryside and urban areas, where it is especially needed. Rosalind Creasy was on the forefront of re-introducing these concepts in the states when she first released The Complete Book of Edible Landscaping in 1982. Since then many books and articles have been published highlighting the value of edible landscaping. One writer in particular, Lee Reich, has written two outstanding books on the topic, Uncommon Fruit For Every Garden and Landscaping with Fruit. Now, all around the world people are jumping on the bandwagon and regaining food sovereignty by taking matters into their own hands. After all you can have your yard and eat it too!