In suburbia, especially, we grow mostly lawn grass. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Here are some suggestions for a beautiful and edible landscape around your home:
- Blueberry Bushes: Nicely shaped shrubs with delicious berries in summer and lovely autumn color. Consider these if you have acidic soil.
- Espaliered fruit trees: With careful (but not complicated) pruning, you can have a living screen or fence that also gives you apples or nectarines. These space-saving trees can give as much fruit as a traditional fruit tree.
- Black raspberries: Not to be confused with blackberries, black raspberries are dark like blackberries but have the shape and texture of raspberries. They have a deep, rich raspberry flavor and are my favorite summer fruit for jam. They are also tolerant of shade, unlike many other edible plants.
- Strawberries: Strawberries of all types make a great ground cover plant. June-bearing strawberries won’t stay where you put them over the years (they send out runners and like to “travel” around a garden), but everbearing types will stay put. Tiny and intensely sweet, alpine strawberries make beautiful edging plants and also work well in containers.
- Herbs: Herbs are beautiful, fragrant, and delicious. DO NOT plant mint in the ground because it will take over. Save that one for containers. In my garden at Maplehurst, chives have beautiful pink flowers in early summer, and sage is a vigorous, perennial herb that spreads itself around. In warmer climates, rosemary can grow to shrub-like proportions.
- Elderberry: These grow wild in my part of Pennsylvania, but they also make a beautiful, spreading shrub around my home. Do some research in order to choose an edible variety and then make your own fizzy elderflower “champagne” or immune-boosting elderberry syrup.
- Asparagus: Planted in the right place, this long-lasting perennial would make a beautiful feathery-green privacy screen.
- Lettuces and other greens: These are beautiful edible plants in a rich array of colors. Choose “cut and come again” varieties of lettuce or greens like kale and colorful Swiss Chard in order to harvest without leaving bare patches in your landscape.
One last note: with edible landscaping it is especially important to consider your soil. If you live in an urban area and / or have an old home, you must assume that the ground could have high levels of lead. Containers or deep raised beds are good solutions.
Of course, in some sense, space is always limited, whether you measure your garden in number of pots or number of acres. We all have choices to make about how we will allocate our growing space.
For those in need of edible plant ideas for their containers, I recommend edible flowers like dwarf nasturtiums and tiny, always-fruiting strawberries like the alpine strawberry ‘Mignonette.’ That one is easy to grow in window boxes or as a ground cover in a larger garden.
But what every gardener needs is a value system that helps them make the hard choices about what to grow year after year.
At Maplehurst, I’ve learned over time which edible crops hit the bullseye of delicious, easy to grow, and either expensive or impossible-to-find in the supermarket. Here are those that make my list year after year:
- Fingerling potatoes: Easy, prolific, and absolutely delicious. Fingerlings can be expensive, but fill a single raised bed with them, and you will almost take them for granted for a month or more each summer. I love growing the ‘La Ratte’ variety from Seed Savers.
- Ground Cherries: Sweet cherry-like fruits that you can grow from seed in one season? Yes, please! Ground cherries grow in a papery husk and taste like a cross between a cherry, a tomato, and a pineapple. They make the most beautiful and delicious jam. I grow them in a raised bed covered in black plastic, which makes the papery husks much easier to collect when they fall off, ripe, from the plant. ‘Aunt Molly’s’ is a great variety.
- Leeks: There’s nothing like potato leek soup, but leeks can get pricy at the store.
- Asparagus: If you have a spot for it, a perennial food crop like asparagus is well worth planting. The plants are long-lasting, and the flavor of fresh-picked can’t be beat.
- Japanese sweet potatoes: I was introduced to these nutty-tasting sweet potatoes with white flesh by a friend who lived in Japan for many years. They are more nutritious than plain white potatoes, but the pale color fools my kids into eating them. I like ‘Murasaki.’
- Thornless blackberries: Easy to grow, easy to harvest, and delicious straight from the canes or baked into a cobbler. We grow ‘Chester Thornless.’
The French term potager expresses the beautiful, ornamental potential of edible plants.
A potager was traditionally a kitchen garden that emphasized beauty as well as fresh flavor. While you might find many of the same things growing in an ordinary vegetable garden and a fancy potager, the vegetable garden is more likely to have utilitarian rows of corn and potatoes and other “crops,” while the potager emphasizes eye-pleasing arrangements of fresh-picked beauties like lettuce, herbs, and even edible flowers. It might be helpful to think of a vegetable garden and a potager, not as distinctly different, but as gardens on a related spectrum. The vegetable garden at one extreme is entirely utilitarian. The potager at the other extreme might resemble the famous gardens at Villandry in France where blue leeks and red cabbages are planted out like annual flowers.
I lost my large vegetable garden with its picket fence and raised beds when we installed a new driveway here at Maplehurst. This year, I’ll be growing some of my own food again, but with a potager flare. I’ve identified a spot near our gravel terrace for four square beds. Here are a few of the eye-catching flavors I’ll be planting out in them:
- ‘French Breakfast’ radish
- ‘Cool Mint’ lettuce
- Swiss Chard
- ‘Lacinato’ kale
- Cherry tomato
- Beets (red and gold)
- Jalapeno pepper
- Mini yellow bell pepper
- viola (like the Johnny Jump-ups pictured above)