[This article was written April 2014 for Spring Gardening Special of local newspaper The Gazette Virginian. It was written as a Master Gardener Volunteer with Virginia Cooperative Agriculture Extension. My natural writing voice has more personality, but my enthusiasm for edible landscaping and bias towards permaculture practice comes through.]
When planning your home landscape, there are so many styles and influences to choose from —Formal, Cottage, Native, Mediterranean, Japanese, American Southwest, and others, but have you considered taking inspiration from the supermarket produce section? Why not design a plan for edible landscaping? Doing so can be easier than you think, an investment in your family’s food security, and downright enjoyable —there’s nothing quite like walking off your p!orch and into your own food forest!
Edible Landscaping simply challenges us to incorporate fruit- and vegetable- producing plants into our home landscapes. Consider the joy and convenience your family can derive from venturing into your yard to grab a few handfuls of cherries and apples for pies, a luscious peach, or currants, figs, and plums for jam? It doesn’t all have to be fruits, either. There are perennial greens like Malabar Spinach, flowers, edible tubers, and have you considered all the herbs? Buy a small container of Rosemary at the store; for the same price, you could buy an entire R!osemary plant!
Edibles aren’t just delicious; they can solve functional landscape problems as well! Why not make a hedgerow out of blueberries? They grow well in Virginia and love acidic soil, which ours here in Halifax naturally leans towards, AND you’ll get gorgeous, long-lasting red leaves in the fall when other deciduous shrubs are bare. Or how about a kiwi or grape vine to cover a patio trellis and provide summer shade? Or why not use strawberries as a ground cover?
Most edible plants need at least 6 to 7 hours of direct sunlight and well-drained soil. If you haven’t the room for common fruit trees, consider dwarf varieties that can be from 6-10 feet tall and even grown in planters! If you have’t the time to maintain traditional fruit trees, consider low- maintenance natives like a Paw Paw (producing the largest fruit native to North America!) or Mulberries. Some herbs are finicky but chives, garlic, oregano, most sages, mints, and thyme over-winter in the ground here in Zone 7 just fine. More particular herbs can be grown in planters and brought inside for a yearlong harvest. Speaking of the cold, with a little help from a simple cold frame you can have lettuce, kale, broccoli, and plenty of other greens throughout the winter —check those items off your grocery list!
If maintaining an edible landscape for you and your family is too much work, why not design to accommodate a less finicky crowd? Wildlife can be hard pressed today, even in rural communities, so bringing nourishing plants into your yard and home garden can be of great benefit. Consider a food hedge for deer and bush cherries for squirrels. If those animals are a bother, you might choose to build a garden for birds, beneficial insects, and other pollinators. Bees need all the help we can give them, and it can be as easy as planting a wildflower bed in your yard or as elaborate as installing a ready-made nest for orchard bees. Other options include puddling pads for butterflies and flowers for hummingbirds.
No matter who you’re growing food for, make sure you’ve picked the right plant for the right spot —a cardinal rule of gardening! When placing your edibles, be sure to note their requirements for sunlight, moisture, and size at maturity. An edible landscape may be unusual in today’s home landscapes, but I can tell you that the rewards are long-lasting and worth the occasional odd glance. And if you run into trouble, the Southside Master Gardeners Association and Virginia Cooperative Extension is here to help.