The question of whether you can grow vegetables and fruit in your yard is a no-brainer. Tidy green rows of vegetable gardens dot neighborhoods across the United States during the warmer months. An activity most popular among people over 50, the National Garden Association estimates that about 22 percent of Americans have some sort of vegetable garden [source: Fischer].
But one distinguishing feature among many of these crop-yielding plots is their location. Many times, people till up plots of dirt hidden away from the front lawn. Although pleasant to look at during harvest time, vegetable gardens often defer to flowering ones when it comes to prominence and appearance.
Not so with edible landscaping. Edible landscaping is the great equalizer of the gardening world. Tomatoes, arugula, squash and their other vegetable brethren are no longer planted away from the gaze of passersby. They now find new homes nestled beside showstoppers like roses, marigolds and violets. Proudly displayed flowers no longer escape harvesting either, with edible varieties added to salads, sandwiches and even ice creams.
How did this design concept arise? And if I want to landscape my yard like this, will it look like a messy hodgepodge? Will walls of corn obscure the view from my window, or will a pumpkin patch block my driveway? We'll discuss the background of edible landscaping on the next page.
Edible Landscaping Background
The idea of planting crop-yielding and ornamental plants together isn't new but rather revived. Ancient Babylonian and Egyptian gardens used edible landscaping techniques. As early as the 10th century, Benedictine monks created herb-lined gardens with neighboring roses. It wasn't until the Renaissance that people began intentionally separating purely ornamental plants.
One older, more traditional form of edible landscaping is called a potager, or kitchen garden. Finding its strongest roots in France in the 16th and 17th centuries, these small container gardens were meant to supply herbs for soups. They gradually expanded into larger plots with more plant variety, not unlike modern edible landscapes.
Urban vegetable gardening experienced a renaissance in the 1970s and is going through one again today, thanks to rising food prices and environmental concerns. Growing one's own fruits, vegetables and herbs saves money and the greenhouse gas emissions associated with processing and transporting the goods to and from the grocery store.
In the 1980s, landscape designer and environmentalist Robert Kourik coined the term "edible landscaping" to denote a new kind of gardening that marries aesthetic design with crop production [source: McClure]. Rosalind Creasy brought the concept into the mainstream gardening world with her 1982 publication "The Complete Book of Edible Landscaping."
Emphasizing creativity with gardening techniques, edible landscaping uses fruit- and vegetable-bearing plants, herbs and edible flowers throughout yards to turn the traditional lawn into a more utilitarian space. By bordering with lettuce, allowing kiwi vines to crawl up trellises and using mint as a ground cover, edible landscaping encourages growth and harvest rather than monotonous maintenance.
More recently, edible landscaping has taken up an environmentalist approach. To some advocates, lawns waste precious energy because of the pesticides, fertilizers and electric mowers that people use to maintain them [source: Kourik, Creasy and Kane]. Yet from all that input, you receive only the visual gratification of a green yard, rather than a kitchen full of fresh ingredients. Edible landscaping also promotes locavore habits of only eating food from your local area.
Fritz Haeg is one of today's most prominent edible landscape advocates who runs the Edible Estates program that transforms suburban yards into edible gardens. Haeg recently completed his sixth project with a lawn in Baltimore, Md. He transformed a meticulously manicured lawn into a productive space with blueberry bushes, pole beans, lettuces and other plants. In addition to the casual beauty of edible landscaping, Haeg views it as a way to reunite communities and help protect the environment.
What other specific plants would you often find in an edible landscape, and how could you start one? Dig in to these answers on the next page.
Edible Landscape Design: Ornamental Asparagus and Edible Flowers
When it comes to what goes into edible landscapes, almost anything does. Depending on the hardiness zone that measures the amount of cold plants can withstand in your geographical region, you can convert almost any yard into an edible garden. You can use many common fruits and vegetables that serve an architectural purpose and produce food, including:
- Artichokes -- their interesting shape makes distinctive borders
- Asparagus -- plants grow in a fern shape for ground cover
- Alpine strawberries -- attractive flowers and bright berries can grow in a yard or container
- Squashes -- snaking vines can grow well along trellises
- Mint -- a bright, fast-growing ground cover
- Lettuce -- its shape and color make it stand out for bordering beds and pathways
- Kale -- vibrant color works well with flower grouping or lively borders
- Chard -- bright red, pink or orange stalks work well in almost any location
Certain vegetables pair well with other flower species, such as nasturtiums with summer squash and marigolds with tomatoes. Because of the variety of plants involved with edible landscaping, you can stagger the blooming or harvesting seasons of the plants around your yard to ensure year-round beauty.
Edible flowers can also contribute bursts of color and interest to your garden. People in medieval Europe often ate certain flowers for medicinal purposes, but today, they rarely make it to the dinner table unless they're in a vase. If you want to munch on flowers, you may want to stay away from store-bought varieties since they may contain pesticides. Sprinkle violets, pansies and nasturtiums on lettuce for tasty salads additions. Minced rose petals fold into butter for an exotic spread. You can also use lavender in shortbread cookies.
Familiar edible flowers include:
Before you rip out every inch of grass in your yard, edible landscape experts recommend starting small. At the most, begin with a 100 square foot (9 square meters) plot. Try to find an area that receives at least six hours of full sun each day and drains well. After you select a location, keep in mind that an east-facing garden will get the morning sun, making it amenable to cool weather plants, while a west-facing garden absorbs the warmer afternoon sun.
Edible landscape designs will vary depending on your geography and the layout of your yard. Numerous online and print resources will take you to the next step of finding an appropriate plan for your edible landscape. To browse through some of those other resources, see the links on the next page.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
More Great Links
- Creasy, Rosalind. "The Edible Flower Garden." Periplus Editions Ltd. 1999.
- Fischer, Eileen. "Vegetable gardening popular again." April 22, 2008. (May 23, 2008)http://www.connpost.com/women/ci_9007593
- Hagy, Fred. "Landscaping With Fruits and Vegetables." The Overlook Press. 1990.
- Larkcom, Joy. "Creative Vegetable Gardening." Abbeville Press. 1997.
- Kourik, Robert; Creasy, Rosalind and Kane; Michael. "Designing and Maintaining Your Edible Landscape Naturally." Chelsea Green Publishing. 2005. (May 23, 2008)http://books.google.com/books?id=7IkcPFjjOQMC
- McClure, Susan. "Culinary Gardens." Fulcrum Publishing. 1997.
- Nardozzie, Charlie. "Succession in the Garden." April 2008. (May 23, 2008)http://www.garden.org/ediblelandscaping/?page=succession
- Siegal, Andrea F. "Turning lawns into salad bars." The Baltimore Sun. April 14, 2008. (May 23, 2008)http://www.baltimoresun.com/entertainment/bal-to.fritz14apr14,0,6715894.story