Edible Landscapes

Anyone who has ever tried a fresh heirloom tomato will taste the difference immediately. Sweet and juicy, their distinctive flavor is often absent from the common supermarket varieties, which are grown and picked not for their taste, but for transport and longevity.

“When they’re shipped out, the tomatoes are not as fresh, so they’re not really bred for their taste,” says Jeff Robbins, a landscape contractor and cofounder of Revolution Landscape in San Diego, California. “But with heirlooms, each one tastes different.”

This promise of fresher quality, coupled with a desire to be less reliant on imported or nonlocal produce, is fueling the tastes of a new generation of American homeowners, who are shedding their turf and flower beds in favor of landscapes that are a mélange of fresh produce, herbs, and traditional, non-edible design elements. Making these dreams a reality, more often than not, requires the assistance of a professional landscape company, to design, install, and maintain the landscape, which is not only intensive, but variable by season.

Coming full circle

Although surging in popularity for the first time in decades, edible landscapes had its last big hurrah during the Second World War, as 20 million Americans began planting fresh produce on urban rooftops and in backyards, to help reduce the strain on the national food supply. After the war, when normal food production resumed, the so-called victory gardens fell largely out of fashion, as the grass lawn—once reserved for the idle rich— began to universally carpet the American yard.

But as terms like locally grown and organic have entered the lexicon over the past decade, the movement is once again beginning to take root, propelled in part by the efforts of bestselling author Rosalind Creasy, called the mother of edible landscaping, and a host of readily available resources, in print and online. Things came full

circle when, just two years ago, a new vegetable garden was planted at the White House— the first since Eleanor Roosevelt started hers in 1943.

The blossoming trend doesn’t exactly pick up where it left off.

Today, edible landscapes may have less to do with civic pride and replenishing dwindling food stores than with enhancing the aesthetics and functionality of outdoor living space. “There’s a realization that you can make your landscape as functional as you want,” says Missy Borel, a horticulturalist with the California Center for Urban Horticulture. “We also have a real push to purchase locally grown produce, and people are excited by the opportunity to produce their own fruits and vegetables.”

As the new movement picks up steam, people are also finding meaningful ways to integrate edibles into their lives. “Sometimes, it’s just a specific fruit or a vegetable that a client is really into,” says Heidi Schreiner, a landscape designer whose company, Get Creative, LLC, in Colfax, Wisconsin, frequently designs and installs edible landscapes. “I had a client a couple of years ago who was really excited about having her own small apple orchard.”

Getting started

If you have existing landscape experience, you should find working with edibles an easy transition. After all, Borel says, edibles are plants, too—they’re just ones we don’t typically think to incorporate into the landscape. With that in mind, a number of colleges have begun courses in urban agriculture that landscape experts can use as a primer to help develop and sharpen their skills. Hands-on workshops that let you get your hands dirty with edibles will give you a sense for what plant combinations work and how to put them together.

“It’s essentially the same philosophy as any typical landscape design,” Borel says. “But with edibles, you’re looking at what their interesting horticultural features are, whether it’s frilly leaves, dark leaves, or variegated leaves. It could also be cognizant of flower color and fruit color.”

Often, taking a class locally will get you thinking about what types of edibles are most appropriate for your climate. Edibles, like other plants, are heavily dependent on temperature and season change for growth. “The thing about these edible landscapes is that they’re constantly turning over,” Robbins says.

“So every season, you’re replanting new things.”

Popular warm weather foods like melons, corn, and squash won’t grow in chilly temperatures, but wintertime can be ideal for leafy greens, broccoli, cabbage, and certain varieties of carrots, which sweeten as the weather cools. Tomatoes, the most popular summer vegetable, crop up in home gardens coast to coast. Throw in fruits like apples and blueberries, which can thrive even in regions with colder winters, and clients from a broad range of climate zones can have an ever-rotating assortment of crops to enjoy year-round if they choose.

“I think it’s something the whole family can get into, and people are finding more joy in the simple art of having something in the garden that is brought into their life,” Schreiner says. “Instead of them entering into the garden, they’re bringing it into the kitchen.”

But keeping up with planting seasons, harvests, and general plant care can put a strain on even the most well-intentioned home gardener.

Sensing opportunity, some companies, like Revolution Landscape, will help maintain the edible landscape between plantings.

“I think it’s one of the coolest things about our company,” Robbins says. “We come out and pick vegetables and refinish and such. Every week, our client gets a basket of freshly picked veggies from their yard.”

Feeding your food

To keep plants adequately fed, and to reduce the burden on homeowners, an irrigation system may need to be fitted into the landscape, preferably one that is eco-friendly. For those clients who may already be thinking about landscape sustainability, a low-volume drip irrigation system may be an appealing option.

Drip systems are not, however, the only viable option. “It depends on what water type you have and what your landscaping practices are, in terms of what type of irrigation you’re going to use,” Borel says.

Whichever method is selected, it will require a new installation, as existing systems can prove unreliable. “One of our principles is that we don’t use any of the old stuff that’s in the ground, because a lot of the time it’s broken, or there’s the potential for a valve to malfunction,” Robbins says. “If I were to give advice, I would say you basically want to start from scratch and put in these drip irrigation systems using all new products.”

Soil, too, may need to be evaluated prior to designing a new edible landscape to ensure that it can cope with the new plantings. If it can’t, drainage problems can develop that can result in water pooling at the base of plants, causing them to die. Amending the soil is one way to prevent drainage issues. Building berms, or mounds of faster-draining soil, right into the landscape is another.

Form meets function

One of the keys to the resurgence of edible landscapes has been the great care and attention paid to turning a functional garden into a gorgeous outdoor sanctuary. “Integrating edibles into the natural set ting is one of our favorite ways of doing gardens, because it’s more of a beautiful landscape that you’re getting fruits and vegetables from,” Robbins says.

Rather than planning out endless rows of corn, squash, and cabbage that can overrun an entire yard, today’s backyard gardeners are looking instead to blend traditional landscaping elements with edibles in ways that may put form over function and quality over quantity. Some clients may wish to add visually appealing edibles among existing flora. Nestling rainbow kale among petunias, Borel says, will yield spectacular results. Others may install raised vegetable beds where output and other factors, like soil, can be more easily controlled.

Certain subtle changes can also bring in the home-grown touch. “There are things that you can do that bring edible landscaping in, like apple trees instead of a maple tree,” Schreiner says. Grapes and chives, too, she says, can be great options for those who might shy away from spring planting.

And since each client and each outdoor space is unique, edible landscapes are a virtual blank canvas to experiment with vivid colors, textures, and, of course, tastes.

“That’s one of the really exciting things: it’s not just growing vegetables anymore, it’s edible landscaping—there’s a really critical design component there,” Borel says. “This is something beautiful, it’s something that’s going to increase the value of your home, and it’s something you’re going to be able to enjoy and certainly find aesthetically pleasing.”