Incorporating Edibles into the Landscape
There’s an increasing desire on the part of many homeowners to make their landscapes do more than just be beautiful looking; they want to be fed by them, too. And while this ‘farmto-table,’ ‘locavore’ movement is growing in popularity, care still needs to be taken when incorporating edibles into landscapes, the kind of care you, as a skilled contractor, can provide.
Our grandparents and greatgrandparents knew the importance of homegrown fruits and vegetables to their family’s health, as well as to their pocketbooks. Today, more people are trying to recapture this lost wisdom.
During World War II, people were encouraged to grow their own food. Produce had become a rationed and expensive resource; the majority of it was reserved for feeding our troops overseas.
“That ‘victory garden’ attitude is making a comeback,” says Tommy Cowett, owner of Outer Space Landscape Service in Greensboro, North Carolina. “We need to grow more of our own food. If everybody did it— and everybody can—they would get passionate about it and want to keep doing it.”
The truth is, you don’t have to overhaul an entire yard to start a garden. Edible landscaping can be incorporated in an aesthetically pleasing way that fits a more traditional design. It all goes back to having the right plant in the right place–and making sure you still retain a property’s curb appeal.
“You do have to choose your plants wisely, though,” says Cowett, “as certain edibles, especially vine-borne vegetables and fruits, can get out of control.” This can make a property look more like a jungle than a professionally-cultivated landscape.
“Those are probably some of the biggest challenges—to grow something that looks tidy and well-kept.”
Pete Kanaris, who operates Green- Dreams in Tampa, Florida, is careful about which edible plants he puts in his clients’ front yards. “Multispecies of annuals, perennials and fruit trees that are all evergreen work well in a front landscape,” he says.
“You’ll never have that awkward moment in the winter, where the leaves start to get holes from bug damage and fall off. You don’t want that in a focal-point position.” All deciduous trees, like mulberry and peach, are relegated to the backyard.
The importance of keeping aesthetics in mind is something Dan Allen has learned over time. He is the CEO of Farmscapes, a company that installs edible landscapes in San Francisco and Los Angeles, California. When he came on-board in 2008, many clients asked to have their edible gardens installed out of sight. Now, he says, more people want to feature their fruit and vegetable plants more prominently, while still wanting them to fit harmoniously into the overall design.
“We originally thought of it as something you did to produce food. But over time, we realized it was really a landscaping element,” he said.
“We had to up our game from a design perspective, in terms of making the spaces inviting, and integrating edibles into the surrounding landscape. As designers and builders, we had to get comfortable with different materials, different looks, different shapes and sizes to fit those spaces, so that things don’t look like they’ve been ‘pasted in.’” The ‘inviting space’ concept is demonstrable in a couple of notable projects that Farmscapes has done. One of them was for a family in Del Mar, California. The edible landscape elements serve as an icebreaker for the family’s dinner parties. Guests are invited to pick vegetables from the front yard. Then, they get to taste them when they’re incorporated into their meals.
Another of the company’s installations helped a chef couple in nearby Culver City devote their entire front yard to the specialized produce that they use professionally. Their garden is brimming with goodies growing along fences, borders, and in raised beds. In the front of the house, citrus trees were kept low and dense to provide a privacy hedge.
Many edible plants are quite beautiful to look at. Nasturtium, sage, chive, and lavender all have colorful blossoms that can enliven beds and borders—and you can eat them, too. Cranberry hibiscus has showy flowers and edible leaves that resemble Japanese red maple.
Strawberry trees produce delicate, cup-shaped flowers similar to lily of the valley, followed by clusters of vibrant red fruit. Banana trees are a favorite in subtropical regions and lend an island vibe to a landscape. Potatoes and low-growing strawberries make good groundcovers.
But some plants that taste good are not terribly attractive; the delicious, nutritious blueberry, for instance. “They’re finicky and hard to grow,” Kanaris says, “and only give you fruit one month of the year— and only have leaves on them for six. They have tough soil requirements, and they’re just not pretty-looking plants in the landscape.” These plants, if desired, should be relegated to less-visible areas of the backyard.
A showcase-worthy edible garden requires regular maintenance. Farmscapes provides a month-tomonth service agreement with a sixmonth minimum to start, to complete a full growing season. If you install edibles for your clients, you might consider offering a similar service agreement.
Some clients, however, want the fun of doing it themselves. “About a quarter of our clients have basic vegetable-gardening knowledge, but they aren’t landscape contractors,” Allen says.
“They just want someone to come in, give them a nice setup, and then, turn them loose.”
Lots of edibles—beans, for instance—grow on vines, and if they’re not reined in, they can take over an entire garden. Cowett tames these unruly plants by using the ‘espalier’ method. This technique trains a vine to grow along a trellis, and has an artistic flair to it. It was developed in Europe, where city dwellers often have little space for growing things.
Tomatoes, cucumbers, melons, kiwis and blackberries can all be trellis-trained. The lattices can be placed in beds, or leaned against fences or retaining walls for dramatic impact.
“That’s the best way to do it,” said Cowett. “It makes them look a lot better, strikingly beautiful, in fact. It’s an art.” It also makes them easier to manage. “We can take care of a trellised plant during a typical visit,” says Cowett. “They’re more maintainable, because they haven’t been allowed to take over.”
Fruit trees can also be grown espalier; apple trees are a favorite for this method. It’s a good solution for properties that don’t have a lot of room to work with. Plus, it’s easier to harvest fruit from a trellis, instead of going up a tree.
To train a plant to espalier, determine the pattern you want for the trellis, and look for a young tree that has that same basic shape. Remove any branches that don’t fit the pattern, or that are dead, diseased, dying or damaged. Then, build a structure to support the shape. Or, attach the branches to an existing fence.
Always use soft, covered wire or ribbon that can be retied when branches grow. Be sure not to choke the branches with ties that are too tight.
The many benefits of edible landscaping
Edible landscapes aren’t just for ‘foodies,’ or the strictly-organic crowd; there are some big selling points that would appeal to anyone with room to grow. For one thing, they add an extra dimension to outdoor living spaces, letting dinner guests eat what they see, and even garnish their meals with fresh herbs growing right next to their plates.
They’re also terrific for families with small children. Tending the veggies, fruits and berries and watching them grow makes it more likely the tots will want to eat them without being nagged. “It’s educational,” says Allen. “It gives children a chance to see where their food really comes from, that it’s not just something shrink-wrapped from the grocery store. They can see the natural process that gives them the cherry tomatoes, the cucumbers and the pumpkins.”
Tasting produce that’s fresh off the vine might also convince kids that vegetables and fruits aren’t ‘yucky.’ Just ask anyone who’s done a taste test between a homegrown tomato and a store-bought, gasripened one.
Edible landscapes are sustainable landscapes. They not only increase the health of the people who own them, but of the planet as well. If they’re grown organically and pesticide-free, so much the better.
“When you learn to grow, cook and eat what’s local and in season, everything starts to flow together a little better,” said Kanaris. “Your allergies start to go away, because you’re eating things that were grown and pollinated in your local bio-region.”
And, you’ll be cutting your carbon footprint. That food didn’t have to travel 2,000 miles across the country—or 4,000 miles across the globe—to get to you.
More landscape companies are branching out into this type of service, as the demand rises. Lately, Allen says, Farmscapes has found itself competing with an increasing number of high-end operators who have started to offer edible landscapes.
If you’re a newbie to this arena, but are thinking of offering this service, you can find plenty of online resources to help you. Both Cowett and Kanaris have YouTube channels where they’ve posted how-to videos. Extension courses from colleges and universities are available, too.
You can show your clients the many benefits of edible landscapes. And at the same time, reassure them that they don’t have to don overalls and turn into full-time farmers, nor put up with ugly front and back yards. They’ll be healthier, eat better-tasting, more nutritious food, and save money, too. Who could say no to all of that?