June 16 2014 12:50 AM

“COME WITH ME AND YOU’LL BE IN A world of pure imagination,” Gene Wilder sang in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory as he danced down the steps into his edible garden. While Wonka’s landscape, with its lollipop flowers, whipped cream mushrooms and gumball trees, might be a thing of pure imagination, adding edible landscapes to your list of services could just be your ‘golden ticket.’ 

It all might sound very new-agey, mixing edible and non-edible plants, but the concept itself is ancient. The Egyptians lined their royal landscapes with crop-yielding delicacies, and the Babylonians hoisted edibles from the terraces of their famed hanging gardens. Then, during the Renaissance, growers decided to separate the two—edibles went one way, non-edibles the other. But now, they’re being reunited by some creative landscape contractors, and many possibilities come with their return.

Usually, if landscapes include edibles, they’re kept all alone in a separate plot (in a vegetable garden, for instance). But it doesn’t have to be that way. By integrating them, a garden that’s normally non-interactive and purely for visual pleasure becomes a fully dynamic, edible landscape.

Bringing it all together is the key here. Anyone can find a small patch of soil and drop a few rows of seeds, but integrating those same plants into the landscape in a way that’s aesthetically pleasing requires more expertise. That’s where you come in.

“It’s all about incorporating the edibles into the current landscape design,” says Bernadette Balics, owner of Ecological Landscape Design in Davis, California. “And people are getting more talented at integrating them by doing things like using berries to create vertical walls in gardens, and using artichokes, kale and lettuce as borders.”

Take a moment and imagine an average neighborhood, the kind you drive by every day, and think of the number of homes you’ve seen with edible plants in their yards. That number is probably close to zero. But that’s not likely due to a lack of interest. Most homeowners simply don’t realize that edibles are an option.

“Things are usually geared toward the ornamental version of plants, when the edible version is just as attractive,” says Ed Furner, director of customer care at Mariani Landscapes, Lake Bluff, Illinois. “Most times, people only choose the ornamental because no one’s told them about edibles. The second you tell them, though, they’re completely onboard.”

With edible landscapes, you can capitalize on your clients’ competing desires. If it’s variety, sustainability, or even taste that they’re after, going edible might be the answer. It’s a unique marketing opportunity that requires little more than your know how.

The best part is, adding edibles to your repertoire doesn’t mean overhauling your entire business. Even your tools don’t need an upgrade. “The gear that you already own can be used to create an edible landscape,” says Balics. “And the learning curve is low, too. Besides a few changes, the concept’s the same as growing and maintaining non-edible landscapes.”

There are a few considerations, of course, like avoiding certain pesticides or growing practices. Old habits may work for non-edibles, but since you don’t want your customers eating anything toxic, a few minor adjustments might be necessary.

What’s great, though, is that certain crops, like onions and mint, behave as deterrents to unwanted pests. Referred to as aromatic pest confusers, these plants release scents that can actually stave off some bugs. Instead of chemicals, you could use these to create borders or line the edges around other plants. So while you might not be able to freely apply pesticides, some edible plants, although not perfect, can provide an interesting, sustainable alternative.

Using these aromatics in combination with your other edibles contributes to the sustainability and greenness of the landscape. And being green has never been more important. Many contractors have already incorporated green services into their business models. Doing things like using native plant material, practicing water conservation, installing permeable pavers, and rainwater harvesting are becoming industry standards. Yet, planting edible landscapes remains a less common, niche market.

This is a good thing, says Balics. “Since few in the business are tapping into this niche, I’ve found that the idea almost always comes off as fresh and innovative to the client. And if nobody else in your area has jumped on it, then it’s a good idea to take advantage of the wide-open market.”

It’s all part of the bigger picture. Getting a leg up on the competition means making your company stand out. And going edible says you think outside the box. For customers, this kind of thinking means you’ll create landscapes that are like no others. Just imagine what they’ll say, then, when you tell them that they can also eat their garden—or some of it, at least.

In the past few decades, people have become progressively more concerned with how their food is grown. Were pesticides used? Was it genetically modified? And so on... These people are your target market. You can quell some of these concerns by keeping your clients fully informed throughout the growth process. Tell them how you grew the food. Or even better, show them your methods.

By being transparent, you build trust with your clients, which couldn’t be more important, since they’re going to be eating the food you grow. They can also be sure that they won’t find anything fresher or more delicious at the local supermarket.

“People are more into fresh produce and organic options now,” says Furner. “And when they find out that they can grow their produce in a decorative way, and that it’s part of what’s right outside their home and in their own garden, they’re completely thrilled.”

It’s exactly that rustic charm that is such a good selling point. Besides that, it’s exciting for the homeowner to feel involved in the process. In addition to touch, scent and sight, you add taste to the way they interact with their landscape. By associating yourself with that experience, you become an indispensible component of their property.

But the whole thing, in the end, goes back to the same point: a better-looking, more dynamic landscape. By going edible, you sacrifice nothing, especially not the property’s beauty. If anything, planting edibles gives you more opportunity for visual appeal.

Tired of turf, dirt or rocks? How about using strawberries for ground cover? Or maybe some mint. Instead of climbing roses, try some tomatoes. The point is, going edible doesn’t have to mean planting a boring vegetable garden in the back corner of the property; these plants can easily serve as core components of the entire landscape.

Most importantly, they’re just downright fun—for the client and for you. There are few things better than growing a landscape with your bare hands. Just imagine reaching down, right beside a flower arrangement, and grabbing a fresh strawberry. Or envision blueberries running along the edges of the landscape.

When you take a moment and consider all of the possibilities, Wonka’s candy garden doesn’t sound so much like pure imagination. So why not take a bite?