Aug. 17 2015 10:43 AM
Edible Landscapes
In these tight economic times, having your own food source is an attractive option. Knowing how to incorporate some edible arrangements into a landscape’s design can be a real boon for the savvy contractor. After all, people want a landscape that’s aesthetically pleasing and colorful; however, if you can plant edibles that also enhance the landscape, your client can have his plants and eat them, too.

Ari Tenenbaum, of Revolution Landscape in Encinitas, California, explains what makes an edible landscape distinct from a garden. “I really get excited about the more integrated landscapes, where it’s not just having a vegetable garden off in the corner somewhere,” he says. “It’s more like having a fig tree that’s incorporated into an ornamental system.” The fruit, the flowers, and even the foliage can contribute to a beautiful display of color.

Tenenbaum’s advice for landscaped areas? Avoid things like tomato plants or basil, which will have to be replaced every year, and opt instead for perennials. “Fruit trees, strawberries, artichokes— things that will come back year after year,” he says.

For Seth Berman, a landscape contractor in Cambridge, Massachusetts, including edibles in a landscape can be as simple as recognizing what’s already there. Berman often runs across native plants growing on his clients’ lawns that can be dished up. “Ostrich fern (matteuccia struthiopteris) is the source for fiddleheads, which you can find at the supermarket,” says Berman. He adds that the shadefriendly polygonatum, or Solomon’s Seal, is also tasty; its steamed shoots tasting something like asparagus.

In Seattle, Washington, Michael Seliga of Cascadia says that the biggest hurdle is often informing clients of their options. “Part of it is introducing them to plant lists, and slide shows of what’s available,” Seliga said. He even has a questionnaire for his clients to fill out, which will give him an idea of whether they’re more interested in visual appeal or food production. Most importantly, it tells him how much maintenance they’ll be willing to do. “If they don’t seem like they’re going to do a lot of maintenance, I’ll set them up with easier stuff,” he said.

One of Tenenbaum’s favorites is a hybrid fruit tree called a nectaplum. “It’s a hybrid between a nectarine and a plum, and produces a very nice, burgundy fruit,” he says. The tree is deciduous, so it goes bare over the winter, but it comes back with a splash. “It has beautiful crimson foliage, and lots of flowers in the spring,” says Tenenbaum. “It’s a really beautiful tree, both the foliage and the flowers.”

When the client wants something more traditional, he recommends stone fruit trees. “Peaches and nectarines, plums and cherries, to an extent, are all good. Their flowers are stunning, beautiful pink blossoms that come out in the spring,” he says. Trees that work in Mediterranean climates often work well.

“Fig trees, pomegranates, or other trees have ornamental value, as well as the value of eating something tasty and delicious,” says Tenenbaum. Just keep in mind that stone fruit attracts pests when it falls.

If you’re working with a client where there are steep slopes, one suggestion for a groundcover plant could be strawberry, which needs to be thinned out at least once a year. A good companion for a flower bed is the artichoke with its spiky purple bloom. Even providing a cool spot for relaxation on a hot day can be accomplished with edible plants.

“When fully grown, a mature avocado tree can be a beautiful shade tree,” according to Tenenbaum. A place for everything and everything in its place.

Edibles are not limited just to trees, either—vines like grapes, blackberries and passion fruit work just as well. “There’s even a cactustype vine called a dragon fruit,” said Tenenbaum. The green mop of the dragon fruit plant looks like an upside down aloe vera, but the spiky, red fruit is as tasty as it is fantastical. When it blooms, it has a gorgeous white flower with a yellow center, like a cross between a dandelion and a daisy.

If your clients don’t like the idea of bare trees in winter, there are some tasty evergreen options as well. Citrus trees are good for people who want year-round foliage. They’re too small to provide proper shade, but can be used to make an informal hedge. Macadamia nut trees make a really nice evergreen. They also have the advantage that when the fruit falls on the ground, it doesn’t rot.

This brings us to maintenance, where pest control is definitely one of the main headaches. It’s important to discuss the option of an integrated pest control management plan with your client. He or she might want blueberry bushes, but unless you put a mesh over them, opportunistic birds will strip the bushes clean as soon as they can. Some plants provide their own protection, though the best way to avoid pests is simply to harvest the fruits and vegetables of your labor.

Seliga likes the gooseberry as a deterrent when deer are an issue.

“Some people have fond memories of gooseberries and are willing to deal with the thorns. The deer don’t want to deal with the thorns, either.”

This, of course, leads into another management issue: who does the harvesting? Nobody wants a bunch of rotting peaches on their lawn, so making sure that no one has misconceptions about this maintenance responsibility is key. A young professional, thinking about how many meals their new plants will make, may not be considering the time and effort required to bring in their yard-to-table harvest.

The no-maintenance edible landscape doesn’t exist, but that doesn’t mean that all edible landscapes are time-consuming or difficult. It’s not so much that it’s more maintenance, but it’s a different kind of maintenance, and it requires a certain skill set and knowledge to understand how to maintain it effectively. Careful pruning is important for healthy trees, but for healthy fruit trees and grapevines, it’s one of the most critical elements.

Edible landscapes don’t have to be water hogs, either. Just like there are drought-tolerant ornamentals, there are edible plants that produce juicy fruit with little water. “A lot of the Mediterranean plants, figs in particular as well as pomegranates, are particularly low on the water spectrum,” said Tenenbaum. For those looking to replace their turf with something that’s just a little more efficient, citrus and persimmons are the way to go. Perennial herbs, like thyme, rosemary and oregano are good low-water options too.

Finally, when a client is interested in going further, there’s Agriscaping. The brainchild of Justin Rohner, in Gilbert, Arizona, Agriscaping is a system for maximizing the edible potential of a landscape. By grouping plants into separate irrigation zones, known as microclimates, landscape contractors can offer a property owner a wide variety of fruits and vegetables.

Although both the installation and maintenance costs are considerably higher for Agriscaping than for a lawn, a maxed-out system can produce enough food on 1/20 of an acre to feed 38 people. An owner who is in touch with a local farmer’s market can sell the excess and, over time, even turn a profit.

Edible landscaping is a valuable add-on to your business, and you can really take it as far as you want. If you aren’t sure whether your clients are interested, just propose some artichokes for their flower beds and show them the plant’s gorgeous purple flowers.

If you’ve been having customers ask about planting edibles, read up on tree pruning and consider doing more research on the topic. You can be as involved as you want…perhaps be the first in your area to specialize in edible landscaping.