Veggies or flower beds? Sustenance or beauty? In the past, these were choices a gardener had to make. However, there's no reason you can't combine the two and create a garden that is a feast for both the eyes and the table! Edible gardening—creating an ornamental garden that also yields an edible harvest—is one of the hottest trends in landscaping these days. It's a good way to capitalize on limited space. An edible garden will allow you to reap a harvest from your yard without feeling like you're running a farm. It's also an ideal way to introduce kids to a healthy diet and lifestyle.
Photo courtesy of McHale Landscape Design, Inc./Loveyourlandscape.org
If you find yourself feeling intimidated by the thought of trying to make edible plants into a beautiful landscape, don't worry. Integrating edibles into your ornamental landscape is easier than you might think. Here are some tips for getting started:
First, determine your primary goal.
There are many reasons to create an edible garden such as saving money on groceries, enjoying the freshest possible produce, introducing kids to a healthy diet and lifestyle, growing a conversation starter and/or novelty garden, and beautifying your yard.
Before planning your garden, decide what's most important to you. This will help you make good decisions about what to plant. For instance, if your goal is to grow as much food as possible, you will likely make different choices than if you simply want to add a culinary dimension to your flower bed.
Next, assess your space.
Where will you be growing your garden? In the front yard? Back yard? In containers on the porch? If your edible garden is in a highly visible spot, you'll probably want to pay special attention to creating an aesthetically pleasing effect.
Check to be sure your proposed garden site has enough sun and adequate soil quality for what you want to do. Most edible plants prefer rich soil, plenty of water, and full sun (although you can successfully grow some edibles, such as lettuce, in partial shade).
If you are short on space, don't despair. You can always plant a container garden, or experiment with creating a space-saving vertical garden. If you have a large yard, consider including one or more fruit or nut trees in your mix.
Now, it's time to choose your plants.
Designing an edible garden is very much like designing any other ornamental garden. You'll want to choose plants that complement and/or contrast with each other in terms of height, shape, color, texture, and growing habits, and place them so that they all work together to create a harmonious effect.
What percent of your garden to make edible is up to you. You can go for all edibles, or intersperse a few vegetables in surprising ways in amongst the flowers. Here are a few categories of garden edibles, and suggestions for species to consider as you plan your garden.
You may be surprised at how many garden flowers are actually edible. Use colorful flower petals and blooms as stunning garnishes to make any meal feel special. They also are gorgeous added to salads, and many make fine herbal tea when dried. Some flowers, such as nasturtium and daisy, have edible leaves that can add a unique flavor to a tossed salad. Other species, such as sunflowers and Jerusalem artichoke, are popular vegetables in their own right.
Here are a few edible flower species to consider including in your garden.
Bee Balm (flowers)
Daisy (leaves, petals)
Daylily (shoots, buds, flowers, and tubers)
Jerusalem Artichoke (tubers)
Nasturtium (leaves, flowers)
Sunflower (sprouts, seeds)
Rugosa Roses (hips, petals)
Viola/Pansy (leaves, flowers)
Herbs add flavor and fun to food, and they can spice up your garden, too. In addition to any of the flowering herbs, try tucking these here and there in your edible garden:
Basil – The striking purple-leaved variety is especially popular as an ornamental edible.
Garlic – Hard-neck garlic looks like miniature corn stalks and sends up a beautiful curlicue-shaped flower stalk (scape) in early summer. Snap these off before they bloom and add to stir fries or soups.
Chives – Purple-blooming chives make a great border plant and attract butterflies and bees to your spring garden.
Parsley – Clumps of parsley can look striking as an edging when combined with flowers.
Rosemary – Let the bushy branches of this woody perennial herb spread naturally, or prune it into a tree shape for a fragrant accent plant.
Ordinary garden vegetables in an ornamental garden? You bet! When you look at them with unbiased eyes, many common vegetables have striking form and color and can really shine as accent pieces in the garden. Some types of vegetables even come in ornamental varieties, which are well worth seeking out. Why not try one or more of the following in your garden this summer?
Red Cabbage – With its frosted rosette of leaves a red cabbage plant resembles a giant purple rose. Pretty paired with nasturtiums or ornamental peppers.
Scarlet Runner Bean – This string bean can be eaten fresh while young, or left on the vine to ripen for hearty dry beans. The striking orange-red flowers look great on a trellis or trained up your garden fence or porch railing.
Squash – If you've got room for them to roam, squashes can make outstanding accent plants in your garden. Their huge orange blooms are actually edible, and the rambling leaves can set off taller flowers like sunflower, cosmos or hollyhock.
Okra – If you've never seen an okra plant, you're in for a visual treat. The flowers, leaves and blooms of this quintessential Southern vegetable all have a sculptural quality that is unique to any garden plant.
Kale – Most gardeners are aware of "flowering" kale, that bright purple or white head of frilly leaves that looks like a flower. But other kale varieties can also add interest to your garden, especially in late fall. Consider dinosaur kale for its almost black, strap-like foliage, or Red Russian kale for its purple, oak-like leaves.
Tomato – What food-producing garden would be complete without a tomato plant or two? Unless you have a trellis you can train them up, choose indeterminate varieties that will stay manageable without a cage. Cherry tomatoes are the most prolific and add a cheery presence to the garden.
Peppers – Few garden plants offer a more stunning show than ornamental peppers with their fiery display of yellow, orange, red, and even purple hues. Impressive in a border, these beauties also do very well in container plantings.
Strawberry – This beloved little fruit makes a sweet statement in your garden and is eagerly sought out by kids and adults alike. Try the pink-blooming Pink Panda strawberry for added color.
Rainbow Chard – Super easy to grow, this chard variety sports bright yellow, red, white, and even pink stems. Use these plants as ornamental foliage in the flower garden, similarly to how you would use hostas.
Your edible garden need not be exclusively an annual affair. Once established, many perennial plants are quite beautiful and will produce bounteous crops of delicious produce for years or even decades. For best results, consult a landscape professional for suggestions as to varieties that will do well in your garden, especially when selecting trees and shrubs.
Tree fruits – Apple, pear, peach, apricot, plum, orange, avocado, and so many more. All delicious! Dwarf or semi-dwarf varieties are usually your best bet. You may need to plant more than one for proper pollination.
Nut trees – A pecan, walnut, chestnut, or other nut tree in your yard does double duty as a beautiful shade tree that is also a source of food for both you and wildlife.
Edible shrubs – From honeyberry to serviceberry, fruit-bearing shrubs can create beautiful hedges and accents. Try elderberry, Nanking cherry, sea buckthorn, hazelnut, or blueberry. Some require specific soil conditions, so ask your local landscape expert to help you choose.
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