Creating an edible landscape

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By Stacey Collins

If you are interested in growing some of your own food, don’t feel confined to a backyard plot of agricultural-looking regimented rows. More and more often, food-producing plants are being integrated into beautifully ornamental residential landscapes.

At our home in Cumberland, the backyard hosts a blend of edible plantings, including a traditional fenced vegetable garden, a half-dozen small fruit trees and attractively-mulched beds of strawberries and raspberries. In front of the house we have a conventional-looking residential landscape of shrubs, trees, and perennials. Most passers-by would never guess that some of those pretty plants also feed our family!

“Edible landscaping” – as this growing trend is termed – can range from a radical elimination of lawn grass in favor of edible plantings, to a more restrained substitution of some attractive edibles alongside traditional ornamental plantings. Consider planting herbs and pretty vegetable plants in a flower bed, or edging with cottage-y alpine strawberries. On the lawn, plant a pink-flowered peach tree instead of something purely decorative. Add some blueberries to your foundation shrub plantings, and they will reward you all season long.

Make sure to research the plants’ requirements, or hire a professional to help you plan. Most – but not all – food plants require full sun, and all will benefit from soil enriched with plenty of compost. Here are some suggestions to get you started:

Herbs are easy

Fresh herbs can perk up even a humdrum meal, but they’re expensive to buy at the store and often go to waste in the fridge. Adding herb plants to your flower beds and decorative planters not only looks great and enhances your cooking, but makes economic sense. Some hardy perennial herbs can be incorporated into your long-term design, such as chives, mints, oregano, thymes, sages, and tarragon. More delicate plants will need to be replanted each year, like basils, parsley, and rosemary. As a bonus, many herbs like chives and sage sport delightful flowers in season.

Trees for flowers and fruit

Dwarf or semi-dwarf fruit trees can be as showy in springtime as ornamental cherry and crabapple trees. Choose a sunny spot with deep, rich soil, and remember that it can take several years for young fruit trees to bear fruit, and will require some attention to pruning, thinning, and pest management if you want a really successful harvest. Most apple, pear, and cherry trees need more than one individual tree or variety for pollination: do your research before choosing. Self-fertile trees, that can be planted alone, include European plums, peaches like ‘Reliant’ and some cherries such as ‘Stella’.

Berry bounty

Blueberries, both highbush and lowbush, are easy to grow and very attractive in the shrub border. In spring, they are covered with tiny bell-shaped white flowers, in summer you’ll harvest plump berries, and in fall their foliage turns fiery scarlet-orange. Alpine strawberries produce small, sweet berries and do not send out invasive runners – making them an ideal edging plant for flower beds. Both traditional strawberries and raspberries require a bit more maintenance to keep them in check, but will reward you with buckets of fruit.

Pretty vegetable plants

Annual vegetable plants can add beautiful foliage accents to your ornamental beds. Try ‘Bright Lights’ Rainbow Swiss Chard, with jewel-toned stalks, and frilly blue-green kale. Leaf lettuces come in a wide range of colors and make a delicious addition to an annual bed, or try a hot pepper plant like ‘Serrano’ for a pop of red in late summer.

Stacey Collins lives and gardens in Cumberland and runs Backyard Harvest, a garden and chicken consulting business, at www.MaineBackyardHarvest.com.

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