The idea that a garden can be both ornamental and edible has gained tremendous popularity since the turn of this century, partly because of economics, but also because of the satisfaction of growing fruits and vegetables. It’s exciting to taste the fruits of your labor from trees, shrubs, vines or small, herbaceous vegetation.
Rosalind Creasy introduced me to this innovative landscape design idea with her award-winning book, “The Complete Book of Edible Landscaping” (Sierra Club, 1982). The images in the text were a collection of ideas for ways to use edible plants ornamentally, such as container-grown tomatoes edged with red lettuce, oregano, mint and rosemary.
In Creasy’s updated edition of “Edible Landscaping: Now You Can Have Your Gorgeous Garden and Eat It Too!” (Sierra Club Books, 2010) there are 432 pages of ideas for enhancing your garden, including over 300 color photographs, color garden plans and black and white illustrations. Plant with design in mind, but choose according to what will bear fruit, berries, nuts, foliage and vegetables.
The concepts she espouses are different than those of planting purely utilitarian orchards, berry patches or vegetable plots. She uses the philosophy that beautifully designed landscapes should also have value as edible gardens.
The following are some common plants I like to integrate into landscape designs whenever appropriate. Install these now and they’ll grow to become both ornamental and tasty.
• Kousa dogwood (Cornus kousa): As the cherry-sized, berry-looking fruit ripens in fall and softens, the inside turns red and has a sweet taste. Peel the skin and enjoy the juicy fruit, which is surrounded by two or three seeds. Harvest when fruit is ripened to just the right texture. In winter, the bark is lacy, with a peeling texture that is brown to ivory on the trunk. The foliage is maroon in autumn.
• Hardy kiwi (Actinidia kolomikta): A tough, woody, entwining vine requiring a solid support, you’ll want two, a male and female, to produce the small grape-size clusters of fruit. It requires full sun for fruit production and is perfect grown along a deck or on a trellis by the patio, making harvesting easy.
• Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas): One of the first trees to flower in spring, its ripe red berries are handsome (July) and can be used in tarts, for syrup or in cranberry sauce. This shaggy-barked tree is virtually disease-free, with a low, rounded habit, good for screening and ornamental for a mixed shrub border or a hedge.
• Downy serviceberry (Amalanchier arborea): The purplish-black berries of this small, early-flowering native tree are so tasty to birds that you have to pick them before the birds devour them as they ripen in June. Eat them off the tree or make jellies and pies. It’s shade tolerant, but bears more flowers and fruit in sun. Plant at the edge of woods, or by patios or decks, for a low-branching, privacy-offering tree with white flowers in spring and color in fall.
• Jujube (Ziziphus jujube): Hardy, late-flowering, drought-tolerant tree that makes the perfect complement for edible/ornamental gardens. It has an upright habit that doesn’t create a lot of shade. Harvest fruit in fall after skin browns. The sweet custard flavor and texture is very appetizing. Its growth habit and checkered bark texture are attractive.
• Trifoliate hardy orange (Poncirus trifoliata): Grow this fully hardy citrus in sun or partial shade. Use fruit as a garnish for drinks, or make marmalade. As a barrier planting, this shrub forms thorny thickets up to 15 feet in height. The variety of hardy orange named “Flying Dragon” is an exceptionally eye-catching curly-stemmed specimen. Wear leather gloves to pick its one- to two-inch oranges.
There are many ways to present edible plantings that emphasize their ornamental qualities. Fruit trees can be trained in a French espalier style and will serve as vertical accents along the wall of a conservatory or your house. You can grow pears or apples in this way, sacrificing very little bedding area. If you prune the trees for shape and fruit yield, you can develop some very showy living trellises.
Beans and snap peas are good vertical plants that are ornamental growing on a wooden tepee. Attach a wooden lattice onto a fence to grow ornamental gourds. Train a climbing rose in a trellis set in a planter, which will take up very little space and provide a lot of additional color in the garden.
Stack pots with side openings and fill them with a variety of herbs. Use metal supports with heavy cord attached to each side to grow cucumbers, tomatoes, summer squash, zucchini or small pumpkins vertically. Morning glories will ramble over lattice or a fence.
Install woolly creeping thyme or mazus in spaces between paving material that is laid on stone dust or a sand base. They grow in most soils; thyme is best in full sun and mazus works well in shady areas. When you walk on thyme, it releases its fragrance.
Find a book on the subject of edible landscape design at the library or bookstore and learn more about what you can and can’t eat. For example, here are several of Cathy Wilkinson Barash’s tips from her book “Edible Flowers: Desserts & Drinks”:
• Not all flowers are edible. Some are poisonous.
• Eat flowers only when you’re positive they are edible.
• Only use flowers from organically grown plants.
• Don’t eat flowers if you have hay fever, asthma or allergies.
• Don’t eat flowers picked from alongside the road.●
• Introduce flowers to your diet in small amounts at first.
Learn more about the ornamental/edible approach to landscaping. It’s practical and addresses a major trend in landscape design.
Joel M. Lerner is president of Environmental Design in Capitol View Park, Md.