If limits on your gardening space or time challenge you to decide between your ornamental landscape and growing edibles for the table, why not take a look at both from a new perspective?
Many vegetable plants are not only tasty, but also attractive. The crisp, bright green and red of new lettuce is a highlight in the spring. The dark green of summer tomato foliage sets off the red fruit, providing not only culinary rewards, but also visual ones.
The sunniest spot in the landscape that has been filled with a bed of marigolds and a patch of grass may be the handiest to the kitchen or right on the way from the car to the house. “A great place for a garden,” perhaps you’ve thought, but who wants straight garden rows in front of the house?
Think about integrating fruits and vegetables into your flower beds to make the most attractive and productive use of your space. The concept of an edible landscape is not difficult to master, but requires some thought on how to design and care for both ornamentals and edibles.
Food crops yield best with eight or more hours of full sun a day. If you must plant vegetables in partial shade, stick with non-fruiting, leafy or root crops, such as lettuce, spinach and carrots.
Use pesticides specifically labeled for food crops on or around any of your edibles. If you are spraying an ornamental plant in the same bed, it is too easy for drift or misdirected spray to contaminate your edibles.
Plan for replacement plants as the season progresses when spring or winter vegetables are removed from the beds. You may rotate to other vegetables or to flowers for the remainder of the season.
If you plan to include permanent edibles, such as fruit trees, be sure that their maintenance will be compatible with their location. Rotten fruit dropping on the driveway is not a landscape asset.
Start with just a few crops and learn to integrate them into your landscape. Then build a plan that gradually adds others in an effective, attractive and easily maintained fashion.
Beyond the savings in time and space in the landscape, vegetables throughout the yard add nibbling opportunities that enhance the gardening experience.
Among the choice plants to use are edible podded peas, either as a vine on your fence or as a bush variety. These are a favorite with children, so don’t count on having too many of them reach the kitchen. Cherry tomatoes, such as Sweet 100, also are favorites and very productive. It will need to be staked, but a porch post or fence serves well.
Both hot and sweet peppers add glossy foliage and striking fruit to the summer flower bed. Eggplant is another summer veggie with unusual fruit.
In the spring, lettuce can provide interesting texture and color if you select several different varieties based on their diversity — something you will appreciate in the salad bowl as well as the garden.
Plants of small, loose headed Bibb or Buttercrunch can be used as a border between petunias or alyssum and harvested before the annual flowers require more space. Lettuce with red foliage, such as Red Sails, makes an interesting contrast both in the garden and on the table.
Culinary herbs are some of the easiest edibles to use in the landscape. They have few pest problems, and you have a choice of foliage size, texture and color to suit any purpose. There are many mints that are attractive and useful, but grow them in containers or a container area to confine their wandering habit.
Fennel provides height, fine and ferny foliage and an unusual bronze color to flower borders. It can be harvested for flower arrangements or garnishing a dish.
Parsley and chives are old standbys that are particularly attractive near the front of a border. Both fennel and parsley double as food sources for swallowtail butterfly larvae.
Most herbs grow well in containers, and some, such as rosemary, lend themselves to topiary. Oregano and thyme make excellent ground covers although they do not respond well to being trampled.
Salad burnet is an attractive herb with leaves that taste like cucumbers, adding a cool flavor to salads.
Small fruits are often easier to integrate into the landscape than trees. Strawberries are excellent ground covers, often covering the surface much faster than ornamentals.
Anywhere you can grow azaleas will be equally suitable for blueberries. Blueberries will bear best in full sun, and their colorful fall foliage is a bonus for this medium-sized shrub. Plant two different varieties for better fruit set.
Blackberries could effectively substitute for a shrub border. They will undoubtedly help you get to know the neighborhood children better as the fruit begins to ripen.
Grapes trellised along a fence or on an arbor, once established, are a quick growing, decorative feature. The heavy pruning required in winter can be turned to a positive feature by making grapevine wreaths.
Japanese persimmons produce attractive, tasty fruit, and have bright orange fall foliage.
For healthy trees and good production, some fruit trees require regular pruning and pest control, such as peaches and plums. Fruit trees can substitute for small, flowering trees such as dogwood or redbud. Check the mature height of the plant you are considering. The term “dwarf” means that it will be smaller than full size, but it could still grow very tall. Many fruit trees need more than one variety planted to ensure good fruit production.
Don’t forget that many of the ornamentals in your garden have tasty flowers or foliage. Be sure no chemicals have been used on them before you eat them.
The foliage of several of the scented geraniums create a tasty delight when added to ordinary pound cake. Nasturtiums add a sharp, peppery taste to your soup or salad. Try either the flower or foliage, or pickle the seed pod as a substitute for capers.
Fragrant rose petals may be used in salads, and the hips are high in vitamin C and can be used in teas. Again, don’t use roses that have been sprayed with pesticides. Make sure you know a flower is safe to eat before trying.
Combining edibles and ornamentals can be a rewarding way of gardening and can allow you to pursue plants you are most interested in growing.
Don’t let traditional locations and separations of plants put a limit on what you use in your landscape. Experiment and see what works for you.
Keith Hansen is Smith County horticulturist with the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. His web page is http://EastTexasGardening.tamu.edu. His blog is http://agrilife.org/etg.