Why surround your home with landscaping that is merely ornamental when it could feed you, too? Edible landscaping can be just as beautiful as traditional landscaping, replacing everything from groundcovers to trees with food-producing plants like mint, strawberries, asparagus and sunflowers.
The first trick to successful edible landscaping is thinking outside the rows. Food crops don't always need to be planted farm-style, one row after another. Just as ornamental landscapers use creative groupings that arrange plants by color, texture and height, edible landscaping can be planted in visually stimulating layouts that are both pleasing to the eye and beneficial to the plants themselves.
Begin with the basics
Start with the basic principles of landscape design. Your yard is your "canvas," and the visual qualities of line, form, color, texture and visual weight will help you create a balanced work of art. Plan out your landscaping on a sheet of graph paper, outlining planting beds, which can be delineated using either straight or curved lines and occupy any number of shapes like circles and polygons. Your design will be unique to the layout of your yard and should consider special needs like hiding unsightly utilities, providing shade or creating privacy.
When choosing plants for your edible garden, keep in mind not just your own tastes in herbs, fruit and vegetables but the needs of the plants such as soil drainage and required levels of water and sunlight. One way to successfully group your edible plants is with a gardening method called companion planting. Planting certain crops in close proximity to each other can increase productivity by balancing nutrients and naturally discouraging pests. For example, beet leaves contain lots of magnesium, which is beneficial to lettuce, onions and broccoli.
Stagger the plants
Within your planting beds, edible plants should be staggered in height with the lowest-growing plants in front and taller plants in the back. Herbs like thyme, mint, parsley, oregano and sage are ideal to fill in the front of planting beds, and spreading varieties including lemon thyme make a fragrant ground cover, not to mention a flavorful addition to a range of recipes.
In place of brightly colored annual flowers, try planting strawberries, which produce pretty pale pink and white blossoms in the spring before fruiting in a juicy shade of red. The colorful stalks of rainbow chard make a stunning visual impact and contrast beautifully with the green of the leaves. Frilly carrot foliage adds fine texture, while lavender provides purple blooms in the warm season and silvery leaves in the cold. Purple cabbages, white cauliflower and pale green leaf lettuce are all beautiful shade lovers for those cooler spots in the garden.
Nasturtiums are lovely to look at, and perfectly safe to eat. (Photo: Christian Guthier/Flickr)
Deep green shade-loving hostas can be replaced with vitamin-packed kale, chives make beautiful spiky ornamental grasses and edible flowers called nasturtiums are both conventionally pretty and a tasty addition to salads. Marigolds, while not edible, bring a shot of vivid color to the garden and also protect food crops from pests.
For height, consider planting fruiting shrubs like blueberries, dramatic centerpieces like the low-water artichoke, or miniature fruit trees. Vining edibles like melons, cucumbers and zucchini can be trained to grow vertically along a trellis at the back of a planting bed, and grapevines will cover an arbor in no time at all. And finally, scatter in a few evergreen edibles like rosemary and wintergreen for year-round visual interest.
Not keen on the look of tomato cages? You can keep your tomato plants upright with more decorative solutions instead. Try spiral stakes or bamboo poles for taller-growing varieties, or a horizontal trellis for smaller varieties like cherry tomatoes.
Of course, edible landscaping should never be treated with chemical pesticides. Choose nontoxic organic pesticides like garlic spray or introduce beneficial insects including ladybugs and praying mantids.