Repeat after me: "No backyard is too dry, wet, or shady to grow my own food." I'm going to take that statement a step further and say that you can make it so attractive that neighbors will have no idea that those beautiful plantings are edible too! To show you just how 'ornamental' you can make your edible garden, I'm sharing some photos from my latest trip to Trad's Garden Center here in Jacksonville.
Edibles for Everyone
When I tell strangers that I'm a gardener, they usually say something along the lines of "Oh, you grow tomatoes?" or "What kind of food do you grow?" forcing me to backtrack and clarify. I used to regretfully tell them that I couldn't grow that many herbs and vegetables because I garden for a hot and sandy apartment complex with no irrigation to speak of. To make things more difficult, I also have to grow plants that are attractive and uniform enough to 'work' for a business landscape.
Well, I was wrong. You can make vegetables 'work' in a public environment, just as long as you choose varieties that can tolerate the conditions and blend in with the more permanent plantings. Evergreens, groundcovers and structural plants make up the bones of my landscape, but edibles fill the niches in between, making for new surprises every day.
The Right Edibles for the Right Places
|This fig tree withstands drought so well because it originates in a dry climate.|
Edibles for Dry Gardens.
They might not have the drought resistance of say, succulents or native grasses, but there are many vegetables and herbs that can pull through in dry and sandy soil. It helps if the plants themselves are already equipped to handle drought, so choose plants that are already commonly grown in dry regions such as the Mediterranean and Mexico.
The peppers in the photo above are indeed irrigated, but will readily soldier through droughts and still look attractive. Mediterranean plants like the Marina di Chioggio heirloom squash, rosemary, figs and thyme appreciate a little extra water when possible, but they can all handle dry and sandy soil. Black eye peas, watermelon and okra have long been popular in the southern US because they're so adaptable to a wide variety of conditions.
Finally, use plenty of soil amendments and mulch. If you're lucky enough to have some irrigation, drip irrigation is efficient and gets more water to the root zone.
Edibles for Shady Gardens
If anybody tells you that vegetables don't grow in shade, they're probably just growing the wrong veggies. So before you cut down that tree in your backyard, maybe you should take a gander at Shawna Coronado's shady potager garden. Shawna has grown a staggering amount of nutritious edibles in her shady backyard and has even managed to make it look good!
The trick is to select plants that are eaten for their green leaves rather than fruits, which require a lot more energy to produce. Greens all handle shade well, and so do most herbs. Shawna says that the best performing plants in her shady veggie garden are dinosaur kale, celery and basil.
If your shady garden is still too dark for veggies, you can always hire an arborist to thin out a few branches from overhanging trees.
Edibles for Wet Gardens
I know, I know. Every vegetable or herb seems to require that wonderful and elusive thing called 'moist, well drained soil.' The garden I planted for my mother was so soggy that it often flooded, yet I was able to grow a pretty respectable variety of edible plants, including arrowroot, lemongrass, ginger, turmeric, Mexican tarragon sweetflag and taro. I didn't grow rice myself, but have seen rice plants grown by immigrants sold at the flea market and it's also known for growing in periodically flooded 'paddies. Most of the flood tolerant edibles listed are indeed tropical, but can easily be dug up in fall and replanted in spring for those of you with colder winters.
|Pennyroyal cascading from a tiered fountain|
|A pot sunken into a bed of mints allows for a dash of interest and control|
If the other plants I've listed seem hard to find, there's always mint! Mint is known for being aggressive and weedy in herb gardens, but Trad's Garden Center has grown them in hypertufa troughs and even a tiered fountain to keep them from taking over.
If the soil is still too soggy for the veggies you want to grow, create hills or raised beds that give roots plenty of room to breathe.
Edibles for Ornamental Gardens
This shouldn't be too hard, since many edibles such as rosettes of ruffled lettuce and tightly packed heads of cabbage are pretty enough to get by on looks alone. Nonetheless, some neighbors don't appreciate the sight of full blown veggie gardens in the front yard. Luckily it's pretty easy to include edibles as part of the landscaping just as easily as you would pop in some annuals.
This Dianthus has edible clove flavored flower petals and looks good in its own right mixed with other colorful edibles. The kale and assorted greens pictured above can be tucked into the border for their foliage, and the surrounding perennials will fill in the gaps after harvesting.
Grow plants that thrive in your conditions and then give them some TLC with mulch, fertilizer and the occasional bug patrol. Use repetition of forms, create structure, contrast textures and colors, give the eye a place to rest... you know the drill. To break away from the run-of-the-mill stripes of crops so commonly seen in veggie beds, try planting them in different angles and curves that lead the eye around your garden, possibly pointing to a piece of garden art or a colorful door.
|Chamomile is edible AND attracts pollinators! Illustration by Steve Asbell|
|NOT Edible, but Alyssum's honey scented flowers attract pollinators to your vegetables|
|NOT edible, but Iceland poppy's buttery smooth orange flowers also attract pollinators.|
As if you needed another good reason to mix edibles into your garden, surrounding flowers like the alyssum and Iceland poppy (pictured above) attract pollinators like honeybees and butterflies to your vegetables. Helen Yoest also recommends adding herbs like parsley and dill to the garden, which serve as butterfly host plants and give larvae a food source before they become butterflies. And we could all use more butterflies in our garden, right?
Since there's no way I could cover everything on the topic, I have to recommend both Ivette Soler's outstanding book The Edible Front Yard and Shawna Coronado's blog. Both have shown the world how to make veggie gardening ornamental again!