Food plants have often been seen as purely utilitarian species and relegated to a separate part of the landscape from ornamental plants where they are confined to straight rows. This need not be the case however, as many edibles have outstanding aesthetic qualities and integrating them in to the overall landscape design allows their beauty - and the experience of cultivation - into the gardener's everyday midst.
Species to Consider
Not all edibles are easily integrated into an ornamental landscape, but with a little creativity most can be worked into the mix in a way that adds something of interest to the design. That being said, there are a few species that possess jaw-dropping good looks.
- Colored lettuces - There are numerous chartreuse green, red, and speckled varieties to choose from that make nice low-growing bedding plants.
- Rainbow chard - This is a mix of several chard varieties growing about 12 to 16 inches tall with different colored stems, which are useful for medium-height species for annual beds.
- Eggplant - Growing 18 to 24 inches tall with purplish foliage, large hibiscus-like blossoms and handsome fruit, they make a great backdrop for an annual border.
- Thyme - Several colorful varieties of thyme have been bred for their ornamental qualities and are useful groundcovers for edging or even to plant between stepping stones.
- Purple-leaf sage - Besides the standard green culinary sage, there are a handful of varieties with purplish evergreen foliage that grow to about 16 inches in height with a very orderly growth habit, making them a great choice for the foreground of a perennial border or even as an informal miniature hedge.
- Rosemary - Evergreen, nearly indestructible, and always one of the first plants to bloom in spring, rosemary is as enjoyable in the garden as it is the kitchen.
- Blueberries - Blueberries are easy to grow in all but the hottest climates, as long as you acidify the soil, and they have all the aesthetic traits of most other hedge plants.
- Pomegranate - The gorgeous fruits are produced on large deciduous shrubs that grow up to 12 feet in height; planted at a 5-foot spacing they make an attractive, but impenetrable, edible hedge.
- Persimmons - Persimmons have the most beautiful fall foliage of any fruit tree and the acorn-shaped fruit hangs on the tree like ornaments, ripening as the last leaves fall to the ground. Both the fruit and fall foliage are bright orange.
- Citrus - Oranges, lemons, tangerines, grapefruit, limes, kumquats, and the many hybrids amongst them all grow on small attractive trees with glossy evergreen foliage and fragrant white flowers in spring.
- Apricots - These tasty orange orbs are produced on small trees that develop a very charismatic, gnarled form with age; the flower-covered bare branches in spring and heart-shaped red-stemmed leaves are beautiful to behold as well.
Designing With Edibles
Just like ornamental plants, food plants can be categorized by their growth habit, flower and foliage color and season of interest, making it possible to substitute them for similar species in any design. Yet, it is wise to use them with some restraint and try mixing them with floristic and textural species in creative ways.
Fruit Trees With Flowering Understory
One of the keys to attractive landscaping is to have a clear delineation between the canopy and groundcover layers, rather than a jumble of trees, shrubs and perennials of varying sizes. Using repetition is also helpful in creating a pleasing design and both these principles are easily applied with edible plants.
For example, a grouping of fruit trees with a bed of flowering bulbs, ornamental grasses or spreading groundcovers underneath can look quite orderly and create a good environment for fruit production. The flowering plants will attract the pollinators that the trees need to set fruit and will also hide any fruit the drops and rots on the ground. Keep the trees limbed up to the same height and prune them annually to keep the area looking sharp.
Perennial Border With Mixed Edibles
Perennial herbs are easy choices for a perennial border worthy of a cottage garden in the French countryside, but there are a couple of perennial vegetables that can also be considered - both of which happen to have outstanding aesthetic characteristics.
Asparagus is a long-lived perennial with stalks of ferny foliage 3 to 4 feet tall. The spears are harvested as they emerge in spring, but some of the stalks should be allowed to grow to provide nourishment for next year's crop and these have a light, airy look that is priceless in a perennial border. Plant a row of asparagus as a backdrop for colorful perennial flowers.
Artichokes are short-lived perennials with a truly unique appearance. The foliage looks like something out of the Jurassic age and if you let some of the buds (which are the edible artichokes) open, they reveal striking purple thistle flowers the size of a softball. Plant them singly here and there in a perennial border as accents.
Edible Container Garden
A full spectrum of edibles can be grown in containers. Start with a dwarf fruit tree in a large planter or urn and plant a seasonal collection of annual flowers at the base to dress it up a bit. Add a row of potted blueberries as a backdrop behind it or, if space is tight, use edible vines and train them to a lattice trellis to make the backdrop - grapes, kiwi, and passion fruit vines are all highly refined landscape plants. Finally, add smaller planters in the foreground with a mix of annual or perennial herbs and veggies.
Tips and Hints
- Remember that food plants require access for harvesting. Keep herbs and vegetables with a few feet of a pathway so they can be reached without stepping to the planting areas.
- The best results come with mixing no more than 50 percent edibles into the overall plant scheme, unless you are working with only the most ornamental food plants.
- A planting of edibles framed by attractive hardscaping - patio pavers, finely crafted wooden planter, a pergola and so on - are one easy way to accentuate their looks and highlight them in the landscape.
- Remember that the point of edibles is to be harvested, so plan accordingly with plants that are completely removed in order to eat them. For example, heads of lettuce planted in early spring can be harvested at the same time that the bed of annual flowers it is growing in is replanted for the summer.
Bring Edibles Into Your Landscape
Bringing edibles into the landscape adds a layer of interest to plantings that goes far beyond their looks, due to people's relationship with food. Food plants also benefit by being surrounded with flowering plants that attract the pollinators and other beneficial insects that help to keep them healthy and productive.