An Evolution in Landscaping
Adding edibles to the design
by Lee Mangus
A client recently presented me with a tiny sprig she'd pulled from the side of the road. "May I have this in my garden?" she asked. It was rosemary, and a food gardener was born. Before long, we were enlarging her existing landscape to include fruit trees, vegetables, herbs and berries. Along with the move away from water-guzzling lawns, pesticide pollution and soil depletion, there is renewed interest in food crops in the landscape.
Food gardening once meant an arbitrary division between the ornamental landscape and the edible, or vegetable, garden. The term "edible landscape" now refers to everything from a traditional plot, distinct from the ornamental landscape, to a wild profusion of fruits, flowers, vegetables and herbs mingling together in a haphazard mix.
The periodic reintroduction of edibles into the home garden typically coincides with lean times and limits on availability. However, food gardening survives in the residential garden in an era with a seeming abundance of food resources. Of course, the taste, quality and freshness of homegrown produce are superior to that of commercial growers.
New, old, exotic and ethnic varieties provide the home gardener and cook with access to unique flavors and cultivars. Homegrown foods are free of pesticides and chemical fertilizers. During recessionary times, the vegetable garden can (and I use the term advisedly) provide great cost savings. Above all, the beauty, pleasure and diversity that homegrown fruits and vegetables bring to the garden make them worthy of inclusion in any landscape plan.
Home-based agriculture is nothing new, but incorporating food crops into the professionally landscaped residential garden is a relatively new trend. And whether building and planting in raised beds, rows or integrating into the ornamental landscape, we should rely on practices that underlie all good design and installation.
Careful site evaluation and planning is critical to the success of any installation.
Most vegetables are annuals and perennials that require a full day of sun, and if deprived, will become weak, leggy and fail to fruit properly.
Soil testing should be performed prior to planting, and the soil should be amended as necessary to increase fertility and drainage of depleted and compacted soils. Add compost and mulch to increase organic matter, aid water retention and suppress weed growth.
Plants with similar needs for water, light and soil type should be grouped together.
Companion planting reduces insect damage, attracts beneficial insects, boosts growth and improves yield.
Vegetables often have higher water needs than other plants, so plan irrigation and specify zones accordingly.
The presence of dogs, cats and deer should be taken into consideration when decisions are made about location and fencing the garden. Where moles, voles and gophers are a problem, wire protection should be provided.
The plant palette should include edibles to provide for beneficial birds and insects as well as for humans.
Consider your clients' desires, lifestyle, budget and commitment to maintenance. They should understand the costs for you to maintain their garden if they are passive participants.
Design decisions rely on more than shape, form, color and texture. Food crops can be truly rewarding, but they can also be demanding, requiring regular picking, pruning and replacing. Additionally, the beauty of spring gardens can quickly turn to a dry memory in summer and fall gardens. Select species, varieties and screening appropriate to your client, who may not have the exuberance for the full cycle of life that you do.
As with any scheme, unity, balance, scale and rhythm are primary considerations when combining plants. Combine broadleaved forms like cabbage with large salvias, bladed plants like Libertia with alliums, beets and parsley.
Start small: Your clients may well be able to handle a few containers or a couple of raised beds, or even a strawberry barrel. Or start large: Besides food, a fruiting tree or shrub provides beauty, structure and shade in the garden.
Integrate edibles into the ornamental landscape. Many plants work and play well with others. Culinary herbs, such as thymes, sages and rosemary, are ideal introductions for tentative clients. Mix leeks with marigolds; lettuce with succulents; purple sage with poppies; nasturtiums with cabbage; golden, black and round zucchini with zinnias and echinacea; asparagus, artichoke and rhubarb against tall growers like cosmos and sunflowers.
For a mixed ornamental/edible garden, stick to plants that look good in the landscape year-round. Aside from the aforementioned herbs, try espaliered fruit trees, scented geraniums or go vertical with vines such as grapes or kiwi on a trellis or pergola.
Grow in containers; not only are they beautiful, adding form, elevation and color to the landscape, but they also provide controlled soil and water conditions.
Select plants suited to the climate, whether arid, tropical or temperate. These are the performers that will reward your client over the long term.
Take into consideration the total energy use for your project. Think of the materials, human energy and future demand that are required to fulfill your design.
A landscape that includes edibles has the potential to connect your clients and their families to their garden in a way that no other installed landscape can and will reward them for many years to come.
Lee Mangus is a principal of Smith Mangus, a landscape design/build firm in Orinda, Calif., that respects the needs of the client, the existing architecture and site conditions in developing a garden that encourages outdoor living and a deep connection to the natural environment. She holds certificates in Landscape Design and Construction from Merritt College and is the Treasurer on the Board of Directors of the APLD. She also holds degrees in mathematics and photography.