The garden as edible landscape

07/11/2013

An edible landscape is a garden in which plants that produce food grow alongside strictly ornamental plants. Edible landscaping enables a gardener to create a multi-functional landscape that provides deliciously fresh fruits and vegetables for a relatively small investment of water, compost and time. 

The blossoms on fruit trees in spring, the appearance of ripening berries, fruit and vegetables in summer and fall and the rich colors of autumn foliage enhance the beauty of a traditional garden. Many of the gardens in our community, where we understand the importance of organic gardening, already bear witness to these benefits.

Edible plants, like ornamental plants, require maintenance. The following are important items to consider when planning and maintaining your garden.

Soil: Soil must be biologically active to function. Soil rich in humus, or organic matter, with good tilth (loose and crumbly in texture), is essential for all plant growth. A deep, organically rich soil encourages the growth of healthy, extensive roots that are able to reach more nutrients and water. It is more important to feed the soil than to feed the plant, and when you feed the soil, you are also feeding the plant. 

Plants, especially vegetable and fruit crops, require strong, healthy roots to be productive and flavorful. Avoid tilling, as it undoes the channeling in which roots, earthworms, water and air reside; your goal is to build pore spaces. Protect your soil by topping with two to three inches of mulch (compost, fallen leaves, bark chips or rice hulls) to suppress weed growth, protect from rains, minimize temperature extremes and conserve soil moisture. 

Irrigation: Compost-rich soil allows rain and water to easily reach roots. Newly planted vegetation and trees need regular water to establish roots; once established, most plants, especially those that are drought tolerant, will do well with a minimum of one inch of water per week. Fruit trees benefit from twice-a-week deep watering during the first and second growing seasons to keep the rootball moist. Once established, fruit trees, unless they are very large, need deep watering once every two to three weeks.

Climate and site: Choose a location that receives at least six hours of sun and is protected from wind and frost. Average minimum temperatures in Marin County range from 25 to 35 degrees. The first frost typically occurs in mid-November and the last in mid-April. 

Marin typically experiences a winter chill for between 400 and 800 hours. It is best to choose low-chill fruit trees when possible.

To increase available space, consider growing space-hungry vining crops like tomatoes, pole beans and squash on trellises. Succession planting enables you to grow more than one crop in a given space over the course of a growing season. To minimize the chance of inviting pests such as verticillium wilt, rotate crops to different plots within your garden. Don’t plant tomatoes and potatoes in the same plot.

Choosing plants: Edible landscapes include fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers. Edibles on display in your front yard should bring more to the table than just good eating. Plants such as kale, rhubarb, rainbow chard and lettuce offer attractive foliage; nasturtiums, scarlet runner beans and espaliered apples provide colorful blooms, while fruits such as Sun Gold tomatoes, eggplant, peppers and blueberries provide highlights and interest. 

Planting the right plant in the right place enhances the bounty and beauty of any garden. It is critical to match a plant’s growing requirements to the conditions in your garden. Certain fruit trees easily integrate into a landscape and function in multiple ways. Smaller fruiting plants can substitute as shrubbery and some perennial herbs, like thyme, make nice ground covers. Both can be inter-planted with existing ornamental shrubs and ground covers.

For the best success in planting, consult a good planting calendar. The third edition of Golden Gate Gardening by Pam Peirce is a valuable resource for planting and maintaining a wide variety of edibles in the Bay Area. Another excellent resource is the Marin Master Gardener website, marinmg.org. Plant warm season crops (snap beans, corn, cucumbers, tomatoes and squash) when the soil temperature is 65 to 80 degrees and cool season crops (lettuce, spinach, carrots, broccoli and cauliflower) when the soil temperature is between 40 to 60 degrees.

Fertilizer: Nature does fine without the addition of fertilizers in home gardens. If you top-dress the soil with aged compost or incorporate cover crops, you won’t need to fertilize. Before starting a garden, or if growth and flowering is less than expected, test the soil to see if it is deficient in a particular nutrient or if the pH is out of balance. Too high or too low pH interferes with the absorption of
nutrients.

Harvesting: Harvesting the fruits of your labor is rewarding, but sometimes challenging. Keeping up with ripening fruits and vegetables may require weekly, or even daily, monitoring during the harvest period. Rotting fruits attract pests and vermin. Highly perishable crops require either quick processing, such as canning, freezing or drying, or friends and neighbors to accept the abundance.

If you’d like to try growing edibles without a large commitment of money, time and space, start with tomatoes, lettuce and herbs in a few small containers. In succeeding years, if space is available, add a raised bed, or, as suggested, plant edibles interspersed within your existing garden. 

The edible landscape provides fresh foods that can be eaten minutes, rather than days or weeks, after harvest. Plant what you like to eat and you will have years of culinary enjoyment ahead of you!

 

Martha Proctor is a retired clinical research dietitian who is active in the Inverness Garden Club, the Inverness Association and Marin Master Gardeners. This article is sponsored by The Inverness Garden Club.