EDUCATION, EVENTS & ARTICLESBoulder County Home & Garden
newsletter feature April 2007
have your flower garden and eat it, tooEdible landscaping turns your ornamental yard into a supply of delicious delights
By Tyera Eulberg
For those of us who grew up (or had kids) in the 1980's, the first picture that springs to mind of the phrase "edible landscape" is the vivid candy land of Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory. Lollipop flowers and peppermint trees line a river of chocolate.
The reality is just as colorful, if less packed with sugar. Edible landscapes fill gardens with rainbows of flowers and brilliant foliage, and every plant produces food.
Gardening for food dates to the earliest agricultural societies, of course. But over the past several hundred years, gardening has become more an activity of pleasure, instead of necessity. Likewise, the prevalent plants have become almost strictly decorative. Flowers and shrubs are bred for showy blossoms, and have long ago lost any nutritional value. Edible gardening is a return to the functional plants of farming–with berries, nuts, herbs and veggies–while preserving the power of color and ornamental design.
The idea behind the landscaping concept is getting more out of your soil, says Bill Melvin, co-owner of Ecoscape Environmental Design, one of the few garden design groups nation-wide that emphasizes the edible philosophy. The same patch of land can support beautiful plants and also put food on the table. "Some people use plants that have, say, a stunning magenta color one month of the year," he says. "But why not use a plant that you can eat as well?"
Some string beans, for instance, sprout deep purple flowers to rival any crocus, and taste delicious. Similarly, red-leaf cabbage brings salad alongside a vibrant burgundy for flower bed borders. While you can garden more "edibly" with just a few of these fruits and vegetables, some landscapes feature 100 percent food species, Melvin says. Designed well, these edible gardens can be essentially indistinguishable from others. "There are tons of functional, tasty plants with the same aesthetics," he says.
Melvin's favorite plants to use in landscaping are those with five or six different purposes. In addition to flowers and fruit or vegetables, these species might have edible roots, medicinal leaves or striking fall color, or interact with wildlife.
Melvin points to oregano as an example. The herb is showy and fragrant. "Plus it attracts more beneficial insects than any other perennial out there," he says. "Lace-wings, hover wasps, bees. All pollinating species that help your garden flourish year after year." The onion family, on the other hand, repels pests more effectively than most pesticides. So Melvin often integrates a few chives into his designs.
"With edible gardening, your yard becomes a living organism that is working as one, instead of just a bunch of pretty plants," he says.
Berries off the vine sound divine, but harvesting food is extra work, right? Indeed, an edible garden requires more attention than a purely ornamental plot. You need sun and water, deer protection, and energetic hands to pick all that food. But "edible advocates" say that the extra effort is small compared to the benefits to your lifestyle, health and, perhaps most persuasively, wallet. Rosalind Creasy, a pioneer in the recent edible landscaping trend, says that with a $20 annual investment, edible garden owners can save more than $500 on groceries. And the more comprehensive the landscape, the more the savings. "It's a sound investment," she says. If you don't have time to harvest your whole crop, don't worry. Dying edible plants act as on-site composting.
While our soil is rocky and our weather unpredictable at best, there are dozens of attractive edible plants that will thrive in Colorado gardens. Fruit trees, for example, often do well despite their reputation. "Most people think our winters are too hard, but in reality, there are tons of options for fruit trees," Melvin says, including "sensitive" species like peaches, apricots and plums.
In her book, The Complete Book of Edible Landscaping, Creasy recommends 140 particularly beautiful edibles, describing their care and use for food and design. Here are a handful that work particularly well in our mountain climate: Elderberry–This thick, sprawling bush boasts showy white flower clusters (with an intoxicating fragrance), while the berries are delicious fermented into wine. Elderberry is a great choice for bird-lovers–the fruit is a favorite among the feathered.
Hickory–The best nut tree for Colorado's zones, hickory trees provide wonderful shade and bountiful harvests. Hickory nuts taste sweet and pair well with cheese; or use the tree's prunings to hickory-smoke your barbeque.
Oregano–Dark gray-green leaves and pale-pink flowers make this herb a colorful addition to a flower border. Its leaves are tasty in pizza or soups, and can be harvested year-round.
Plum–In early spring, plum trees are covered with white, or sometimes pink, blossoms. The fruit is versatile in the kitchen, and aesthetic in its own right. The tree makes a great front yard feature (though your neighbors may be tempted to snitch the luscious plums).
Rhubarb–The contrasting green and red of rhubarb leaves add a dramatic accent to any border or bed. Spiky stalks of greenish and reddish flowers are interesting, but should be cut off to divert the plant's energy to the edible stalks. Caution: rhubarb leaves are poisonous.
Sweet Potato–These lovely vines work as well cascading over lattice walls as they do as flower bed ground cover, and the pink morning glory-like flowers are a rare treat. The tubers themselves are healthier to eat than regular white potatoes, and arguably taste better as well.
For more information on Ecoscape's edible landscapes, please call 303-447-2282 or visit www.ecoscapedesign.com.