,By Patty G. Leander, B.S.
Advanced Master Gardener — Vegetables
It’s been 40 years since landscape designer and edible-landscape pioneer Rosalind Creasy decided to plant vegetables in her Northern California front yard. Why? Because that was the sunniest part of her property and vegetables grow best in full sun. Her subsequent book, The Complete Book of Edible Landscaping, helped call attention to the ornamental quality of vegetables, fruits and herbs, and it encouraged gardeners at all levels to reconsider these plants’ natural beauty, flavor, contribution to health and placement in the landscape. It’s taken years to catch on but using ornamental edibles as landscape plants — with the bonus of providing food for the table — has become a more popular endeavor, especially now as we learn to live with the effects and limitations of COVID-19.
Through the years the concept of edible gardening has evolved, and vegetables are no longer relegated to rigid rows in a hidden corner of the yard. It may not be acceptable, or even desirable, to plant a front-yard farm where you live, but you can’t go wrong incorporating some vegetables or herbs into the landscaped areas around your home. Imagine a few lofty okra plants at the back of a flowerbed, a small potager located near the kitchen door or an attractive artichoke, with its bold leaves and colorful blooms, anchoring a corner of the house. These days, you don’t even have to be a gardener or have a yard to participate; edible gardening can be as simple as growing some herbs on a balcony, a pretty pot filled with rainbow chard by the front door, a tomato in a container on the back patio (or front porch, if that is where your sun is) or a trellis covered with pole beans rising up from a group of low-growing evergreen shrubs.
Edible gardening advocate Brie Arthur calls it foodscaping. In her 2017 book, The Foodscape Revolution, she makes an appeal to gardeners to grow something useful by integrating food plants into traditional ornamental landscapes, starting with bed edges, which (she suggests) are underutilized in most landscapes. An edging of lacy arugula or emerald-green parsley can be pretty, productive and more unique than a border of mondo grass. In the warm season, the same border could be replaced with compact basil, creeping thyme or peanuts. The whole idea is to find a way to participate in the process of growing food, connecting with nature and observing the seasonal progression of life.
Whether you are a novice gardener or have several seasons under your belt, it’s a good idea to experiment with just a few edible plants in containers or tucked into an existing landscape rather than digging up a large section of the front yard. Choose vegetables or herbs you like to eat and then learn about their growth habit and life cycle. Start small and take the time to evaluate your site, observing the seasonal changes in your landscape and the orientation of the sun.
As your edibles grow, you will get a feel for how the plants will perform, how they look integrated in the landscape and how you plan to use the harvest. Most vegetables require a little babysitting, especially during establishment, and generally will not thrive without your support in watering, weeding, feeding and/or protection from bugs and critters. All of these interventions add up in time and labor, and an overzealous edible planting, especially in public view, can easily become overwhelming and unkempt. Even before planting any edibles in the ground, you might want to try growing edibles in containers. Most vegetables and herbs can be grown in pots, and container gardening is an excellent way to focus your attention and keep maintenance to a minimum.
Provide Easy Access
The easier it is to access your edible plantings, the easier it will be to maintain a tidy appearance. Place edibles close to the house or entryway, in a spot that is easily accessible, not just the day you plant them but even as they grow and start to produce. Keep in mind their mature size as well as the expected growth of adjacent plants, incorporating pathways or stepping stones, if needed. You don’t want to climb over or step on surrounding landscape plants while tending to your edibles.
Plants that are grown for food will produce better and taste better if they receive a consistent amount of moisture. So think about your access to water and how you will get it from the source to the plants. Hand watering, drip irrigation and soaker hoses are all good options because they direct water to the roots and help keep the leaf surface dry (wet leaves are more prone to fungal disease).
An edible garden is meant to be seen and enjoyed, both by you and by others, so consider the view not only from the street but also from inside the house. Incorporate your favorite bling or a pop of color with a painted bench or trellis. Fences, pathways, sidewalks, yard art, statuary, water features, arbors and other hardscape provide structure and help anchor the landscape, especially when transitioning between seasons. Seating is a welcome respite and an important component of any garden, providing a spot for conversation, relaxation and reflection.
Planting edibles among established shrubs, perennial plants or flowers allows you to camouflage vegetables that may not be attractive the entire season. Most vegetables are grown as annuals with a relatively short lifespan, generally 2–4 months. Once they start to decline or have passed their peak harvest stage, they should be removed. Fill the gap with a new transplant, or, if the timing is not convenient or the weather is not conducive to replanting, simply cover the area with mulch until the next round of planting.
Design and Style
If there was a specific formula for growing edibles and everyone followed it exactly, then that would be…boring! A little personality infused into your edible garden will make it uniquely yours, and there is no right way or a wrong way to go about it. From El Paso to Texarkana and from Amarillo to Brownsville, Texas encompasses different soil types and climatic regions, and is home to a diversity of cultures and communities, in urban, suburban and rural settings. Your location, your resources, your goals, municipal regulations and homeowner restrictions will influence your edible garden. Even within those constraints your garden design can reflect your style, while respecting and complementing the aesthetic of your home and neighborhood.
One thing I love about gardens is the way a gardener’s personality shines through, whether polished, artistic, orderly, vintage, eclectic or downright rowdy. Remember that vegetables aren’t the tidiest of plants — they can sometimes be unruly and unsightly. So be prepared to remove or replace as needed throughout the growing season. And speaking of growing seasons, it is not always feasible to grow edibles year-round in all parts of Texas. There will be times, perhaps at the height of summer or winter, or during an especially busy time in your life, that you’ll need to put the edibles on hold. It happens, and if it happens to you, just let the soil rest under a blanket of mulch until you are ready to start up again.
Guidelines for Edible Gardens
1. Choose edibles you want to eat as well as those that offer ornamental value in their flowers, fruit or foliage.
2. Identify the plants you want to grow and learn about their growth habit, ultimate size, time required to mature and expected duration of harvest. Kale and lettuce, for example, can be harvested a few leaves at a time, allowing the plant to continue growing for a long season. Purple or green cauliflower produces one head per plant, yet broccoli will produce sideshoots after the main head is harvested. Pepper plants may shut down production in summer but will return to blooming and fruiting when cooler fall weather arrives.
3. Follow seasonal recommendations for growing edibles in your region and choose varieties that are well-adapted and disease resistant. Check with your local Extension office for planting dates and pay attention to the forecast. When growing vegetables from seed, use fresh packets to ensure the highest germination rate.
4. Amend the planting area with a small amount of compost before planting seeds or transplants and feed edibles with an all-purpose, water-soluble fertilizer every two or three weeks in order to keep them growing vigorously.
5. Group plants that have similar growing requirements. Most edibles need full sun and should be combined with landscape plants that also require sun. A few edibles that will tolerate some shade include beets, spinach, lettuce, radishes and peppers. While eggplant produces best in sun, its purple flowers and bold leaves make it a pretty landscape plant, even in the shade as long as you don’t mind a diminished harvest. tg
Plants for Beauty and Flavor
The following edibles are easy to grow and blend nicely into the landscape, providing color, texture or structure.
Artichoke is a showy ornamental, grown for its striking buds and silver-green foliage. Use a single plant or a group for a dramatic accent in the landscape.
Edible flowers make delightful displays, whether grown in containers or combined with herbs or vegetables. Flowers you might want to try include pansy, calendula, borage and nasturtium. And don’t overlook broccoli blooms and squash blossoms.
Fruit trees have potential for an edible garden if you have the space. Persimmon, jujube, loquat, fig and pomegranate are generally considered low maintenance.
Herbs are valued for their foliage, fragrance and flavor. In the warm season, try planting basil, borage, lemon balm, rosemary, thyme or oregano. Herbs for the cooler months include cilantro, parsley, chives, dill, sorrel and fennel. Bay laurel, with its dark green, glossy leaves, makes a beautiful accent in an edible garden. It is evergreen in most of the state but may need protection during prolonged freezes. Allow a few select herbs to go to seed to add interest to the landscape and to attract beneficial insects. Herbs are resilient plants; sometimes they will fade away in extreme heat or cold but will often revive when the weather improves.
Kale is a natural for an edible garden, with fringed foliage that offers both texture and color. Extremely hardy in winter, it is not usually bothered by pests; but do watch out for caterpillars.
Lettuce is one of the prettiest cool-season edibles to incorporate into a landscape bed or container. Romaine, butterhead and leaf types are quick-growing, provide colorful foliage and will tolerate partly shady conditions.
Mustard may not be the most popular plant in the kitchen, but its diverse and beautiful foliage deserves more prominence in an edible garden. Variety names hint at their appearance: ‘Purple Wave’, ‘Ruby Streaks’, ‘Scarlet Frills’, ‘Osaka Purple’, ‘Red Giant’.
Okra adds height and structure to an edible landscape with the bonus of hibiscus-like blooms, a long season of growth and culinary appeal in the kitchen.
Pepper plants have a bushy, ornamental quality and are rarely bothered by pests. Choose varieties based on heat level or on your intended use and combine with zinnias, marigolds, periwinkles, salvia or ornamental grass.
Swiss chard is a must-have accent in any edible garden and can be easily grown in the ground or a container. It is versatile in the kitchen, too, as a salad green, a cooked green or a low-calorie wrap for healthy, vegetable-laden fillings.
Resources and Inspiration
Edible Landscaping by Rosalind Creasy. Sierra Club Books, 2010. (This is an updated second edition of the original book that is mentioned in the article.)
Landscaping with Edible Plants in Texas by Cheryl Beesley. Texas A&M University Press, 2015.
The Foodscape Revolution by Brie Arthur. St. Lynn’s Press, 2017.
The Edible Front Yard by Ivette Soler. Timber Press, 2011.
“The Edible Landscape” by Water University, https://wateruniversity.tamu.edu/media/1080/edible-landscape-11-1-16.pdf. Texas A&M AgriLife Water University, January 2020.
A Tasteful Place — Dallas Arboretum, 8525 Garland Road, Dallas, TX 75218
Zachary Foundation Culinary Garden — San Antonio Botanical Garden, 555 Funston Place, San Antonio, TX 78209