Making your own edible landscape

Flowering ornamental kale can provide a beautiful touch to your garden and be added to your recipes.

There is increasing interest in planting edible landscapes — gardens which contain food for the eyes as well as the body. This isn’t a vegetable garden with straight rows of tomatoes, zucchini and green beans set in front of the foundation plantings, but landscaping that contains edibles among the perennials and shrubs. This concept, referred to as foodscaping, is gaining a foothold among gardeners who are looking to add variety to both their landscapes and their diets.

It makes sense in several ways. Many of the food plants we eat are attractive — rainbow chard, red-tinged lettuce, red-stemmed kale to name a few. And I know people whose foundation plantings and perennial beds contain herbs, tomatoes and peppers. There are gardeners who are planting attractive trees and shrubs with edible fruits. With planning, gardening sense and good maintenance.

There are a few details to consider:

Look at your yard and decide how you want to try this idea. If you consider only the area around your house’s foundation, evaluate the available space among the plantings already there. Are there spaces you usually fill with annuals? How about replacing half the annuals with a few vegetable plants? If you are replacing perennials, there is space for vegetables there. How about other garden beds around the house? There might be places you could tuck in a bok choi or frilly lettuce there, too. And don’t forget the beautiful vines of cherry tomatoes, though they take more space and some support. Try a compact “bush” zucchini; its large yellow flowers every morning are an appealing sight. There are yellow and white fruited zucchini, as well as yellow summer and spaghetti squash, too.

While you are considering planting around your foundations, think about the environment of the location. If your siding and foundation are light-colored, the summer sun will reflect from these surfaces. This makes the south and west side of an unshaded house very warm for several hours a day, but this also can lengthen your growing season in the early spring and fall. Sometimes the soil around foundations is more alkaline. This will make some plants happier, while many others do not tolerate alkaline conditions well. It’s much easier to find another place for them than it is to change the soil pH at those locations. Remember: right plant, right place.

Think about adding interest to your landscape with an island garden. The focal point can be one or two fruit trees, filling in around them with annuals, perennials, vegetables and herbs. Native fruit trees, such as persimmon and pawpaw, are handsome additions to replace some of the lawn. Native trees usually have fewer disease and insect damage issues than apples and peaches. If you decide on pawpaws, keep in mind that you need two of different varieties to set fruit. Pawpaws are not large trees; two fit nicely in a bed with a mixed assortment of vegetables, herbs and native pollinator-attracting flowers.

Another consideration in your planning is the amount of time you can dedicate to your “foodscape.” Vegetables can take more time than flowers, but proper planning can eliminate some of that. You will be picking food instead of dead-heading plants! If you are training clematis to vine, consider scarlet runner beans instead. These are edible and they attract humming birds. Last weekend I had a humming bird wander into my yard to feed on flowering Lamium, so I quickly assembled a feeder to keep her happy. I hadn’t realized they were in our area.

Vegetables take more time in insect and disease control. Be careful how you pair vegetables and flowers. Your pollinator flowers planted next to kale will certainly attract white cabbage moth butterflies. You’ve given the adult butterflies food and inevitably a place to feed their caterpillars, too. Planting a mildew-prone plant, such as bee balm, near a squash will lead to mildewed squash. Consider similar problems as you plan food in your landscape.

Another thing researchers mention as they tout the virtues of foodscaping, is planting root vegetables. It’s not that this is a bad idea, but the roots of the neighboring flowers, shrubs and trees in your landscape will be entwined with the roots of your food plants. Beets and onions have roots that don’t stray too far from the rest of the plant, but harvesting vegetables that require soil disturbance to harvest — such as potatoes, sweet potatoes and even carrots — can damage neighboring plants.

For additional information or questions about foodscaping, community gardening project and the Master Gardener Program please contact Nebraska Extension, West Central Research and Extension Center at 308-532-2683.