You can have a beautifully landscaped garden that’s pretty to look at. Or for the same amount of work, you can have one that’s equally attractive, but produces fruits, vegetables and herbs.
That’s the path Rosalind Creasy has followed for more than 30 years. She realized early on that it made no sense to plant an ornamental landscape, one which she calls barren. “Ornamental landscaping is basically a beautiful garden that has no edible plants,” she says. “In fact, a lot of it may be poisonous, and not even beneficial to birds or insects.”
Her passion led to what’s considered a standard guide in the field, “The Complete Book of Edible Landscaping” in 1982. Its newest incarnation, “Edible Landscaping,” was published in 2010.
Landscaping should add beauty, but should also be functional, Rosalind says. “It might delight your eye to have a row of burning bush up the driveway, and it has beautiful color in the fall. But why wouldn’t you just plant blueberries, which give you blueberries in the summer, color in the fall and flowers in the spring?”
It baffles her why anyone would plant something like junipers, which “don’t bloom or have any color; they just occupy space,” she says. “With edible landscaping, you’re getting something back for your effort, not just covering the soil.”
She points out that this approach doesn’t need to take more time or effort than tending to an ornamental landscape. Crabapple tree owners often spray with pesticide several times a year and then have to clean up the unusable dropped fruit, she says. “They can just put in an apple tree and get something back. It’s just as beautiful as a blossom in the spring time.” Yes, there’s the harvesting step, but if you choose carefully, like planting a persimmon tree, you can enjoy the fall and spring foliage, and let the birds harvest any luscious orange fruit that you don’t want in the summer.
Since publishing her first book, Rosalind noticed a positive trend in the United States for those wanting to grow edibles. “Almost all the world grows food around their house,” she says. “We’re the only ones who have this hang up, where we don’t like to look like we just got off the boat, and we like to show we don’t have to grow our own food. The young people have no hang-ups about it now.”
She attributes it partly to the growing cadre of televised food shows, in which chefs talk about what ingredients they got from their garden and what they got from the farmer’s market.
To Rosalind, though, it just makes sense to grow your own. It helps the environment, and you don’t need to worry about contamination like e-coli coming through the food chain. Plus, “you save money, and you have much better quality, not to mention nutrition,” she says.
Rosalind combines flowers and edibles to create a colorful and functional landscape design. Her driveway is a beautiful welcome to visitors, and produces all kinds of edibles for the dinner table.
Planning Your Edible Landscape
When planning your own edible landscape, Rosalind recommends considering what you like to eat. If you enjoy cooking, look through some cook books and make a list of ingredients you can grow. Unless you’re an avid gardener already or have tons of time on your hands, start small and see how it goes. “You’ll quickly get in over your head if you haven’t done it before,” she says.
Rosalind recommends looking for pictures of edible landscaping in a book or on the internet, because your perception might change. You can integrate the plants in a more organic setting, and you don’t need to only grow green plants in long rows.
“That tells me [the gardener] has not considered the aesthetic, and they don’t know horticulture,” Rosalind says. She notes that most of the insects that help with pest control need flowers, like herb flowers or small marigolds or zinnias, sprinkled around. She adds that adult beneficial insects mainly eat pollen and nectar. “If you want that insect to control the caterpillars and aphids, you have to have pollen and nectar all summer long.” In addition to planting flowers, she recommends letting some of the herbs and broccoli go to flower. “When you do that, you develop an ecosystem. That’s nature’s way of controlling the pests.”
Vary your plantings as well. Rosalind says that if you grow rows of the same plant, you’ll likely have more pests. “If I’m a cabbage worm, and you plant six of the same plants in a row, the babies can just eat and go to the next one. You’re setting it up like a feast, with no predators or parasites to get them. You’ve just set the table for them.” While farmers use this approach, Rosalind says that the farmers also use pesticides, and this may be what your parents or grandparents did when gardening as well. “Now we know better,” she says.
Adding a birdbath not only makes the landscaping prettier, it may help the neighbors “get less bent out of shape” about you growing edibles, and the birds will eat the caterpillars.
Involving the Kids
If you have kids, there are other considerations. Grow things that will excite them, like strawberries and blueberries, and items they can pull out of the ground: carrots, beets and potatoes. Adding unexpected color is a bonus, too. The kids in Rosalind’s neighborhood prefer the purple string beans to the green ones and different color cherry tomatoes. “I did a cherry tomato arbor last year and put in black, yellow, orange and red ones,” she says. “The kids had a lot of fun filling up the baskets to take home.”
While her children are now grown, Rosalind’s garden is popular with neighborhood kids. “They’re much more interested in my garden than in the neighbors with lawns.” Some kids help her garden, and some just play in her fairy garden, digging up worms and moving the fairies around.
Rosalind learned to garden at her father’s side when he gave her a garden plot and said, “Go for it!” She forgot the fun part of that lesson when trying to teach gardening to her own kids. “I’d say ‘you have to plant the seeds and cover them. You have to get rid of the weeds.’ For most kids, they want to know, ‘Where’s the fun part?’” While her kids didn’t take much interest in gardening, she learned a lesson, that gardening is caught, not taught. “I give the neighborhood kids a choice of what they want to do, and maybe they just want to look for spiders. It’s completely unrelated, but to them it makes the garden.”
5 Easy Starter Plants
In “Edible Gardening,” Rosalind features a guide to choosing your plants, and assigning a number on the “effort scale” to each. Here are five she recommends as starters.
1. Mediterranean herbs:
Mediterranean herbs like chives and thyme only need to be cut back once a year, and only so they look tidy. “Most are hardy [in all climates], and they don’t need much water. Mediterranean herbs are training wheels for beginner gardeners,” she says.
2. Strawberries: This fruit requires little effort. “They can dangle over a retaining wall and they look beautiful. You don’t even have to pick them,” she says. If you don’t pick them though, someone else might. “I had a 2-year old kid across the street who learned about strawberries when she began to walk. She learned very quickly which ones were the ripe ones.” Rosalind says that Day Neutral strawberries bear fruit about six months out of the year.
3. Blueberries: “Start out with blueberries,” she says, noting that they grow well in most parts of the country. Blueberries will also add color and interest to the garden all year long.
4. Basil: “I can’t comprehend people who have any sunny space with a piece of soil not planting herbs if they cook at all, and then spending $3.99 on a little bunch like basil. It’s so easy to grow; it’s a no-brainer,” she says.
5. Cherry tomatoes: Rosalind says that kids love tomatoes, and they prefer cherry tomatoes. “They’ll eat a lot more of them when they’re small.”