Consider it the ultimate never-the-twain-shall-meet. In the past, my flower gardens and vegetable garden were two different entities. Rampant and rambling cottage style flowers as showpieces around my condo with my veggies planted in straight rows of tomatoes, green beans, eggplants and other edibles tucked away out of sight as if they were shameful.
“If you look at historically,” said Rob Kamis, landscape architect for Alsip Home and Nursery with locations in St. John and Frankfort, Ill., “fruit trees such as olives, lemons and limes, grown in the old country have been used in garden designs.”
But that was then. Now our veggies can proudly take their place in our landscape earning the name of "ornamental edibles".
In their book "The Beautiful Edible Garden: Design A Stylish Outdoor Space Using Vegetables, Fruits, and Herbs" (Ten Speed Press $19.99), named Amazon's Best Garden Books of 2013, authors Leslie Bennett and Stefani Bittner, share the knowledge they gained as co-founders of Star Apple Edible + Fine Gardening, a San Francisco Bay Area landscape design firm focusing on aesthetic edible gardening.
“I thought it was meaningful to use food to create nice-looking spaces where people could not only spend time but see their vegetables more often, keep an eye on them and give them more TLC,” said Bennett about why they formed their company. “It was something that just felt natural and turned out to be win-win situation.”
According to Jennifer Brennan ABC-TV Channel 7 horticulture correspondent and horticulture information specialist and manager of Chalet Education Center at Chalet Nursery in Wilmette, Ill., whether the motivation is a lack of space for gardening, the concern about contaminated food sources, or the desire for the tastiest tomatoes, gardeners of all ages are planting ornamental edibles—plants that not only produce edible crops but also have beautiful colors, textures and are so beautiful that they warrant space even in front yards mixed in with the classic landscape plantings.
“Many common garden plants offer varieties that have more ornamental qualities,” said Julie Severa, assistant manager at Allen Landscape in Schereville. “There are varieties of basil with deep purple foliage and some with ruffled foliage. Also, herbs like chives offer a different texture to the landscape and attractive pom-pom flowers.”
Severa also noted that vines can also be edible as well as ornamental.
“Scarlet runner beans—green beans—have attractive red flowers followed by tasty pods,” she continued. “Hardy kiwi vines also produce edible fruit, but they are divided into male and female varieties, so it is necessary to get at least one of each. Some flowers are even edible: chamomile, lavender, nasturtium, squash blossoms and pansies all produce edible flowers with distinct flavor profiles.”
Emily Tepe, author of "The Edible Landscape: Creating a Beautiful and Bountiful Garden with Vegetables, Fruits and Flowers" (Voyageur Press $24.99) described chard as one of her favorite edible plants to grow.
“It is beautifully colored and makes a statement wherever planted,” she said. “It is one of the easiest plants to grow, tolerating both cold and heat, and produces all season long. Another easy to grow leafy green is kale. There are many varieties of kale, but almost all of them have silvery-blue-green coloring, making them beautiful planted alongside colorful flowers.”
Kamis said incorporating edibles into your garden is easier than it might sound and choosing the right plants is similar to how you might design a flower garden with seasonal interest, color and layers.
The tools for creating season long harvests and beauty include variegated fruiting plants like the new blueberries, raspberries and strawberries said Brennan as well as fruit trees such as the Colonnade series which can be tucked in between evergreen boxwoods, yews and arborvitaes.
“The new dwarf varieties of tomatoes produce abundantly and take up very little space,” she said. “Try Sweet and Neat for a delicious 1-inch diameter red tomato all summer long that is compact and colorful.”
Edibility also applies to hedges said Tepe. She includes currants as easy-to-grow bushes which can be turned into a hedge by planting bushes about three feet apart in a row and pruning into shape in late winter. Raspberries create a much rougher hedge but are also easy growing and produce lots of fruit year after year.
BrazelBerries are a new line of fruiting shrubs with an attractive and tasty fruit.
“They offer a thorn-less raspberry variety called Raspberry Shortcake and three varieties of blueberries,” said Severa. “Any of the BrazelBerries varieties can be used in landscape plantings.”
It’s important to assess light conditions when deciding which veggies to grow.
“Most plants will need 5 to 6 hours of sunlight directly on the leaves,” said Brennan who advocates conditioning soil with organic matter like good quality leaf mulch as well as using slow release organically based fertilizers and having a reliable source of water to keep the plants hydrated.
Tepe recommended using garden art such as decorative arbors, obelisks or even a rustic tree-branch teepee for climbing plants. Perfect plants for display are beans varieties that have striking red flowers, purple or speckled pods. Herbs like parsley and cilantro are great for borders and the tall feathery dill is a great backdrop to a pretty display of flowers.
“There’s nothing like having a space that offers food to eat and an inspiring place to spend time or help you get through your day,” said Bennett. “I really genuinely believe that food and beauty go hand in hand, so it doesn’t matter if you have no yard at all or large property with room to spare, there’s some kind of beautiful edible garden that is accessible for you.”