Design Your Edible Landscape

Winter is the perfect time of year to sit back and imagine the possibilities in your yard. For those interested in growing edibles this is a good time to map out what new trees, shrubs, flowers, vegetables, and herbs will adorn your yard come spring. But before you buy out the local nursery, it makes sense to take a little time to think about where plants will go and what role they will play in your landscape.

Whether you're growing edibles or ornamentals, the principles of design are the same. In this article I'll focus on a few specific aspects of garden design. In particular, I'll look at edible trees for energy conservation, edible shrubs as foundation plants, and annual edibles for all your beds. But first you need a plan to work from.

Mapping out the yard

Before you buy any plants, map out your yard on paper. Your sketch doesn't have to be an architectural work of art. Simply indicate the location of the house, walkways, driveway, existing plants, structures— sheds, rock walls, fences — and any other existing features. Determine the orientation of your property and mark the amount of sun each area receives. This will help you decide where to locate gardens and certain plants. Remember that the sun's position in the sky changes throughout the growing season, so what is full sun during the summer solstice may be part shade by August. Deciduous trees also allow for full sun in spring and fall, but create shade in summer.

Edible trees for energy conservation

Edible shade trees like this giant pecan reduce summer cooling costs and produce an abundance of nuts.

Like any good landscape design, edible landscaping looks to conserve energy. Some of the best ways to conserve energy are related to the sun and wind. Try to determine the direction of the prevailing winds in your yard. The coldest winds usually come from the North and West. If these parts of your yard are open, consider planting edible trees and shrubs that can act as a windbreak. By breaking the wind, the yard will stay warmer and your home will use less energy. The USDA estimates that windbreaks can reduce heating costs from 10 to 25 percent depending on the location.

To be most effective, construct the windbreak perpendicular to the prevailing winds and at a distance two to five times the mature height of the trees from your home. For example, Swiss stone pines (which produce edible pine nuts) grow 40 feet tall, so plant the windbreak at least 80 feet away from your home. If you don't have enough room to plant a windbreak of trees, consider planting vines, such as kiwi and grape, along the south side of your house to shade south-facing walls in summer, reducing the need for air conditioning.

Another way to conserve energy with an edible landscape is to plant large deciduous edible nut and fruit trees on the West and Southwest sides of your home. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that as few as three shade trees planted in the right location around your home will save $100 to $250 dollars in energy costs a year. Select large, deciduous edible trees, such as pistachio, cherry, pecan, and walnut, for those areas. Obviously, these trees will take years to grow big enough to provide energy savings, but think of the fruits and nuts you'll garner in the meantime. Also, planting trees is an investment in the land and our future since these trees will help reduce our overall energy needs.

Foundation plants

If you have a small yard with no space for shade trees, there still is room around your home's foundation to plant edible shrubs and small trees. This can be your edible landscape zone.

While most landscapers plant ornamental shrubs such as spirea, yews, junipers, and lilacs as foundation plants, why not be adventurous and use this space for edibles? Blueberries, hazelnuts, bush cherries, gooseberries, natal plums, and rosemary all fit well as foundation plants. Just purchase the right variety for your climatic zone and provide appropriate light and soil conditions for the plants to thrive.

Over time these edibles will produce food for you (and your local wildlife), and help with energy conservation. Plant edible foundation shrubs just outside the drip line of the roof to block the full force of winter winds, and allow for breezes to circulate and cool the house in summer.

Annual edible garden

Raised beds are an excellent way to maximize planting and grow beautiful edibles in a small space.

While growing edible trees and shrubs are great ways to incorporate food plants into your yard, most people still think of the fruit and vegetable garden as their main location for edible plants. When mapping out your yard, find the sunniest open space available to plant your vegetables, herbs, and fruits. Most of these plants need at least six hours of direct sun a day to produce their best. However, some plants such as lettuce, spinach, greens, leafy herbs, and rhubarb can grow with three to four hours of sun a day and still be productive. Plus, your vegetable garden doesn't have to be all in one location. Depending on your yard you can have sections in different spots, taking advantage of different sun and soil conditions. For example, put a raised-bed garden against the house in a sunny spot near a walkway, grow raspberries along a sunny fence, and plant strawberries in among the flowers in your front yard.

For those with limited space, containers let gardeners plant a wide range of vegetables and fruits right outside their door. Most varieties of small vegetables and fruits, such as everbearing strawberries, lettuce, eggplant, peppers, beans, beets, and carrots, can grow in a 3- to 5-gallon container. For larger vegetables, such as tomatoes and squash, use a larger container and select varieties that stay small. Here are a few examples of small-space varieties:

  • Butterbush butternut winter squash—This bush plant grows only 20 inches long, yet produces 1- to 2-pound fruits 75 days after seeding.
  • Scarlet Spire Colonnade apple—These trees grow just 8 feet tall and 2 feet wide, and produce a few dozen full-sized apples. Grow two for proper pollination and protect them in cold-winter areas.
  • Golden Bantam sweet corn—This heirloom sweet corn variety grows 5 feet tall, making it adaptable to large containers or small raised beds. It produces two, 6-inch-long ears per stalk about 80 days after seeding.
  • Gold Rush summer squash—This hybrid yellow zucchini produces an abundance of fruits 45 days after seeding on a compact plant.
  • Husky Gold tomato—Part of the "Husky" series of tomatoes (there's also a red and cherry version) that feature a dwarf-indeterminate habit. This means the plant stays small (3+ feet tall), yet produces 7-ounce fruits throughout the growing season starting 70 days after transplanting.
  • North Country blueberry—This "half-high" blueberry grows 20 inches tall and wide at maturity. It produces small, flavorful fruits. In cold-winter areas, protect the container and plant.
  • Little Leaf cucumber—Usually cucumbers require pollination to set fruit. Not this variety. This compact plant produces fresh eating or pickling fruits 57 days after seeding. It resists weather stress better than other varieties.
  • Windowbox Roma tomato—This dwarf tomato features 2-ounce red fruits 70 days after transplanting. Fruits are great eaten fresh or made into sauce.

Intuitive design

No matter how detailed your edible landscape design becomes, you should always leave room for last-minute inspiration. This happens spontaneously in the yard when you realize that a certain plant would be better in a different location or you need to move a bed. This is the fun of landscaping: being open to the intuitive inspiration that happens as you putter about the yard.

Don't be afraid of failure. Only through trial and error will you know if a plant will look or grow well in a certain location. Be adventurous and enjoy the satisfaction of knowing that your edible landscape will provide you with food, comfort, energy conservation, and— it may even inspire your neighbors.

Tags: gardening