I got a call the other day from a writer who wanted to know about local experiences with edible landscaping. It was a really fun conversation which got my brain up and running, so this post grew out of our interview for a “Green Shore” article that will appear in the April issue of Attraction Magazine.
Of course, all plants are beautiful- a red cabbage like a blue rose, frilly safety green frisee endives, tiny jewel-like currant tomatoes,delicate pink new potatoes, fat purple-smoked lavender eggplants. Praise the Creator! One can very easily make the transition from pretty veggies to an edible landscape.
Space and Proximity
Why an edible landscape? It’s a natural- why grow the few plants that don’t feed or heal you? Also, if space is an issue, you can skip the plants which merely supply beauty, and go for the twofer.
Another clever thing is that deer are less likely to munch in your garden if you are raising food right by the house. Our dog generally keeps deer away, but I just wish those deer would try it. I have a crossbow right by the window….
Look at the intersection between the plants we grow for food and medicine and the plants we grow for ornament. OK, trees, foundation plants, perennial specimens, annual accents, groundcover, climbers, perennials, container plants. The lightbulb goes on!
I have apples, plums, cherries, figs, and pomegranates. The pomegranate has gaudy orange flowers that look like a giant crepe myrtle coming out of a latex 4 pointed star. Next to it the Black Mission fig, under it the Broadleaf thyme as a groundcover, on the wall behind it a grape vine. Whoever thought of a flowering cherry? Scrooge? And my plums and apples are work, but they feed me delights all through the winter, and the bees agree with us about the flowers.
Instead of azaleas, how about blueberries? Same conditions, yummy fruit, easy care. Blueberries are elegant bushes, with great fruit, interesting gray bark, nice red foliage in fall, and they are a manageable size. Shadberry is nativeto our area, and I have seen them 7-9′ tall, graceful, with berries like elongated red blueberries. I like the flavor but it isn’t as lively as blueberry. North of here, red currants, the most jewel-like fruits, on a bush that sits in a partially corner and doesn’t ramble like raspberries and blackberries. I have some, but they are marginal in zone 7. I don’t have any experience with cranberries or lingonberries, but they are short.
Here I am talking about perennial climbers. Kiwis are vigrous climbers, which require one male for every 3-4 females. They are attractive and rambunctious, and the artic kind has variegated leaves, but only in the male, I understand. I don’t have that kind, and mine have yet to produce- I discovered my male had died, however, so we will see. The leaves are large, heart shaped, and leathery. Of course, everybody’s favorite climber is the grape. I begged my husband to let me plant grapes instead of Wisteria. Oh, no, everybody said, there will be bees. Can you imagine my reaction? What I am looking for is a golden muscat grape from Italy, but I have never found it. It produces a giant cluster of greenish amber grapes which have a seductive honey fragrance. Each grape is contemplated and savored. So I have muscadine grapes, good for juice, but very tough.
Annual climbers are delightful- Scarlet Runner, which doesn’t do well for me in zone 7, does great in zone 6. Imagine a lima bean with pink and black seeds and bright red flowers. There are a lot of wonderful old fashioned climber beans I have used to make tents using bamboo tripods. Fun for kids, and a great place to hide onion bags full of human hair to scare off deer. Hyacinth Beans are lovely- wild purple flowers and metallic purple pods, which you can eat if you pick them small. They grow 5-6 feet tall. I have seen them on mailboxes a lot. Speaking of beans, last year I grew bi-color snow peas which got 4-5 feet tall. They were again from Baker Creek, Carouby de Mausanne. Delicious, not the most productive or tender- they are an ancient variety- but wonderful flavor. I would grow them instead of the poisonous Sweet Pea!
This is where I have a lot of information for you. Let’s start with herbs. Bronze fennel- tall, smoky plumes about 4-5′, delicious. I use the abundant seeds to flavor breads and make liqueurs. All fennels are pretty. Fennel pollen- delicately perfumed yellow powder that falls from the umbels before the seeds swell- is a foodie spice. Monarch caterpillars love them. All the apiaceae are statuesque- John Navios’ Purple Dragon carrots in bloom are prettier than any Queen Anne’s Lace (it’s all daucus carota anyway) or Achillea. Lovage, a savory celery-like plant that transforms New England Clam Chowder into ambrosia, is 8 feet tall when it flowers with a giant green umbel, sort of like dill on drugs.
Herbs near the kitchen door is a no brainer. Rosemary usually perennial in Maryland, although I think this winter may have done for mine, and aromatic Meditterranean herbs like thyme and lavender need a raised sandy bed in our climate, but it’s worth the trouble.
I have an English broadleaf thyme which stays flat to the ground and is more damp tolerant than common thyme. I have that under an elegant little Black Mission fig.
There are all kinds of pretty sages- the regular farinaceous sage comes in green, purple, and variegated. It grows into a specimen in zone 7. Pineapple sage is a whole diffferent deal- it’s tall and has red flowers. I have not used it in the kitchen.
The mint family is huge. Peppermint, spearmint, and lemon balm are lovely and can be invasive, but the tea, the delicate blossoms, the sturdy, pretty foliage, and the fragrance make them tempting additions. I am constantly ripping out black peppermint, the source, I am told, of industrial peppermint oil. I stomped it into a ditch and now whenever we mow the edges of the ditch it smells great. Monarda, or Bergamot, or Bee Balm, is very showy, with a pineapple-like shaped flower. I love the scarlet version. This is the source of Earl Grey Tea’s distinctive flavor. It is calming to the stomach, as are all mints- both warming and cooling. Lemon Balm makes wonderful headache tea, and the crushed leaves are an excellent cold sore or fever blister remedy.
There are many pretty basils- solid purple leaved as well, but the new one I saw this year has lovely purple blossoms. My buddy says she is rooting some for me. I saw some in a catalog but did not note the name. It did not seem to have good pesto flavor- more perfumey.
The Indian basils are called Tulsis, and make wonderful tea for headaches, colds, and low energy, and the ethiopian besobila (holy basil) has a pretty low braching habit (12 “), reseeds modestly, has pretty lavender flowers, and a complex, fruity fragrance like a combination of pineapple and oregano, maybe?
How about strawberries as a groundcover? I have them in my rose garden- the knockouts are very fungus resistant but I have not noticed any fungus from damp feet. I use everbearers, which don’t bear too heavily, but keep a trickle of berries going all through the growing season. Panda, which I haven’t tried, has pink flowers. I gather a bowl of strawberries while weeding. My Junebearers are in a flower bed which is not as near the house, but it is convenient to the patio. Yum….
Salad greens make lovely groundcover. Bulls Blood Beets have shiny deep burgundy leaves, are pretty compact, have smaller bubs so it’s mainly for the foliage, and they are tasty and gorgeous in salads. You have to snip them as they pull up easily. Violets are not just an invasive weed- you can eat them. My absolute favorite salad seed mix is Baker Creek’s Rocky Top Mix-
there are just so many different lettuces in there, from Merveille des Quartre Saison, a big ruffled bronzed butterhead, to Amish Deer Toungue, a smooth, thick bright green pointed leaf, to Baseball, a Boston lettuce the size of a baseball, and a bit tighter. There is such eye-catching variety in texture and color. I sow them in fall for maximum bounce in the spring.
A green that is wonderful for cooking and salad, and which is very easy to grow in our area, is Swiss Chard. The plain green ones are handsome enough, but the Bright Lights or Fivecolor Silverbeet is eye-popping. The large, rhubarb like leaves have fleshy stems and midribs, which idiots discard- my aunt put them in egg and cheese casseroles, with a sprinkle of mace. These midribs come in green, white, yellow, pink, orange and red. My favorite is Flamingo- a bright green smooth leaf and fluorescent pink stem. They usually grow as biennials; the first year they have a rosette of leaves, and the second year they put up a flowering stem, however before it bolts the leaves attain a phenomenal size. They overwinter well in Maryland, but I grow them in the greenhouse and we live on them.
One more groudcover is also nice for containers- sweet potatoes!!! The ornamental yams you see in containers in front of businesses? A guy who services those told me that at the end of the season he tips them out and finds tubers! For real! I usually prefer to grow Beauregard, which has a slightly glossy heart shaped leaf, but Porto Rico has a fancier shaped leaf, sort of 5 fingered. I was also told that in Africa yam leaves and stems are chopped up as a green.
Edible flowers give you great color and fragrance as well as nutrition- violets, for example- the leaves are very high in Vitamin C and they are a pretty heart shape. I pick a few bright green young leaves on my way to pick other salad greens. Violet flowers are sweet to taste and look lovely sprinkled on a salad. So do wild black locust blossoms, pea flowers, rose petals, pansies, violas, and nasturtiums. Pansies and violas are very cold tolerant so I usually have a few in the winter greenhouse, which I remember garnishing a salad with for Christmas dinner.
OK, my favorite in the world is artichokes. They create a giant architectural speciman which can last five years, and will never fail to catch the eye of visitors. They can grow to 8 feet, and have dramatic silver foliage. Some varieties have purple buds. I have grown Green Globe (5-6 buds) and something which may have been Imperial Star (lost count at 40). In our climate overwintering is doable but tricky. Imperial Star can produce artichokes as an annual, but the second year is so fabulous. If you let them bloom they are bright purple giant thistles. Those become very large dried thistles. I think the chokes look like husky fur.
Then they escape and float away like dandelion fluff on steroids. And I haven’t even mentioned eating them yet. This year I am trying emerald, an annual type, and violetta, an Italian purple. They are sprouting in the guest room as we speak.
Okra is like a pretty annual shrub. Itis in the mallow family, like hibiscus, rose of sharon, hollyhocks (Hollyhock flower tea is tangy and pretty) so the gorgeous cream yellow blooms with deep burgundy hearts are no surprise. There are several red okras.The regular burgundy okra you see in catalogs is about 3 feet tall, stocky and bushy, with fat burgundy pods that cook up green. They have a nice growth habit and pretty burgundy leaves, but for me the yield was not as good as the regular Clemson Spineless or Louisiana Green Velvet. I tried Jing from Baker Creek last year, and it has a nice yield, and has Chinese red stems and pods with green leaves that have red stems. The pods are slim and sort of laquered looking, and cook up more khaki colored than Clemson, but when you pickle them, they turn the pickling brine pink, which is very pretty in the jar. They are not as short and stocky as Burgundy.
Jerusalem Artichoke (not an artichoke but a tuberous sunflower with an artichoke flavor) is a good one for the back of the garden- it provides a steady supply of tasty tubers- hard to eradicate actually, which are rich in sugar regulating inulin, a delicious boiled like potatoes or sliced into flavored vinegar raw. Very crunchy and tasty but boy do they give me gas! The stalks get 10-12 feet tall, make sunflowers4 inches across, and must have good support or they will fall over in an untidy heap.
Another totally wacko accent plant which needs support is Amaranth. If you know celosia, imagine that 8 feet tall. That on a breezy day is hard to beat, but you do need to stake them as at least in our soil they go over. My favorites are Golden Giant and Chinese Red, which I got from Horizon Herbs. You can dry and beat the heads to get about a pound of seed from each head of Golden Giant but it is a bit difficult to do on a large scale. I beat them on a sheet and tried sifting them through an old rusty screen. Yep. Rust particles. Live and learn. The flavor of this very mineral rich gluten free grain is similar to fresh corn. It is possible for the grain to pass undigested through the gut because it is so small that it doesn’t get chewed, so I ended up grinding it and adding it to bread. Birds are also wild about it, so it can be free bird food. The extravagant red plumes of Chinese red have a sort of chenille mosaic of different reds and the odd blue. Fantastic. If that is more than you want to deal with, Hopi Red is really pretty and about 4-5 feet tall. It is a dye plant and a bit less over the top.
Another questionable beauty is prickly pear cactus, a sculptural and dangerous thing to have on a garden path….but my friend from Guatemala prunes them when the paddles are small and tender to make nopalitos in eggs and nopalito salad. The fruit makes a wonderful purple-fuschia drink which has health properties for diabetes- I have a whole book on the benefits of eating prickly pear cactus. They are totally winter hardy here and have huge yellow flowers in late spring.
A few amusing nightshades
Purple peruvian potatoes have purple flowers. I have grown variegated tomatoes, available from Tomato Growers Supply- the foliage is really green and white, on a compact tomato plant with somewhat ho hum squarish 1 1/2″ red tomatoes. Pretty productive. Wild Currant is a tiny feral tomato that coveres itself with strings of delicate 1/4 inch orangey red tomatolettes. It volunteers in my gravel and I have used it in hanging baskets. You can eat them but it’s a lot of work. They are just so cute!
Purple peruvian is one gorgeous nearly black pepper plant. The plant gets 3-4 feet with extra water, but usually stays around 2 feet. The marble like fruit is produced in clusters surrounded by a rosette of dark leaves, and ripens from crispy light green to purple to bright red. It is pretty hot but oddly refreshing. They are among the last to go in fall.
Here’s the capper. Baltimore Fish Peppers are a 2 -3 foot tall hot pepper with variegated leaves. The peppers start out green and white striped, go to orange and red, and finally lipstick red. They are Maryland history- used to flavor sauce for fish. All I could find was a sort of grand hotel recipe for a cream sauce warmed and pinkened by the powdered pepper. I keep wanting to send seeds to the White House. Also from Tomato Growers Supply.