Feed A Family

In a cookie-cutter Cleveland, Ohio, suburb back in the 1960s, Ruth Hrubo was gardening on a small plot and growing spaghetti squash among the yews of her front-foundation plantings.

A beautiful--and edible--backyard garden. Photo Courtesy Of Linda K. Schneider

For a while, the young squash plants hugged the perimeter of the house. However, as the normal tendency to “vine” took over, these big-leaved monsters spread onto the walkway by the front door. Her three teenage daughters were appalled. “What will the neighbors think?”

As it turns out, Hrubo was a garden initiator in the edible-landscaping trend. With her organic-farming background and frugal nature acquired during the Depression and World War II, her life experience gave her an ingrained understanding of the importance of growing her own food.

She used every available space and saw no limit to what could grow in a small, fertile plot of soil.

In her gardens, herbs grew next to perennials; parsley and sage took advantage of early morning light adjacent to the massive perennial Bleeding Heart that welcomed visitors to her door.

Along the Arborvitae row, garlic bulbs were planted for cooking as well as acting to keep neighbors’ dogs away from tender, young bushes.

Skip ahead to this decade, and everyone is talking about edible landscaping--the ability to grow plants as food--on any size property. Plants such as vegetables, fruits, berries, nuts, herbs, and edible flowers qualify.

An apple orchard, grape arbor, or kitchen garden for herbs, salad greens, and colorful vegetables might have their own space or can be mixed into existing perennial beds.

As grocery-store prices soar, the quality and flavor of produce drop. Organics are on the rise each year. People want control of their food source, especially wanting to know that few or no chemicals have been used.

Modern-day solutions include edible landscaping, home gardens, community garden plots, community-support agriculture (buying from a local farm), and farmers’ markets, where growers answer questions about the processes used on their individual farms.

One of the promoters of positive solutions to today’s food dilemmas is Roger Swain, who holds a Ph.D. in biology from Harvard, and is the former host of The Victory Garden, PBS’s longest-running gardening show. He speaks of historical victory gardens as a war effort, but says they are needed now more than ever to address health and well-being as well as environmental issues.

Instead of buying tired, imported, waxed vegetables from the store, he advocates a vegetable garden in every front, back, or side yard.

“Home-grown vegetables taste good, so you'll eat them,” he says.

Professional landscape architects can be part of this grassroots movement by designing garden plans to include edible-landscaping plants. The homeowner should be allowed to take part in the design process for ultimate success. A customer’s individual likes and dislikes help to define the structure of the garden design plan.

The Basics

Once a client determines he or she wants to designate an area for an edible garden, the following should be considered to ensure a successful design:

• Improve soil by adding organic matter, such as compost, shredded leaves, and composted manure.

• Design a plan that works well for the landowner. Determine whether the client is a hands-on or low-maintenance gardener, a homebody, or someone with a heavy travel schedule.

• Plant what the customer enjoys eating.

• Integrate decorative landscape features with edible varieties of vegetables and fruits.

• Research the location of edible plants in the design. Each variety has traits with special needs. For example, Northrop Mulberry trees (Morus Alba) can grow to 70 feet high, and are messy when the ripe fruit drops. Consider a location away from the house or in a corner of the property not near a driveway or sidewalk so any mess will be less obtrusive. These trees are hardy to -50 degrees F, self-fertile, and fruit-bearing in three to five years.

• Consider the size of the property and the size of the mature plants to dictate limitations.

• Encourage the use of heirloom varieties to add flavor and to save these plants from extinction.

Questions To Ask During Design Planning

After researching which plants will grow well in a particular USDA hardiness zone, make a “customer-choice list” with five to 10 choices per category to determine:

• Which vegetables the client eats regularly.

• Which fruits the family enjoys.

• Which herbs are used in cooking, and which are rarely used.

• Which salad ingredients are preferred (this list should include a sampling of salad greens and colorful vegetables).

• Whether a client would consider using edible flower petals in salads.

Guide The Process

For a homeowner who wants to add fruits and vegetables to the landscape, but isn’t sure what exactly is possible, consider the following suggestions:

1. Kitchen garden

2. Dwarf fruit trees (Espalier or fan-training in tight spaces)

3. Asparagus patch

4. Gooseberry garden (tree or bush varieties)

5. Berry patch

6. Grape arbor

7. Pergola with edible vines (annuals: peas, pole beans; perennials: kiwi, hops, grapes, strawberries at the base)

8. Fruit-tree orchard.

Kitchen Garden

For a vibrant kitchen garden, integrate salad greens, herbs, edible flowers, and a range of colorful vegetables. Alternate red, green, and chartreuse varieties of lettuces for a front-row border; rainbow Swiss chard, mustard greens, or kale work equally as well.

Give thought to the color and the texture (curly, spidery, or flat leafed) of each plant placement. Add a few edible flowers: pansy, peppery nasturtium, viola Arkwright’s Rub, or summer-squash blossoms.

Add vertical visual elements, such as red hot chili peppers, pole beans on an obelisk, tomatoes that vine, or burgundy Amaranth grain.(The red edible leaves add vitamin C to the salad.)

Dwarf Fruit Trees

Replace a decorative weeping cherry tree or the Bradford pear of the 1990s with a real fruit-bearing tree. Dwarf varieties of fruit trees, for example, are perfect for suburban lots because they are small enough to fit easily near a porch or deck, and can be harvested without a ladder. Dwarf apples, pears, and cherries can bear fruit in under five years if given good care and planted in a favorable sunny location.

Be sure to screen to prevent rabbit and rodent damage.

Some fruit trees require a second tree or a different variety to pollinate and produce a crop, while others are self-fruitful. For example, two dwarf sour-cherry bushes, and Carmine Jewel and Crimson Passion (Prunus cerasus X P fruiticosa) are hardy to Zone 2. Carmine Jewel will reach heights of 6 to 8 feet while producing more than 20 pounds of cherries per year. Crimson Passion is a smaller version topping out at 4 to 5 feet. It is an excellent fresh eating cherry, but its yield is less than that of Carmine Jewel.

If space is an issue, consider Espalier fan-training a pear, such as Doyenne du Comice, against a wall or building.

Blueberry Hedge Row

Design a small hedge row or large patch with blueberry bushes. The versatile blueberry fruit is sweet while the plant is decorative, as the leaves turn red in autumn.

For pollination, plant a row of six plants using three varieties, two plants of each variety. Selecting early-, late-, and mid-season producers will guarantee a longer fruit-bearing season.

Mulch heavily with compost, and bark mulch 4 to 6 inches deep for best results. Add nutrients or wood ash to keep the soil Ph acidic, as blueberry success depends on this.

Another tip--keep weeds away from the base, clearing about 1 foot around each plant. Blueberries do not need chemicals. Choose a sunny location, and make sure the client is committed to watering regularly in the first season to get roots established.

Today, Ruth Hrubo, on her suburban lot, still grows enough fruit and vegetables to feed a family of five. Some of her favorites are York elderberry, strawberry rhubarb, and Patriot blueberry.

Her backyard looks like a jungle--an edible jungle! And those neighbors--well, they don’t seem to complain when the benefits are elderberry and blueberry pie.

As for her skeptical teenage daughters, all three are now adult gardeners with edible landscapes of their own, having learned their skills from a true garden-trend initiator.

Linda K. Schneider is a retired teacher and freelance writer who lives and gardens on a small organic farm in Vermont. She can be reached at lkshartland@yahoo.com.