I’m headed off on the road all day today, so I only have time for a quick comment. Here in the Northeast it’s been raining non-stop and many folks are really, really late getting their gardens started. Don’t panic! You might have to plant a few things in seedling form that you usually grow from seed — think vine crops, tomatoes and peppers — but otherwise you have plenty of time to grow most things before the frost. And, as you’re designing this year, think about edible landscaping. Here is an article we published in the most recent issue of our magazine, People, Places & Plants:
Rethink Your Landscape’s Plant Palette with the Kitchen in Mind
By Paul Tukey
Having spent summers on my grandparents’ dairy farm as a child, I often recall spirited debates concerning practicality vs. aesthetics in the garden. Whenever my grandmother took time away from other chores to tend her pretty flowers, my grandfather shrugged his shoulders. He couldn’t fathom why anyone would waste time with a plant that didn’t wind up on the dinner table.
With economic conditions across the nation at the worst point since our grandparents’ childhoods, many of us are forced to take a fresh look at the landscape. Where once we might have planted an exotic maple simply because of its beauty, we now look at that same sunny spot in terms of the food it could produce.
To achieve the balance between beauty for the garden and bounty for the pot, one of the hottest trends of the day is “edible landscaping.” It is possible, in other words, to design landscapes with plants that achieve both goals simultaneously.
The phenomenon is nothing new, really. Gardeners have appreciated the beauty of an apple tree’s blossoms for centuries. Set off by a stand of raspberry bushes, a small fruit orchard is edible landscaping in its simplest, purest form.
These days, however, gardeners tend to be far more creative in their landscapes. To blend together my grandfather’s pragmatism with my grandmother’s artistry, here is a list of less common attractive plants that will eventually provide a harvest:
TREES & SHRUBS
Cornelian Dogwood — One of the best examples of underused hardy plants for northern New England, the Cornelian cherry dogwood,Cornus mas, is a wonderful specimen shrub or small tree. Selected as a 1999 Cary Award winner as an outstanding plant for this area, the Cornelian cherry is distinguished by its early yellow flowers that arrive in late March or April.
Later, in early August, the plant develops brilliant red oblong fruits that make a great tart jelly. Wait until the fruit is dark red and soft before harvesting. When the first fruits drop to the ground, you’ll know it’s time to harvest the rest for yourself.
Flowering Quince — Many northeast gardeners know about the bright-red blossoms of Flowering quince, Chaenomeles speciosa. A few people grow the shrub for its fruits that make a delicious jelly. The aromatic green-yellow fruits arrive in early autumn and add a mild flavor to a recipe that otherwise calls for apples.
The dense branching pattern of the plant makes it an excellent shrub border choice, blocking a view even after the leaves have dropped off in late September.
Highbush Blueberry — Everyone in Maine knows about our native lowbush blueberries that thrive in our acidic soil conditions. We grow more wild blueberries than anyone in the world. I, for one, prefer their cousins, highbush blueberries, Vaccinium corymbosum, that are easy to grow in sunny locations throughout the Northeast. They’re also easier to harvest, with berries that are two to four times larger than the wild species.
Beginning with bell-shaped white blossoms, and followed by sweet berries in July and August, and then finishing off with glorious red foliage, the highbush blueberry may just be the best three-season shrub available. Look for the varieties known as ‘Berkeley,’ ‘Patriot’ and ‘Jersey’ for best results in this area. Grow at least two plants in close proximity to achieve better fruiting. Gravely soil mulched with organic materials such as pine needles or leaves will yield the best results. The plants don’t like heavy clay soils.
Remember that birds love the fruit as much as we do; a net cast over the plants for a few weeks in summer will ensure that more blueberries wind up in your bowl than in the birds’ bellies.
Persimmon — For a true tree that bears interesting fruit, try a Persimmon, Diospyros virginiana. Known as possumwood to the South, the hardy tree spreads as it grows with distinctive “alligator-hide” bark. The leaves are glossy green before turning red in autumn when the sweet, spherical fruit arrives resembling a yellow delicious apple.
Folks in the northern areas of Zones 3 and 4 may have a difficult time keeping the plant alive through the winter.
The edible choices in this category are too numerous to mention in a single article. The common flowers such as nasturtiums, pansies, Johnny jump-ups and dianthus are easy to grow and good to eat. Beyond the familiar, though, lies a broad palate for the plate.
‘Bright Lights’ — One of my favorites is ‘Bright Lights’ swiss chard, Beta vulgaris, which was developed for introduction to the public right here in Maine by Johnny’s Selected Seeds of Albion. Many people can take or leave your average chard at the dinner table, but this plant grows in a rainbow of colors can’t be ignored in the garden. Making an excellent border plant, it will rejuvenate even after you pick enough for your salads.
Standard chard and beets can work fine, too, as accent plants in a border garden. You’re going to pull these plants out of the garden in the fall anyway, so they may as well be edible.
Lettuces — Speaking of border plants, any number of lettuces can replace your average coleus or hosta for beauty. ‘Galactic’ is a frilly red variety that grows to harvestable size in only 30 days. Similarly, ‘Redina’ is an intense red that exhibits lush growth in fertile soil. New about 10 years ago, ‘Integrata’ red lettuce was bred to tolerate frosts. Continuous plantings can provide outdoor harvests well into November in southern Maine.
Herbs — Entire books can be written about herbal gardens that are beautiful and edible. Maine author Barbara Damrosch fleshes out the discussions of herbs extremely well in her revised book, Garden Primer. To pick one with great flowers to add color to the garden, Calendula,Calendula officinalis, comes in many shades of yellow and orange. Much like daisies in appearance, the blossoms are edible and are often used in tinctures, salves and dyes. They grow easily in full-sun to part shade, and prefer a rich loamy soil.
Grapes most often come to mind when considering edible vines. And though they aren’t the easiest plants to grow in our climate because of the attack from Japanese beetles, the stand-by varieties such as ‘Concord’ will reliably provide edible fruit. Check out PPPlants.com on-line for a lengthier discussion of hardy grapes.
Kiwi — For alternatives in attractive, palatable vines, consider first the hardy kiwi, Actinidia arguta. This perennial plant will eventually scale a building several stories high, even on the north-facing wall. It is slow to bear, but within five years the plant will produce small, yellow-green sweet fruits that are much higher in sugar content than the popular fuzzy kiwi sold in grocery stores.
The kiwi cultivar known as ‘Issai’ is self-fertile, but in most cases you’ll need to plant at least one male plant alongside several females.
Strawberry — Ever-bearing strawberries, Fragaria spp., are another excellent choice in a wandering vine-like plant. Unlike the traditional strawberry that bears only in mid-summer, varieties such as ‘Eversweet’ continually bloom and fruit all season. The mixture of green leaves, white blossoms and red fruit make an attractive border in a sunny location.
As mature plants send out runners to establish new plants, thin out the parent plants, which will tend to tire and fade in a year or two. Keep the plants weeded, too. They don’t like competition.
Hops — For a vigorous climber that will survive in only half a day of sun, plant hops, Humulus lupulus. Surprisingly hardy for this area, this plant is interesting for its foliage and spiked flowers, which, on female plants, are the main ingredient in beer.
Once a hop vine becomes well established, stand back. You’ll have enough hops to start your own brewery.
OTHER CHOICES — We could go on and on with suggestions. Numerous perennials, such as daylilies, make great additions to various recipes. Even the vegetables — try gherkin cucumbers as a groundcover in a partly shaded area — are limited only by the creative gardener’s imagination.
The bottom line is this: When you lay out your garden this year, don’t think for a second that food goes in one spot and flowers in another. The possibilities of edible combinations are endless.